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

Green Gold

Air Date: Week of

As US governors and auto industry executives debate cleaner cars, Germany and Japan are reaping profits from a host of green technologies developed here in the U-S. Why is America dragging its heels on clean machines, and what is it costing? Host Steve Curwood speaks with Curtis Moore, co-author of the book Green Gold, about the history and consequences of American technology-policy.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Detroit's Big Three auto makers are turning up the heat on California, Massachusetts and New York. They want them to back away from rules that require the companies to have electric cars on the market in 2 years. Detroit says it's worried that technical limitations and high costs will force it to build electric cars that consumers won't want.

But while Detroit says it can't build a good electric car, Volvo, the Swedish company, says it can. They say they will sell one that can be recharged by an on-board gas engine.

Detroit's reluctance is typical of some US business attitudes studied by analyst Curtis Moore. Moore is a veteran of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and author, along with Alan Miller, of the new book Green Gold: Japan, Germany, the United States and the Race for Environmental Technology. Moore and Miller say domestic corporate pressures have left the U.S. lagging behind Europe and Japan in the race for cleaner, more efficient ways of doing business... and that it's costing us billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Ironically, Moore says our competitors are often beating us with technologies originally made in America.

MOORE: My favorite example is, power plants in Germany are all equipped with a pollution-control device called a scrubber. And it produces something called scrubber sludge, which here in the United States is just dumped out in the back of the power plant or discharged into the river, or something of that sort. It's against the law to do that in Germany. So in Germany, they tweaked the process a bit, and they dry it, and then when construction season arrives, it's pulverized powder mixed with water squirted between sheets of heavy brown craft paper and used to make what we call sheet-rock or wall-board. They literally make homes or offices out of, out of air pollution. But the interesting thing about this process from an American perspective is that this process was first installed in 1974 at the Choya Power Plant in Arizona. The market for it was destroyed in the United States when the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency told utilities that they didn't need to reduce their SO2 emissions, their sulfur dioxide emissions. They could just build tall smokestacks, which they did. And when they did, they created an acid rain problem and a fine particle problem.

CURWOOD: So, your example says that we have more pollution here, we're missing out on a product, and the Germans have grabbed this technology and they're making money out of it.

MOORE: Germany now makes money off of the sheet-rock and off of the technology, and all of those profits would have been in U.S. dollars and not in German deutsche-marks had we kept that technology in development.

CURWOOD: What do estimate this has cost the United States?

MOORE: My personal judgment is that we're looking at probably a current loss of 100 billion dollars a year, and a current loss in jobs of 20,000 jobs, say. I'm very, very concerned about the future because it's one thing to lose the market on ground technologies, add-on technologies, like catalytic converters and power plant scrubbers. It's quite another to lose the market for everything from automobiles to carpet. If you can't make an engine or a Coke can that can sell in Germany or Tokyo, then you can't compete.

CURWOOD: Why did this happen?

MOORE: The price of energy is very low in the United States and that's undercut the market for a lot of these technologies. A lot of people seem to be under the impression that it's low because the market has made it low, and in fact that's not so. The Reagan and Bush administrations on the record negotiated with the Saudis and the Kuwaitis to keep the price of oil low in exchange for providing the Saudis and the Kuwaitis with military goods and military assistance. So this was a conscious, quick pro-quo and it was part of a strategy that was developed by Reagan's first administrator of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman.

CURWOOD: Why not have cheap oil? The fact is that we have a fair amount of oil here in this country as well. If we could get it from abroad, if we could have strategic reserves, doesn't that help everyone in this country?

MOORE: What's wrong is oil is not reflecting its true price. It's encouraging the United States to let technologies die and to develop habits that are completely out of step with the rest of the world and completely out of step with the way the world is moving. It's killed the market here for solar photo voltaic cells, wind turbines, fuel cells, advanced, more efficient, and much, much cleaner ways of burning coal.

CURWOOD: Now, why do you think that happened? If you're right it seems like a recipe for disaster and puts us at a competitive disadvantage.

MOORE: First, what's good for America is not necessarily what's good for some of the most powerful industries in America. It doesn't help the oil industry if we develop an automobile that goes twice as far on a gallon of gasoline. That's an automobile that burns only half as much gasoline, right? It doesn't help the coal industry if the United States develops a power plant that squeezes 90 per cent of the energy out of a pound of coal rather than only 33 per cent. Those industries are very, very opposed to these kinds of programs and they're very facile, they're very good at being able to describe their point of view as one which is good for the country. And what the government is supposed to be able to do is to sort out the difference between what industries like that say and what's really true, and our government stopped doing that.

CURWOOD: So this is a big conspiracy of oil, gas, and coal interests?

MOORE: No. No, no. I'm not saying it's a conspiracy. I doubt that 20 of these folks sit down in the same smoke-filled room and conspire to do this, but they do seek what's in their best interest. I spent the better part of 20 years working in or around the Congress of the United States. Money dominates every discussion that's held in Washington. Democracy, at least in Washington has been killed, and it's been killed by money. Money has been worked into the soil of Washington the same way a farmer plows fertilizer and pesticides into the soil of his field. And that makes the things he wants to grow grow, and it makes the things he doesn't want to grow die. And that's happened to Washington.

CURWOOD: So the way to get to economic competitiveness with Japan and Germany, in your view Curtis Moore, is to get money out of politics?

MOORE: It may sound absolutely crazy, but it's absolutely true. And the way to do that is simply say that members of Congress can't accept campaign contributions and other people can't give campaign contributions.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Curtis Moore is author of Green Gold: Japan, Germany, the Unites States, and the Race for Environmental Technology. His co-author is Allen Miller.



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