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Will Pricey Fuel Prompt Greener Energy Habits?

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Will Pricey Fuel Prompt Greener Energy Habits?

Will Pricey Fuel Prompt Greener Energy Habits?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Oil prices jumped back up today by a couple of dollars to about $94 a barrel. And analysts are talking about $100 barrel that's not far off. If there's a silver lining to that, it might have a greenish hue.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports some environmentalists and economists believe the steep prices could be good for the environment if the government plays its cards right.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: As oil prices started edging towards a record last week, one environmental group seized the moment with radio ads in nine states.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man: Gas prices this year hit their highest level in history. We're now sending the OPEC oil-producing countries half a billion dollars a day. But, our country can do something about it by requiring a major increase in the gas mileage of new cars and trucks.

SHOGREN: Phyllis Cuttino directs the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency, the group sponsoring the ads. She hopes high oil prices will push Congress to act.

Ms. PHYLLIS CUTTINO (Director, Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency): When you are pulling up to your Chevron, Amoco, Exxon station, whatever it is, and you're paying 75, 85, 95, $100 to fill up your car, your SUV or your van, you know that making your car go farther on a tank of gas is going to be good for you as a consumer and good for the country, right?

SHOGREN: Almost everybody agrees on that. But will high oil prices get us to that goal and help the environment? That depends on whom you ask.

Mr. BILLY PIZER (Economist, Resources for the Future): High oil prices, I think, are unambiguously going to be good for the environment.

SHOGREN: Billy Pizer is an economist at the Washington think tank Resources for the Future.

Mr. PIZER: High oil prices are going to make people use less oil, pure and simple. People are going to buy more efficient cars. You already see the effect in terms of sales of big Hummers and large SUVs.

SHOGREN: Pizer says that's going to reduce the pollution from cars that contributes to climate change, and makes people sick.

But Richard Newell, an economics professor at Duke University, sees it differently.

Professor RICHARD NEWELL (Economics, Duke University): From an environmental perspective, increasing oil prices may seem like a good thing, but it's not that simple.

SHOGREN: Sure, he says, the high prices encourage people to drive less and choose cars that go farther on a tank of gas.

Prof. NEWELL: However, the real concern from an environmental point of view is that high oil prices also mean that even more polluting potential sources of liquid fuel start to become economically competitive. For example, you can make liquid fuels from coal, which is an amazing technological feat. But the resulting amount of carbon dioxide, which is associated with global warming, is almost twice that of a barrel of oil.

SHOGREN: Oil shale and tar sands are other sources of liquid fuel that are harder on the environment than petroleum. High oil prices already have sparked a boom in Canada's tar sands business. High prices can also stimulate businesses to provide more ethanol. But not all ethanol is created equal. Despite its green image, ethanol distilled from corn in a coal-burning plant can have a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than petroleum.

Newell says getting businesses to develop cleaner types of fuel depends on government providing incentives for the environmentally friendly technology and regulating higher polluting fuel sources.

Prof. NEWELL: The market's oriented to supplying the cheapest energy, not the lowest-polluting energy.

SHOGREN: That's where Congress may come in. It's debating whether to tighten fuel efficiency standards for cars, require that more motor vehicle fuel comes from cleaner types of ethanol, and mandate that home appliances use less energy.

Julia Bovey represents Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ms. JULIA BOVEY (Federal Communications Director, Natural Resources Defense Council): With energy prices going up, it means that maybe some of these technologies that will allow us to save energy while living our lives the same way will actually be taken a bit more seriously. And that could be a positive benefit of seeing these astronomical energy prices.

SHOGREN: Bovey says she hopes the high energy prices also will help create momentum for Congress to tackle the problem of global warming, because addressing climate change is all about waning America from fossil fuels like oil.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: Our coverage of the impact of steep energy prices continues at There's an interactive graphic, exploring some hidden effects of the $100 barrel of oil.

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