(White House Photo)
President Bush says we need to break our oil habit and invest in clean energy. But most renewable energy advocates say his proposal doesn't sound like a successful 12-step program. Jeff Young reports from Washington.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
President Bush sure didn’t sound like a Texas oilman in his State of the Union address:
BUSH: Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.
CURWOOD: Instead of calling for an expansion of domestic oil supply as he has in past speeches, the president talked about alternative energy, better batteries to power hybrid cars, and a more efficient form of ethanol.
CURWOOD: But critics note that many presidents have pledged to cut foreign oil imports and failed. And U.S. imports from the Middle East are only a little less than 20 percent of our total oil imports. Our Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us now to sift through the rhetoric and to talk about where the president’s proposals might be headed. Welcome, Jeff
YOUNG: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: Jeff, "moving beyond a petroleum economy"….That sounds like it should be music to the ears of people who’ve been pushing alternative energy. What do they say?
YOUNG: Well, you’d think, but it’s a mixed reaction. I spoke with a number of people in the renewable and alternative energy field. Groups wanting more biofuels, especially this new ethanol that uses things like corn stalks, they’re excited by this. One group called it "visionary," but that was the minority voice here.
The more typical response was that the president has some nice rhetoric, but he’s short on substance and a little late to this game. Jerome Ringo leads the Apollo Alliance. It’s a coalition of labor, environment and business groups who want more renewable energy. Ringo was, shall we say, under-whelmed.
RINGO: It was just too little from the president. I think he’s just trying to get on a train that has already pulled out from the station. The president realizes that. So I think that though his idea is a good one but it was a modest proposal at best.
CURWOOD: Why such a lukewarm response?
YOUNG: Partly because it’s not a very big increase in spending compared to other energy spending. Do you remember the Energy Act from last year? It gave nuclear and fossil fuels about seven billion dollars in tax breaks and subsidies. From what we’ve learned so far from the Department of Energy about these new increases, it’s about 524 million dollars compared to the current fiscal year. A little more than half of that is going to so-called “clean coal” technology programs. The mining industry is happy. But clean coal is not generally considered alternative energy. So, you take that out. That leaves about 190 million dollars for things like wind, solar, biofuels and hydrogen.
CURWOOD: Not big money maybe, but big increases?
YOUNG: It’s big for some sectors. The president clearly is continuing his push for research into hydrogen and fuel cells; they’re getting a $53 million dollar increase. Solar is also a winner. Folks at the Solar Energy Industries Association say this would boost solar R&D by 80 percent. However, Bush budgets in previous years held solar research flat. So this big boost, if it happens, would more or less return them to the kind of funding they once enjoyed a decade or so ago. That’s why the American Council on Renewable Energy is less enthusiastic. They call this a "relatively minor" increase. And they suspect there may be cuts to other renewable energy projects buried somewhere else in the budget.
But it’s not just the money that’s drawing criticism here – it’s that there’s little policy to go with it. I talked about this with Phil Sharp. He’s a former congressman who now leads Resources for the Future, a non-partisan think tank here in Washington.
SHARP: What is missing here are additional incentives, a reform of the fuel economy standards, that will make sure that what technology is developed, already out there, actually gets used for the benefit of the economy or for fuel efficiency.
CURWOOD: Jeff, I believe there are other proposals on hybrid cars and bio-fuels in Congress right now. Did these proposals get a boost from what the president talked about?
YOUNG: I think that’s a very good possibility. There’s a bill that has strong bipartisan support that’s similar to what the president’s outlined here, except it has more market incentives. The sponsors want the president to get on board. Also, just looking around at the public mood on energy these days, it seems like the kind of atmosphere where a politician would want to look like he’s doing something on this.
CURWOOD: Right, everybody is talking about high gas prices, high home heating oil prices – and record profits from the oil companies. Exxon Mobil recently posted a profit of, what, some 36 billion dollars?
YOUNG: And don’t forget: it’s election year for Congress. So add that up and I think you have a good chance for more market incentives for ethanol and hybrid cars. However, as far as actually raising fuel efficiency standards— the administration is still opposed to that, and I think it’s still a long shot. And if you talk to a lot of energy analysts, they’ll tell you, if you’re serious about addressing an oil addiction, raising fuel efficiency standards is probably your first step on any 12-step program.
CURWOOD: You know, Jeff, this speech was also interesting for what the president did not say. For example, I didn’t hear his call for more oil drilling, and I also heard very little about Hurricane Katrina’s effects on energy. How did people respond to that?
YOUNG: Well, a lot of people have remarked on this fairly important shift in rhetoric. But that does not mean that that’s the end of those old issues. We’re definitely going to see more pushing for drilling in the Arctic Refuge and more push for offshore drilling. Those old fights are going to be back. But there’s also going to be a new fight pertaining to Hurricane Katrina and energy. That is, just who gets the money from drilling? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu has just been hammering away on this issue.
LANDRIEU: A fair share of the billions of dollars that our state generates right off of our shores to keep the Treasury of the United States full and the lights on from New York to California to Chicago. (applause)
YOUNG: So, what Landrieu’s arguing is if her state got more of the royalties from off shore drilling then the state could cover the costs of storm recovery. But that is a major source of federal revenue and if you tamper with that, you’re going to make a lot of powerful people very uneasy.
CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thank you, Jeff.
YOUNG: You’re welcome.
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