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

...And Energy, Sort of

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with New York Times energy correspondent Matthew Wald about the new National Energy Strategy, which was passed this month after nearly two years of debate. Initially conceived during the Gulf War as a way of weaning the country off foreign oil, the bill ended up doing little to either increase domestic production or dampen demand.


CURWOOD: Another major piece of environmentally-related legislation, passed as Congress adjourned, was the energy bill. Debate over the measure began nearly two years ago during the Gulf War, when both Republicans and Democrats called for reduced dependence on Mideast oil. The measure encourages the development of renewable energy sources, and imposes new conservation standards. But according to New York Times energy correspondent Matthew Wald, the new energy law does little to reduce the consumption of foreign oil.

WALD: It's a little underwhelming. The original thought was to do something to improve domestic production and something to reduce domestic consumption. And in the end it barely does either of those. It gives a small tax incentive to small oil producers in this country, but it doesn't do what the oil industry wanted, which was to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other offshore areas to drilling. It especially, conspicuously does nothing about automobile fuel efficiency. Cars and trucks use about 60 percent of the oil. The efficiency standards have been frozen since 1986, they're just not getting any better, and it proved too controversial a point for the Congress to take on. So in the end it's a non-oil bill; they called it the National Energy Strategy -- as far as oil goes it's kind of a national lethargy strategy.

CURWOOD: What does the bill do?

WALD: It does a lot of things, many of them useful. It changes the electric industry, by opening up generation to more companies; those that build independent generating stations are allowed access to the transmission grid on easier terms than they used to be. It also changes some things on the consumption side of electricity by setting minimum standards for some equipment that uses electricity, so it'll do the same work with less electricity. It gives a boost to the nuclear industry, although I don't know in the end how effective that will be. It also has some policy in that, regarding transportation, by encouraging states to use cars and trucks that run on something besides gasoline. This is mostly environmental policy masquerading as energy policy, although there's nothing wrong with that and it does achieve a purpose.

CURWOOD: Now what about electrical conservation standards? I read that now the government is going to be telling how efficient your air conditioner, your refrigerator, your electric motor is going to be.

WALD: Yes, and that could be important. In theory, everybody wants to save energy. I heard an engineer talking about the on-the-truck theory of water heaters a few weeks ago. He said everybody knows that the best available water heaters use substantially less electricity, and that if you buy the best one it may cost you a little more up front, but you'll earn it back in savings. So in theory, if you need a new water heater, you buy the best one you can get. In practice, nobody shops for water heaters. You're standing in the shower one morning, the hot water ends, you get out, you call the plumber and the plumber says oh, yeah, he says I can get you one of those really good water heaters, it'll be here a week from Thursday. Or I can come by this afternoon and give you the one that's on the truck. So you get the one that's on the truck. If we have national standards for appliances, then the one that's on the truck will be slightly better, and that's something the states can't do on their own -- it has to be a Federal initiative.

CURWOOD: So, Matt, is this bill a significant advance in energy policy? I mean, was it worth the last two years of debate and the hassle there in Washington?

WALD: Well, it depends on what you think a congressman's time is worth, I guess.


WALD: It certainly shows the limits on what we're able to accomplish, if we couldn't get a strong oil bill at a time when domestic production is continuing to decline, domestic consumption is rising slowly -- if we couldn't do it now, after sending half a million people to fight in the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, when on earth are we going to do it? Other countries have an easier time at this, because they are either producers or consumers. This country is both, and both sides are very well represented in Washington, and they've checkmated each other.

CURWOOD: All right, thank you very much. Matthew Wald is energy reporter for the New York Times. Thank you.



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