Newt's Cement Plant Story: Rock Solid?

Former U.S. House Speaker and supposed 2012 president candidate Newt Gingrich was up on Capitol Hill last week regaling elected officials with the supposed horrors of cap-and-trade carbon emissions controls. One particularly colorful anecdote didn't make his written statement, but it did come up in the Q&A period that followed.

Gingrich launched into a story that he has been telling for nearly two years now, including on pages 29 and 30 of his book "Drill Here, Drill Now:"

" ... if you have [a] single country adopt carbon trading what you will almost virtually guarantee is that the jobs and the industries will go offshore. And there's a fairly famous case of a cement factory in Belgium that the minute they adopted carbon trading they moved the whole factory to Morocco, and it actually pollutes more in Morocco, which doesn't have any air control standards, than it was polluting in Belgium. So, the Belgians lost the jobs, the plant increased the pollution. I'm not sure that's a win-win strategy." 

This story works because it appears to illustrate a common concern with enacting a climate policy here in the U.S. That's not an outlandish concern, but there is a concrete proposal to prevent it in Title IV, Subtitle A of the Waxman-Markey bill.

But getting back to Newt, there's just one problem with his story. For a case that is supposed to be "fairly famous," it's awfully hard to find any information on it. To be more precise, we can't find any evidence that it actually happened. 

We checked the "Notes" section of his book, but he includes no evidence or reference about where this story comes from. Strike 1.

In fact, we think Gingrich may be confusing complaints made in a Washington Post story by a French executive of a Swiss-headquartered concrete firm, Holcim Ltd., about cut-rate concrete from Morocco.  A Holcim official is quoted in the story as saying: "I've been yelling about this. What do you want me to do? Put a plant in Mauritania or Morocco and close this one?"  As you can plainly see, this appears to be nothing more than a rhetorical question.

We checked Holcim's annual reports to see if they had any plants in Belgium that had closed down "the minute carbon trading" started in Europe, which was January 2005. So let's see, in 2004 - before the European carbon trading system began - Holcim reported two cement plants in Belgium, plus a share of a third. In 2005, the year carbon trading started, Holcim had two plants in Belgium, plus a share of a third. In 2006, Holcim had two plants, and a share of a third. In 2007, Holcim had ....two plants in Belgium and a share of a third. And in 2008 as well.

Holcim added another plant in France, in 2006. But that was a year after carbon trading started.  Strike 2.

I also asked CEMBUREAU, the Belgian cement association, if they knew of this "famous story." Surely they would know. But in a brief email reply, I was told "CEMBUREAU is not in a position to answer your query, however we believe it may be linked to an announcement made by Lafarge in 2008 to freeze investments in Europe."

Hmmm...I don't know what Lafarge said in 2008, but given Newt's been telling this story since at least 2007 I don't think that can be the explanation. Strike 3.

So is Newt's story true? Well, it certainly isn't famous. And it looks a lot more like hardened myth than real fact.