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

Green Government

Air Date: Week of

The Clinton administration is making a commitment to buying and living green — more energy-efficient computers, electric cars, and an initiative to reduce post-consumer waste in the Federal government. Will these efforts stimulate the growth of green businesses and help lead the nation to more environmentally responsible habits? Alex van Oss reports from Washington, DC.


CURWOOD: The US government has tremendous buying power, and President Clinton has promised to use his direct authority to help stimulate the production of goods that help protect the environment. This spring, the White House issued executive orders for the purchase of a number of "green" items, including more recycled paper, electric and other alternatively-fueled cars and trucks, and energy-efficient computers. But as Alex Van Oss reports from Washington, there are questions about whether the government's initiatives on these and other products will have the desired impact.

VAN OSS: Washington, DC is the city of signals, and that's what these executive orders are - signals from the White House to American industry that there is a market for items less stressful to the environment. The President hopes the orders will be a kind of "it's OK" signal to manufacturers to market these items to one of their biggest customers, Uncle Sam. Take, for example, the new Energy Star computer project, steered by Bryan Johnson of the Environmental Protection Agency.

JOHNSON: I'm told that the Federal Government buys about five percent of all of the personal computers and software in the United States.

VAN OSS: That, says the White House, makes the government the world's largest purchasers of computers. Under one of the executive orders, from now on, the Fed will shop for computers from the growing number of manufacturers who are putting energy-saving features into their computerware - computers which bear the EPA's new Energy Star logo. The order, says Bryan Johnson, will save the government $40 million dollars a year in electricity bills, and it will also have an immediate effect on the computer market.

JOHNSON: By signing the executive order, President Clinton guarantees that Energy Star computers will capture immediately five percent of the market, and drive the computer industry to making the feature standard much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.

VAN OSS: The Government claims that when these features become standard, the energy savings would be enough to power a good portion of New England each year, and so eliminate the carbon dioxide and other pollution produced by generating that electricity. There's little criticism of the President's order to buy these new computers but there are questions about a second executive order concerning alternative-fuel vehicles. The fuels include ethanol, methanol, and compressed natural gas, and also electric batteries. Kathy Zoy, deputy director of the White House Office on Environmental Policy, says the order boosts government purchases of these vehicles by fifty percent.

ZOY`: Now the Federal Government purchases about fifty thousand vehicles each year, so we're going to be, you know, over the next three years, looking at over twenty percent of the cars that are purchased are going to be alternately fueled.

VAN OSS: The White House hopes the executive order will spur auto manufacturers to develop whole new lines of alternative-fuel vehicles for public sale. But while the government orders a few thousand non-gasoline autos, Detroit likes to think in terms of millions. Marika Tatsutani of the Natural Resources Defense Council says government purchases alone are hardly enough to get Detroit to hold the assembly line and retool .

TATSUTANI: It will probably mostly encourage a few limited production runs, but I think for a really major shift there's going to have to be more commitments from state and local government, and from some private fleets before we really begin to see a, major numbers of these cars on the road.
STANDON : Our research says that there probably is not an overwhelmingly large market.

VAN OSS: Mike Standon is a lobbyist with the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.He says that even if the government buys lots of alternative-fuel vehicles, that's no guarantee about the general public .

STANDON: There definitely will be pockets, and there will be opportunities, but , but a lot of things have to happen that are well beyond our control. For example, for us to build vehicles and offer to sell them, if the infrastructure is not there, they won't be supported, we won't sell 'em. And it does us no good to build vehicles that aren't sold.

VAN OSS: The infrastructure for compressed natural gas and other fuels is beginning to emerge, as more states around the country demand alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. But the executive order does have another weakness, according to Marika Tatsutani of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The problem is that it mentions several fuels, but it doesn't specify environmental criteria for the vehicles using them.

TATSUTANI: Some of the most common types of alternative fuels that they're talking about currently, such as methanol, ethanol, and natural gas, have very ambiguous environmental benefits. So we've always said it's very critical that when you talk about alternative fuels, you don't just assume that because something is alternative it's green.

VAN OSS: The final executive order is still in the works. It tackles an especially tough issue, and that's the lagging market for recycled products.

BIRMINGHAM: There's horror stories all over the place, how recycling is in fact failing at the very time when most individual Americans want to actually recycle.

VAN OSS: Susan Birmingham with the United States Public Interest Research Group.

BIRMINGHAM: Curbside programs are failing, printing and writing paper is increasing and yet our recycling rate stays stagnant. We have a worsening crisis in the country, and you know, we're not responding.

VAN OSS: The President's order will be a response to that problem. He's said it will commit government agencies to do more than ever to buy and use recycled products. One focus will be printing and writing paper, for all those government faxes and photocopies and miles of computer printout. The success or failure of the order may hinge on post-consumer waste, that is, the percentage of thrown-away junk fiber in the recycled paper. The President's order will mandate the percentage of that waste fiber in government purchase orders of recycled paper, and there's a real lobbying battle going on. Some environmental groups and recycling and paper companies want the waste percentage much higher than before. Other paper companies want it kept low. Weighing the options is Kathy Zoy, on staff at the White House Office of Environmental Policy.

ZOY: I don't know where the numbers will end up. I do want to send a signal that there will be a large market for paper that contains a lot of waste, so that we minimize waste that has to go to a landfill.

VAN OSS: What's at stake, say recycling advocates, is the fate of municipal paper recycling programs across the nation. The intention of these three executive orders is clear: to woo and sway markets, perhaps even create jobs. Less certain are their impact on the environment and the economy. That depends on the White House's signals being strong and not just sent, but received and heeded. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss in Washington.



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