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

Energy Alternatives: A Frank Discussion with Hazel O'Leary

Air Date: Week of

Former U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary talks with Steve Curwood about wind and solar power that works, and policies that she believes should still be implemented to reduce the amount of the United States' greenhouse gas emissions.


CURWOOD: The latest round of international talks designed to ward off climate change has ended in Bonn, Germany, with the European Union calling for a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The EU wants the release of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen oxides cut 15% of 1990 levels by the year 2010. This is less of a reduction than is being urged by the scientists of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, but it puts the EU far ahead of the United States, which has yet to make a firm commitment to reduce its domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The United States remains the biggest single human source of carbon dioxide. Former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary says part of the problem is Americans pay too little for energy. But the government shies away from boosting prices because Americans, she says, have come to view cheap power as their birthright.

O'LEARY: There are 2 ways to approach your energy policy. One is to wait for the next supply disruption, be it political or natural, and then our economy will have to react to price shocks as we did in the late 70s and 80s.

CURWOOD: I don't want to go through that again.

O'LEARY: Well, neither do I. I can remember as a relatively young person in a new marriage buying a home in Washington, DC, and the mortgage rate as 16%. That was the real economic consequence of the price shock. Much better to more orderly plan what we do next.

CURWOOD: So, should we phase out the use of fossil fuels in this country?

O'LEARY: Well, listen. I mean, I'm -- you know, the largest energy source in the world, not just in the United States, is coal. That is not going to change over the near term. And so what we have to get about is, to the maximum extent possible, continuing to deploy the technologies that move us to renewable. But we can't ignore the reality of coal, so we need to continue to invest in it, so that we can ensure that not only are we making the strides we have been making, but we get after removing the CO2 from coal as well.

CURWOOD: What do you think we should be doing here at home to reduce our own emissions?

O'LEARY: I believe that the government's enormous purchasing power can and should and has been used, or was used under our watch, to begin to create an open, a market for alternative energy. The test site for nuclear weapons in Nevada has now become the home of a photovoltaic system for providing electricity to Nevada. And guess who the taker will be for that power? Initially, it will be the Federal Government, through its public power marketing administrations. Now, I don't believe that we want to mandate a specific amount. I think we want to look for opportunities. But clearly, the government's purchasing power, and early on decisions made by the government to invest in this technology, create the marketplace. More importantly, in my view, is also the focus on the international marketplace. We just rolled out -- well, they did, because I'm no longer a part of the Administration -- but rolled out a project in South Africa at the last binational commission, using something called PV waterworks to sterilize laboratory and clinic equipment in villages and townships in South Africa where there is no electricity. So the more we can place this technology both in the United States -- using the Federal purchasing power -- and at the same time get into the commercial marketplace, the more we seed the opportunity for this industry.

CURWOOD: Now, when you were Secretary you made a number of trade missions overseas, and you often travel with executives from the coal and oil industries. Do you think the US should be promoting the use of fossil fuels in other countries?

O'LEARY: Oh, listen, let's tell it entirely. I often traveled with environmentalists, senior representatives from energy companies, including wind, biomass, coal photovoltaics, everybody. And having been in this business now for over 25 years, what I'm very clear about is that we've got to work on improving the environmental performance of generation from all energy sources. Because nations are going to make their own decisions based on the economics of the time, what is the apparent desire of the people living in those countries, and availability of fuel sources.

CURWOOD: You took a lot of heat for your trade missions: oh dear, Energy Secretary, I'm sorry for the pun --

O'LEARY: That's okay, that was lovely.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you feel you were treated fairly.

O'LEARY: Oh, God. You know, my sense of this is it doesn't really matter.

CURWOOD: I guess the answer is no.

O'LEARY: No, it doesn't matter. No, it doesn't matter. I mean, I'm not going to sit here and whine about the fact, but I believe -- well, now, I'll tell you this story -- that I believe a very narrow group of Republicans in the House, pretty much disenchanted with the Clinton Administration policies on recognizing, finally, that the Cold War was over and it was time to end nuclear testing, and I was more or less the instrument for that by taking on the status quo in the National Security Council, made me a very unpopular lady in the eyesight of many. Because all of those issues involving national security and nuclear testing have something to do with the economic consequence of reducing jobs in areas of the country that have been tied to the industrial, the military-industrial complex.

CURWOOD: How much of the trouble do you think you got from Congress had to do with your gender? How much do you think had to do with your color?

O'LEARY: Well, you know, I have a friend who says that my whole problem was I was an uppity black chick. (Laughs) You know, I like to think that this is about policy differences, and I will go to my grave being extremely proud of the fact that I was the Secretary of Energy who said why can't we end nuclear testing, and provided the technical analysis so that the President could make that decision.

CURWOOD: Hazel O'Leary was Secretary of Energy during President Clinton's first term. Thanks so much for joining us.

O'LEARY: Thank you very much.



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