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

Green Beginnings

Air Date: Week of

The new president puts the pedal to the metal on fuel efficiency for cars and the new Congress pumps billions into clean energy investment-proof that change has come to Washington when it comes to dealing with climate change. Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Jeff Young tells us the latest and why Al Gore says the economic recovery plan can fight global warming.



GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.

Talk about hitting the ground running. Candidate Barack Obama promised change and change is now definitely in the air. The new president quickly put climate change and the nation’s dependence on oil near the top of his agenda.

OBAMA: I want to be clear from the beginning of this administration that we have made our choice. America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes, and a warming planet.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young joins me to analyze the flurry of environmental action. And Jeff the president really put the pedal to the metal.

YOUNG: That’s a good term since we’re dealing with cars here. And not just the president, but also the new congress – there was a lot of action on Capitol Hill. I think the climate has changed here for climate change.

GELLERMAN: [LAUGHS] Okay, we’re gonna stop that. What do these two executive orders the president signed mean for the kinds of cars and trucks we’ll be driving?

YOUNG: Well it should mean that we’ll have more fuel-efficient vehicles to choose from in the coming decade. The minimum goal is for the carmaker’s overall fleet to average 35 mpg by 2020.What Obama signed put into motion the rules so that we should start seeing higher mileage cars with the 2011 model year. Now, the second thing he did is more controversial and that has to do with letting states regulate the greenhouse gases that come out of tailpipes.

GELLERMAN: That’s what California had wanted permission to do, but the Bush administration said no.

YOUNG: Yeah, last March the head of Bush’s EPA said no to that request even though his own staff lawyers and scientists said, “We should say yes to this.” Now Obama’s EPA is gonna have another look. And it’s almost a foregone conclusion they’ll say yes this time, that California can regulate auto emissions. Thirteen other states say they will follow suit.

That means - could mean that roughly half the US auto market would then require those higher mileage cars much faster, about four years sooner.

GELLERMAN: And I don’t think anyone was surprised by Detroit’s response to this.

YOUNG: They hate this idea of letting states take the lead here. The auto industry’s already gone to court to try to block that. And most observers say they expect the industry to sue again if California and the other states proceed.

GELLERMAN: Now didn’t the government just give GM and Chrysler a 23 billion dollar bailout check?

YOUNG: Our dollars, that’s right, and I talked with Charlie Territo about that. He’s the spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Here’s an exchange from that conversation:

TERRITO: We think the best way to achieve higher fuel economy for the entire fleet is through a single national standard and not a state-by-state patchwork

YOUNG: Part of the sales pitch when you came to Capitol Hill was, “We want to make greener, cleaner cars.” If you want to make greener, cleaner cars why are you taking our money to fight lawsuits against it?

TERRITO: Those lawsuits are there to protect the industry. There is room for cooperation and I think that in the next few months we’ll be looking forward to working closely with the Obama administration and explaining to them the wisdom of a single national standard.

GELLERMAN: So the carmakers are basically saying they want to cooperate but they’re not dropping those lawsuits!

YOUNG: Yeah, this is something they’re gonna fight over. The industry says they need more lead time to introduce those higher mileage cars. Also, the state standards don’t let them average things out over a broad national fleet. And that would mean they wouldn’t be able to sell their more profitable vehicles in those states. For the most part those are the light trucks, which don’t get as good mileage. So the industry’s gonna push for that one national standard. The states and their environmental allies will push for the state standards to become the norm. And in the backdrop, of course, you’ve got the whole industry teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. It is not at all clear to me how this is going to play out exactly.

GELLERMAN: Let me change gears a little bit here, Jeff. Former Vice President Al Gore was also in DC this past week and he was delivering some inconvenient truths.

YOUNG: Yes, the return of the Goracle we call it here. He spoke to the Senate’s foreign relations committee about the next big international climate change talks. They’re coming at the end of the year in Copenhagen.

GELLERMAN: But the Bush administration refused to sign on to the last international agreement, the Kyoto accords. What does Mr. Gore think it will take to get us on board with a new climate agreement?

YOUNG: Like a lot of people who work on this issue Gore says, the US first needs its own domestic controls on greenhouse gas emissions - a cap and trade system to limit CO2. That’s still very tough, politically - even with the new president. What I found interesting in Gore’s remarks is he thinks this economic recovery package that Congress is working on right now, he thinks that’s the first step on that path toward a global warming agreement.

GORE: The plan’s unprecedented and critical investments in four key areas – energy efficiency, renewables, a unified national energy smart grid and the move to clean cars – represent an important down payment and are long overdue.

YOUNG: Now Gore is talking there about the House version of the Economic Recovery Act, it passed the House. It has about 80 billion dollars for clean energy and efficiency, clean cars and mass transit. The Senate’s bill, eh, not so much. The full Senate takes up the bill next and Gore says he’s not as happy with the version that’s emerging there. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she’ll fight to preserve the greener elements the House put in.

GELLERMAN: But no matter what the bottom line is, we’re talking huge bucks here, Jeff?

YOUNG: Oh, it’s mind-blowing. The House version came in at 819 billion. The Senate’s version could go as high as 900 billion - we don’t know quite yet. It’s just mind-blowing. You know, watching these developments - with the auto emissions standards and the government getting involved with this enormous government investment in the economic recovery –You really get the sense that the center of gravity in this country has shifted. Detroit and Wall Street have stumbled badly, they’re broke. Washington and the Treasury is the only place now with real power and real money. We don’t know how all of this is going to play out exactly; with cars and the way we get our electricity. But however it happens, it’s gonna happen here.

GELLERMAN: Well we’re glad you’re there Jeff. Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent, Jeff Young.

Thanks a lot, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.



***WEB EXTRA*** Listen to Jeff Young interview a spokesperson from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers about the President’s proposals, the auto industry bailout, and the industry’s continued opposition to fuel-economy improvements.

President Obama’s comments on fuel economy standards and auto emissions.

Environment America analyzes the green elements of the House version of the economic stimulus bill.


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