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Oil Leak Renews Debate Over Green Energy’s Future

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.

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  • 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 you.

  • 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…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • 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.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • 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.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • 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.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • 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 conversation.

  • DANIEL WEISS:

    Thank you.

  • KENNETH GREEN:

    Thank you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

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

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