A massive forest fire has been raging in Alberta, Canada, for nearly a month. Scientists say warmer, drier weather has increased the frequency and intensity of fires. For this month's Environmental Outlook: wildfires, climate change and threats to North America’s forests.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
In the final days before the presidential election, many voters are still looking for policy differences between President Obama and Governor Romney to help them decide how to cast their ballot. On environmental and energy issues, the candidates have tread carefully. Climate change has barely been mentioned by either the president or Governor Romney. They have, however, clashed on oil and gas subsidies, promotion of alternative energy sources and how energy policy might affect jobs growth. Guest host Steve Roberts talks with journalists about what the two candidates have said – and not said – about energy independence, environmental regulations and climate change.
- Coral Davenport energy and environment correspondent for National Journal.
- Keith Johnson reporter at The Wall Street Journal.
- Juliet Eilperin national environmental reporter for The Washington Post and author of "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm while she's on a station visit. People concerned about climate change took note that the issue was not mentioned during any of the three presidential debates this fall. Environmentalists even have a term for it. They call it climate silence. We'll talk this hour about where the candidates stand on environmental and energy issues.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me in the studio: Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal, Juliet Eilperin, who covers these matters for The Washington Post, and, on her way, Coral Davenport of the National Journal. Welcome to you all. Thanks for being here.
MS. JULIET EILPERINThanks so much.
MR. KEITH JOHNSONThank you.
ROBERTSYou can join our conversation as always at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Join the conversation. If you have questions, comments about the role of energy and environment in the campaign, we really want to hear them. Juliet, you've written a lot about this. And while it has not been a front-burner issue, there are important distinctions between the two candidates. Give us an overview of where you see the most important differences.
EILPERINI think one of the key differences is their policy on fossil fuel production, basically coal, oil and natural gas, and there you see the biggest difference between the candidates. Mitt Romney has called for increased exploitation of all these areas, so, you know, increased coal production and coal-fired electricity, more oil and gas drilling on federal lands and federal waters.
EILPERINAnd also, in terms of renewable energy, Mitt Romney has vowed to cut off any federal support for these particular areas and instead say, you know, you can sink or swim in the market, but we're not going to provide federal subsidies or federal grants to wind, solar, geothermal and other powers.
EILPERINOn the other hand, you have President Obama who emphasizes that he does want to promote clean energy and so provide the kind of support he's done in the past while also using essentially fossil fuels as a bridge, so allowing some, particularly oil and natural gas production, but certainly is less friendly -- despite his talk of being favorable to coal has really de-emphasized the use of coal in the United States.
ROBERTSKeith, what's your take? Where do you see some other differences that the candidates have elaborated?
JOHNSONWell, you know, the coal issue that Juliet mentioned is actually really interesting because that gets to the heart of the matter because it touches the regulatory environment that both men see in the future, the future of the electricity mix. And, you know, it's really interesting to compare and contrast where we are this year with where we are four years ago during the last presidential campaign when both the Republican candidate and Mr. Obama, at that time, wanted to move away from coal.
JOHNSONBoth of them were in open agreement that they wanted to transition to renewable energy. You know, to the extent that coal was going to stay around, it was going to be clean coal. And that's actually the policy that's still held by President Obama this year. He spent billions trying to develop and promote clean coal.
JOHNSONAnd yet, if you look at the Republican platform this year, if you listen to the kinds of things that Mr. Romney said in the debates and in his speeches, you know, he likes coal, period. It doesn't have to be clean coal anymore. And he's actually made that a centerpiece of a lot of his campaigns in swing states.
ROBERTSAnd in one of your articles in The Wall Street Journal, you had a very good chart showing the overlay of the states where coal is a major economic issue. And so when you look at Virginia, you look at Ohio, you look at Pennsylvania -- all of them critical states -- this is really a key factor. Juliet.
EILPERINYeah. It's really interesting, and I think it very much explains -- I mean, there's just -- and what I find so interesting -- so not only is Romney really courting the coal country in these different states, but, in fact, when President Obama attacks him on the coal front, one of the things he's been doing in recent days is saying, you can't trust him that he's really pro-coal because back when he was governor of Massachusetts, he actually presided over a press conference where there was a coal plant in the background, and he said, that plant kills people.
EILPERINAnd so, basically, what's so interesting is it gives you a sense of the outsized political significance of coal this year that when President Obama is attacking Mitt Romney, what he's doing is, in some ways, questioning his pro-coal agenda.
ROBERTSNow, Keith, when you talk about the outsized role of coal, there's the diminished role of climate change.
ROBERTSNew York Times had a piece in which it headlined, "The Issue That Dare Not Speak Its Name."
JOHNSONYeah, it's remarkable.
ROBERTSAnd why is that?
JOHNSONWell, I guess in the simplest terms, it's politically toxic. I think that's probably the nicest thing you can say. And again, just to go back, you know, four years ago, the Republican candidate for president had been the co-author of a bill to limit emissions, you know, cap and trade bill. You know, this year, the Republican orthodox see the platform, Mr. Romney's stance, is that, you know, global warming may not even exist, but it's certainly not worth any investment to try to fight it.
JOHNSONAnd so, in 2008, you had a huge debate over -- OK, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to do cap and trade? You know, who's going to pay for it? How's it going to impact the coal states? You had a bill passed in the House. It was hugely contentious, died in the Senate. Ever since then, that's been political no-go territory for the Obama administration. He doesn't even mention climate change anymore.
ROBERTSWhy has this been so politically toxic in his view, Juliet?
EILPERINWell, it's interesting, and also one thing that's fascinating about this is that it's not a slam dunk when you look at the polling that he shouldn't talk about climate change. There's certainly a group of pollsters who argue that it might help him with swing voters. But for -- I think there are a couple of reasons. One is clearly the campaign appears to be convinced that talking about climate change is not going to help them, that essentially, the environmentalists who care about this issue know that they can vote and support Obama.
EILPERINSo he just doesn't -- he's not convinced it helped him with independent or swing voters. And also, I think that there's also the political reality that while he certainly can do some things through the regulatory process in a second term to address greenhouse gas emissions, he can't enact the sweeping bill that he had promised to do back when he was a candidate in 2008. So I think he kind of feels like it's a little difficult to talk about it if he can't promise to deliver on it.
ROBERTSAnd, Keith, since you work for The Wall Street Journal, you focus a lot on economic dimensions of this. And it's part of the factor that we're -- that the larger context of this race is a slumping economy, focus on jobs and that the toxicity of the issue rises when you can argue, as the Republicans do, that this would cost jobs. That makes it much harder to introduce this (unintelligible).
JOHNSONNo, absolutely. And, you know, look, it's not just the Republicans because when you go back and look at what happened to the cap-and-trade, you know, plan in 2010 after it passed the House, it died in the Senate largely because of Democrats. And it's important to keep that in mind. And it was Democrats from coal-heavy states, you know, Ohio, Michigan at the time.
JOHNSONYou know, they were very concerned about the economic impact that these sorts of climate measures would have on electricity prices, on domestic manufacturing, on jobs, on real bread and butter issues. And so that actually has not gone away. And it certainly has gotten more intense to the point -- you hear this a lot, at least I do, at different conferences -- a lot of Republicans and industry critics call the EPA the employment prevention agency because environmental rules are almost cast now as automatic job killers. And it's sort of that's the frame.
ROBERTSAnd, Coral Davenport from the National Journal, thanks for being with us. I -- this gets even more difficult when you talk about a political calculation. You look, for example, at coal, and Keith recently did a piece saying there were 88,000 coal miners in America. Well, those are tangible jobs, and they're real people who have jobs. Now, a lot of the promise of new energy sources, green jobs are jobs in the future that people might have, and when you're in a tight political race with a lot of economic calculations, that's kind of a mismatch -- real jobs now versus jobs that might be created in the future.
MS. CORAL DAVENPORTAbsolutely. I mean, you see President Obama's promise that -- the idea of his promise was that the cap-and-trade legislation, the cap-and-trade law, the renewable electricity law that went along with that would create all of these green jobs. It's possible that they would have, but that legislation didn't pass. Those jobs weren't created.
MS. CORAL DAVENPORTAnd at the same time, we are seeing the coal industry being affected and very specifically being affected in states that happen to be politically important swing states: in Virginia, in Pennsylvania, in Colorado, in Ohio. These are states that either -- in which coal mining is the big part of the economy or in which cheap coal-fired electricity is the big part of the economy. So, really, it's a very potent, you know, it goes in a big way on top of the electoral map.
ROBERTSRight, exactly. But also, Juliet, you've written that while the Congress has not been very receptive -- and there's really been very little, if any, environmental legislation -- that Obama has done some things through executive action and particularly in the area of clean air. Talk about what he's tried to do from that point of view.
EILPERINAbsolutely. He's done a tremendous amount, and, frankly, it's interesting that it does not come up more often, that this is not something that Obama is talking about unless they're on a campaign trail. But, actually, when you talk to independent experts, the Obama administration has done more on air pollution than basically any president in U.S. history. He has done things including proposed the first-ever carbon standard for new power plants.
EILPERINHe has done several things to limit soot, mercury and air toxics. These are all things that, you know, again, people in the coal industry would say changed the playing field...
ROBERTS'Cause mercury comes primarily from coal plants.
EILPERINMercury comes from coal-fired power plants, and he has enacted legislation that -- and he has enacted rules that will reduce mercury by 2016 by 91 percent. It's a huge issue, which both, again, really hits power plants which are saying that they're going to have to shut down. So there's no question that he's done a lot using, again, a 40-year-old law.
ROBERTSAnd another issue which he does mention occasionally on the campaign trail, Keith, is fuel standards.
ROBERTSYou know, this is one that he -- this is also with significant advance and -- but he sometimes tries to cast that as much as anything as a jobs issue as well, that if we have these fuel standards, American cars will -- can be exported. Talk about that dimension.
JOHNSONNo, absolutely. In fact, the day that they made the announcement of the new revised fuel standards for 2017 to 2025, you know, they were throwing out numbers that they had come up with in collusion with the auto unions, talking about, you know, as many as 500,000 new jobs because you do have a lot of new technology that needs to be developed in order to meet the standards.
JOHNSONSo everything is actually seen through the prism of jobs. But, you know, what's actually interesting, the way that Obama has talked about fuel economy standards on the campaign trail has very much been in the context of high gasoline prices, high prices at the pump. Now, there's not much a president can do in the short term to affect gas prices. They're politically awful, but there's not a whole lot you can do. So what he does is tell people, look, if -- thanks to my fuel economy standards, you can save $8,000 at least over the lifetime of your next car when you get the real...
ROBERTSWhich might cost a little more but you'd recoup -- more than recoup the cost...
JOHNSONOh, yeah. This is the, you know, $8,000 net savings probably. And so the line they've been saying is, you know, gas is actually going to cost half as much 'cause you'd be able to go twice as far. And so that's how they phrase the fuel economy standards.
ROBERTSThat's Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal, Coral Davenport of National Journal and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. We'll be back with your calls and your comments. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane, and our subject this hour, environmental and energy issues in the presidential election -- what they're saying, what they're not saying. Coral Davenport of the National Journal is with me, Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email. Join the conversation.
ROBERTSCoral, you've written also about the shift in Republican ranks. We talked a little bit about it. Keith mentioned that John McCain was a co-author of a bill at one time to deal with climate change, and yet there's been a significant shift in Republican ranks on this issue. Describe what you found.
DAVENPORTWell, what's really interesting is if you compare the 2008 presidential election to this election, John McCain and Barack Obama were pretty much in the same place on climate change and cap-and-trade. It was -- they both, you know, ran campaign ads saying, this is a big problem, we're going to solve it. They both supported cap-and-trade. What happened in this time around was very different.
DAVENPORTWe saw in the Republican primaries almost all of the candidates either said that they, you know, outright didn't believe in climate change. We had candidates like Rick Perry saying it was an outright hoax. We had candidates like Tim Pawlenty, who, as governor of Minnesota, had advocated for cap-and-trade legislation saying, you know, it was a huge mistake. He recanted his views.
DAVENPORTCandidates like Newt Gingrich, who had, you know, cut an ad with Nancy Pelosi saying we need to do something about climate change, saying that was the biggest mistake he had made. And what happened -- what changed in this election, I found in my reporting, is the huge influx into the electoral process of money from outside groups. That's as a result of the Supreme Court decision -- the Citizens United decision that opened up the campaign and campaign advertising to spending by outside groups to influence the campaign process.
DAVENPORTAnd one sector of groups that invested very, very heavily, that had the means to invest and that were very, very concerned about the outcome of this election was the fossil fuel industry, was coal and oil. And they -- and groups like Americans for Prosperity, which are linked to the oil company Koch Industries, were very upfront, you know, and said, you know, we want to make sure that any Republican candidate running for a primary cannot be green, cannot play footsy on this issue.
DAVENPORTWe want to make sure any Republican candidate, you know, we want to make sure that any Republican candidate in a primary is not going to be someone who's going to support climate change. And so in these primaries, not just in the presidential primary, but in congressional and Senate primaries all across the country, we saw candidates running away from that.
DAVENPORTAnd that's what happened with Mitt Romney as well, who, as governor of Massachusetts, worked on climate change initiatives, worked with the other governors of New England on a cap-and-trade plan, although he later pulled away from that. He has now completely, you know, pulled back, kind of gone in that direction, you know, recanted his former views that climate change is a problem. So we've seen the influence of the fossil fuel industry really change, you know, the way the Republican Party talks about this problem.
ROBERTSYeah. That's a very interesting perspective. Juliet, you've also been writing about how Obama has sought in certain -- we talked a lot about the geography -- the political geography and how -- what an impact it has, whether it's coal in Virginia or other dimensions. But there are a few states, including swing states, that are more amenable to the argument that green jobs can be a value in the economy -- Iowa, Colorado. Obama, just the other day in Iowa, was talking about wind power.
EILPERINAbsolutely. And so when you talked about before, I mean, it's true that there are, for example, 88,000, you know, coal miners in the United States. If I'm not mistaken, I think there are 100,000 solar jobs at this point. So, you know, the fact of the matter is -- and wind, while, again, is facing a huge uncertainty over a production tax credit, which is set to expire at the end of the year, something that, again, Obama and many Republicans, including in Kansas and Iowa, want to extend.
EILPERINMitt Romney has come out, you know, demanding that it expire. So what you see is that Obama is really trying to hit, particularly Colorado and Iowa and saying, renewable jobs are jobs that you have now and jobs that could expand, and I want to keep that going, whereas Mitt Romney wants to essentially shadow this industry, and so he is really there. And what I think is so interesting is he does keep talking about renewable energy.
EILPERINHe does not really talk about it saying, we need to expand this because it will address climate change. He says, we need to expand it because it's homegrown industry, it's jobs that are being produced here, and it's going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
ROBERTSWell, Keith, jobs is the word of the year, you know?
ROBERTSAnd -- but you've also written about the export dimension of this and how coal -- one of the reasons why there are actually more coal miners in America today than there were a few years ago is because, somewhat oddly, people wouldn't expect a raw material like that to be exported from the United States. But it is part of the economic calculation. And Obama, in terms of green jobs, talks about increasing in America. This is the kind of area where if the technology is developed here, it can be a source not only of domestic markets but of export markets. Talk about that dimension of it.
JOHNSONWell, you know, that's actually underpinned from the beginning, a lot of the green jobs and the clean energy sort of agenda of the Obama administration. You know, it was often about creating a new manufacturing industry, and this is the -- you know, Juliet mentioned him in Iowa. Every time he's in Iowa, you know, he talks about the 5,000 wind jobs that have been created in Iowa, thanks to the federal support.
JOHNSONAnd those are things, you know, in making the blades for the turbines and making towers for the turbines, they're basic manufacturing jobs. And he mentions that in every speech, you know, the president does. We're not going to cede ground, you know, to the Germanys of the world, to the Chinas of the world. But the problem is it's not really the best place for America to put its manufacturing bet. You know, a lot of it is low-value piece work depending on the industry -- in the solar industry. There's aspects of the wind turbine supply chain that are pretty low value.
JOHNSONAnd so it's actually probably not the best place to make a bet on advanced manufacturing. But the point you made about coal is interesting because the coal exports are on pace this year for an all-time record, and it's really remarkable. China is the biggest consumer, you know, biggest export destination. But what's fascinating, we actually are sending coals to New Castle. Great Britain, it turns out, is actually the third biggest recipient of U.S. coal and, you know, this is…
ROBERTSHow can that possibly be economically viable? Coal is such a bulk commodity, and yet it still makes sense economically to export.
JOHNSONWell, there's different qualities of coal.
JOHNSONThere's, you know, there's a lot of coal inside parts of Europe that actually, you know, burn at lesser temperatures. And, you know, Spain has a lot of coal, for instance, but actually imports good coal from other parts of Europe, so there is a market. And then there is metallurgical coal that goes for steel making and things like that. But that export boom in coal has been one of the reasons that employment has stayed, actually gone up to the highest level in the coal mining industry since 1995.
ROBERTSNow, Coral, one of the dimensions here is affected by one word, and that word is Solyndra, and the fact that as Obama has tried to promote the green jobs agenda, there have been these accusations of cronyism and failed companies, and this has been a major theme of the Romney campaign. How has that sort of affected the political dialogue, and has that, in any way, limited Obama's ability to make this political argument?
DAVENPORTIt's going to have a big impact on what Obama might be able to do in a second term. One of his very specific promises in 2008 -- and it's also worthwhile to note that he hasn't made any specific promises on energy and climate this time around. He sort of vaguely talked about green jobs and climate, but he hasn't given any specific proposals. In 2008, he said that if cap-and-trade were passed, his administration would invest $150 billion over 10 years in clean energy.
DAVENPORTThat was a concrete promise. He talked about it a lot. That was going to be, you know, the government was going to take the lead in investing this clean -- investing in this clean, affordable, cheap, you know, energy of the future. The first step he took towards that was about $40 billion in the 2009 stimulus bill that went to clean energy. That was kind of viewed as the down payment on this future payment -- on this future investment.
DAVENPORTAnd what we saw is, you know, Solyndra was sort of, you know, their hallmark. It went bankrupt. It lost $535 million of taxpayer money. It came under an FBI probe. It became a political symbol. It became this sort of inflammatory, you know, issue that hasn't gone away. That has pretty much poisoned the well for any new government spending, even if Obama wins a second term.
DAVENPORTAnd, you know, there's that, and there's also, you know, the reality of the deficit and the economic situation. There just isn't any money, and even if there were, there's absolutely no political will. The well is poisoned. It's dry. There's not going to be any new government spending on clean energy.
ROBERTSNow, Juliet, one of the moments, relatively rare moments when environmental issues was part of the debate was this exchange between the president and Mitt Romney over leasing on public lands. And you've written a lot about the whole dimension of environmental policy in public lands. And there was a fierce debate, with Romney saying to President Obama, you've reduced the number of leases on public lands. Obama says, no, you're lying. And what's your best read about that situation? Who is right in that debate?
EILPERINBasically, of course, it depends on what years you're comparing, but I think you have to say the edge goes to President Obama when he says that oil and gas production on federal lands has increased, again, not really due to his policies, but due to the price of oil and demand for natural gas and things like that. So, for example...
ROBERTSWhen the price goes up, it becomes more economical to drill in places that were not economical as a place.
EILPERINTo drill, and so you exploit the leases that you already have. So what we saw, for example, is in the first three years of the Bush -- sorry, the first three years of the Obama administration, you saw oil production on public lands go up 13 percent and natural gas production go up nearly 6 percent compared to the last three years of the Bush administration.
EILPERINThat said, when Mitt Romney talked about a decrease in oil and gas production on basically federal lands and waters, he was referring to the difference between 2010 and 2011, which was largely driven by the shutdown of oil production and gas production in the Gulf after the BP oil spill. So that's the case, although, again, I think it's worth noting that Gov. Romney does make a good point when he talks about the real explosion of both gas and oil production in the United States is coming on private land through this process of hydraulic fracturing.
ROBERTSAnd, Keith, if you talk about the Obama administration in the last four years, one of the noteworthy events relating to the environment, of course, was the BP oil spill.
ROBERTSAnd what has been the lingering fallout there? Is there -- is it -- it doesn't seem to have had a major effect on the willingness or ability of people to drill offshore.
JOHNSONNo, not at all. I mean, the most immediate effect was the short-term moratorium on new permitting and new activity in the deep water. And that, as Juliet explained, you know, it really kneecapped the production numbers for the rest of 2010, and that was a problem even in 2011. It's going to take a little while for the Gulf to recover to the levels of production that it had. That said, it is on track to go back to how it was.
JOHNSONYou know, BP is active there again. You know, a lot of companies are very much still active in the region. You know, there's plans afoot to do seismic testing off the Atlantic coast. Oil companies are very interested in exploring for oil in areas where we currently do not allow offshore production. You know, this is a trend globally. This isn't just in the U.S. I mean, Brazil's huge oil boom is coming from what's called pre-salt formations in deep water.
JOHNSONYou know, both East and West Africa have huge interest in deep-water oil exploration. You have that in shallow waters, but offshore in the Arctic. I mean, this is where a lot of the oil is going to come from. And so one accident, you know, as high profile as it was, you know, is not going to derail an entire industry.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got some emails. Coral, let me read one for you and get your reaction. This is from Kathleen in Dayton, Ohio. "Six years ago, from -- I drove from Ohio to Colorado. In one county in West Kansas, I counted 36 large windmills that I could count while driving on U.S. 70. This March, I did the same driving trip, stopped counting at 500 windmills in the same county.
ROBERTS"Can your guests address the complaints against the Obama administration's investment in alternatives while there are still 100-year-old subsidies for the oil industry?" Talk about what Kathleen said and the balance between wind and fossil fuels.
DAVENPORTWell, it's interesting, you know, that there is this debate about the wind production tax credit, which has been in place for 20 years. And the idea of that tax credit, which costs the federal government about $1 billion a year, is that after 20 years, this industry should be up and running on its own. It shouldn't need training wheels anymore. The government shouldn't be paying to boost it up and hold its hand. It should be able to go on its own.
DAVENPORTAnd the industry argues it's not quite there yet. It's not quite there yet. It just needs a little more before it gets sort of on -- the term is price parity before...
ROBERTSMm hmm. Sure.
DAVENPORT...you know, it's equal with more conventional sources of electricity. It just needs a few more years. And the argument here is, you know, we've waited long enough, time to pull the plug. But it's certainly true that there are tax breaks and subsidies in place for the oil industry that were put in place at the beginning of the 20th century for the same reason. The idea was that this was...
ROBERTSTo give them a threshold, a toehold in the marketplace.
DAVENPORTRight. This was a risky new industry. The idea was that the government would give tax breaks, kind of help it out, help get it going. It was in the taxpayers' interest. And so a lot of those tax breaks have been in place for almost 100 years, and that -- that's definitely a core element of this debate.
ROBERTSLet me read another email from one of our listeners. "As an environmental professional, I'm so frustrated that when the candidates ignore the fact that the environmental field employs many people." We've just been talking about that. "I returned to graduate school to get a degree in environmental management in 2009. Everyone thought my field would continue to grow and jobs would be easy to find.
ROBERTS"Now, three years later, jobs are dwindling. I'm tired of being ignored. There are some things that the private sector does not do well, and protecting the environment is one of them." What's your read on that email, Juliet?
EILPERINWell, I think, you know, this is really one of these challenges, that what you're seeing is -- again, you had seen an expansion in a number of these different areas, and it did look like there were such high expectations that we were going to move dramatically on these issues four years ago. And so it's not surprising that, you know, that people are having trouble finding jobs in some of these areas.
EILPERINAnd it is true that that's discounted. I don't know, of course, what are the, you know, what are the numbers of environmental management professionals in the United States. But I do think that one of the interesting things is when you don't really have a public dialogue on these issues, it does become difficult to enact meaningful policies because you haven't really laid the groundwork with the public. And so I think that's part of what you're seeing now.
ROBERTSKeith, we have an email from Giles, who writes, "What is clean coal? Is it real or political mumbo jumbo?"
JOHNSONYou know, it's interesting, actually, because clean coal is one of these terms that just mutates. And for those of us who write about it, we have a pretty clear idea of what we're talking about, which is it's a technology called carbon capture and sequestration, which means you get the bad gasses that come out of coal burning, and you stick them underground. And so it doesn't...
ROBERTSYou capture them at the smokestack?
JOHNSONYeah, you can -- there's a couple of different ways. But, yeah, you basically take it out, either pre-combustion or post-combustion. You grab the bad gasses, stick them underground, and so it doesn't have the impact. That's sort of the main understanding of what clean coal always meant. That's what the Obama administration is generally referring to when it talks about investment in clean coal.
JOHNSONYou know, there have been a number of pilot programs here and overseas, not economical at this point, huge volumes of gas that you have to try to stick underground. But there have been billions of dollars invested in looking at this. What's interesting is that the Republicans and many in the industry refer to clean coal as basically regular coal that has some environmental mitigation added to the plant, scrubbers for, you know, different types of things -- SOx and NOx and mercury and things like that. And so there's two very different definitions of what clean coal is.
ROBERTSQuickly, Coral, this is -- Luke writes to us: "I live in Michigan. The weather has been crazy this year -- 80 today, 100 through all of the summer -- but hardly anyone I know still believes in global warming." Why not?
DAVENPORTIt's difficult because, you know, scientists will tell you you can't ever attribute one weather event to climate change. However, the data increasingly show that we're starting to see the impacts of climate change. We saw -- we've seen scientific reports showing that some of the record droughts that we experienced this year and last year are very consistent with the patterns of climate change that we should expect similarly with flooding, with extreme storms.
ROBERTSWe have to go. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour: energy and the environment, to how -- the role it's playing in the campaign. Three experts, three journalists who are covering these issues: Coral Davenport of National Journal, Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. Juliet, one listener, Julia, writes, "Please don't let any of your commentators get away with accusing the president for high gas prices. Gas prices are too complicated for one man to control."
EILPERINAbsolutely, and I think Keith alluded to this. But there just -- there's no question, there are global drivers. Instability in the Middle East, for example, can have much more of an impact on gas prices than what the president does here at home. And I think that while that's complicated to communicate to voters, it's certainly something that is worth keeping in mind, that there's no magic bullet. And, in fact, you know, there are a number of things that contribute to where we are.
ROBERTSBut it remains a potent issue because it's something that affects people's daily lives all the time. And even when you're not filling up your car and spending 70 bucks, you pass signs. And if you see a four on the first digit of gas prices, it's going to have a psychological effect.
EILPERINIt's really true. I mean, even when I think people do grocery shopping all the time but you're not seeing a big number in front of every single thing that you're purchasing the way you do with gas prices. And, you know, we saw this in the -- what's interesting in the 2008 campaign where, for example, when gas prices spiked in the summer. You saw, in fact, even Hillary Clinton, kind of playing on this issue along with John McCain.
EILPERINAnd, in fact, Obama resisted, you know, kind of giving in on policy measures on this. And his campaign thought it was a risk, but he really just thought you can't just, you know, come up with some simple solution to it.
ROBERTSDavid writes to us, Coral: "A national conservation plan would go a lot farther toward energy independence than the new pipeline. I wish the candidates would acknowledge that." Talk about the Keystone pipeline, and this does come up in campaign rhetoric. Obama and Romney, in particular, has talked about it. Give us a background on that issue.
DAVENPORTSo the Keystone pipeline had been on the works for years and years and years and was really a kind of a back burner, wonky issue until all of sudden it exploded this year -- last year, really -- in the campaign. It was a planned 7,000-mile pipeline from the Alberta tar sands down to the refineries of Houston that was supposed to bring oil, but not just any kind of oil, very carbon-heavy oil from Canada to U.S. refineries -- oil that produces a lot more carbon dioxide in the extraction process and when burned.
DAVENPORTSo it contributes a lot more to global warming. The State Department was on track to approve that pipeline. It needed State Department approval because it crosses international boundaries. Again, not really much of a big issue, until, all of a sudden, last summer, the environmental community, you know, and President Obama's base rallied around this. And they rallied. And they begged Obama not to approve this, and they threatened to desert him.
DAVENPORTThere were huge protests outside the White House. They wrapped a giant pipeline around -- outside the White House. You know, young people sort of all the groups that had been energized for Obama said, you know, this is the last straw. If you, you know, if you approve this, we will leave you in droves. And so he pulled back. It had an impact. It was surprising to see. They delayed the decision, the State Department and the White House did.
DAVENPORTAnd Republicans immediately pounced on this because it became very symbolic and said -- they said, you know, the president is blocking this pipeline that would be a job creator, that would help us bring in energy from Canada, reducing dependence on the Middle East. It became, you know, a huge bludgeon, a huge issue in the campaign. It was the subject of the very first political campaign ads at the end of 2011. Obama responded to it in his first national campaign ad.
DAVENPORTAt the end of the day, though, you know, energy experts will say, it probably wouldn't make that much of a difference in U.S. energy dependence or independence because that oil all goes on to a global market anyway. It would've gone to U.S. refineries and probably been exported out into this liquid global market.
ROBERTSBut there is, Keith, one of the dimensions, certainly from political point of view, that we've talked a lot about the political context of jobs and the slumping economy and jobless rates. Another dimension here is turmoil in the Middle East, and the hanging threat to oil supplies, let's say, Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon and there would be retaliation. And so this is also part of the context, and an issue like Keystone acquires more resonance because there's that larger context of concern about being -- continuing to be dependent on sources of energy in hostile areas.
JOHNSONRight, except there's a big problem with that, which is the fact that the oil is priced on a global market.
JOHNSONIf Iran closed the Straits of Hormuz, for instance, or if there's a shooting war that breaks out in the Middle East, you know, we've been paying all this year, as it is, basically an Iran premium on oil prices. You know, they have saber-rattling war games, et cetera. So we're already paying more. Everyone all over the world's paying more because of the instability in the Middle East. Even if you have a pipeline bringing tar sands from Canada down to the Gulf Coast, that's priced on a global market. And so you're not going to be immune for price increases.
ROBERTSThat's not going to be cheaper than Iran oil.
JOHNSONIf you have a $20 spike because of violence, it's going to spike the price of domestic oil all the same.
ROBERTSInteresting. Let's talk to some of our callers who want to join us. And David from Rehoboth, you're on the air. Welcome.
DAVIDHey, good morning. I'm a renewable energy analyst, an independent analyst, and one of my research questions was trying to find out if anyone has done a long-term cross-comparison of replacing the current power grid with renewable energy as opposed to restoring it which have to be gone in any event. And over the 40-year period of that standard for these type of plants and power sources to produce, what I discovered, first of all, was that no federal nor industry groups had run such a study.
DAVIDSo I ran it myself using reputable sources, and what I found out was, even using today's technology over a 40-year period, the cost to produce power is actually 20 percent higher using fossil fuel than renewable energy. I was really surprised at this, and I'm trying to interest other groups to look into this to see if that's correct, 'cause if it is, it's really a game changer on the economics of power production.
ROBERTSDavid, thanks so much for your call. It's very interesting. Juliet, what's your reaction?
EILPERINWell, I'm a little confused by the study itself in terms of what he means by restore. But I guess what I would say is that one of the things that certainly speaks to is, you know, once you get the infrastructure up and running, clearly when you're talking about renewables, when you're talking about solar, when you're about wind, you're not paying for that electricity. And one of the big challenges, something that the Obama administration has worked on, is trying to update our electricity grid which is absolutely outdated.
EILPERINAnd I think one of the big questions going forward in the next administration is whether there's going to be the political will and the money to put to basically improve that electricity grid when you could see some transformational changes when it comes to renewables.
ROBERTSLet's talk to Margaret in Hampton, Va. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARGARETI think this is a huge issue, and thank you for having it today. I think if people more clearly understood the connection between pollution, particularly fossil fuel pollution, and human health, such as respiratory problems, cardiovascular problems and some cancers, as well as the connection between global warming and recent climate changes, they would care very much, and this would be a huge issue in the election.
ROBERTSWell, thank you for that perspective. I appreciate it. Coral, respond to Margaret.
DAVENPORTPolitical strategists agree. We actually saw, you know, as the Obama administration, over the last couple of years, has rolled out these clean air regulation and has been attacked on the right for them, we saw environmental groups and public health groups rally behind this and put out campaign messages and put out ads.
DAVENPORTYou know, there was a big campaign showing that the, you know, showing that these ads helped, you know, they showed coughing babies in strollers, and they talked about these clean air ads. They talk, you know, there were ads -- the Sierra Club did a big series of ads showing pregnant women talking about how, you know, the clean air regulations would help your baby, would help your child, would help your health. So there was an effort to kind of galvanize this and communicate that as part of the broader political conversation.
ROBERTSBut it hasn't really become a major dimension as it comes...
DAVENPORTI think job killing regulations, that idea -- the idea that these regulations would hurt jobs ended up winning that broader debate. It got bigger resonance.
ROBERTSLet's talk to Miguel in Miami, Fla. Welcome. Nice to have you this morning, Miguel.
MIGUELWell, thank you, wonderful discussion. I just wanted to point out that the issue about climate change, like most issues, Democrats have led the Republicans define the issue. And I also just wanted to add that as a wildlife biologist that it is frustrating to me that I have to, in part, blame the scientific communities for being mostly silent on the issue. I've seen that even some biology faculty have scaled back or entirely stopped talking about climate change to their students because it's just too much of a hassle to -- as an issue to deal with.
ROBERTSThanks very much for your call, Miguel. Your reaction, Keith.
JOHNSONWell, you know, it's actually interesting, the amount of pushback, the lack of academics who work in the climate science field, you know, not even biologists per se but actual climate scientists. You know, there's the case of Dr. Michael Mann at Penn State, you know, who's been vilified for years. He have the hockey stick global warming chart. You know, he just filed a lawsuit, I think, yesterday...
JOHNSON...because they compared him to Jerry Sandusky, you know, and so it's gotten to that level of vitriol for people who try to do research in the field. So I can understand that you have sort of collateral effects with people like in biology and other disciplines.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Mike in Big Rock, Ill. Mike, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MIKEAll right. Thank you. Yeah. One of the things that concerns me about a potential Romney administration is the selling off of BLM federal lands under the guise of job creation, energy production, reducing national debt. Sell these to the state, sell these to private entities, sell these to the 1 percent to enhance their ranch lands and their private estates in the Western United States, I'm very concerned about that.
MIKESagebrush revolution, I think, is what it's been termed over the years. Mike Leavitt, one of his advisers, former governor of Utah, is a big person in that area. Another point I'd like to make too about the Keystone Pipeline...
ROBERTSWell, let's deal with the public lands issue first.
ROBERTSThanks very much, Mike. Juliet, you've written a lot about public land.
EILPERINYeah. And this is an extraordinary policy proposal by the Romney administration. Recently, they came out as part of their energy plan, saying that they would hand over control of oil and gas leasing and mineral leasing on federal lands to the states in places like Utah, in places like Nevada. That is something that was never entertained under the George W. Bush administration, to just put it in perspective.
EILPERINAnd while, I think, legally, they'd face a lot of hurdles in doing that, it does show you how dramatically they want to shift public land management 'cause there is no question that the governors in those states are more inclined to have huge amount of oil and gas production on areas, even ones that had been characterized as, for example, having wilderness potential.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But you've also written, Juliet, that while the Obama administration has been rather vigorous, as we've been talking on clean air regulations, that environmentalists have been very unhappy with their record in terms of expanding public lands and creating new national monuments and reserves. Talk about that dimension.
EILPERINRight. One thing that you've really seen is that, again, for someone who has covered wilderness for a while, that there has not been an eagerness by the Obama administration to put large areas off limits to any sort of activities, extractive activities. And so what you've seen -- now, granted Congress designates wilderness traditionally. And one interesting fact is, unless something changes in the lame duck session, this will be the first Congress since 1966 where there was no wilderness created.
EILPERINBut in a situation like this, usually a president will step in, thinking about his legacy and create wilderness through something -- the Antiquities Act, which dates back roughly 100 years. And what you're saying happened is that the administration has only done very small monuments often with historic significance. And so as a result, they really -- everyone assumes that they'll do a lot in their second term if they're reelected, but there's not going to be a big wilderness legacy for this administration if it ends in -- with the election.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Jeremy in Ann Arbor, Mich. Jeremy, thanks for your patience. We're happy to have you on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JEREMYHi, Steve. So it's already been discussed a little bit. I just wondered if the idea of energy independence, which is campaigned on pretty frequently, isn't simply a political fallacy because any of that fuel, as you said earlier, will be sold on the open market.
ROBERTSWell, you're right. We did touch on it. But let's try to expand on, and we appreciate your call, Jeremy. In addition to the pricing, which Keith mentioned, it seems logical that there -- if there is a larger domestic production, it will have some beneficial effect in terms of alleviating our obligations or our dependence on foreign oil. Isn't -- is this a fallacy or not, Coral?
DAVENPORTEnergy independence sounds great on -- as a term on the campaign trail. It -- there's a lot more to it if you unpacked what's really going on with that idea. I don't think voters are getting the whole picture. It is true that this fracking boom in oil and gas now means that probably over the next 10 or 20 years, North America -- that's the U.S., Canada and Mexico together -- will probably be able to produce as much oil as their -- as oil and gas as they're consuming.
DAVENPORTSo in that sense, North America will be probably be energy self-sufficient, and that's a big difference. It means it reduces the trade deficit. It does indeed mean that we won't be dependent on these foreign imports. It's possible that we'll produce as much natural gas as we need and even be able export it and use that natural gas. It's a political lever. All these things have geopolitical benefits. They have trade benefits.
DAVENPORTBut the one thing that this won't change, and again Keith mentioned it, is it will have no impact on the price of oil or gas. Even if we produce as much as we use or more, the price is set on a global market. And so we will not be shielded from surging demand in China, unrest in the Middle East, the impacts on price. So we could make as much as we use, but we'll still have -- we could still have price spikes, rollercoaster prices.
ROBERTSKeith, you wanted to...
JOHNSONYeah. There is one thing I wanted to say there 'cause Coral is absolutely right in terms of the pricing and everything. But we've already seen one tangible benefit from the vastly increased U.S. oil production in the last few years, and that is in geopolitics, our foreign policy. We have more options now than we had at the beginning of the Obama administration, than we had two or three years ago. Iran, for example...
ROBERTSPerfect example. Yeah.
JOHNSON...we always wanted to hammer their central bank. We always wanted to go after their oil exports. We could never do it because it would poleax the global economy. Guess what, the U.S. surge in domestic oil production by itself without even the help of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and others helped offset almost the entirety of the Iranian oil that came off the market. North Dakota basically made the Iran sanctions possible. And that's a really important change that has not been the case...
ROBERTSThat's a terrific insight.
ROBERTSI hadn't thought about that. That's a really good insight. Final question for you, Juliet, quickly. If Barack -- if Mitt Romney is elected, how would he change environmental policy, you think? What are some of the highlights? Quickly.
EILPERINI think what you'd see is a significant change at the Environmental Protection Agency which will go from being an environmental activist agency, as we have now, using existing laws to a much more subdued agency that's not going to be on the offense and instead on the defensive. And then in addition, you'll just see an expansion of drilling both on federal waters and federal lands without question.
ROBERTSThat'll have to be the last word. That's Juliet Eilperin who writes for The Washington Post. She's the author of the book "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks." Also, Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal and Coral Davenport of the National Journal. Thanks so much all of you for being with us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane while she is away at a station visit. And thanks so much for spending part of your morning with us.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Megan Merritt. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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