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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Politics of Energy

Air Date: Week of

Energy issues are front and center in the race for control of Congress. Voters are linking energy choices to the economy, environment, and national security and that has candidates of both parties talking up renewable and alternative energy sources. Living on Earth’s 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. While the nation talks about sex scandals on Capitol Hill, the War in Iraq and the jihad against America as big factors in the upcoming congressional elections, there’s another issue that’s playing heavily in many races: energy. It’s not just the pocketbook issue of high gas prices. Voters are voicing concern about how energy choices affect jobs, national security and the global climate.

Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report.

YOUNG: When gas prices topped 3 dollars a gallon Democrats said Republicans were responsible. Now that prices are dropping Texas Republican Joe Barton says turnabout is fair play.

BARTON: I’m taking credit for them going down because I was blamed when they
Went up.

YOUNG: He’s only partly joking. As chair of the House energy committee Barton was a major force in passing last year’s Energy Act. The Act gave billions in subsidies for all sorts of energy development, but was especially generous to oil, coal and nuclear power. Barton says it’s starting to take effect and that’s something Republican candidates can use on the campaign trail.

BARTON: Really I think we can take credit because we believe in market forces and put things in play that let markets operate more efficiently. The energy policy act of 2005 is having a noticeable impact in a positive way and Republicans can certainly be very positive about it.

YOUNG: The House Republican leaders also pushed to open the Arctic Refuge and the nation’s coastal areas to oil and gas drilling. But if you listen to the Republican candidates in the closest races you won’t hear many speeches about Barton’s energy act or a need for offshore drilling.

JENKINS: No, actually they’re going the opposite direction.

YOUNG: David Jenkins is with a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection. From New England through the Philadelphia suburbs to parts of the south and Midwest, Jenkins finds many Republicans in the most competitive districts have a different energy message.

JENKINS: I think you see most of the Republican candidates being very progressive in their views of what we should do on energy that we need to move forward and have a forward-thinking energy policy not reliant on oil and fossil fuels. We need to move toward alternatives, we need to diversify our energy choices, and we need to be really serious about conservation.

YOUNG: Jenkins says that appeals to voters concerned about the environment and those who worry that oil imports undermine national security. And it’s a way for Republican candidates to distance themselves from the energy policies of Republican Congressional leaders. A recent poll indicates that’s probably a smart political move right now.
New York University’s Brademas Center for the Study of Congress found only about ten percent of voters polled said Congress has done a good job on energy. About 80 percent worried about energy and 70 percent say they’re worried about global warming.
The poll was taken in July, when gas prices were higher. Despite the recent price drop, Democrats hope to tap into that discontent.

REID: The American people know that the gas prices are going to go back up.

YOUNG: The senate’s top democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, says prices could spike again with the next Mideast crisis or gulf hurricane. Democratic leaders say if voters give them control of congress they’ll make kicking the oil habit a top priority.

REID: By using the sun, by using the strength of the earth, geothermal, by using wind and biomass. And until we accept that we are going to continue to have these violently fluctuating prices with oil.

YOUNG: South Carolina Democratic Representative James Clyburn connects the dots between energy, the economy and national security with the Democrats’ ambitious goal.

CLYBURN: We will within ten years make our country independent of foreign oil by investing in farming and rural communities that will give us the alternatives to foreign oil that we need.

YOUNG: Candidates across the political spectrum stress the jobs to be gained by subsidizing biofuels. Bob Dineen leads the Renewable Fuels Association, the trade group for ethanol producers. He says the energy debate in some farm states comes down to who can do the most for the corn-based fuel.

DINEEN: Sometimes those debates get a little bit silly as candidates trying to one-up one other in terms of their support for renewable energy tech and you look at that with some degree of cynicism but the fact is they’re moving the debate forward so it’s all good.

YOUNG: Some environmentalists doubt it’s all good. They argue ethanol is a net energy loser when produced from corn grain. Emerging technology using plant fiber could soon improve that. For now many in conservation circles are cheered by the prominent role renewable and alternative energies have found in this years’ election campaign. Voters often rank environmental issues low among their concerns. But now it seems energy and the environment are tied up with national security and the economy—two of the most pressing items on voters’ minds.

For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



Republican Leadership on Energy

Democratic Platform on Energy

Republicans for Environmental Protection

Renewable Fuels Association


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