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

Energy and the Election

Air Date: Week of

John Kerry campaigns on "energy independence". But how would he make that happen? We'll hear from an energy expert on which of Kerry's energy proposals might work and might not. Also, our reporters, Jeff Young and Ingrid Lobet weigh in on the energy issues that could energize swing state voters.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Democrats are heading to Boston for their national convention. An ambitious part of the campaign platform delegates will hear about focuses on energy issues. Now, voters have traditionally viewed energy issues as economic or environmental concerns: how much gas will cost, will power plants pollute the air, and so forth. But this election year, energy issues have also become part of our national security debate – a theme that John Kerry hits in nearly every stump speech on the campaign trail.

KERRY (ON TAPE): And when we’re president and vice president, no young American will be held hostage to America’s dependence on oil. We’re gonna declare energy independence in America!


CURWOOD: Here now to talk about the Kerry energy plan and energy policy – as well as the politics – are Living on Earth reporters Ingrid Lobet, from our West Coast bureau, and Jeff Young from Washington.


LOBET: Hey Steve.

CURWOOD: And also joining us in Washington is Reid Detchon. Mr. Detchon is executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a nonpartisan initiative bringing business and labor environmental groups together on energy policy.

DETCHON: Hi there.

CURWOOD: Mr. Detchon, let’s start with you. Now, you previously worked for the first Bush Administration in the Department of Energy. Energy independence is among the goals for the Energy Future Coalition. Tell me, what does that phrase mean, really? And how realistic a goal is it for a country like the United States that imports so much energy?

DETCHON: Well you know, every president since Nixon has talked about energy independence, and the truth of the matter is that we’ve gotten further and further away from it. At the time of the Arab oil embargo in 1973 the U.S. imported roughly a third of its oil. And now it’s creeping closer to two-thirds. So the deterioration has been pretty dramatic just over the last 30 years. But the good news is that technology’s evolving in such a way that, whereas the problem seemed hopeless in the past, it now seems very possible to substantially reduce our use of oil and become much more energy independent, to use the phrase.

CURWOOD: Okay, now John Kerry’s making this pitch that he can get the United States out of the potential vise-grip of imported oil. In what ways do you think his energy plan as advertised would move us toward that goal? And where does it fall short?

DETCHON: Well I think when you think about reducing our use of oil, you have to think about whether we can produce more oil in the U.S. You have to think about if we can use less oil through energy efficiency and conservation. And you have to think about whether we can find substitutes for oil.

Now, John Kerry’s plan focuses principally on the latter two points. And there’s a reason for that, which is that the U.S. has only two percent of the world’s oil reserves while it consumes 25 percent of the oil used in the world every year. And two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves are in the Middle East. So if you want to think about where to find oil, the U.S. has been well explored and the potential for additional supply is rather limited.

CURWOOD: Ingrid Lobet, from your vantage point there in California and the work that you’ve done on renewables, what do you see that’s in the Kerry plan that would seem to make sense, that has some traction?

LOBET: Well, first let me just say something about the Administration’s plan. There were tax benefits for companies that make electricity from wind, and from landfill gases, and there were tax benefits for people who buy hybrid cars and who put up solar panels. And solar and wind producers like those ideas, it’s what they’ve been asking for. But the bill also included lots and lots of help for oil and gas companies and protection for some polluters, and it hasn’t passed.

CURWOOD: So, what would Kerry change then in that renewables picture?

LOBET: Well, Kerry would double the investment in hydrogen and fuel cell research to $2.4 billion, and his is a more aggressive push, away from traditional gas and oil. The idea is to get 20 percent of the nation’s energy from wind and fuel cells and crop fuels and other renewable energy by 2020, and that’s quite a bit more than we get now from renewables. And if we did do that, if you do send the message that you’re going to be spending 20 percent of your energy dollars on renewables, that creates a market. And the idea is that when you have a market like that the costs come down.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young, I’d like to turn to you now. You’ve been looking at the Kerry proposal, and you’ve covered the Bush energy policy as it’s been playing out for a while. How do these two compare?

YOUNG: Well, you know, as aggressively as the two campaigns have gone after each other on energy issues, it’s kind of surprising, when you look at specifics, that you see a lot of very similar proposals there. We’ve mentioned hydrogen research here, both Bush and Kerry propose more hydrogen research money. They’re both in favor of building a new pipeline from Alaska to enhance natural gas supply. They’re both in favor of clean coal technology.

But when you talk about the underlying philosophies the Bush energy plan largely has been a push to enhance supply. Burning more coal, drilling more public land for oil and gas, things of that nature. Whereas Kerry places a lot more emphasis on the technological development, and this is another theme that you hear him hammering out on the campaign trail.

KERRY (ON TAPE): There is no way possible for our nation to drill its way out of this predicament. We have to invent our way out of this predicament.


CURWOOD: Well that sounds all very nice. But Jeff, what are the specifics here?

YOUNG: Well we could look at one instance, and that is fuel efficiency. You know these ethanol-promising technologies that are off in the future, hydrogen probably a little farther off in the future. But in the meantime, Kerry has a proposal for $10 billion over ten years to help convert plants over to building more efficient vehicles. And he also -- a little carrot for people who would buy those more efficient vehicles – he proposes some tax credits.

And he also wants to pretty dramatically increase fuel efficiency requirements in the short term, and this probably would happen through what are called CAFÉ standards – that’s how much vehicles overall have to get in terms of miles per gallon. He’s shooting for a 50 percent increase over the next decade, going up from the current 24 miles per gallon to 36 miles per gallon by the year 2015.

CURWOOD: So Reid Detchon tell me, this is something that your group worked on. First of all, what would be the impact of such a CAFÉ standard? And then what can happen here, in terms of getting automakers and unions to agree to this? And what would that tell us about the success that Kerry would have in trying to steer the industry towards greater fuel efficiency? They’ve been pretty resistant so far.

DETCHON: We had a working group on transportation and advanced vehicles where we brought together General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, the United Auto Workers and some leading environmental groups to see what could be done in this area. And we all know very well the opposition of the auto industry to increases in fuel economy standards, because they see it as a government mandate that forces them to build and sell cars that people don’t want. And so we decided to set that discussion aside and say, What can we agree on?

And point of fact, all the auto companies are working very hard on hybrid vehicles, on fuel cells and advanced technology generally. They want to be able to sell those cars to American consumers. And the UAW, the labor union, in fact, was the leading proponent of an argument to give tax credits to manufacturers to retool their assembly lines and build the best vehicles in the world right here in the United States. That’s good because we want to get the advanced vehicles on the road. It’s also good because it keeps the jobs in this country.

CURWOOD: Now, gasoline prices, of course, they’ve become a campaign issue now. Prices shot up this spring, they’ve been up and down, they seem to be inching up as we speak. And the Bush campaign had this ad:

VOICEOVER WITH OLD-TIME CIRCUS MUSIC: Some people have wacky ideas, like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That’s John Kerry. He’s supported a $.50-cent a gallon gas tax.

CURWOOD: Now the Kerry campaign says that the gas tax idea was ten years ago and that he no longer supports that, and Mr. Kerry shot back with accusations that the president should do more to lower gas prices. Reid Detchon, is it just me or is there a disconnect here between the promise to wean the country from oil on the one hand, and the promise to keep gas prices low on the other?

DETCHON: Well I think that the old gas tax idea has often been suggested as a way to reduce demand for oil, and eventually reduced demand for oil does reduce prices. But as you mentioned, I don’t think that that’s part of the campaign now.

And speaking personally, transportation is not like discretionary purchases – deciding what kind of coffee you’re going to buy in the morning. People need to drive to work, and to a certain extent gasoline demand is what they call inelastic – people don’t change much when prices go up. So I think using gas prices to change behavior is probably not a good idea, and is certainly not a popular one in the U.S. John Kerry, as I understand it, has had certain ideas, like pressuring OPEC or not continuing to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve while prices are high, etc.. I don’t think those will have an enormous impact on gas prices, but I don’ t think there’s much that a president can do in the near term.

CURWOOD: Ingrid, out there in California gas prices have stayed pretty high. And I’m wondering what effect you think that high gas prices might have on voters if, when November comes, it’s still what, over two bucks a gallon at the pump?

LOBET: Well, you know, you’re hearing different opinions on that, and I’m not persuaded that anybody really knows for sure. It’s true that gas prices are still high here. They’ve come down in the last eight weeks, but regular gas is still somewhere between $2.15 and $2.40 or so a gallon. But then translating that into who are you going to blame for the price of gasoline, and who do you believe is going to make it better for you, I think for most of us that’s pretty amorphous. Are you going to blame oil companies, refineries, station owners? The president is associated with the oil business, but whether voters are going to blame him when they’re feeling steamed at the pump – I don’t think anyone knows. And in any case California, where these prices are high, is not really regarded as being in play.

CURWOOD: Now Jeff, what energy issues do you see out there that could make a difference at the ballot box, do you think?

YOUNG: Well, you know some of these can seem fairly marginal when you look at the whole country overall compared to, say, the war in Iraq, terrorism, security issues like that which are clearly driving most voter concerns. But when you get down to the state level – and let’s not forget, the presidential election is really a bunch of different elections at the state level – these things can loom really large. It’s pretty much Tip O’Neill’s old maxim -- all politics is local -- playing out here. And there are several energy issues in battleground states that I think could make a difference when you look at how little the margin of difference was in those states in the last election.

CURWOOD: All right, let’s take a look at some of those battleground states. How about out West? I guess among the states that are in play there must be some that are concerned about the Bush Administration’s plan to drill more in public lands out West. I hear grumbling from everyone from environmental activists to sportsmen and anglers about this drilling. Ingrid, where do you think this might have an effect?

LOBET: It’s definitely true that natural gas has been a critical part of the Bush Administration’s energy strategy, and natural gas is a really important part of Kerry’s energy proposal also. And that could be a place where environmentalists may not be entirely satisfied with Kerry’s ideas. But traditional gas interests have certainly been reassured that he won’t rock the boat too much.

He’s treading a really thin line here because a lot of the places where we get natural gas out of the ground, as you say, are the seafloor or whether on land, are pretty controversial. And it is part of Kerry’s plan to expand a partnership with Canada and Mexico to expand the supply of gas. But Mexican residents haven’t been very happy about having gas facilities located there that are mainly for the benefit of people up here in the North.

And more directly to your question, in oil and gas country in the West, in New Mexico and Colorado and Wyoming, there’s significant opposition to the growing stretch of gas activity – thousands of new wells. And what you see out in the Rocky Mountain West is that local governments are trying to wrest some degree of control away from the federal government. People are really upset about it. They say it’s noisy, they say it brings up salty water, that it’s bad for their feed grass, it’s bad for livestock. And they’re using some new legal strategies, trying to use zoning – anything they can do to keep out thousands of proposed gas wells. And some of this is happening, as Jeff mentioned, in swing states – Colorado and New Mexico.

YOUNG: Yeah, I’d keep an eye on New Mexico. The Bureau of Land Management has a plan out there to expand the leases in a sensitive area known as the Otero Mesa, and it’s not very popular in New Mexico. And you might say, well, how many people are really going to be motivated by that issue? Well, let’s say 500, 1,000. The margin of difference in 2000 was 366 votes in New Mexico. So if 500 people get upset enough about that thing to go out and vote one way or another – that could swing that state.

LOBET: And to give the Bush Administration’s view on that, of course, and the view of some ranchers who do favor the drilling, it’s, hey, you know, we need this gas. The country needs this gas. It’s cleaner than coal, and we need to get this stuff out of the ground where we can burn it for electricity and for home heating.

CURWOOD: Let’s look ahead now. Should Mr. Kerry be elected, what part of this platform, what part of this position, is he most likely to reverse himself on? We saw George Bush pledging that he was going to include carbon dioxide as a pollutant -- something to be regulated -- during the campaign. But once he was in office he was rejecting the Kyoto climate change agreement and taking carbon dioxide off the table for regulation as a pollutant. What might Mr. Kerry have to revise if he should actually gain office? Mr. Detchon, why don’t we start with you.

DETCHON: Well I think probably the question is more likely not what will he have to revise, but what would Congress force him to revise? And I think you’re right in pointing to the climate issue as the most difficult one politically.

YOUNG: Yeah, in all likelihood he’s still going to be facing a Republican Congress, and this is a Congress that has already said no to increasing fuel efficiency standards, already said no to the 20 percent target for Renewable Portfolio Standard. So I don’t see any reason why changing one vote at the White House, if you will, is really going to change that many votes on the Hill.

DETCHON: You know, there’s an interesting political twist to this though. I think we’re to a certain extent describing the situation as it is, and it may change. And I’ll say why. When the president describes his energy bill, when Senator Domenici describes the Republican energy bill, they describe it almost exclusively in terms of its benefits to efficiency, to renewables, to the advanced technologies. You can hardly get a word out of them about oil, gas and coal. Or nuclear, even less so. That tells me that they understand where the political winds have shifted and that the way to try to sell a package is with these advanced technologies. I think if Kerry were elected he would do the flip – he would talk about those and actually have a very strong program in those areas, but he would also have pieces of the package to appeal to the conventional constituencies in order to bring them along.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time. Reid Detchon is executive director of the Energy Future Coalition. Thanks so much.

DETCHON: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is our Washington correspondent. Thanks, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.

CURWOOD: And Ingrid Lobet is our West Coast correspondent in Los Angeles. Thank you so much, Ingrid.

LOBET: Thank you.

[MUSIC: “Haffi Settle” THE UPLIFTERS: LOOK OUT NOW (Rub-a-Dub – 2000)]



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