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

March 5, 1993

Air Date: March 5, 1993


Europe, Japan Debate New Energy Taxes / Stephen Beard and Mike Shatz

Stephen Beard in London and Mike Shatz in Tokyo report on the European and Japanese response to the proposed U.S. energy tax. President Clinton's plan has prompted some calls for even higher energy taxes to spur further conservation. (04:53)

The Environmental Impact of Clinton's Economic Plan

Steve talks with Jessica Tuchman Matthews of the World Resources Institute about the fundamental changes in environmental policy which she says run through the President's new economic plan. (05:38)


Listeners respond to features on oil spills and nuclear power. (03:32)

Hydrogen: Clean Fuel of the Future? / Alex van Oss

Alex van Oss reports from Washington on the push to develop hydrogen as a clean, cheap and abundant fuel source for the future. Supporters say hydrogen fuel could be generated by using solar and wind power to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. (07:13)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Michael Richards, Doug Johnson, Stephen Beard, Mike Shatz, Alex Van Oss
GUESTS: Jessica Tuchman Matthews

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CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

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I'm Steve Curwood. The Clinton economic plan has broad implications for the environment, including higher fees for using public lands. And both the Japanese and the Europeans say Clinton's call for a broad-based energy tax is long overdue.

CLARK: The United States of America is profligate in the use of energy. It's using up more than its fair share of energy reserves worldwide.

CURWOOD: Also, what leaves just water vapor when you burn it? Hydrogen gas. Hydrogen, extracted by the power of the sun, is being touted as the fuel of the future.

MACKENZIE: Hydrogen is the primordial and future source and carrier of energy. It is currently locked away in water and in fuel. It's waiting to be released.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, coming up right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

The EPA says it won't tighten smog standards immediately, but the agency will speed a scientific review of the issue. Recent studies have shown that federal limits on ground-level ozone, the biggest component of smog, are too weak. The delay confirms a Bush administration ruling that more research is needed. From Washington, Michael Richards reports.

RICHARDS: The Clinton administration did leave the door open to a revised set of smog standards later. The EPA says there's not been a thorough, scientific review of recent studies, studies that could support tougher smog control. The review could take two to three years. In political terms, this Clinton administration decision comes as tax hikes and budget cuts are being hotly debated. Tougher smog control measures such as increased curbs on auto use and factory emissions are usually controversial, and typically require the expenditure of political capital. Many close to the issue suggest the Clinton administration may be banking on technological advances to improve air quality, so controversial new smog controls won't have to be as far-reaching. But when the scientific review is likely to be complete in two or three years, the next presidential election will be looming. And that could create a different political equation altogether. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Richards in Washington.

NUNLEY: Meanwhile, the EPA has called for extensive new research on the health effects of electromagnetic fields or EMFs. Some studies have linked exposure to fields from household appliances and power transmission lines with higher cancer rates. But many scientists remain skeptical. The agency recommends both human and animal studies to help determine the biological effects of EMFs.

Norway says it will resume scientific whaling in April, and set quotas for commercial catches of minke whales in May. The moves are seen as an effort to pressure the International Whaling Commission to lift its ban on commercial whaling when it meets this spring. The IWC agreed last year that Norway's local minke whale population was not in danger of extinction, but refused to lift its ban. Per-Christian Pederson of Norway's Washington embassy says the ban ignores the importance of traditional whaling to Norwegians.

PEDERSON: They need to be allowed to harvest all the natural resources in there. You have to strike a balance between the environmental concerns, and the concerns of having an economic basis for livelihood in this area.

NUNLEY: Meanwhile a US official says sanctions are possible if Norway does resume commercial whaling.

Despite an international ban, the trade in endangered species remains a two billion dollar a year business, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The WWF drew up a list of the ten most sought-after species, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The group says Siberian tigers, black rhinos, giant pandas, and the Brazilian rosewood tree are among the species most threatened by the illegal trade.

This is Living on Earth.

A new study indicates that renewable energy could supply a major chunk of power and be an economic boon to Midwestern states. Doug Johnson of Michigan Public Radio reports.

JOHNSON: The report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that wind turbines, solar power, and the burning of agricultural by-products such as wood chips and cornstalks can supply a quarter to a third of the Midwest's energy needs. The report also projects thousands of new jobs could be created in the Midwest with the shift to renewable sources. Co-author Thomas Stanton says the report targeted the Midwest in order to demonstrate the feasibility of renewable energy in a region not normally associated with wind and solar power.

STANTON: We're not waiting for some technical breakthrough to come two years or five years or ten years from now. It's cost effective now to start employing more renewable resources.

JOHNSON: The authors say the report was designed to provide hard data for government and utilities; however, one utility in the region, Michigan's Consumers' Power Company, says they still consider renewable energy sources unproven and unreliable. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug Johnson in East Lansing, Michigan.

NUNLEY: Brazil's new president is following up on his pledge to evict gold miners from the Yanomami Indian reserve in the country's far north. So far nearly a third of the more than ten thousand miners in the area have reportedly surrendered or been captured and their gold and equipment confiscated. The miners are accused of spreading disease, disrupting native culture, and poisoning area rivers with mercury. The eviction effort is the second in recent years. Advocates for the Yanomami fear the miners will return again without permanent government patrols.

A French and Nepalese expedition will set out for Mount Everest this spring to conquer not the mountain, but the mountains of trash left on its slopes. Four decades of climbers have left Everest littered with 17 tons of trash. This group of climbers will spend over three quarters of a million dollars picking up empty oxygen tanks, ropes, tents, and garbage from the world's tallest peak.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Europe, Japan Debate New Energy Taxes

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

President Clinton's call for a broad-based energy tax has caught the rest of the world a bit by surprise. As a big country where people routinely drive long distances, and as a producer as well as a consumer of energy, America has for years refused to go further than modest oil import fees and fairly small taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. So the scope of Clinton's proposed energy tax has prompted renewed debate on the subject around the world, particularly among our closest competitors. We have two reports now - the first on the European community reaction, from Steven Beard in London.

BEARD: Most of the member states of the European community already have comparatively high energy taxes. But for reasons of conservation the European commission has, for the past two years, been trying to introduce an additional, community-wide levy. Most of the member states agree with it, provided the US and Japan adopt a similar measure. America's move could now force the community's hand, according to Simon Roberts of Friends of the Earth.

ROBERTS: I think the European community has been caught on the hawk by President Clinton. I don't think anyone this side of the Atlantic thought there was going to be a proposal coming forward this soon, or that it would be of a unilateral nature. So I think essentially there's going to be a lot of soul searching in European governments about how serious they were about this proposal to bring forward an energy tax if everyone else did it.

BEARD: Britain could play a decisive role in the new debate. John Major's administration has always objected strongly to an additional energy tax. Opposition environment spokesman Chris Smith hopes that the government will now fall into line with its most powerful European partners.

SMITH: Certainly the French and German governments are very keen on the idea of energy and environmental taxes. Some of the countries in the south of Europe - Spain and Portugal, for example - are somewhat less keen, but they are sheltering, at the moment, behind British government objections. Now if the British government decided just for once that they were going to take the environmental lead, then I think we might well get some real progress on this in Europe.

BEARD: But the British government shows no sign of dropping its opposition to further energy taxes. Nor should it, says Conservative member of Parliament Michael Clark.

CLARK: We in Europe do tax our energy products already, and there's no argument at all for having an additional tax over and above the very high taxes we already have on energy products.

BEARD: Mr. Clark applauds President Clinton's initiative, but does not believe European consumers should have to face yet higher energy prices.

CLARK: The United States of America is profligate in the use of energy. It's using up more than its fair share of energy reserves worldwide. We use far less energy, and I believe that Europe will say no to an energy tax, because it would put a burden on our exports that we're not prepared to accept, particularly at this time of recession.

BEARD: European environmentalists argue that savings through energy conservation should easily offset any higher taxes. Simon Roberts of Friends of the Earth thinks that the American proposal will bring mounting pressure to bear on European opponents.

ROBERTS: Over the next few months, as it becomes clearer the extent to which President Clinton's proposal will get through Congress, as it becomes clearer what the cost implications are about for US industry, for energy prices in the US, then the arguments that were being used in the EC to keep the tax out will be undermined. They're going to have to come up with new arguments against the tax, or they're going to have to say, well, we have to swim with this.

BEARD: If the EC does follow the American example, Japan will then have to decide whether it too will introduce an additional energy tax. For Living on Earth, I'm Steven Beard in London.

SCHATZ: I'm Mike Schatz in Tokyo. President Clinton's proposed broad-based energy tax is getting mixed reviews in Japan. Environmentalists here believe passage of the President's proposal would be a modest and long-overdue step toward greater energy efficiency in the United States. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the US is dead last among its group of seven counterparts when it comes to energy efficiency. Japan, on the other hand, ranks first. Officials of Japan's environment agency are hoping implementation of a green tax in the US and European community will help revive their campaign for a similar measure here. The agency believes the tax will help meet Japan's environmental goals, including improving energy efficiency. But Japan is in the middle of its worst economic downturn in 20 years, and a spokesman for Japan's trade and industry ministry says the taxes needed to improve energy efficiency would cripple the economy. In the absence of strong leadership, and with parliamentary elections just around the corner, the introduction of an environment tax in Japan appears to be a long way off. For Living on Earth, this is Mike Schatz in Tokyo.

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The Environmental Impact of Clinton's Economic Plan

CURWOOD: For a domestic perspective on the President's economic plan and its impact on the environment, we turn to Jessica Tuchman Matthews to discuss several facets of the initiative. Matthews is a vice president of the World Resources Institute in Washington, and I asked her first about the impact that the proposed energy tax would have on the environment.

MATTHEWS: Well, it's going to be a small impact, but it's going to be positive, because it will signal that we need to be moving towards greater efficiency in energy use. But because it's only about a four or five percent price increase, the overall impact will be relatively small.

CURWOOD: It is a pretty small tax, as you say, and some environmentalists have said that to change people's behaviors you need much bigger taxes. Are they asking for too much too soon?

MATTHEWS: I think so. I think the administration made a smart political judgment in deciding not to push too hard, because after all, if the tax is defeated then you end up with nothing. And it's a tough tradeoff. And in addition to just the size of the tax, the question is, how narrowly do you base it? Say if you're going for 25 billion in revenues or 20 billion, the narrower you make the tax, say just on gasoline, or just on imported oil, or whatever, the higher the rate would be on that particular fuel and therefore the bigger the impact on behavior. On the other hand, the narrower you make it, the more regional inequities that you have, and the more political difficulty. So they've done a balancing job. I think they've hit it about right.

CURWOOD: And Congress is ready to pass such a tax, you think?

MATTHEWS: I think that really the President's speech signalled a beginning of a potentially new era in American politics, if the public support stays strong. I was really astonished that the overnight polls showed almost 80 percent of the American people saying they liked this package, that they thought it was fair, that they thought it was balanced, that they thought it was needed. If he can sustain that level of support, then I think Congress can withstand the inevitable attacks that will come from all the special interests.

CURWOOD: How does the President's transportation package stack up in terms of the environment, do you think?

MATTHEWS: Well, there the initial money is going to highways, because that's what's on the shelf waiting, out in the states. But the administration has been, I think, pretty clear in signalling that it wants to stay with the really dramatically different transportation priorities that Congress developed in the last two years, and indeed, Secretary Pena has said that he wants to add railroads to the mix, which Congress didn't, and which I think is a tremendously beneficial step for the environment, because rail travel is so much more energy efficient.

CURWOOD: Let's move now to public lands. There are a number of environmentally related initiatives in the President's economic package related to land, ranging from surcharges on water sales, to camping and recreation fees, to grazing fees, and some royalties on the value of hard rock minerals taken from federal lands. How will these effect the environment?

MATTHEWS: Well, to my mind, this is the big piece of environmental policy that we've seen so far, and a tremendously important one. We have a whole package of policies that are left over from the mid-19th century, when the federal government was trying to lure settlers into a harsh and empty West. This whole package of policies that have grown up providing heavily subsidized water, below-cost timber sales on which the Forest Service loses money every year, and way below-cost grazing fees that are estimated to be about a fifth of the cost on private land - these subsidies have two effects: one is, they cost the taxpayer a fair amount of money. And the other is, they encourage bad resource use. And what the Clinton administration has done is to put all of these into the same package and say, we're going to start moving towards charging the real market price for all of these resources. They haven't, by any means, gone the full way toward market prices, because I think it would have been too abrupt a transition, and too painful. But they have started the process. And that will mean an enormous shift in the West. And the one thing we haven't mentioned, and we should, that in this package also they suggest the increasing user fees for recreation. The principle is exactly the same: if you're going to charge a realistic price for the use of scarce resources, then the use of the national parks, and the national forests for hunting, and fishing, and camping ought to be included.

CURWOOD: What's your overall assessment of the Clinton economic plan and the environment?

MATTHEWS: I have to give it an "A". In a package designed - rightly so, in my view - for deficit reduction, and balancing political feasibility, they have brought in an enormous amount of policy. I think that the key theme to bear in mind is, they have tried to move toward more realistic pricing, both with respect to energy, and the subsidies. This is the direction we need to be going, and this is the way, over time, that you can get around these crisis conflicts between jobs and the environment.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you. Jessica Tuchman Matthews is vice president of the World Resources Institute in Washington. Thanks for joining me.

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CURWOOD: Just ahead on Living on Earth, President Clinton's energy plan is designed to help move the US away from oil and coal, and towards cleaner fuel, such as natural gas, and solar and wind power. But some say the real energy revolution will come with the conversion to hydrogen fuel. We'll have a report from Washington on how we might make the switch to hydrogen, but first, let's open the mail.

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CURWOOD: Barry Schwab of Nashville, Tennessee, takes us to task over some of our coverage of recent major oil spills. He says we should have been tougher on our guest from the Oil Spill Intelligence Report. We asked her what it would cost to reduce the risk of spills by 90 percent, and she replied that as long as we move oil around in tankers, spills are inevitable. Mr. Schwab writes, "We would totally support hard-hitting interviews. Of course," he says, "it did get my dander up enough to see the ludicrous nature of her fossilized position. Uh, sorry for the poor pun."

From Pasadena, California, Kuram Khan writes that our report didn't emphasize tanker design as a preventive measure. "A possible safe design," Mr. Khan writes, "would be a multi-chambered hull, which would restrict the oil spill to a portion of the total oil carried."

But Jane Tucker of Oklahoma City called in to tell us that the real issue is not how the oil is transported, but rather, why.

TUCKER: The government of this country is requiring us to import the oil when it is already here. We could take care of at least 80 percent of the oil required by this country, in this country. It is not the problem of the people who are driving automobiles. It's the problem of federal control, because they have made agreements with other countries that we will import their oil.

CURWOOD: Commentator Janet Reynolds' criticism of a new nuclear power industry advertising campaign, aimed at women, brought a number of responses. Denise Grevell, who calls herself a "grateful grandmother from Maine," writes, "Thank you! Our grandchildren will not only inherit our national debt, they will inherit our nuclear waste!"

But J.W. Morris of Aiken, South Carolina, suggests that wouldn't be such a bad thing after all. "All nuclear waste is being handled very safely in this country," Mr. Morris writes, "as it has been for decades. High-level nuclear waste is not yet subject to ultimate disposal, but the technology needed is available today and can be implemented - when Ms. Reynolds and others like her see the light and get out of the way."

And we received this call from Kathy Roach, the director of media services for the US Council on Energy Awareness.

ROACH: "Women are about half the population, control most of the money, and are increasingly well represented among today's opinion and business leaders. So, are women a special target of our advertising? You bet. Ours, and every other advertising campaign."

CURWOOD: If you have any comments, complaints, suggestions, or questions, get in touch. Our listener comment line is 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. And our address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass. 02238.

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Hydrogen: Clean Fuel of the Future?

CURWOOD: Writing The Mysterious Island more than a century ago, science fiction writer Jules Verne made a dramatic prophecy. "My friends," predicted Verne, "I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel - that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light. When the deposits of coal are exhausted, we shall heat and warm ourselves with water." Today, some engineering planners are trying to turn Verne's science fiction into fact. Using the power of the sun, and other energy sources of electricity to break water down into its elements, they are foreseeing a large role for hydrogen in the years ahead. And as Alex Van Oss reports from Washington, some of them see the broader use of natural gas as the first step toward a solar hydrogen economy.

VAN OSS: The next time you come to DC and hail a cab, you may get one with a couple of big tanks in the back - tanks of compressed natural gas that get filled up at a pump, like this.

RUELL: Right now we're at about a little over 2000 pounds. The day is warmer today, so we should get about 2500 pounds fill, which'll take us about 253 miles.

VAN OSS: Todd Ruell is president of the Clean Air Cab Company, which may become the nation's first natural gas taxi service, if the DC government gives its permission. Natural gas is becoming the fuel of choice for more and more companies and federal agencies looking for cleaner, more environmentally benign ways of going about their business. And alternative fuels are in, as Todd Ruell discovered in January, when his natural gas cab took part in the Inauguration Day parade.

RUELL: When we went by the Presidential reviewing stand, President Clinton and Vice President Gore freaked when they saw the taxi cab. And both of them crouched down, looked at it, and gave the cab two thumbs up.
VAN OSS: Yes, but did they point at you after the thumbs-up?
RUELL: Absolutely, absolutely.

VAN OSS: Natural gas can be used for cooking, or heating, or for transportation. It's a clean fuel, or cleaner than gasoline in cars, but it's bulky, even when compressed. There's a more efficient way of using gas than squeezing it into a tank, and that involves a spin-off from the space industry and submarine technology - an energy source called a fuel cell. The fuel cell is a kind of compact, long-lasting battery that uses natural gas to generate electricity to move the car. The cell can also use as a fuel - and this is where environmentalists get really excited - not just natural gas, but one of nature's most plentiful elements: hydrogen. Hydrogen could become the basis of a revolutionary new economy, say proponents, and the development of natural gas is the bridge to hydrogen.

MACKENZIE: Hydrogen is the primordial and future source and carrier of energy.

VAN OSS: James MacKenzie is senior associate with the World Resources Institute.

MACKENZIE: It is currently locked away in water, and in fuels, and so forth. It is waiting to be released and its introduction, in my view, is inevitable.

VAN OSS: The question is, how to unlock hydrogen most efficiently and cleanly. It can come from biomass, or from fossil fuels, like natural gas. The most abundant source is water, which can be split apart into hydrogen and oxygen by electricity, generated by wind, water, or solar thermal plants. Like all fuels, hydrogen can be dangerous - it's flammable and can ignite. But modern pipelines and tanks allow its safe transport and storage. What's crucial for hydrogen is the timing. Officials say decisions made now will define the nation's energy economy during the 21st century, which is only seven years away. Transitions to hydrogen may come soon, says advocate Sandy Thomas, who's co-authored a study on renewable hydrogen with Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. Thomas says to keep an eye on California, which has a new law on the books which says that two percent of their vehicles by 1998 must have zero emissions. Right now, to most people, zero emissions means battery-powered electric cars. But Sandy Thomas says hydrogen-powered vehicles could well meet the standard.

THOMAS: California is going to require manufacturers to produce zero-emission vehicles, so that is the mechanism whereby you create a demand for hydrogen. through zero-emission vehicles. Once you have that demand, then people start producing hydrogen, and then hopefully the market forces will take over at that point.

VAN OSS: Other countries have been researching hydrogen vehicles for years: Mercedes Benz and BMW in Germany; Japan's Mazda displayed a hydrogen HRX concept car in Toronto last month; and a company in British Columbia has a hydrogen-fueled bus up and running. Meanwhile in Florida, a company called Energy Partners, Inc., hopes to introduce to the public this spring its new hydrogen "green car."

But say we had the cars and the technology, how would hydrogen itself be shunted around the country once it's produced? Wind, water, or solar thermal energy could generate electricity and that electricity then split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The best way to ship that hydrogen is through pipes, just like natural gas. In fact, you can use the already existing natural gas pipelines and, up to a point, mix hydrogen right in with the gas. Opponents to hydrogen say there's still a lot of work to be done - models to be tested, and economic uncertainties. Ironically, some of that concern comes from wind companies who fear they might be overlooked and even displaced in a national transition from oil to natural gas to a hydrogen-based economy, especially if gas is used to power electric utilities. Jack Danforth is business development director at R. Linette and Associates, a wind turbine company in Washington state. Wind is just fine already, he says, for producing cheap, plentiful electricity in the region. Danforth doesn't want a major shift if government support to go just to natural gas, hydrogen future or no.

DANFORTH: I agree that we need to bridge to a hydrogen-based economy. Now the problem is, if natural gas is the bridge to that future, and we meet all of our electric needs with this natural gas capacity, those plants will be generating electricity for the next 30 years. So it's a very long bridge.

VAN OSS: Last October, President Bush signed an energy policy act approving several hydrogen research programs. The task now, says Senate legislative assistant Sandy Thomas, is educating Congress about renewable hydrogen and upping its budget in the Department of Energy. It now gets four and a half million dollars out of a DOE budget of 18 billion dollars. Thomas would like to increase that to a hundred million dollars.

THOMAS: Which would bring it close to nuclear fission, which gets 200 million every year, nuclear fusion gets 500 million every year, the nuclear weapons part of DOE gets 13 billion dollars every year. So what we're saying is we're totally out of whack in terms of priorities in our judgment.

VAN OSS: Hydrogen advocates say that priorities include getting government to shift its subsidies from fossil to renewable fuels, including hydrogen; also to boost research, and make more demonstration vehicles, and then buy those vehicles to jump start the hydrogen economy. Some of this may take shape this month in Congressional hearings and two major conferences, all focusing on hydrogen. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss in Washington.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Cox, Reyna Lounsbury, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Chris Engle, Chris Barry, and Bob Connolly. Our theme music is composed by Michael Aharon. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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