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

Carbon Cutters

Air Date: Week of

Big industry and the Bush administration oppose a cap on the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide--they prefer voluntary cuts in CO2. But a handful of power companies says voluntary cuts are not enough and government should regulate CO2. Jeff Young reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: Five electric power companies from across the country have announced dramatic cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide to help stem global warming. That’s the kind of voluntary action on climate change favored by President Bush, who backed away from a campaign pledge to cap emissions of the greenhouse gas. But the power companies also voiced support for mandatory limits on CO2 – the kind of regulation the president has repeatedly rejected. Jeff Young reports from Washington on this change in the business climate.

YOUNG: Roger Duncan’s from Texas. He’s in the energy industry. And he’s traveled to Washington to talk about big government and global warming.

DUNCAN: Today we join the World Wildlife Fund in supporting mandatory carbon controls on all utilities.

YOUNG: Not quite what you’d expect from deep in the heart of Texas, where Duncan is vice president of Austin Energy. Austin is among five power companies and utilities publicly voicing support for a government cap on carbon dioxide. In a program arranged by the World Wildlife Fund, the companies also pledge to dramatically cut CO2 output over the next 15 years by increasing efficiency or using more renewable energy. That regulatory approach to climate change is quite different from what another former energy businessman from Texas proposes. President Bush prefers voluntary programs to reduce CO2. Duncan says that’s not enough.

DUNCAN: We reached the conclusion that the voluntary efforts that all of us were participating in, and other utilities were participating in, that those voluntary efforts were just not sufficient to attain the type of reductions that we felt were necessary to address the problem.

YOUNG: Duncan sees voluntary programs as a business-as-usual approach that will not reduce CO2 levels. Utilities from Sacramento, California; Burlington, Vermont; and Waverly, Iowa, also signed on, as did FPL group of Florida. FPL is among the country’s biggest power companies, with plants in 24 states. Vice president Randy Lebow says it was a bottom line decision.

LEBOW: We think that being cleaner, producing clean energy for our customers, preparing for the future in mitigating those risks is the way to build a good business and be competitive in the marketplace.

YOUNG: Improvements in efficiency can be the cheapest way to meet growing power demand, especially compared to the cost of building new power plants. The World Wildlife Fund’s Rebecca Eaton says there’s also a growing realization among business leaders that some kind of carbon cap is probably coming. Eaton says power companies can’t plan effectively until they know what form it will take.

EATON: My sense from speaking with companies – these and other electric power companies behind closed doors – is that they really are seeking business certainty, and they want to know what the future regulatory requirements are going to be so they can invest properly.

YOUNG: But most power companies are not ready for regulation. The Edison Electric Institute represents about 200 power companies producing 70 percent of the country’s electricity. Edison electric spokesperson Dan Riedinger says mandatory cuts might work for companies using hydro, wind or natural gas. But carbon-intensive coal provides half the country’s electricity.

RIEDINGER: Every company, every power company, wants business certainty. But imposing a carbon cap that the vast majority of power companies simply cannot meet -- other than by taking drastic action in terms of fuel switching, which really may not be feasible – that’s not the kind of certainty we need.

YOUNG: Riedinger says his member companies debate this issue but agree that voluntary emissions cuts are the way to go until new technology can cut CO2 . Austin Energy’s Duncan says he’ll probably take some heat from fellow power producers for breaking ranks on the carbon cuts. But he predicts it won’t be long before others follow his lead.

DUNCAN: I believe that in the ten to 20 year timeframe that all utilities are gonna have to do what Austin Energy and a few other utilities are doing today, in terms of investments in energy efficiency and renewables. I believe that their own customers will be demanding those types of programs from their utilities.

YOUNG: World Wildlife officials expect more power companies to join the call for a CO2 cap – enough, they hope to inspire some change in the political climate as well. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

CURWOOD: Coming up: public safety and official accountability in coal country. We have a special investigative report. So, stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and: Aveda, an earth-conscious beauty company committed to preserving natural resources and finding more sustainable ways of doing business. Information available at Aveda.com; The Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12; The Annenberg Foundation; and, The Kellogg Foundation, helping people help themselves by investing in individuals, their families, and their communities. On the web at wkkf.org. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: Thomas Newman “Dead Already” AMERICAN BEAUTY SOUNDTRACK (Dreamworks - 2000)]



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