How Is Congress Addressing The Energy Crisis?

Americans are driving less and switching to more fuel-efficient cars. Can legislators on opposite sides of the aisle collaborate to help the nation deal with the energy crisis? Senators John Warner (R-VA) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) discuss offshore drilling, alternative energy and lowering the speed limit.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is Talk of the Nation's Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Congress seems unable to come together and give us real solutions to our energy problems. The bill to pass the tax incentive for alternative energy is stalled. It was again voted down and it - well, it did not receive enough votes in the Senate this week to avoid, the amount of votes to need - get the amount of votes it needed, 60 votes. There's been talk so far, no action, talk of action on lowering the speed limit and it seems like with every new proposal to feed our ever growing energy appetite, along with it comes a debate over whether we should be drilling offshore or in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, or whether we should invest more research funds on alternative energies.

In that sense, Jimmy Carter made energy conservation a clear national goal and outlined a path toward energy independence. Has any president or politician taken on that task? It looks like a significant progress in leadership are coming either from individual states acting on their own. California is an example of that, or from highly motivated individuals like Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens, for example, who was gaining favor from both Republicans and Democrats with his slogan, we can't drill our way out of this energy crisis.

Joining me now to talk more about the political side of the equation are my guests, one from each side of the aisle. Senator John Warner, a Republican representing Virginia. He is a three-time chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee and a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He has been in the Senate for 30 years, this year being his last. Thanks, for taking time to be with us today, Senator Warner.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): Oh, it's a privilege. This is one of my favorite stations and you know, I think I owe a little bit to talk to it since I listen to it far more.

FLATOW: Well, thank you. Senator Jeff Bingaman is a Democrat representing New Mexico. He is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and he writes on it in speeches. He says in his speeches that he understands the importance of science coming from a family where his father was a chemistry professor, correct?

Senator JEFF BINGAMAN (Democrat, New Mexico): That's right, yeah.

FLATOW: And his mother is a school teacher. Welcome to Science Friday.

Sen. BINGAMAN: Nice to be with you.

FLATOW: Senator Warner, was Jimmy Carter right 30 years ago when he tried to talk us into this conservation, setting up alternative energy funding and get us going back then?

Sen. WARNER: Yes, I was privileged to know him quite well. He was a naval officer as he started life, and at one time I was Secretary of the Navy and we developed a friendship between the two of us. And yes, he was correct, we should have put more emphasis on alternative means to meet our energy requirements years ago. Also, I regret to say, we should not have stopped the nuclear program. Look at France today, 80 percent, I repeat, 80 percent of their energy needs in terms of electricity, being provided by nuclear power. And in our country it's around 20 percent. Jeff, you're the chairman...

Sen. BINGAMAN: Yes, that's correct.

Sen. WARNER: That's about right. So, I would say, Carter, he was correct.

FLATOW: Senator Bingaman, you agree?

Sen. BINGAMAN: Oh, I sure do agree and I think the other thing he was correct about was the importance of becoming more efficient in our use of energy. That's been a low priority for us unfortunately as a country and accordingly, we use two times the amount of energy that many industrial countries use per person. So, there are tremendous savings, tremendous efficiencies that we could have been pursuing and still need to pursue.

FLATOW: Senator Warner, how did this get to be so political? How did energy get to be so political? We all use it and abuse it. Even the president, President Bush said we're addicted to oil.

Sen. WARNER: Well, there are strongly held views on both sides. First, my position is we should try, almost across the board, everything. Whether it's offshore drilling and I introduced one of the first offshore drilling bills here three years ago. I repeated it each year and now, my original bill is sort of a model for the various options being put forth by the Republican side. The Democrats' side, and I'll let Jeff speak for his distinguished colleagues, are objecting to it. But I think all forms of renewables, we should explore those. But you've got to stop to think, we are only receiving a very small percentage of our energy needs from wind and a very small, almost infinitesimal percentage from biomass. And while those options are attractive, they're just not potentially available at this time to move in and really help stop the escalating prices at the gas pump for when we refuel our cars, or whether we are heating our homes, or whatever it may be.

So, I think, we've got to look at the package of long-term, you know, development of energy, like drilling offshore, intermediate, and also practice more conversation - conservation. I'm pleased, if my friend, Jeff Bingaman and I, we put in a little bill the other day, it's very simple. It said to the executive branch, President Bush, see if you can't reduce across the board, and that's in all departments and agencies, the use of energy by one or two or three percent. That could have made a substantial reduction.

FLATOW: Senator Bingaman, we have talked many times over the past few years about your state and your part of the country in the Southwest, how the abundance of solar energy down there and scientists would tell us that you if you have enough solar energy down there. And then one company pointed, it would take a square 93 miles on a side, or one-tenth the size of Nevada, to install solar panels that are available today, solar thermal power panels, nothing new needs to be invented to produce the electricity from them, to power the entire United States. One would think that there are these simple solutions, large projects of course, to get them installed, that lend themselves to finding a national policy.

Sen. BINGAMAN: No, I think that there are such technologies and projects and I greatly say we're going ahead with them. The truth is the, you know, the utilities in my state have put out a request for a proposal to construct a concentrating solar power plant and they've made it very clear that they will only go forward if we go ahead and extend these tax credits that we have a 30 percent investment tax credit for solar projects of that type. It expires the end of 2008. We've tried now six times or, I believe here in the Senate, to get that extended for some period of time and we have not been able to. But if we'll just extend that and extend the production tax credit for wind energy and other types, I think we'll see a real increase, a dramatic increase very quickly in the amount of funding going into these kinds of renewable energy projects.

FLATOW: The folks who are hopeful say, you know, they've gone down to the wire every year on this tax credit and we're now getting close to that wire, are we not? Do you expect that to come up before the Senate goes home for the year?

Sen. BINGAMAN: Well, it came up this week, and we failed again. And the problem is not only have we come down to the wire, we have actually let the tax credit - the production tax credit expired three or four times over the last 15 years. So, we need to go ahead and get it done. We should have done it before now. I hope that it's the first order of business when we come back into session in September, but clearly it needs to be done so that businesses can know that they have that tax treatment and can go ahead and make investments.

FLATOW: Senator Warner, you've proposed now lowering the national speed limit down to 60.

Senator WARNER: Well, yeah, I'd like - what I'd like to do is to take this just a few seconds here to get it straight. I proposed that the administration go back and re-examine the period 1973 - 74, when we were in another severe shortage at the gas pump - I mean that's the auto gas pump. And we've put in a reduction of the speed limit, 55 was that figure.

FLATOW: Drive at 55.

Senator WARNER: Drive at 55 or the double nickel they used to say. Now, we don't have the facts here in Congress, and we're doing all sort of types of research to see whether or not today's carburetion systems which are better, more efficient in today's cars as opposed to that generation, would a similar restriction on speed in certain areas - I would suggest this time 60 miles per hour to be the bottom figure rather than 55 - would that generate some immediate savings? Because when you drive over 60 miles per hour, the carburetion system is less efficient in most cars and as a consequence you're blowing out your tailpipe used energy. And it's not only more polluting, but it's just a loss of energy.

So I'm saying let's go back and run a comparative study. It did work for the nation in 1973, 74, and indeed at that period of time, I was in the government as a Secretary of the Navy. And even in the defense area we cut back. We're the largest user of petroleum, the national defense segment of our executive branch, and today this is a crisis, people are hurting.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Senator WARNER: I judged that maybe a quarter to a third of all families in the evening around the kitchen table are trying to work out budgets to meet escalating food costs, gasoline costs, all types of costs. And the gasoline cost has increased at 60 percent in one year.

FLATOW: Yeah. Senator Bingaman, I want to give you a chance to respond to that. And any hope for the next administration that we will get a little further in the energy policy.

Senator BINGAMAN: Oh, I think there's great hope. You know, we have passed significant energy bills in 2005 and then again last year, the president signed the bill in December which increased vehicle fuel efficiency requirements or capped standards up to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. There's a lot more we need to be doing. I hope we can get on with it. I don't know that it's doable between now and the time Congress adjourns this fall because frankly having gone through the effort to put these bills together a couple of times, they require some time. We spent, I think, six weeks on the Senate floor working on the bill in 2005, somewhat less in 2007. But, there's a lot that can be done, a lot can be done on conservation, a lot can be done to further promote renewable energy.

FLATOW: All right. Well, I'm going to have break it off here, and we'll check back with you to see what's going to be done. Thank you, Senators. Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia.

Senator WARNER: Thank you.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Senator.

Senator WARNER: Bye.

FLATOW: Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat from New Mexico and chairman of the Energy in Natural Resources Committee. Thank you, Senator Bingaman for being with us. Well take a break, come back, switch gears, stay with us.

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