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Oil Leak Renews Debate Over Green Energy’s Future

June 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In his address to the nation Tuesday night, President Obama urged Americans that "the time to embrace a clean energy future is now." Jeffrey Brown sits down with guests Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress and Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute to discuss what can and should be done.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a bigger-look at energy use and the
national conversation sparked by the oil spill.

Tuesday night, President Obama urged Americans to end what he said was
our addiction to oil and said the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.

We get a pair of views about what can and should be done. Daniel Weiss
is senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American
Progress, a liberal think tank, and Kenneth Green, resident scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy research group.

Welcome to both of you.

DANIEL WEISS, director of climate strategy, Center for American
Progress: Thank you.

KENNETH GREEN, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute: Thank

JEFFREY BROWN: DANIEL WEISS, the president said the crisis should lead
to some action.

Is he right?

DANIEL WEISS: He is absolutely right.

We have put off for too long addressing our long-term dependence on oil,
both foreign and domestic. The tragedy in the Gulf isn’t a wakeup call. It’s a
sonic boom. And what we need to do is to dramatically reduce our oil use by
making significantly cleaner and more efficient cars, by having many more
alternative fuels like electricity for cars and natural gas for trucks, and
making transit much more available for people, and, finally, reducing global
warming pollution from oil and other sources.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you would have said all of that before all this
happened, right? But you see this as a — something that can rouse the country.

DANIEL WEISS: Well, this, it dramatically increases the urgency. For
the first time in a long time, energy policy and oil is a watercooler
conversation. People are talking about it every day. This is the time to act.
Polls show that support for this sort of action has dramatically increased over
the past two months.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a watercooler conversation.

KENNETH GREEN: Sure, and there have been many of them over the past 20,
30 years, including oil price shocks, oil embargoes, oil spills, and the like.

And, every time, the same conversation comes up, which is, we need to
move to these failed technologies of renew — alternative fuels, synfuels,
ethanol, electric cars, which, by the way, a new study…


JEFFREY BROWN: You call them failed technologies?

KENNETH GREEN: They are failed technologies. In the Los Angeles Times,
in 1910, they were promising electric cars were just around the corner.

And cellulosic ethanol has been 10 years away now for 50 years. These
technologies fail time and time again for a very good reason. It’s hard to
replace oil and fossil fuels. Everything, if it is not metal, glass or wood, is
probably made with plastic, and that comes from oil.

So, to say, I want to get away from oil, I want to do these kind of
simple failed technologies, it takes our eye off the real ball, which is, how do
we make this safer? We’re going to be using these fossil fuels. How do we make
the extraction, production, distribution safer, and protect the environment
better, without deluding ourselves that there is like a new fuel that’s going to
power chariots with sunbeams?

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that — that really reframes the entire
conversation, but you don’t want to go there, right? You still want to look at
the issue of energy and oil dependence.

DANIEL WEISS: Well, I happen to be a very optimistic person. I believe
that American ingenuity and entrepreneurship can solve problems once they have
the right price signals and the right help from government to do so.

It’s interesting. You may not want to have electric vehicles on the
streets, but they have got them in China already. They’re selling plug-in
hybrid electric vehicles right now in China. And, fortunately, in the U.S.,
General Motors is about to sell one this fall called the Chevy Volt. That is
the start.

But we need to dramatically increase the rate of conversion. You know,
one out of every five barrels of oil we use comes from a country that the State
Department classifies as dangerous or unstable. That’s not good for our
security. It’s not good for our economy.


KENNETH GREEN: Our biggest source of imported oil actually is Canada,
and our second biggest is Mexico. So, ending trade in oil would do as much
damage to our major trading partners and ourselves as it would to these other
groups we don’t want to get energy from.

I also would like to point out China is fielding electric cars. And a
new study shows that, because they are powered by coal, they actually will be
worse for the environment than if they use gasoline cars.

So, hasty adoption of failed technologies is likely to do more harm than
good and, again, distract from the key point. Let’s embrace reality. We’re
going to use these fuels. If we don’t drill, Hugo Chavez will drill. The oil
will be drilled. We need to find ways to keep it from our shore. We need to
improve our technology and ability to prevent oil from moving to the shores and
learn how to use this material safer, because we are going to use it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you both this. You — we talked about this
happening, this kind of crises, every so often.

What do we know what that does to people? You said it’s a clarion call,
or you — even more. But what do we know about actual changes in public
attitudes, willingness to change technology or behavior?

DANIEL WEISS: Well, Americans do support using less oil. The problem
is, they aren’t offered many realistic choices for them to do so.

For example, when oil prices were $147 a barrel two years ago, driving
only went down, like, 3 percent. Why? Because people didn’t have many choices.
What we need is government help to get private entrepreneurs and innovators to
help provide better, cleaner choices.

Like, for example, Toyota just made a deal with Tesla to make a sedan
that is all electric.

You know, Ken, one of the reasons why electric cars were abandoned 100
years ago is because the auto companies made a deal with the oil companies and
decided to go ahead and pursue that, rather than do batteries.

KENNETH GREEN: That conspiracy theory has been debunked as many times
as Tiger Woods’ monogamy.


KENNETH GREEN: The reality is, these technologies not there.

It’s not that people don’t change their behavior because they don’t have
choices. They do. I got rid of my car five years ago. I live in an apartment.
I take the metro into work. People have lots of choices. But it’s hard to make
those decisions, because you have a sunk investment in your house, you have a
sunk investment in your car, you have a sunk investment in your career.

These things change, but slowly, as do the technologies you buy, which
last 15, 20 years. And, so, there’s huge inertia and momentum in all energy
systems that make them resistant to change. It’s not that people don’t
necessarily want to change their behavior. It’s that they want to improve their
quality of life, and these alternatives that Dan is talking about don’t let them
do that. So, they don’t adopt them.


DANIEL WEISS: But why wouldn’t we want to have government take action
to speed up the rates of change, given that the BP oil disaster has shown us the
— the domestic, economic, and public health cost of our reliance on oil, as
well as the national security cost of reliance on oil, by getting one in five
barrels of our oil come from countries rated dangerous and unstable?

KENNETH GREEN: Because the government doesn’t actually know what
consumers want.

This was — this whole idea of the five-year Soviet plan of we will tell
you which sneakers you want, that is a failed model all over the world. The
idea that the government somehow knows which technology is going to work in the
market and please consumers, I mean, it’s just completely absurd.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a little taste of the national watercooler

DANIEL WEISS: Thank you.


JEFFREY BROWN: Thank you both very much, Daniel Weiss and Kenneth Green
DANIEL WEISS: Thanks, Jeff.