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

February 5, 1993

Air Date: February 5, 1993


Detroit May Cooperate on Electric Cars / Paul Eisenstein

Paul Eisenstein reports from Detroit on the US auto industry's efforts to meet the 1998 deadline for mass-producing electric cars. The EPA has given the go-ahead for California and other states to mandate the sale of electric cars, and concerns over lagging technology may lead to increased cooperation between the big three. (06:27)

Tsongas on Energy Taxes

Steve talks with former US Senator Paul Tsongas about proposals in Washington for new broad-based energy taxes. Phased-in hikes in the gasoline tax were part of Tsongas' economic and environmental platform during his unsuccessful run for the White House last year. (07:23)

Natural Gas: The Fuel of the Future? / Alex van Oss

Alex van Oss reports from Washington on the effort by a new alliance of natural gas companies and some environmentalists to increase the use of natural gas. President Clinton vowed during the campaign to push natural gas as a cleaner, cheaper and more secure energy source than oil and coal. (06:47)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Stephen Beard, Peter Kenyan, Brenda Wilson, Paul Eisenstein, Alex Van Oss
GUESTS: Sen. Paul Tsongas

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

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Energy, the economy and the environment are closely linked, and some say the oil-dependent economy and the polluted environment can both be helped by increased use of natural gas.

FLAVIN: The environmental benefits will come in large measure from replacing coal, which is a very, very dirty energy source; the economic benefits will come from replacing oil.

CURWOOD: Up against a 1998 deadline, the Big Three in Detroit may cooperate on building electric cars. But some critics say their program is too focused on competing with Japan.

GIESZL: Some of our global problems are global, they're not national. If we solve them in one area of the world, it seems to me that we have to solve it in other areas of the world as well.

CURWOOD: Also, Paul Tsongas on the prospect of US energy taxes, this week on Living on Earth, right after the news.

Environmental News

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

In a ruling that could affect all US construction projects overseas, a Federal court has said the government must conduct an environmental impact study before building two incinerators in Antarctica. The Bush Administration claimed the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental impact statements, doesn't apply to overseas projects --- an argument rejected by the US Court of Appeals in Washington. If the Clinton Administration doesn't appeal, the district court ruling could end up applying to all US agencies operating overseas.

The British Government has reached an agreement with the shipping industry to keep oil tankers away from sensitive coastal areas. The move follows the wreck of the tanker Braer in the Shetland Islands last month. As Stephen Beard reports, islanders are still assessing the impact of the spill.

BEARD: Compared with the Exxon Valdez disaster, the death toll in the Shetland Islands after last month's oil spillage has been light. The Braer tanker dumped twice as much crude, but only 1300 seabirds, eleven seals and four otters have died -- and one of the otters was run over by a TV camera crew. Violent and protracted storms saved the wildlife from the worst effects of the spill. Pounded by wind and waves, the slick was rapidly dispersed. The oil has by now largely been broken up into underwater droplets, much easier for marine bacteria to digest. But scientists are still unsure about long-term damage to fish and other aquatic species. The Shetland economy is still affected too; a fishing ban remains in force around the islands, and with the lamb season fast approaching, some farmers have been forced to keep their sheep indoors, well away from their polluted pastures. For Living on Earth, this is Stephen Beard in London.

NUNLEY: Meanwhile, four years after the Exxon Valdez spill, there's still oil buried in the beaches of Prince William Sound. That's according to one of several new studies, released at a conference on the spill this month in Anchorage. Alaska Public Radio's Peter Kenyan reports.

KENYAN: The Exxon Valdez may not have been the largest oil spill, but in terms of wildlife, scientists say it was the most destructive. An estimated half-million birds perished, and scientists say it may take up to seventy years for the hardest-hit colonies to recover. Dramatic damage to some fish runs has also been documented; for instance, virtually all the three-year-old herring failed to return to Prince William Sound last summer. Scientists have also shown that oil remains in sediments, where it's absorbed by mussels, thus entering the food chain and affecting other species like harlequin ducks. Another issue at the symposium is whether cleaning oiled beaches with high pressure hot water does more harm than good. Some Federal scientists say it may be better to leave the cleanup to nature. But most concede it would have been politically impossible to do nothing, as Exxon's oil washed over the beaches of Prince William Sound. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Kenyan in Anchorage.

NUNLEY: Pollution may be paralyzing the trunks of some elephants in Zimbabwe. The mysterious condition keeps the animals from feeding themselves, and rangers have had to shoot two starving elephants. There is speculation that pollution from nearby tourist facilities may be poisoning the elephants with lead or other heavy metals.

This is Living on Earth.

New EPA administrator Carol Browner says a landmark law banning carcinogenic food additives should be revised. The "Delaney Clause" is one of the country's toughest health statutes, but food processors say it's obsolete. Browner's comments came as the EPA moved to comply with a court order to ban processed foods containing any of thirty-one common pesticides. From Washington, NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

WILSON: The problem is that EPA had not been rigorously enforcing the law, because technology developed since the Delaney Clause was devised is capable of detecting minute traces of chemicals in processed foods, even though the agency insists they pose no risk to the public's health. Environmentalists disagreed and successfully sued EPA. Last summer a San Francisco court ordered the removal from the market of any food products with traces of pesticides. There were initial reports that EPA Director Browner intended to seek a relaxation of the 35-year-old law. Browner says she said no such thing, and made it clear that she intends to comply with the court's ruling. At the same time, she recognized what even the environmentalists, chemical and food manufacturers all admit: the Delaney Clause needs to be revised and brought into line with current scientific thinking. It's Congress that will have to sit down with all sides to determine whether the rule should be relaxed or more broadly applied. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Wilson in Washington.

NUNLEY: Brazil's new president has approved a military campaign to evict thousands of miners who have invaded Yanomami Indian territory. President Itamar Franco authorized the operation after a meeting with a Yanomami leader, although funding for the plan is uncertain. Eleven-thousand miners have flooded the new Yanomami reserve since last June, outnumbering the Indians. Yanomami supporters say the miners have brought environmental destruction and disease to the region. Two thousand Yanomami have died since miners first appeared in the area six years ago.

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

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Detroit May Cooperate on Electric Cars

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

By the time today's seventh-graders finish high school, a good number of them should be able to drive off to college in electric cars. By 1998 at least two percent of new cars sold in California must be smog-free, "zero-emission vehicles." And as a practical matter, that means they'll run on electricity.

The Environmental Protection Agency has just given the California law the green light ,and several states in the Northeast are likely to follow California's lead. But with the deadline approaching, some of Detroit's efforts to go electric seem stalled. Faced with serious technical and financial problems, General Motors has scuttled its vanguard electric model, and GM is now looking to other Big Three competitors for help. Paul Eisenstein reports from Detroit.

(Sound of electric car)

EISENSTEIN: This is the sound of the Impact, a two-seat electric vehicle, or EV. Later this year, General Motors will begin testing fifty of them on California highways to see how they perform and hold up. That's the good news. The bad news is that GM has canceled plans to put the Impact in mass production, and that's raising a lot of questions whether the future, as envisioned by California, is a little premature.

SCHWEIBOLD: We've got some sense our production program was a little bit ahead of where customer perceptions and customer requirements are right now.

EISENSTEIN: Frank Schweibold is Director of Strategic Planning on the Impact project. He says cost is a big problem. The Impact would probably carry a price tag equal to a roomy luxury car. But in terms of creature comforts, it would resemble an inexpensive subcompact. And Schweibold notes there are a lot of questions about how to make the switch from gasoline to electric power. For one thing, where would an EV owner go to charge up? Would there be "power stations"? Or would you simply plug into a charger at home?

SCHWEIBOLD: Certainly, here in Detroit, there aren't too many places you can get your electric vehicle charged up and we're a little concerned that even two or three years down the pike, that perhaps the infrastructure may not be up to the level of development to support substantial numbers of electric vehicles in the marketplace.

EISENSTEIN: The decision to abort the Impact project is leaving a lot of people wondering what will happen next. Some industry leaders had hoped it would send a signal to California regulators to delay or even abandon their plans. But that's not going to happen, according to Joanna Sharpless, co-chair of the California Air Resources Board.

SHARPLESS: The fact that General Motors made the decision that they made does not, in our mind, mean that the 1998 mandate is in jeopardy. 1998 is a very do-able timeframe to meet this mandate.

EISENSTEIN: Regulators in a number of other states, including Massachusetts and New York, agree, and they're likely to copy California's EV standards.
So, while GM may be scaling back its electric car program, industry research continues to pick up momentum. On the back streets of Dearborn, Michigan, Bob Kiessel is driving a prototype of the Ecostar, a battery-powered minivan that the Ford Motor Company will soon put into limited production.

KIESSEL: At Ford, we are continuing to proceed with the development of our electric vehicles, the Ecostar in particular. We plan to have it come out next May. We don't plan to change our plans and we're very pleased with the progress we've made to date.

EISENSTEIN: Even with that progress, Ford officials aren't sure they've come up with a formula that will appeal to consumers, for electric cars have some inherent disadvantages. The Ecostar carries nearly 900 pounds of batteries, yet they contain only about as much energy as two gallons of gasoline. And even by using special low-resistance tires and lightweight body panels, that's only about enough to get 100 miles per charge, if the driver doesn't use the headlights and heater. To try to solve that problem, the Big Three automakers formed a unique coalition two years ago, dubbed the US Advanced Battery Consortium, or US-ABC. Dr. John McTeague is head of research at Ford, and oversees the US-ABC program.

McTEAGUE: It's more helpful to producing the ends we wish to produce if as many people, as many players as possible, can be operating in parallel.

EISENSTEIN: When GM decided to scale back its plans for the Impact, it proposed greatly expanding the level of cooperation among the Big Three. With their current financial problems, GM officials admit they can no longer go it alone. In the months to come, the Big Three expect to launch a series of additional electric vehicle projects. At the very least, they're likely to share secrets that could result in more efficient electric motors and lighter-weight body panels. It's possible they may even build a number of different electric vehicles at a single shared plant. The Department of Energy is helping fund the battery consortium, and Federal research labs are likely to participate in the new ventures, too. But Big Three executives plan to be parochial and exclude the Japanese. And that's something that worries Yale Gieszl, Toyota's top American executive.

GIESZL: There is a need for cooperation on a global basis between the Japanese, the European, and the American automakers in addressing some of the major technical challenges we're facing in the areas of the environment, safety, electric vehicles. Some of our global problems are global, they're not national. If we solve it in one area of the world, it seems to me we have to solve it in other areas of the world as well.

EISENSTEIN: US auto executives laugh when the Japanese complain about being locked out. They note that the Japanese automakers have long had their own cooperative programs under the guidance of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Toyota and Nissan deny recent reports that they're forming their own electric car consortium. But they point out that they are participating in an EV program under the guidance of MITI, an agency that regulates Japanese industrial policy. And so, it seems that the effort to develop a competitive electric vehicle is becoming more and more a race between nations rather than individual companies. For Living on Earth, I'm Paul Eisenstein in Detroit.

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Tsongas on Energy Taxes

CURWOOD: Electric cars are one way to help clean up city air. Another is to get drivers out of their cars, or into more efficient ones, by raising the price of fuel through higher taxes.

The idea of raising taxes on gasoline and other sources of energy is currently being floated by the Clinton Administration, as a way to fight not only pollution but the Federal deficit as well. It has yet to become a popular notion, and many economists feel that tax increases slow the economy. But some say that over the long run, energy taxes might actually help stimulate the economy, by spurring innovation and boosting productivity. Energy tax supporters say it would make the US less dependent on foreign oil and on the whims of foreign governments.

Former Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts proposed higher energy taxes during his unsuccessful Presidential campaign last year. Specifically, he called for a hefty hike in the gasoline tax. Senator Tsongas joins us now from his home in Lowell, Massachusetts, to discuss the current debate on energy taxes. Hi, Senator, thanks for joining us.

TSONGAS: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you first -- how're you feeling these days?

TSONGAS: Well, I'm feeling, other than feeling tired as a result of the radiation treatments, I'm doing fine.

CURWOOD: Good, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about this. I'm wondering, Senator Tsongas, why the US has virtually no energy taxes now -- coal isn't taxed, nuclear energy isn't taxed, gasoline is taxed a pretty small amount. Why do you suppose that is?

TSONGAS: Well, I think in the United States there are traditions, and the fact is that we are a much more wide-open country, the love affair with the automobile is much more an American phenomenon, than it is in other countries. And on issues, for example, like nuclear energy and the use of natural gas and coal, it's simply not been an area of taxation. People have looked elsewhere. But I think part of that has now created a vacuum where people recognize this is an area where taxation makes a lot of sense. There are examples in other countries of nations moving in this direction, and we have to simply cut back on our consumption. So what you have is energy policy, environmental policy, foreign policy, and a need for revenues coming together and looking at this one bright star that heretofore has for the most part been untouched.

CURWOOD: There are four basic options that seem to be out there right now for energy tax plans. One would call simply for a hike in gasoline taxes; another would call for a hike in the cost of oil overall through an import fee; another would tax the amount of carbon that's in these forms of energy, and that would fall most heavily on coal, which has a lot of carbon, and not nearly so heavily on natural gas which has quite a bit less, and not at all on nuclear power; and then there's the notion of a tax on BTU, that is the British thermal unit or the energy content of the source of energy, whether it's nuclear power or gasoline or coal or presumably even solar energy. Could you rank these options for us, both economically and for their effect on the environment?

TSONGAS: Well, I would put the gasoline tax at the top. I think the arguments for it have been made by energy conservationists and environmentalists and economists for years, and need not be repeated. I would think a BTU content, I would put second; probably an import fee and a carbon fee, probably tied for third. The carbon tax would have its greatest impact on coal, and I think since that is, that is an area where you have great regional disparity. In the Northeast, for example, you have virtually no dependence upon oil -- upon coal rather -- for your generation of electricity. In other parts of the country, it's simply the source of electricity generation. And the oil import fee is the reverse -- you have the greatest impact in those parts of the country like the Northeast which is the most dependent upon foreign oil. So no matter which of these you look at, there's gonna be somebody who'll pay a higher price than somebody else. To the extent you have an energy policy that mixes everything together, you're far more likely to have a policy that has at least some token impact everywhere and a lesser argument about inequity.

CURWOOD: Now some advocates of environmental change say that each of us have to make our own decisions to change things, to improve the environment. Now, accepting that perspective for a moment, which of the tax proposals do you think would best increase people's awareness to make changes to help the environment, do you think?

TSONGAS: Well, if you were to have a tax, for example, on imported oil, then what you would do is you'd have a percentage of the American people, far less than one hundred, that was aware that the cost of their heating oil went up. That doesn't give you across-the-board behavioral change. The value of a gasoline tax is that most people either ride in cars or own cars or whatever. The advantage of a gasoline tax, the way I would propose it, is that not only do you raise it this year but you raise it every year for ten years. So what you're saying to people is we're giving you time to plan, that you can modify your decisions on what kind of a car you buy, what kind of commuting decisions you make, that kind of thing. So it's not only the tax, but it is the inevitably of that tax being raised over time that gives people a chance to make their personal decisions.

CURWOOD: Just for a moment, Senator Tsongas, I'd like you to look into your crystal ball. What do you think we'll have -- if we'll have -- an energy tax this time next year?

TSONGAS: I think what you're going to have is a bloodbath. I think Bill Clinton is going to be drawn inevitably, when you look at people like Leon Panetta and Lloyd Bentsen and Alice Rivlin, he will be drawn by those people to make a very tough, courageous decision, because he basically has no choice. And then he's going to take that proposal to a very skittish Congress. And I think what you're going to have is a real battle over what is good policy for the country versus what people perceive as somehow a threat to their own re-election. And I can see this issue becoming cast in moral terms, in which the young generation, for example, begins to get involved and begins to see their futures at risk and that's where we begin to make the tough decisions. So I think this is going to be nasty, but I think in the last analysis it will pass.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Former Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Paul Tsongas, thank you so much for joining us.

TSONGAS: Thank you.

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Natural Gas: The Fuel of the Future?

CURWOOD: There's yet another way that the Clinton Administration may address both the economics and the environmental impact of energy, and that's through boosting the use of natural gas. Recently the natural gas industry, and some environmentalists, have been promoting broader use of natural gas. They claim it's a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil, cut greenhouse emissions and urban smog, and build a bridge to a future non-polluting hydrogen fuel system powered by the sun.

But as Alex Van Oss reports from Washington, the oil and coal industries, and some other environmentalists, say the promise of natural gas is being oversold.

(Sound of van starting)

VAN OSS: This is a natural-gas powered van; you fill it up with a nozzle, just like a big bicycle tire. It's parked at the headquarters of the American Gas Association, whose president, Mike Baly, says that with the new administration in town, he's feeling confident about the future of natural gas.

BALY: President Clinton has four basic legs to his energy stool, his energy table -- renewable energy, conservation, environmentally sound, and natural gas.

VAN OSS: During the campaign, the Clinton/Gore team promised to expand natural gas markets and develop new pipeline systems. They said they'd convert the Federal fleet to natural gas, and use Federal money to research and develop new applications for gas. Perhaps anticipating a new marketing opportunity, gas companies got together with some utilities and renewable energy groups, and joined hands with advisors from the environmental community to form an alliance called the Business Council for a Sustainable Energy Future. Until recently, the council included Thomas McLarty, then an Arkansas gas executive, now President Clinton's chief of staff. And also, says Mike Baly of American Gas Association, the Council recently lost another member to Clinton's cabinet, a loss which may prove to be an overall gain for gas.

BALY: We're very pleased to see the new Secretary of Energy. Hazel O'Leary is a former utility executive who is an expert on demand-side management and the environment and drives a natural-gas vehicle.

VAN OSS: It's not only natural gas companies who're playing up their product, but also a number of environmental groups not usually known for supporting non-renewable fossil fuels. One catalyst and advisor for the Business Council is Christopher Flavin, who writes about energy technologies for the think-tank Worldwatch. Natural gas is great, says Flavin. It's far more plentiful than earlier believed. It produces little sulfur or particulates when burned. And also, natural gas produces less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per unit of energy than does coal or oil. Chris Flavin.

FLAVIN: This country will be much better off twenty years from now, both economically and environmentally, if we replace a substantial part of our current dependence on oil and coal with reliance on natural gas. The environmental benefits will come in large measure from replacing coal, which is a very, very dirty energy source; the economic benefits will come from replacing oil.

VAN OSS: That's because the United States imports almost half of its oil from abroad. And using more gas, according to this plan, the United States will use less oil. Proponents of natural gas say that what's needed is a new mindset about the fuel, which can do more than just heat homes, cook food, and run your van. There's ongoing research and business ventures in the areas of gas turbines for jet engines and power plants, as well as new technology fuel-cells for cars. More importantly, says Flavin, natural gas could be what he calls a "bridge" fuel to a time in the future, decades from now, when pipes carrying natural gas will converted to a virtually pollution-free hydrogen system. And that hydrogen, also a gas, will be generated by solar power. Naturally coal and oil don't agree with this scenario -- they see it as unrealistic and premature.

CAINS: There's only so much natural gas can be expected to do over the next few years, that is, in the short term.

VAN OSS: Michael Cains is Vice President and chief economist with the American Petroleum Institute. He says that forty to fifty percent of American gas comes from oil producers, and even if there are large gas resources, that doesn't mean they're all economic to use, or available. Some are offshore, or in protected reserves in Alaska.

CAINS: Some have argued that natural gas could be the fuel supply for increased energy demand, that it could take the place of declining oil production in the United States, that it could be used to substitute for oil in the transportation fleet, and possibly even substitute for coal in the generation of electricity -- and when one looks at the numbers it just doesn't seem feasible that gas can do all of those things over a relatively short time period.

VAN OSS: There are down sides to natural gas -- the cost of setting up a new infrastructure, the dangers of shipping condensed gas, and the hazards of pipe-leaks. Gas is mostly methane, and methane traps heat in the atmosphere at least twenty times more efficiently than does carbon dioxide, though unlike CO2, it breaks down in ten years or so. But it does release carbon dioxide when burned, and that's why there are some environmental groups who refuse to endorse the natural gas "bridge-fuel" scenario. Steve Kretzmann, of the Greenpeace Global Warming/ Energy Campaign, says it's naive to think that natural gas industries, once in place, are just going to step aside for hydrogen, or wither away.

KRETZMANN: We went from the coal era into the oil era about sixty years ago, and now we're worried that we're entering the natural gas era, and that will perpetuate for another sixty to eighty years, which has been the pattern of the industry. The fact of the matter is, as global climate will show, we don't have that much time to cut global emissions.

VAN OSS: Still, over the next few years, a number of incentives are likely to come before Congress, such as tax-breaks for natural gas development. And there may be proposed disincentives for coal and oil. But according to Dan Becker of the Sierra Club, whatever pro-gas measures get sent to Congress, they'll encounter some hurdles in the Energy Committees.

BECKER: In the Senate the Energy Committee is run by Bennett Johnston, and I mean run by Bennett Johnston -- and he's from Louisiana and is a strong advocate of oil and nuclear power, and less so of gas. In the House, the Energy and Commerce Committee is chaired by John Dingell, who's from Detroit, and so he's very closely aligned to the auto industry.

VAN OSS: But according to Worldwatch, it won't require a whole lot of government action to spur the movement toward natural gas. Once again, Christopher Flavin.

FLAVIN: This is a transition that the private sector can largely accomplish on its own, but a clarity of vision and leadership is the key thing to getting this whole transition accelerated.

VAN OSS: Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss, in Washington.

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CURWOOD: Our director is Deborah Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Producer and editor is Peter Thomson, and our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Cox and engineers Laurie Azaria, Chris Barry and Rita Sands. A special thanks this week to James Curwood. Our theme music was 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.

If you have any questions or comments about Living on Earth, you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass 02238. Or give a call to our listener line at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Transcripts and tapes are available for ten dollars.

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