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

Energy Plan

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. California's energy crisis has dominated headlines for weeks. And throughout the winter, households across the nation have been struggling to keep up with skyrocketing heating oil and natural gas prices. Now, market analysts speculate that a gallon of gas may rise above the two-dollar mark by summer. It's no surprise, then, that the White House and the Congress are turning their attention to the growing concerns about energy. Joining me is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Hey, Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: I want to ask you now, you've had two months to look at the administration of George Bush, and what does he look like when it comes to energy?

HERTSGAARD: I think there's a couple of faces here. On the one hand we've got Christine Todd Whitman over at EPA, who's been very surprising. For someone who, in her first interview as a nominee, did not know the difference between climate change and the ozone hole, she's now talking a lot about climate change, saying it's a real problem. And indeed, that the Bush administration may begin to regulate carbon dioxide. That would be a major step forward. Carbon dioxide, of course, being the major greenhouse gas. So, that's one side of the administration. On the other hand, it makes a certain bizarre sense that they're going to regulate carbon dioxide because Bush's energy plan is going to produce a lot of it.

CURWOOD: Let's look at their energy proposals, just to get this straight. So far, if I have it right, the Bush Administration actually hasn't put forward an energy policy, but Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska has a comprehensive bill. Do I have this right?

HERTSGAARD: That's correct, Steve. Murkowski has submitted his bill, and there is a bill coming from the administration, specifically from Vice President Cheney's office. We talked to Cheney's office. They said that they're on the same page as Murkowski. In addition, we have some sense of what Bush will be doing because of the budget that he's proposed to Congress.

CURWOOD: So then, let's take a closer look at Senator Murkowski's bill. The reaction to it, both from the media, and also from major environmental advocacy groups, has pretty much focused on the very controversial proposal to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. What else is in this bill?

HERTSGAARD: Well, the first thing you have to say about this bill, Steve, is that it is overwhelmingly oriented toward increasing production. Both the President and Senator Murkowski have talked about their desire to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, and their way to do that is, essentially, to drill for more of it here in the United States. So, in addition to drilling inside of the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, they also want to begin drilling on a lot of public land, especially throughout the West. And this is something very important: They're going to turn over the regulatory authority on these issues to the individual states rather than the federal government. And that worries environmentalists because states traditionally have been much more lenient when it comes to regulating these kinds of activities. And then finally, in a real favor to the oil industry, Murkowski's bill wants to reduce the royalty rates that oil companies pay when they drill on public lands. That, of course, is something that big oil has been after for a very long time. They tried to get it with a Congressional rider last year, didn't, and, I think, this is really where you can see that the new administration is headed up by a couple of old oilmen.

CURWOOD: What else is in this bill, aside from these matters for oil?

HERTSGAARD: Two other big areas of research and subsidies are nuclear and coal. Coal is the most potent greenhouse gas source, but it is also the energy source that we have the most of in the United States, and that's why the Bush administration is trying to push it. They are pushing something they call clean coal technology. This is research that is aimed, on the one hand, at increasing the efficiency of power plants that burn coal. Right now, the best plants burn at about a 45 percent efficiency rate. They're talking about taking that up to 60 percent. And the advocates of this say, well, that will not only reduce the amount of coal we need but reduce the amount of pollution up in the air. Environmentalists are very skeptical of that. They say there is no such thing as clean coal technology, and that coal, in any case, will always produce carbon dioxide. Taxpayer groups also, Steve, are skeptical of this. They point out that the federal government has spent six billion dollars on this research so far, over 20 years, and today they're hardly any further along than when they started. So, you might see some interesting attacks on this from the right wing. In addition, nuclear. This is a 20-year dream, to try to get the nuclear industry back up and running. They want to put over a billion dollars into nuclear power. So again, environmentalists see this as really going in the wrong direction.

CURWOOD: Mark, what about conservation and renewable energy?

HERTSGAARD: There is some mention of it, and I think the most important thing there are the tax credits that the administration wants to give for rooftop solar, and also, over ten years, $1.4 billion to help low-income people weatherize their houses. The only other real reference to alternative energy is a $1.2 billion budget item, and that's for solar research. But there's a very big caveat there. That extra billion dollars for solar is specifically tied to drilling in Alaska. It's the licensing fees that oil companies will pay to drill in Alaska that will provide that $1.2 billion. No drilling in Alaska, no $1.2 billion for solar.

CURWOOD: What does all this add up to, Mark?

HERTSGAARD: I think, in a sense, Steve, there have been a lot of environmentalists who said "Wow, Christine Todd Whitman is sounding like she's a real environmentalist." And indeed, Time Magazine this week is asking will Bush turn green, because of what Whitman has said. But when you look at where the money is really going with this budget, with Murkowski's bill, it's pretty clear that Whitman may be providing the fig leaf of environmental respectability here with her rhetoric, but the dollars still reflect the fact that this is an oil man's administration.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political commentator. Always a pleasure, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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