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Obama Outlines Energy Goals: Is U.S. Balancing Conservation, Consumption?

March 30, 2011 at 6:23 PM EST
In a speech at Georgetown University on Wednesday, President Obama spelled out an energy road map centered on reducing dependence on oil imports. Gwen Ifill discusses the president's plan with the Bipartisan Policy Center's Jason Grumet, Rice University's Amy Jaffe and the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, what’s the right path for U.S. energy policy in the aftermath of major disruptions around the world? The president attempted to put that question back on the national agenda today.

Today’s Georgetown university speech came as energy costs, production and safety issues have increasingly dominated the headlines. At the gas pump, the average cost for a gallon of unleaded fuel is now officially $3.59, but in many places, it’s already crossed the $4 mark.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Remember, it was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon. I remember because I was in the middle of a presidential campaign. Working folks certainly remember because it hit a lot of people pretty hard. And because we were at the height of political season, you had all kinds of slogans and gimmicks and outraged politicians — they were waving their three-point plans for $2-a-gallon gas.

And none of it was really going to do anything to solve the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Yet, as turmoil in the Middle East continues unabated, threatening the supply chain and driving prices even higher, the president called again today for cutting petroleum imports by a third by 2025.

And in the wake of safety worries arising from the Japanese disaster, the president said he would continue to push for nuclear expansion, subject to stricter inspection. These energy dilemmas have sparked new debate just as the economy struggles to bounce back.

Among the skeptics, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: So, the problem isn’t that we need to look elsewhere for our energy. The problem is that Democrats don’t want us to use the energy we have. It’s enough to make you wonder whether anybody in the White House has driven by a gas station lately.

GWEN IFILL: It’s been almost exactly one year since a West Virginia coal mine accident killed 29 people and a massive oil spill sent more than 200 million gallons gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers.

In the wake of the accident, the Obama administration banned deepwater drilling for much of last year. But as the administration continues to search for alternatives, a new Pew Research Center study finds America ranks third among industrial nations in so-called clean energy investment. (Editor’s Note: This study was conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, not the Pew Research Center.)

Joining us to sort through the choices and the limitations of energy policy are three people who follow the issue closely. Jason Grumet is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which promotes policy solutions across party lines. Amy Jaffe is a senior energy adviser at the James Baker Institute at Rice University. And Elizabeth Kolbert writes about energy and the environment for “The New Yorker.” She’s the author of “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” a book about climate change.

Jason Grumet, tell me a little bit about what we heard today. It’s stunning to remember that it’s been one year since the coal accident in West Virginia. And within the last year, we have also seen — the last month, we have also seen what happened in Japan and within the last year what happened in the Gulf.

Has that changed our energy policy? Should it?

JASON GRUMET, Bipartisan Policy Center: Well, Gwen, clearly, it has to. I think these events are shocking, but in some ways, they’re not surprising. We have seen analogs to these over the last generation, Three Mile Island, major oil spills in Santa Barbara and in Alaska, the unrest in the Middle East leading to price spikes in the ’70s.

And so I think what we have just seen is all of these events essentially happening in the last 12 months. This creates clearly a new urgency, not only for us to think about improving existing sources but clearly for developing new sources.

It also suggests that we not just need additional plans. We’re not lacking for energy plans. What we have been lacking is the ability to create goals that have real consensus, to have metrics, so we can figure out whether we’re making progress or not, and have real accountability.

It’s keeping track of those plans over time that our democracy is not really well-designed for.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that, Amy Rice, because, if — if the truth is, as Jason Grumet puts it, that we have had new plans, and we have had new plans under I don’t know how many presidents in a row, has anything really changed?

I’m sorry. I called you Amy Rice. You’re at Rice, but you’re Amy Jaffe. My apologies. Sorry.

AMY JAFFE, Rice University: Yes.

So — so, I mean, we keep seeing sort of the same speech over and over and over again from whoever is president. President Bush in his State of the Union said we were going to reduce imports by 20 percent by 2017. But the reality is if Americans would be realistic, we’re in a much better position today to do something than we were under all the other presidencies.

We have had this discovery of a new resource in the United States, or an existing resource that we now have new technology to exploit. The president mentioned the natural gas we can produce from shale rock. And so the challenge is to get the regulation correctly, so that the exploitation of that resource to be environmentally safe.

When we look forward on domestic production, we have a lot of potential. We could actually see U.S. production rising again, now that the moratorium has been lifted offshore and we have rising oil production on shore again from their shale rock play. And also, we have a potential to produce oil shale, which we haven’t — you know, we’re the Saudi Arabia of oil shale.

And prices are very high now, so that potential all becomes commercial. What I don’t like when I hear people in this debate is that we’re misleading the American people about how much we can do with clean energy and in what time scale.

We definitely need the move to clean energy, but when people talk about the future of clean energy, it would be like President Kennedy talking about the space race and saying that we’re going to spend $30 million to get there, instead of several billions.

And in the end, in this country, the debate has to zero in around, if we want to go to clean energy, how are we going to pay for it? Are we willing to have a small rise in the gasoline tax? Are we willing to have some other kind of fee for environmental externalities? We have to decide, as a nation, are we really committed to this or not?

GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth Kolbert, are we striking the right balance between conservation and consumption?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT, “The New Yorker”: Well, clearly not.

We have been consuming and consuming. And the president made the point today that we consume, for example, 25 percent of the world’s oil with 2 percent of the world’s population. So, I think that the president’s speech today was pretty disappointing on how we were going to move on to a path of actually consuming a lot less energy.

And when you look — at the top of your report, you looked at all of the catastrophes that have happened over the last just year relating to energy exploration and energy consumption. And that we haven’t in that year really seriously looked at our consumption patterns is a pretty sad comment, I think, on the state of our energy policy and the state of discussion about energy in this country today.

GWEN IFILL: Jason Grumet, let’s focus on just one part of the president’s talk today. He talked about reducing imports of oil by one-third by 2025. Is that doable?

JASON GRUMET: Well, reducing the amount of oil equal to a third of the imports is doable. It’s about three million barrels a day. It requires a serious increase in fuel economy standards. It will require further increases in domestic production and increases in biofuels.

But, you know, one of the things that the energy wonks always struggle with is that the speechwriters get the last word. And describing the goal as reducing foreign oil is a very good approach to galvanize pollsters and voters.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s a political statement?

JASON GRUMET: But it’s not really the right goal.

And having a somewhat false goal, I think, does undermine our policy. The issue is not how much foreign oil we bring in. The issue really is how much oil we use in its entirety. The vulnerability of our economy to oil depends not on the province of that oil, but on how much we use and how much the price fluctuates.

And so, again, I think that to get serious now, we need to, as Amy said, think about the time frame. We need to buy time in the near term with the technologies we have, with increased fuel economy, with increased production in biofuels, while we invent the future.

And that’s going to take time. I think the president and the administration deserve credit for, amidst the budget austerity, trying to push additional investments in energy technology. I think that’s a concept that does have bipartisan appeal. And, hopefully, these efforts will galvanize an appreciation that we need to all get behind that.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Jaffe, of course we have been paying a lot of attention to nuclear — limitations and the opportunities — at least we were at the beginning of this year — to nuclear power.

To what degree does the U.S. depend on nuclear energy produced by nuclear power, and how much should it? Should it be paying more attention to gas, for instance?

AMY JAFFE: Well, nuclear power has actually been a very important fuel in the United States. We have 103 nuclear plants. It’s a major portion of how we produce electricity in the United States.

But natural gas has a tremendous potential. And, as we move forward, if it’s going to become more costly to build new nuclear plans, because we’re going to be extra cautious in thinking about the backup systems or the disposal systems for the spent rods, you know, that’s going the raise the cost of nuclear power.

And one of the interesting dynamics moving forward in the market is that, because we have a lot new — of new supplies of domestic natural gas, the prices for domestic natural gas are likely to be rather low relative to other fuels, especially compared to oil and maybe even nuclear, new nuclear.

And so, therefore, I think natural gas, left alone, without intervention, without the market laws coming in to move us from one fuel to another, you know, natural gas is probably likely to be the winning fuel on the basis of just commerciality.

GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth Kolbert, is there — one of the things the president likes to talk about and which a lot of energy wonks, as Jason Grumet put it, like to talk about is clean energy. Is there such a thing as clean energy, really?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, that is a really good question.

And you noticed that, in the president’s speech, he listed so-called clean coal, which some people would say is an oxymoron and some people would say is an important tool in the arsenal of tools that we need to combat climate change. He used nuclear. Once again, many people would dispute whether nuclear power, something that produces wastes that remains dangerous for thousands of years, really constitutes clean energy.

So, I think that that is a very good question. And we haven’t even — you could see sort of from that speech we haven’t even defined exactly what we mean by clean energy. The term is just bandied around, and it means many different things to many different people.

I think, generally, people would agree that wind and solar, which have pretty low up-front costs and, at the end of the day, pretty — I don’t mean costs in terms of financially, but I mean in terms of environmental costs — and, at the end of the day, produce virtually no waste, those probably qualify as clean energy by anyone’s definition.

GWEN IFILL: Is the American public on board?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, that is the question of the hour.

And I really felt sort of almost sorry for those kids at Georgetown today when the president said, you know, we need you to have a vision. And I think the point would be we really need the administration to have a vision. And, unfortunately, I don’t think we really saw that vision in his speech today.

We need to move. And, as the president also said, we need to do it quickly. We need to be putting a lot of energy and a lot money into the transition to a clean energy economy. And we’re just not doing that. And I think today was sort of, unfortunately, an opportunity missed, another opportunity missed to move that agenda forward.

GWEN IFILL: Elizabeth Kolbert, Amy Jaffe, and Jason Grumet, thank you both very — all three very much.