How '60 Minutes' Got its Cleantech Story Completely Wrong

Lesley Stahl is exhausted | Screen capture: 60 Minutes | CBS News

It's hard to know just where to start in examining "60 Minutes'" embarrassingly unprofessional look at "The Cleantech Crash" the newsmagazine aired Sunday. The problems with the piece range from details around the edges to the segment's very core, and writers across the web have spent the last couple days pointing out obvious flaws.

The piece didn't mention climate change once. One expert interviewed by reporter Lesley Stahl says his remarks were edited deceptively. In a nearly 14-minute piece, there was one ten-second mention off the astounding growth of solar power capacity in the last five years, and no mention at all of other astounding advances -- for instance, that the cost of LED light bulbs is about 15 percent of what it was in 2008. Or the growth in wind generation. Or the drop in prices of electric cars and the burgeoning network of charging stations nationwide.

Instead, the segment advanced an argument based on a claim that we here at ReWire debunked as long ago as late 2012 -- a claim that just happens to be a slightly updated talking point from Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

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There were a few things of worth in the segment. Much of the piece's 14 minutes was spent discussing the biofuel ventures of California investor Vinod Khosla, whose work in the sector has earned him some criticism for -- as fuel industry pundit Robert Rapier said on camera -- "overpromising and underdelivering." That's a real story, which Stahl and 60 Minutes mentioned only in passing in their piece.

Though Stahl described Khosla as "the father of cleantech" few investors have attracted as much derision from within the cleantech camp, as evidenced by this nearly four-year-old rant by Joe Romm. The man has a reputation throughout the sector charitably described as "eccentric."

But the problems in the biofuels industry aren't limited to Khosla: they stem from trying to stop using artificially cheap fuels from geological reserves that the earth's ecosystems have been filling up for half a billion years, replacing them in our energy habit with chemically similar fuels from materials the earth produces more or less in real time. Without radically reducing the amount of liquid fuels we use on a daily basis, the math just doesn't work out. It's like trying to stop spending down your ancestral trust fund and living solely off the money you make as a barista: it can work, and it's a sensible move, but you'll probably need to sell the H2.

That would have been a good story. "60 Minutes" missed it. In fact, given CBS News' abundant resources, the piece could have been a compelling examination of a number of significant problems in the renewable energy sector. It could have examined the industry's lack of systemic analysis of how we use energy, as in the biofuels sector. It could have described the triumphalism of some companies, demanding exemptions from environmental laws because they're saving the world.

Most importantly of all, it could have examined the true failure (so far) of the cleantech campaign being waged by the Obama Administration. What's that real failure? The campaign's being yoked to an "all of the above" energy strategy, including promotion of natural gas from "augmented" wells, that has undercut much of the potential reduction in greenhouse gas emissions made possible by the continuing explosive growth in photovoltaic power generation, new conservation tech like LEDs, and local and state initiatives to reduce the amount of power we consume.

The segment could have covered any of those topics. It didn't. Instead, it revived and rehashed a talking point from the 2012 Romney campaign that even Romney dropped eventually. That talking point: the $90 billion dollars (updated by Stahl to "north of $100 billion") that the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has plowed into "cleantech," with allegedly disastrous results.

In other words, "60 Minutes" ran a Solyndra story in 2014, better than a year after the most recent breaking news on the story.

If we might toot our own renewably powered horn for a moment, Stahl and her writers at 60 Minutes could have saved themselves some time by reading a ReWire piece from October 2012 in which we looked at the Romney allegations of $90 billion being wasted on doomed cleantech projects by the DoE. As it turns out, the $90 billion figure was (in 2012) the total sum spent by the DoE on projects funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding, a.k.a "Stimulus" funding.

Of that $90 billion, most was spent on either energy efficiency programs or cleanup of contaminated sites created by the nuclear energy industry. Coming in fourth and fifth in the spending line were upgrades to the nation's power grid and research into Carbon Capture and Storage, that last sector essentially being a subsidy to the coal industry.

Though they mention tax credits in the same breath, Stahl and her writers are actually conflating ARRA spending by the DoE with that Department's controversial "Section 1705" loan program -- the program that lent Solyndra $535 million before the company went belly-up -- along with the related Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program, and the Treasury Department's Section 1603 grants program.

DoE stopped granting new Section 1705 loan guarantees in 2011, but the ATVM program continues. In October 2012, loan guarantees under the 1705 program had reached just over $16 billion: with ATVM, that has risen (as of end-2013) to about $24 billion. The Section 1603 grants program expired in December 2011, though some payments continued for programs into 2012. About $9 billion was granted to cleantech companies under Section 1603. (Observant readers will note that $24 billion plus $9 billion is about $33 billion, considerably south of $100 billion.)

Stahl interviews former Energy Department undersecretary Steve Koonin about the 1705 program, and predictably mentions Solyndra's failure:

It must have been exhausting to dig that deeply back into history for Stahl's "gotcha" moment. Car charger manufacturer ECOtality filed for Chapter 11 in September. VPG, Vehicle Production Group, a maker of electric vans that owed DoE $50 million, went under in May. Including VPG as "cleantech" is dubious, given that the company got the loan to refit its vans for fueling with natural gas. The other seven companies whose naming so tapped Stahls' energy reserves went under in 2012 or before. Fisker might be the only firm that qualifies as news, given that its formal bankruptcy filing only took place in November, but that shocked no one: the luxury electric car company was known to be moribund in the summer of 2012 after a series of well-publicized tech problems including fires caused the company to stop making cars altogether. Of the $525 million in loan guarantees Fisker originally won under the ATVM program, the feds only issued $193 million before freezing the company's credit in early 2011.

That means two, or if you want to be strictly technical about it three, of the firms in Stahl's exhausting litany went under in the last year, in an industry well known for being in a classic "growing pains" phase.

Is that an unacceptable rate of failures for companies backed by DoE? As ReWire mentioned in our October 2012 piece on Romney's talking points, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) budgeted for a predicted amount of defaults in the DoE's ARRA loan guarantees on renewables: $2.47 billion over the course of the program. In October 2012, defaults were expected to run between $400-800 million, a figure that the subsequent Fisker, ECOtality, and VPG failures haven't changed.

Which means that in terms of number of defaults, the loans the DoE made to the cleantech sector have actually performed about four times as well as expected.

There's a lot more than can be said about the segment. There was the near-complete omission of the astounding successes in solar photovoltaics in just the last year. There was the total disregard for what the segment's four interviewees uniformly said about the grants and loans, even as a few of them disagreed over specifics: this is an investment in our future and it's paying off. There was the weird, borderline xenophobic treatment of the CEO of the American division of a Chinese-owned solar company opening factories and creating jobs across the U.S.

There was so much wrong with what Stahl and her staff mentioned and didn't mention that you can expect the greenosphere to generate quite a bit of criticism in the next few days. (Cleantechnica has a good start here.) But at its core, the segment was a remarkable step for "60 Minutes." A show that started out by setting the standard for broadcast investigative journalism has now apparently decided that its journalism needs no investigation at all.

It was one thing, when Romney's camp advanced the original talking point that Stahl ran with, for Mitt's communications director Ed Gillespie to declare he wasn't going to let the campaign be "run by factcheckers." It's another thing for CBS News to adopt that as a business plan.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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