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

Gas Pains

Air Date: Week of

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander answers questions after unveiling a proposal to lower gas prices by “finding more and using less"--the Gas Price Reduction Act of 2008. (Courtesy of Lamar Alexander)

New public opinion polls show concern about high gas prices pushing people to favor more energy production. Living on Earth's Jeff Young looks at the energy remedies politicians are putting forward.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood. The price of petroleum products is swaying public opinion polls and that has politicians paying close attention as the campaign season hits high gear. And Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, the parties have very different positions on how to win votes and influence energy prices.

YOUNG: Just north of the capitol building there’s a little patch of lawn used for outdoor press conferences—Capitol Hill regulars call it “the Swamp.” On a bright day in late June the Swamp looked like a car lot of the future.


FEMALE VOICE: Look at that!

TECHNICIAN: SO this is a power electronics unit. Used to be a motor. No grease, no oil.

YOUNG: Half a dozen electric drive vehicles were on display. Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, had a look at one that can do a hundred miles an hour.

REID: Fasten your seat belt on that one.


YOUNG: Reid says Democratic proposals would support electric cars and other clean energy alternatives with tax incentives but Republicans are blocking them.

REID: We want to do something about global warming. That’s why we want to do something about gas prices and we want to do something with alternative energy and sadly we’ve been stopped every step of the way by Republicans who say they want to do more fossil fuels, put more carbon into the air. We cannot.

YOUNG: Democrats favor taxing windfall profits of oil companies unless those companies invest more in energy production and alternative energy research. And Democrats used high profile hearings to focus on speculation in oil markets. North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan says market watchdogs have been taking a nap.

DORGAN: This is an orgy of speculation in the commodities futures market we are trying with this legislation on floor of senate to wring the speculation out of markets and bring price back down where it ought to be relative to supply and demand.

YOUNG: One week later the Swamp was the scene of another energy press event. This time dozens of Republican Senators crowded around the podium to unveil their energy proposal. Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander says Republicans also like electric cars and dislike oil market speculators. But their main point is a need for more US oil.

ALEXANDER: Our bill can be summed up in four words: find more use less.

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander answers questions after unveiling a proposal to lower gas prices by “finding more and using less"--the Gas Price Reduction Act of 2008. (Courtesy of Lamar Alexander)

YOUNG: Republicans want to drill offshore and develop oil shale—rock deposits in southwestern states that, with some costly processing, can yield a form of oil. Alexander says over time the US could boost its oil production by a third. But a moratorium prevents drilling along 85% of the US coastline and rules prohibit oil shale exploration.

ALEXANDER: When we say deepsea exploration they say no we can’t. When we say oil shale development they say no we can’t.

YOUNG: And as for the greenhouse gases that would come from burning that additional oil, well, that’s not a high priority for New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, the top Republican on the Senate energy committee.

DOMENICI: The USA faces economic destruction because of our dependence on foreign oil long before we will ever feel the effects of greenhouse gases. There’s no way to avoid it we must use crude oil and that crude oil use must be more ours than foreigners’ or we will die an economic death.”

YOUNG: Democrats counter that oil companies are not drilling on some 58 million acres of land and water where they already have access. They propose a “use it or lose it” rule that would revoke idle leases. Republicans say Democrats don’t understand how the market works, and Senator Alexander took a shot at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

ALEXANDER: Unfortunately most Democrats still insist on trying to repeal the laws of supply and demand. It’s a new economic theory, we might call it Obamanomics

YOUNG: Democratic leader Reid accused Republican candidate John McCain of flip flopping on offshore drilling.

REID: In one of his previous political lives he said he was opposed to offshore drilling”

YOUNG: And so it went, with partisan sniping reaching a crescendo just before Congress’s July 4th break. Back home, lawmakers will surely get an earful about energy prices. New polling data show there’s been a big change in what many voters want. For seven years the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has asked about priorities in energy policy—do people want more exploration and development or more conservation and regulation? Pew center associate director Carroll Doherty says the majority had favored conservation. New numbers released July first —after gas prices jumped to four dollars a gallon—show that’s no longer true.

DOHERTY: Many more now prioritize energy exploration mining drilling new power plants over conservation and regulation. It’s a 12 point gain just since February and that’s a pretty significant shift.

YOUNG: Doherty’s numbers show much of that change came from unexpected
places—groups usually inclined to favor conservation.

DOHERTY: What you’re seeing is a shake up of long held public opinion on this. Liberals, women, young people—these are groups that by and large prioritized conservation over expanded exploration in the past now moving in big shift there in favor of increased energy exploration.

YOUNG: That would seem to favor the Republican approach. But Doherty says the increased support for more drilling has not come at the expense of strong support for other measures like higher mileage cars, alternative fuels and mass transit.

DOHERTY: So the public is basically saying, ‘all of the above,’ at this point to a lot of different approaches to the energy problem.

YOUNG: That hints at growing public support for a mix of the Republican emphasis on energy supply and the Democrat’s desire to reduce demand. But with election season upon us, the high ground of a bipartisan agreement is hard to reach in Washington. It’s much easier to schedule more press conferences and blame the other guys down in the swamp. For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



New polling on energy priorities from Pew Center for the People and the Press

Democratic Congressional leaders on their energy agenda


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