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GWEN IFILL: For more on today’s debate, we turn to Norman Ornstein, congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research; Jane Houlihan, research director at the Environmental Working Group; and Myron Ebell, director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy group.
Norm Ornstein, put this debate in perspective for us. Exactly what was at stake today?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, what’s go back a little bit, Gwen. When President Bush came in and set his initial priorities, energy wasn’t at the top of the list. The tax cuts and the education plan were. He didn’t anticipate that there would be action on a comprehensive or major bill until the California energy crisis hit and gasoline prices went up. As of a couple of months ago when we had rolling blackouts, gasoline prices nearing $2 a gallon, there was a sense of urgency. And, of course the president created this vaunted task force, put it under the vice president. They moved forward with a very substantial and comprehensive bill. Now we have a different environment. We don’t hear much about rolling blackouts in California. Gasoline prices are down, the gas station near me it’s down about 30 cents from what it was a couple of months ago.
So the pressure is a little bit less but there’s political pressure now. The Republicans want to move this issue along. They’d like to get something done. They’d like to give the president a victory after a couple of months when he’s been on the defensive and a little bit on the ropes on other issues like health care. So they’ve moved forward in the Congress not with what the president’s task force had recommended but a bill that’s somewhat different, scaled back in a couple of areas, particularly no electricity deregulation, nothing involving relaxation for nuclear power plants and their liabilities, and they’ve added in a lot more money. There’s been some feeding at the trough on both sides in terms of these tax credits and incentives. They want to get this through the House tonight so that the Congress can leave and they can declare a victory on something, even though there’s been no action in the Senate and will be handled in a different way.
GWEN IFILL: The fuel efficiency standards amendment which was defeated today to raise the fuel efficiency standards, that was in some respects a victory for the president but not so much because he got Republicans to support him but because he got Democrats to support him.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: What we’ve seen on this issue and what we’ll see later on in the question of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is some strange coalitions that have developed. This issue, including, you know, raising the fuel economy standards for the sport utility vehicles, took the auto industry by surprise. There were some reports that recommended it. In fact, the provision, the modest one included in this bill, was a defensive reaction. But then it turned out that Democrats from the auto industry supported by labor and the industry itself rallied along with most of the Republicans.
In the end the Democrats, a majority of them, voted to sharply increase these fuel efficiency standards for the SUVs to bring them up to where cars are. But they needed all of the Democrats. Later on when we get the issue of drilling in ANWR, the unions now — starting with the Teamsters but then including the AFL-CIO, have rallied behind opening up drilling in this refuge because they see a lot of jobs. It’s closer than people had anticipated because it will be a coalition of Republicans supporting the president, who of course is strongly for drilling along with Democrats responding to labor.
GWEN IFILL: Jane Houlihan, what do you like about this bill and what do you hate about it?
JANE HOULIHAN: I think in general the president is losing support on this bill from what we see and his approval ratings are slipping. It’s because this bill embodies what the public sees about his presidency that this administration supports special interests over public health and over the environment. What we don’t like about this bill, there’s a big presence in here for oil, gas, coal — dirty power sources. The administration’s plan, they’ve won the promise of relaxed environmental standards. They’ve won the promise to drill in sensitive environmental areas — the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, places we’ve protected for generations. This will be a fierce battle on the Hill.
They’ve won, I think, maybe on its face the biggest promise of all. In this plan the administration asks its own agencies to review their policies of enforcing the Clean Air Act against utilities who break the law by expanding their facilities and increasing their pollution without permission. Those are some of the biggest problems with this proposal, and that’s why I it’s seeing such a hard battle on the Hill.
GWEN IFILL: Myron Ebell, what do you love about it? What do you hate about it?
MYRON EBELL: Well, we don’t like all the taxpayer money that’s going to special payments for every conceivable industry. I mean, there’s something in there for clean coal but there’s also something in there for renewable energy. There’s tax incentives for this and pay-offs for that. All that stuff is beside the point. What we like about it is it still retains a good part of the core of President Bush’s energy plan, which was designed to reverse the anti-energy policies of the Clinton-Gore years, which have led us to have lower energy production, supply bottlenecks and higher prices. We think that some of the key elements in this bill, plus some of the other regulatory actions that President Bush is taking, will remove the bottlenecks in the supply system and return affordable energy to American consumers. We also particularly like the fact that the higher CAFE standards, the higher auto fuel efficiency standards were defeated by the House this evening. That’s very important.
GWEN IFILL: Why is that important?
MYRON EBELL: Well, it’s important because, as Chairman Tauzin said, higher fuel efficiency standards cost lives. The National Academy of Sciences admitted in a report this week that in 1993 alone the higher CAFE standards cost 1,300 to 2,600 lives. Multiply that times 20 years, you’ve got a lot of people who have died because of fuel efficiency standards, because of less safe cars, because consumers haven’t had the choice to buy safer cars that they actually want. And this means… You know, I’m surprised that the left supports CAFE standards because if it were a chemical that cost 20 lives, they would say that it doesn’t matter how much it costs we have to ban that chemical. And yet they’re willing to support government regulations that directly cost people their lives.
GWEN IFILL: Jane Houlihan, do you want to respond to the safety argument?
JANE HOULIHAN: I think we all know that this is a country founded on ingenuity. Technologies are out there that can safely give us more efficient vehicles without compromising safety. The real cost right now is high pollution from dirty power sources. And we see every two minutes in this country a child goes to the hospital with an asthma attack. That’s from dirty power pollution. Sixty thousand children are born each year at risk for neurological damage from mercury exposures. And in this country our number one source of mercury pollution is coal-fired power plants. These are the costs that we’re paying. It’s high pollution. We can move into the future with better technologies, more fuel-efficient vehicles and we can improve these public health and environment problems.
GWEN IFILL: Now, the other big vote tonight we’re expecting is on drilling in Alaska or exploration as the White House I think would call it in Alaska. You’ve heard Norm Ornstein talk about the strange bedfellows who are aligning on this issue. In this case, the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO have decided that this is a jobs issue. What are your chances on that?
JANE HOULIHAN: It’s tough. But in the big picture only 5 percent of public lands are currently protected from exploration. And we need to preserve those treasures. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a treasure. Why are we proposing drilling in some of our last preserved public places? It won’t reduce our reliance on foreign oil. To do that, the best thing we can do to reduce our reliance is have more fuel efficient vehicles.
There are so many places where we can improve where we won’t have to destroy the environment. In this building where we’re sitting, in four years after deregulation, they slashed — this utility that powers this building slashed their spending on energy efficiency programs by about 50 percent. And that trend continues. Energy efficiency programs save consumers money immediately, and those kinds of programs get basically nothing under these proposals.
GWEN IFILL: Myron Ebell, as far as drilling in Alaska goes there’s been a lot of compromises to try to get this through shrinking the amount of land. Is it still worth it?
MYRON EBELL: Well, it’s worth it in that the American economy is growing, the population is growing and we’re using more energy. And there’s potentially a lot of oil in the arctic refuge. I think you have to put this in perspective. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is about 19 million acres. That makes it about the size of the state of South Carolina. It’s a big chunk of land. The arctic coastal plain where drilling would be allowed is 1.9 million acres. That’s still larger than some New England states. The amount of land that they’re proposing allowing exploration on, for oil and gas, is under 10,000 acres — out of 1.9 million. This coastal plain is not wilderness. Eskimos live there. There are villages there. There are military installations there. There’s a lot of marks of human activity on the coastal plains, so this is not the pristine part. The wilderness part of ANWR has already been protected by Congress.
GWEN IFILL: What about the tax incentives, Jane Houlihan, about… That he dismissed as being and which Norm Ornstein called feeding at the trough for renewable energy credits, things like that — do you like that? Do you want that?
JANE HOULIHAN: That would be great if that were where the money is going but the bulk of the money is going to oil, gas, coal. We saw in the last election cycle energy interests gave about $50 million to Republicans. In this plan they have the promise of… I’ve seen different numbers… $15 billion over the next ten years in tax credits. That includes $7 billion in breaks on leases for offshore drilling. That includes over a billion dollars for bad years, just having a bad year and it includes if you drill a well and it’s dry it’s not producing, over $1 billion for dry wells. So there’s a lot of money and a lot of it’s going toward these dirty power sources.
GWEN IFILL: Tax credits worth it, Mr. Ebell?
MYRON EBELL: No we don’t think they’re worth it for renewables or for conventional energy. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. Private industry can invest its own money.
GWEN IFILL: Norm Ornstein, how important is it that the White House get this victory on this bill before the president goes on vacation?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The White House really wants a victory here. They’re scrambling to try and get at least the lack of a defeat on the patients rights bill, which is moving forward at much the same time. They’re going to be leaving very soon. The last few weeks the drumbeat of stories has been basically the White House in a defensive crouch while the Democrats, having taken over the Senate, are moving their issues forward. It’s a similar problem for the House Republican leaders who, remember, were embarrassed deeply just a couple of weeks ago losing on a procedural vote on campaign finance reform. So they want to move on to the offensive as their members go back home and let the president say that he is winning some victories.
Remember, Gwen, this is a bill moving through the House. Whatever happens here on drilling in the Arctic Reserve, refuge even on CAFE standards, the Senate in the hands of the Democrats with mostly the Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico shaping a bill along with Tom Daschle will have a very different bill emerging. And there’s a different set of coalitions in the Senate. You’re likely to see them be much more reluctant to act in the way that the House has, so the battles will continue. It’s symbolic as much as anything right now but, boy, they want that symbol.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, we’ll leave it there. Thank you, everybody.