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

Plugging into the Energy Debate

Air Date: Week of

The U.S. Senate is debating an energy bill that could bring more fuel efficient vehicles, boost alternative energy, and reduce oil consumption. But some amendments to the bill would go the other direction, giving automakers a pass and encouraging coal and offshore drilling. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Jeff Young plugs us in to the energy debate.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill say they want the country to move forward with energy that is clean and green. A bill on the Senate side would increase funding and incentives for alternative fuels and renewable energy. It would also set new efficiency standards for lighting and appliances and require that cars and trucks get more miles per gallon. Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid.

REID: Altogether our bill will save American consumers tens of billions of dollars annually, cut our oil consumption by more than four million barrels a day and reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources right away. And, by the way, we might just save the planet while we’re at it.

CURWOOD: But some senators from both parties would also like to see the expanded use of coal, and take a conservative approach for setting new fuel economy standards. Our Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins us now to take a look down the country’s energy path. Hi, Jeff!

YOUNG: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Jeff, Senator Reid says this bill would cut U.S. oil consumption. How would it do that?

YOUNG: It would change both the country’s fuels and its vehicles. This bill pumps up production of biofuels to 36 billion gallons within 15 years, that’s five times the current level. And it says all the cars and trucks that a company makes should average 35 miles a gallon by the year 2020. That’s up from today’s average, which is about 25.

CURWOOD: And does the Senate majority leader have the votes for that?

YOUNG: The first of those goals is a political slam-dunk. Everybody here loves biofuels—let’s grow our energy in the Midwest instead of buying it from the Middle East—that sort of thing you hear a lot of. The second part, though, about changing the vehicles, that’s a tough fight.

CURWOOD: Detroit does seem to be very good at telling Washington to leave it alone. How will automakers fare this time?

YOUNG: Well, Detroit is saying they can’t meet that 35 miles per gallon standard. And Michigan’s Democratic Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, are working hard to lower the bill’s mileage standards. But there’s a strong sense here on the Hill that automakers have to do something. You know the average fuel economy for cars and trucks in ’07 is lower than it was in 1987. And you can just hear the frustration from senators like California Democrat Diane Feinstein.

FEINSTEIN: The fact of the matter is that Detroit has done nothing about mileage efficiency for the past 20 years and the time has come.

CURWOOD: Jeff, I know ethanol and biofuels are getting a lot of support, but what about this plan that you reported on recently to use coal, liquid coal, to power our cars?

YOUNG: That is another big fight that is brewing here. A lot of coal state Senators, including a lot of Democrats by the way, they say, hey, if we really want to be energy independent, well, we are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and we could turn it into a liquid transportation fuel. They want some help from Congress, maybe having the military buy the fuel at first, to sort of jump-start a liquid coal industry and voila, solve our oil problem.

CURWOOD: Yeah, but what about the environmental climate change problem and those costs of coal?

YOUNG: Oh yeah, that. Well, there is stiff opposition to this liquid coal proposal. One, it turns out it’s very expensive to turn coal into a liquid fuel. And two, unless you add even more expensive equipment to the process, it would put out about twice the greenhouse gases that gasoline does. So environmental groups are fighting this. For example, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, he originally supported liquid coal. He took a lot of heat from environmental groups and had to back away from it recently. It does, however, appear that a compromise of some sort is in the works for this bill that would support liquid coal but require that those projects capture the carbon dioxide they produce—of course, that’s the major greenhouse gas.

CURWOOD: And, Jeff, what about the greenhouse gases coming from all that coal we burn for electricity, does the bill address that?

YOUNG: Well this is not, per se, a global warming bill—the Democratic leaders say they’re still working on that one. But this bill does have some of what you might call the building blocks of a global warming bill. And, probably the biggest is what’s called a renewable portfolio standard.

CURWOOD: Now renewables, you’re talking about things like wind, solar and biomass. What would this standard call for?

YOUNG: It says power companies have to produce 15 percent of their electricity from those clean sources you listed there. If they can’t, they’d have to buy credits from some other power company that does. New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman chairs the Energy Committee, and he’s the one pushing this idea.

BINGAMAN: I think there are lots of different ways people can produce energy other than using fossil fuels. We’re trying to stimulate the technologies to use all of those.

YOUNG: Now some southern states that burn a lot of coal for their power and don’t have a lot of a lot of potential for wind power are fighting this. In fact, Republicans raised the possibility of a filibuster over this issue. But the idea has a lot of support in most of the country; 22 states already have some sort of renewable standard including, by the way, Texas, which has a lot of wind power and where the bill was signed by a fella named George Bush.

CURWOOD: So, Governor Bush signed such a measure. How about President Bush?

YOUNG: The president does not support this and he says he will veto this bill if it includes another provision under consideration that makes price gouging by oil companies a crime. And before we even get to that stage of things, of course we have yet to hear from the House of Representatives, they’ll probably take up energy next month.

But I’ve got to say, there is a remarkable amount of support for clean energy and efficiency that you just did not see on Capitol Hill until very recently. And I think that’s because there’s so much public anxiety about energy these days. We import too much oil, we’re warming the planet and we’re paying too much for gas. It’s sort of a trifecta of worry and Congress is really feeling the pressure to act.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent
Thanks so much, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.



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