Copyright ©2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd today provoked little shock. The king's long illness left his brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, in control of the country for many years, and the political transition in Riyadh is expected to be seamless. Oil prices spiked a bit, but gave up most of those increases. Still, oil is up about 40 percent this year, and now sells over $60 a barrel. Looking ahead, the next transition in Saudi Arabia may not be so smooth. King Abdullah is already 81 years old.

The long-term stability of several of the world's biggest oil exporters is questionable and others are politically opposed to the US. At the same time, demand for oil continues to surge in China, India and in other fast-growing economies in Asia. In this country, independence from imported oil has been a mantra of every presidential candidate since the 1970s with little change to the status quo. Nearly 60 percent of the oil we use every day is imported, though it's important to note that our two biggest suppliers are Canada and Mexico.

The massive energy bill approved by Congress last week was touted by the president as the first stride to wean the United States off foreign oil but analysts say it's a pretty small step. The bill provides some money and tax breaks for renewable energy like solar and wind power but does not address the single biggest conservation issue: increased fuel economy standards. What would it take to become independent from foreign oil? Why is it important? What sacrifices might we have to make?

Later in the program, turmoil in Sudan today following the death of former rebel-turned-Vice President John Garang. But, first, the environmental, economic and national security arguments for oil independence. We'll be hearing two different perspectives on how and why the US should shift away from importing foreign oil. We also want to hear your views. Should independence be the organizing principle of US policy? Would you be willing to pay higher taxes, drive smaller cars, see more drilling, more refineries?

Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And we begin this discussion with David Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles program with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Thanks very much for joining us in Studio 3A today.

Mr. DAVID FRIEDMAN (Clean Vehicles Program, Union of Concerned Scientists): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We import--we burn about 19 million barrels of oil a day. How do we do it?

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Well, a lot of the way that we do it, about 40 percent of it, is in the cars and trucks you and I drive every day. It's about 8.5 million barrels of oil every day going to go to work, to go shopping, and a lot of the reason for that is that the fuel economy of today's cars and trucks is at a--is hovering at a 20-year low. It's really actually a bit disgraceful, the fact that right now cars and trucks are getting worse fuel economy than they did 20 years ago.

CONAN: Where does that oil come from?

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Well, the oil comes from all around the world, as you mentioned. A lot of it does come from Canada and Mexico. About--a little over half of it, 60 percent, is imported. Two and a half million barrels per day comes from the Persian Gulf. In fact, if you total up all of our imports together, last year they represented about one-quarter of our trade deficit.

CONAN: If one or two of those countries gets shaky--obviously, Sudan exports oil. We don't buy oil, necessarily, from Sudan, but that affects the quantity in the rest of the world. Does that affect our supply?

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: It absolutely does, whether it's Venezuela, where we haven't had some tensions with their government, or many of the places in the Middle East, or Africa, where there's a lot of political instability. If even a small portion of the oil gets choked off, it could potentially lead to dramatic rises in our--the price of oil. And part of that is because we're stretched so thin. So much of our transportation sector--in fact, about 90 percent of our transportation sector, or more--is dependent on that oil. So a small drop in supply, in this case, means a huge increase in costs.

CONAN: So what would we need to do to become independent of foreign oil? Seems to be two choices: import less, produce more.

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Right. Well, the good thing is that the option of importing less is actually quite reasonable, and there are two major steps that we can take. In the short term, it's all about efficiency. It's all about investing in technologies that we already have to, for example, raise the fuel economy of cars and trucks to 40 or even eventually 50 miles per gallon. It's also about investing in better airlines, both jets that use less fuel and as well as just improving the logistics of how our airplanes work, and maybe switching some of those trips, say, from DC to New York, or New York to Boston, over to trains instead of air. So there's a lot of technology, there's a lot of options we have now to improve efficiency. In the long run, though, if we really want to be independent from oil, we're going to have to stop using oil. That's the simple fact.

CONAN: And this would be alternative fuels like...

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Exactly. We're talking about alternative fuels like ethanol, like hydrogen, like electricity. These are all long-term fuels that maybe in 40 or 50 years we'll have been able to wean us off of oil. But we have to be realistic. It is going to take anywhere from 30, 40, 50 years to actually get these energy resources, these alternative resources, out into the market in large enough quantities that we can kick our oil habit. Up until then, if we want to be able to afford to wait that long, we've got to invest in efficiency. We've got to improve the fuel economy of our cars and trucks. We've got to improve and produce the amount of energy it takes to ship freight around the country. And we've got to shift, for example, the way our homes are. We need to live a little bit closer to where we work. We need to take transit where we actually have that option. Of course, part of the problem today is consumers don't have a lot of options. We live in a car culture.

CONAN: And how do you convince people to stop living in those circumstances and stop buying SUVs and pickup trucks and living in the exurbs?

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Well, part of it is to get them better choices, and that's part of the problem in the marketplace right now. It's impossible for a marketplace to work when consumers don't really have choices. When it comes to buying a car or a truck, if you walk into a dealership and you want an SUV, for example, your choice is 16, 17, 18 miles per gallon. That's not a real choice. But the potential is out there, even without hybrid technology, with simple conventional technology, to have an SUV that gets 30, 35 miles per gallon. That would be real choice in the marketplace, and that way it wouldn't be about giving up something. It would be about getting the same size, the same performance you have today but with dramatically higher fuel economy. So you can save thousands of dollars on gasoline and reduce our imports.

CONAN: If it's that easy, why isn't it there?

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: That's the classic question. And the reason in many ways is because it's a question of industry being relatively short-sighted. The--especially the auto industry, they're concerned about their profits. Two days, two weeks, maybe at most two months from now. They're not investing in technologies. They're not investing in these opportunities. They're going to ensure that they're profitable 10 years from now. That's one of the ways in which some of the foreign automakers are actually standing out. They are investing in these technologies. They are preparing for a future. I mean, even just look at their manufacturing facilities. Nissan, on one plant, on one run, can switch between making a truck or a car. US car companies can't do that. That's why they threatened that plants are going to close if fuel economy standards increase, it's because they aren't set up to be nimble companies. But they can be. They have that possibility. We've seen other companies do it. It's a question of, again, investing in US ingenuity and US technology.

CONAN: One set of arguments for oil independence from David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Joining us now is Tom Friedman, no relation, a columnist for The New York Times.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. TOM FRIEDMAN (Columnist, The New York Times): Great to be here.

CONAN: And in your book, "The World Is Flat," and in some of your columns in The New York Times, you argue that this is a national security issue. How so?

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, you'd never know when you looked at the latest energy bill that we were in a war half a world away with an enemy that is being fueled by the very energy we are recklessly consuming. We're now fighting a war in terrorism, to put it simply, but we're funding both sides in the war. We're funding the US Army, Air Force and Marine Corps to go out to the Middle East and try to install democracy. And, indirectly, through our energy purchases, we're funding the most intolerant, retrograde and medieval regimes in that part of the world who take some of those oil revenues and transfer them to charities, mosques and madrassas that inspire, promote and fund the very people we're fighting in the field. You'd think we were fighting a war in some diamond patch or something. Absolutely no connection whatsoever to what we might be doing here. So I'm thrilled that we've got an energy bill and that we've got that behind us, and now maybe we'll have an energy strategy.

CONAN: Well, the energy strategy--what energy strategy would you advocate in terms of--it's not going to be a simple solution, nor is it going to be a pain-free solution.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: Well, there is no pain-free solution. Obviously, the immediate and most impactful strategy we could have would be a $2 a gallon gasoline tax. That would promote, on the one hand, conservation, and, on the other hand, innovation. I was just in a conversation last week with a major American industrialist, the head of one of our biggest industrial companies, and I asked him very simply: What would a $2 gasoline tax mean for your company? And he had a one-word answer: Innovation. `It would force us to innovate on a range of industrial technologies because a $2 gasoline tax would actually change people's behavior.' I fear, though, when I look out at what's going on, that we're just not going to get that, that we're consumed now with short...

CONAN: I was going to point out that probably neither you nor he is going to run for national office anytime soon.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: Right. I'm not, and so I'm rooting for a crisis. I'm rooting for a big, big crisis because 9/11 was that crisis for me. But, obviously, it wasn't for the country and for a lot of people. And so I think the only thing that's going to force serious long-term thinking about how we use energy and how our profligate use of energy is fueling and funding the very people we're fighting in the field--it's going to take a crisis.

CONAN: Is this--are the solutions to this--some of the alternative fuels in mass transit--a lot of this is--these are green issues but in some respects you have to think that if we're going to wean ourselves away from foreign oil, at least in the near term, you might want to increase oil production in this country, which would bother some of those people.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, I have no problem with increasing oil production in this country as part of a range of strategies for dealing with this problem. But the problem of this administration and the whole approach we've had, not even only this administration, is that they've put everything on that. You know, when was the last time you heard the president use the word `conservation'? You know, they slip it into a Saturday radio address, `Conservation. We're for conservation.' `What'd you say?' `Did he say conservation?' `I think so.' You know, what would prevent the president from saying, you know, `How about setting an example? How about saying, "I'm going to trade in my Cadillac limousine for an armor-plated Ford Escape to set an example for people to buy hybrid cars"?' We haven't even begun--we haven't even begun--to be serious about this issue, as far as I'm concerned.

CONAN: Let me ask the listeners. Are you serious about the issue? What would you be willing to give up? Would you be willing to pay $2 tax on a gallon of gasoline? Give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In the four years President Bush fought to pass the energy bill, he touted it as a recipe for independence from foreign oil. Now the bill is headed to his desk but the nation's energy dependence is not expected to drop anytime soon. Today we're discussing what's really needed to make that shift and whether or not the country is willing to live with the sacrifices involved. We're asking you those questions. What would it take to get us off foreign oil? What sacrifices are you willing to make? (800) 989-8255. (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Our guests here in the studio are David Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Tom Friedman, columnist with The New York Times. His latest book is "The World Is Flat." And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And this is Earl. Earl calling us from West Virginia.

EARL (Caller): Yes, sir. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead.

EARL: Yes. I just had a quick comment. Europeans have had $4 and $5 a gallon gas for years and years, 15 years. But they have a decent high-speed rail system. We have nothing in this country. We need at the minimum a high-speed rail linking the major cities on the East Coast. It's a more efficient way to move people, it's more economical, it takes up less land, it's just a better way to go. And what we're--we're not even--we haven't even started on that.

CONAN: Do you ride Amtrak now, Earl?

EARL: No, I don't because Amtrak stops in every little podunk town there is. You need direct linkage between your major cities--let's say, like, Charlotte and up to DC, a whole hub of them, and high speed, not 100 miles an hour, high-speed trains like they have in Europe so you can get there fast. It's quicker than an airplane if it's done right.

CONAN: I see, Earl, but if you don't ride the trains now, there's no evidence that people would ride the trains in the future.

EARL: Well, I live in a rural area in West Virginia, but I'm talking about your major metropolitan areas where you get most of your traffic, from city to city. Do you hear what I'm saying?

CONAN: Yeah, David Friedman...

EARL: That's what you need.

CONAN: ...he's talking about high-speed trains. There I guess is Acela, which can travel at some high speeds when the brakes work, and there--that's about it. Plans for a West Coast system, as far as I understand it, aren't being developed at all.

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Well, the big problem, again, gets back to choices. I think we need to be careful about rushing too far, too fast into things like gas taxes because the reason why Europe was able to do it is because people did have choices. They had rail, they lived in smaller cities, they could walk to a lot of where they were going. In the United States, we have an aging infrastructure for our rail. We--if we are going to make rail an important part, which it can be, that, in fact, is a form of alternative fuel because you can actually shift to electricity with a lot of the rail instead of running on the petroleum.

CONAN: Well, something is used to develop that electricity, though.

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Exactly. And that's where renewable energy comes in. And that's where things like growing energy here in the United States, whether it's wind power or whether it's cellulosic biomass, whether it's solar power, we can actually grow our own energy in the United States. This isn't exactly about asking people to make sacrifices. This is about asking people to make investments. When you put aside some money for your child so that they can go to college, that's not a sacrifice, that's an investment in your family. That's an investment in your future. And that's exactly what this is about. It's investing in things like high-speed rail. It's asking consumers to invest in SUV that instead of getting 20 miles per gallon, 18 miles per gallon, gets 30 miles per gallon. The great thing about that is it's only going to cost about $1,000. You're going to save money the day you walk off the lot with gas prices where they are today.

CONAN: You've mentioned solar power and wind power, renewable energy sources of energy. Yet highly controversial. When they're installed, there are always lawsuits filed against them as being not environmental.

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Well, it really is interesting because energy runs our economy. Transportation is one of the engines that runs our economy. And yet there is always this tension between expansion and staying where we are so maybe if you want to talk about sacrifice, that's the type of sacrifice you have to make is instead of having more dependence on foreign oil, instead of having dangerous sources of energy here in the United States, we invest in cleaner energies that, in the long run, are going to much more than pay off.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Fritz Vandover in Minneapolis. `At the beginning of the Second World War, the government successfully pushed the abilities of the scientific and industrial community to build a nuclear weapon in the name of national security. Our dependence on tenuous energy sources, foreign or domestic, is absolutely an issue of national security today. Why, why, why is our federal government not elevating this issue to a serious level to reward industry and science to find a more stable source of energy? I scratch my head about this on a weekly basis.'

Tom, that's exactly the kind of leadership questions, I guess, that you were talking about earlier.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: Well, obviously, there are certain vested interests in the auto industry and the oil industry that have an extremely powerful hold right now in Congress and over the White House. I think there's no question about that. The tragedy, though, Neal, is that, you know, if we did have a gasoline tax of a couple dollars a barrel, a gallon, married with a really--a real strategic vision, which made energy independence the moon shot of our generation, and this so clearly is the calling of our generation. And to make energy independence the focus, the moon shot, the inspirational goal of our generation, look what that would do all at the same time, you know, and built around a gasoline tax, as well.

It would spur innovation, all right? It would spur young people to go into math and science, which has not been happening, which is part of our decline relative to India and China and other countries, which in a flat world really mattered. It would strengthen the dollar, OK. It would improve the deficit. It would, obviously, have a big impact in spurring alternative energies and on conservation. As my friend Michael Mandelbaum says, `This isn't just win-win. This is win-win-win-win-win.' And it is a travesty. There's no other word for it. It is a bloody travesty that neither party has taken up this as the centerpiece of its agenda but it's an even bigger tragedy that the public isn't demanding it. So maybe we've got the energy policy we want, maybe we have the energy policy we deserve, but, I tell you, we are going to be sorry. We are going to pay for this later.

Get another caller on the line. This is Steve. Steve calling from Canton, New York.

STEVE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

STEVE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

STEVE: I'm a high school science teacher that's always trying to quote, "hip my kids to conservation." That, to me, is the most disappointing thing. We have a president that, a couple weeks ago, said we should go back to nuclear power and mentioned nothing about conservation. If we know that we're going to need to make this change, and we do know it--We know that there's a finite amount of resources--why aren't we, like the caller before said, on a weekly basis, having people come up with ideas to retrofit our cars so we get 15 or 20 more gallons, to maybe have a few less planes fly, to put a little more energy into railroads? It just--it doesn't make sense to me. What Mr. Friedman was saying--we are going to pay for this and nobody wants to say, `Hey, let's wake up.'

CONAN: Might nuclear power plants be part of the solution, Steve?

STEVE: I don't see us getting rid of our waste from nuclear plants. I mean, if you look at the Yucca controversy, I don't see that as a done deal. I don't see us saying, `OK, we can make power.' If we could, then I'd say, `Yes, let's attempt this. Let's make this part of our portfolio,' but it sure doesn't seem to me like we know what to do with the waste yet.

CONAN: Is that a political controversy, as you see it, or a scientific controversy?

STEVE: I think it's probably a little bit of both. I mean, we--again, it's--if the issue was important, if it was important for us to really be concerned, there would be someone out there, like the president, saying, `Hey, let's use a little less. Let's explore this a little better.' I mean, I just don't want to have a power plant, a nuclear power plant, or whatever, and contaminate an area that's going to be pretty much forever. That's--I mean, why would we want to do that? So--and, again, I spoke way too much.

CONAN: OK, Steve, thanks for the call.

STEVE: Sure. Bye.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Tom Friedman, people are uncomfortable with--do we think you--do we need to change the way we think? I mean, we're sort of--we've been involved in this discussion between--nobody is against reducing dependence on foreign oil but the conversation's been framed so long in terms of the green argument and the industry and jobs argument. Do we need to change the way we think?

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: I think we fundamentally have to change the way we think, Neal, for two reasons. One is because the global economic playing field is being leveled. That's one impact. What that means is that we have several billion people, who have been leading low-impact lifestyles, as Jared Diamond calls them, moving to high-impact lifestyles very rapidly. That's hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians and they will be all coming to this more level playing field with their own version of the American Dream--a house, a car, toaster and a microwave. That is going to have a huge impact. That is new. That's from the one direction.

From the other direction, we have clearly--we are now facing--Right?--an enemy that is ready to use terrorism in ways that can fundamentally alter and choke our open society. This enemy comes from a very specific clear part of the world and it's not Norway, OK? And this enemy is funded by regimes that are funded indirectly by us by oil and unless these regimes change, unless they reform, this enemy is going to continue coming at us in larger and larger numbers. The only way it's going to change is if we begin to choke off that oil. So there are two very new geopolitical factors here, geoeconomic ones, and we better understand: This is not your mother's oil problem.

CONAN: David Friedman, let me ask you, do we need to change the way we think about this issue?

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: We definitely need to change the way we think about this issue, and I think that the political issues that Tom is talking about are extremely important, and I think a lot of it really does come back to, this is about investment. This is about innovation. This is about building our economy and making the United States as strong a country as we can. The United States was built on innovation. You look at microchips, they've increased in speed over and over and over again. That's the way companies have made money.

You look at the auto industry, that's not the way they've made money. They haven't made it based on investing in newer and newer products to get higher and higher fuel economy. They've tried to squeeze every penny they can out of investments they've made 10 and 20 years ago. That's not a fleet-footed company. That's not a nimble company that can move into the future.

CONAN: Do you see people changing their behavior, though? I mean, people still buy SUVs. People still protest all kinds of--you know, any kind of energy investment in their back yard.

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Look, if we were in a real totally free market when it comes to the energy issues, I would expect to see a lot more out of consumers, but the fact is when gas prices go up, how do automakers respond? By increasing the incentives to encourage consumers to buy SUVs. Consumers are being rational in that situation. It's really cheap to buy that SUV now compared to what it used to be. So a lot of it has to do with giving consumers choices so they can make those changes. You can't just ask consumers to change in a vacuum.

CONAN: Let's get another--Tom Friedman, you wanted to say.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: I just want to add one thing to what David said, which is that--because I think the point he's made about innovation is very important. It's clear, given where China and India are going, given the demand that it's going to put on energy and the environment of all these billions of people now coming, you know, on to this playing field, that green technologies and green energy are going to be a huge industry of the future. Now if we were to take the lead by imposing certain demands and restrictions on our industry right now, we would be the innovators in those technologies. We would be the first to get down that learning curve. Instead of Toyota coming up with a hybrid, it would be our company. If we don't, trust me, Chinese and Indian and other companies will.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Mark. Mark calling from Norfolk, Virginia.

MARK (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARK: I just wanted to call and comment on what we would be willing to give up for a more cleaner environment, a more efficient environment. I would definitely be willing to pay $2, whatever a gas tax could be, because I would like it to--I could see it affecting the way people really go out and use their consumer dollars. It would be very uncomfortable, and it would be--I think it would definitely bring along that crisis that you were talking about earlier.

CONAN: All right, Mark, thanks very much for the phone call.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with two Friedmans, unrelated, Tom Friedman of The New York Times and David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists about energy independence, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get yet another caller on the line, John. John calling from Berkeley, California.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. How you doing?

CONAN: All right.

JOHN: Well, what would I be willing to give up? I gave up my car about eight or nine years ago, and I don't think it was really a situation of giving up anything. I actually gained quite a bit. You know, it's a healthy way to get around and uses zero gas, and I think a lot more people should do it and...

CONAN: Well, you live in the Bay area, where there's...

JOHN: I do, yes.

CONAN: ...a pretty good bus and subway system there.

JOHN: Yeah. I live in San Francisco, and I work in Berkeley, and I ride to BART and I take BART one-stop across the bay, because we're not allowed to ride across the bridge yet. That would be another thing that could be changed. And then I ride another mile. It takes me about an hour to get to work, and I think driving would take about half an hour, maybe 40 minutes.

CONAN: So was this an ideologically motivated change or was there something else going on in your life?

JOHN: No, I just like to ride my bike, and it became ideological as time went on when I realized that I really didn't have to have the car anymore. And one day, the car got towed away, because the neighbors thought it was abandoned. And I didn't notice it was gone for four days.

CONAN: So in a way, it was abandoned.

JOHN: It pretty much--I walked away from my car.

CONAN: All right. What do you...

JOHN: And the thing is, this discussion is all about, you know, continuing our lifestyle, about getting hybrid SUVs or even hybrid cars, and I think that we should be concentrating a lot more of our energy on changing the way we live in the first place, and that can happen on an individual basis and we could also do a lot to like the tax structure. We could be getting rid of the sales tax structure that encourages mega-malls next to the freeways. We could be doing--you know, we could change--we need to make walkable communities and bike-able communities that make it feel safer for less daredevil people like me to ride a bike. And I think that's where the billions of dollars should be going towards rather than hybrid cars.

CONAN: Well, Tom Friedman, ideas like those have been out for a long time. We continue to build less walkable areas and more exurbs and continue to concentrate on a more car-driven economy. These changes, if they happen, are not going to happen quickly.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: You know, there's no question about that, but, you know, just to reinforce the point that David made, we can't keep going on like we've been going. And it requires you to really start thinking out of the box. You know, we live in a world now where it is possible, because we all do it, to do remote learning and remote work, OK. My secretary now takes off every Friday. She works at home. That's a Friday that she isn't consuming, because she actually lives in West Virginia--that she's not consuming probably a half a gallon of gasoline. Now work may need to be restructured in many more ways--in many ways that also, when you do that, will enhance family life, will enhance the quality of life of the worker. Once you start thinking differently, once you understand we're in a new situation, then all kinds of things come out of it that turn out to be not, as David alluded to, sacrifices, burdens, but actually enhancers of lifestyle as well.

CONAN: David.

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Well, the real challenge--Tom is right. The real challenge is, again, what is it going to take to get us there. Where is the leadership to do this?

CONAN: Where's the political will?

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Exactly. If you look at the past 30 or so years, every time there's been an oil price spike, there's been some version of recession. It is clear that our addiction to oil hurts our economy, but what happens is the crises pass. So, yes, we can wait for the next crisis and things will change for a little while. People even now are getting really excited about all these silver bullets, but the problem is it's not about arguing which silver bullet to choose. It's about arguing what steps can we take today and how can we get on that path? But right now, we really lack leadership when it comes to tackling that problem. The president actually asked Congress to take a provision out of the energy bill that would have required him to save a million barrels of oil per day. We use over 21 million; just a tiny million barrels per day, and they're not willing to do it.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: By 2015.

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: By 2015, exactly.

JOHN: The president said that he wanted to have an energy policy that would encourage consumption.

CONAN: John, th...

JOHN: ...(Unintelligible) that sometime.

CONAN: Well, there is an argument to be made that oil--well, you say addiction to oil is hurting the economy. Addiction to oil maybe created our economy, too. That's another argument, but we'll talk more about that after a break. We'll continue this conversation. John, thank you very much for the call. We'll also go to Sudan, where riots threaten a fragile peace deal following the death of a rebel leader turned politician over the weekend.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Tomorrow on the program, Al Gore's new media venture gives citizen journalists their own cable network and reignites the debate over what amateur journalists, from bloggers to indie video makers to podcasters, bring to the media landscape and whether or not this is a good thing for the news. Citizen journalism tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today we're talking about the US reliance on foreign oil. What would it actually take to achieve energy independence and whether the benefits outweigh the costs? What sacrifices might we be required to make in the effort? If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Our guests are David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Tom Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, author most recently of "The World Is Flat."

And let's get another caller on the line, Scott. Scott calling from Portland, Oregon.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes. I'd be willing to give up speed. Isn't there a way we can just slow down and use electric cars only and just go a lot slower to get places? And whatever happened to those 50-mile-an-hour--or 50 miles per gallon carburetors that were patented way back then? Is that a myth or can we use those as well?

CONAN: David Friedman, I don't know about the carburetors, but electric cars do have their problems in terms of speed and range. Obviously, if there were innovations, perhaps those could be overcome.

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Well, exactly. I mean, the whole hundred-mile-per-gallon carburetors, that is a bit of a myth. But that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of technologies out there. Battery electric vehicles--they don't quite have the range, but they could be a great niche vehicle. They could be great for driving around town, but they're also a lot more expensive. And again, it's a question of how much people are going to pay in the near term to save money over the long term. Speeding's a really important issue. If you slow down, if you at least drive the speed limit, you're going to save your life and save some money on gas. But again, it comes down to leadership and requiring changes.

CONAN: There was a 55-mile-an-hour national speed limit back in the 1970s, Tom Friedman, absolutely despised by everybody west of the Mississippi.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: There's no question. Nobody wants to change, but everyone wants the benefits of change. And what I keep harping back to is that the world has changed, and it's changed in these fundamental ways of both the nature of the threat we face and the nature of the economic competition we face, and the implications that energy has for both of those. And either we come to terms with that in a far-sighted way that begins to deal incrementally but very strategically with this problem, or it's going to come in, bite us in the bottom.

You mentioned, Neal, Sudan. You know, there's a riot in Sudan today. We saw today the leader of Saudi Arabia died. Well, I wish them all peace and great future in all those countries. But you know what? I don't want the difference between a good day and a bad day for me to be whether Sudan reforms or doesn't reform or Saudi Arabia picks the next right leader or not. I wish them well, but I do not want to be linked to their future and their decision-making. Both today are medieval regimes.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the phone call.

Let's go now to Brad. Brad in Portola, California.

BRAD (Caller): Yeah, hi. You know, I'm listening to this and I'm really interested in what you're talking about. I don't agree with the energy policy of our administration right now, you know, but the thing is, is that, you know, I'm stuck in a situation I think that a lot of Americans are. I live in a very, very rural area, and my job's here. Every place you go, you have to drive long distances, and I mean, if you look at the demographics of this country, I suspect that there's--you know, you have huge concentrations of people in these cities and suburbs, and you're talking about all this pie-in-the-sky stuff for these folks, but this country is huge, and there are huge vast areas where people have to drive, and we have to go places and it...

CONAN: And don't want to go at 55.

BRAD: Well, OK, I'm OK with 55, but the thing is, is that we still have to go, and I'm telling you, $3 a gallon is killing us. It's killing us out here, and nobody's talking about, you know--of course, you know, you've got oil companies making record profits. We all know that and nobody ever talks about that, but we all know it, and, you know, I understand trying to get all this independence from foreign oil and all that and I'm for these things, but find us something we can put in our car that we can run on, that we can drive with, that maybe it's not oil; maybe it's something else. I don't know. Maybe it's a hybrid oil or something, but let's--people still have to drive. I mean, Americans are independent. We have and we value our independence, and part of that is being able to get in the car and go.

CONAN: Tom Friedman.

BRAD: Well, you know, I mean...

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: Well, the caller made reference to, you know, don't want to pay $3 or $4 a gallon. Certainly, I understand that, and that's not something I would propose lightly, but I do believe we need a move in that direction. I wish we were only paying 3 or $4 a gallon. If you actually look at the geopolitical costs that we're paying now for maintaining the oil lanes around the world and in the Middle East, that just doesn't come out at the pump. That comes out of your income tax, OK. That's probably $7 a gallon that you're actually paying.

Only think of what suckers we are, Neal. We're actually paying this $7, and you know who's not paying it? China's not paying it. France isn't paying it. India isn't paying it. Japan's not paying it. They're complete free riders on our basically paying all the security costs to keep oil flowing to Japan and India and China and Europe, and then what do they do? They then tax the oil at their pump at $2 a gallon. They take that revenue, OK, and fund their own state and social programs. So we're the suckers in this story.

BRAD: Well, all I know is, is that, you know, you're talking all this policy stuff and that's fantastic, I guess, but the thing is, is that, like I said, you know, we still got to go to work, we still got to move, and I'm telling you what. You're not going to build a rail system that goes from Portola, California, you know, to Reno or to--which is 60--you know, 40, 50 miles away or--you know, what about people--the guys that live up in Susanville? I mean, you don't know these towns, but I'm talking, you know, basic places that a lot of people live, and I'm telling you, you've got to move around. You've got to go places. You've got to move.

CONAN: I...

BRAD: You can't just rely on some--you know, some--you know, some train thing or some gas tax that you think is going to make us stop driving. We can't stop driving.

CONAN: David Friedman, a quick...

Mr. D. FRIEDMAN: Well, I think that's exactly true. I think you've actually seen a lot of people not stop driving, even with the high gas prices, because they're used to going from point A to point B, and they don't want to give it up. The caller's asking us to give him something. Well, the great thing is we've got this technology out there. This is auto mechanics. This isn't rocket science. This is more efficient engines. This is hybrid cars. This is ultimately, in the long run, alternative fuels. These are things that are good business investments because they save people money. Over the life of your SUV, you're spending $15,000 on gas. How about saving a bunch of that?

CONAN: Brad, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.

BRAD: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in on this, before we switch subjects, Jeff. Jeff calling from Baltimore.

JEFF (Caller): Yes. I want to thank you, Neal, for having the topic. It's a very good one. Thanks.

CONAN: OK, thank you.

JEFF: I wanted to mention that I'm a management consultant and I deal with lean manufacturing, and I just returned from Detroit and sat down in a room with some folks who run plants in Ford and GM and Toyota, and I have to tell you, I was born in the area and a fan of US manufacturing. But I was so dismayed by the depth of the entrenched thinking among American automakers, just to think about what it is that they provide to consumers, the range of choices that they offer, and I just have to agree with the point that was made earlier, that it's going to take a major disaster, I suppose, to shake people out of their complacency, who are auto producers, and to offer something different to the public. And I just wanted to provide that. I'll take comment off the air.

CONAN: Well, I was just going to ask you, the shrinkage of General Motors is not perceived as disaster enough to shake up their thinking?

JEFF: You know, it's amazing. I have some clients who just went on a tour through a Toyota facility, and along on the tour were some folks from GM, and it's just a not invented here mentality, and I'm absolutely shocked at how many signs there are that change needs to be made, and it's just not there. I'm just--I'm flabbergasted.

CONAN: All right. Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

JEFF: Sure.

CONAN: Tom Friedman, what is it going to take--well, you say it's got to take a crisis to get politicians of either party to come alive to this question to actually make this issue their own.

Mr. T. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, at this stage, you know, I must say I'm rooting for a hundred dollar a barrel oil. Whatever brings it about almost doesn't matter to me. I think that's the only thing that's going to really change people's behavior, and only when large numbers of consumers changed their behavior and demand the kind of fuel efficiency that they need from their cars to continue something approximating their way of life will companies like General Motors and others begin to implement the very technologies which David said are already here. They're already here.

CONAN: Well, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there for now, but we appreciate your both joining us here today. That was Tom Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and author most recently of "The World Is Flat." David Friedman is research director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Both of them were nice enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

And coming up, we're going to be talking about Sudan, where a crisis erupted today following the death of the vice president.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: