Guest Host: Tamara Keith

The village of Newtok is seen from a plane June 29, in Newtok, Alaska. Because of rising waters and climate change, the area's native Yupik population is being relocated nine miles away.

The village of Newtok is seen from a plane June 29, in Newtok, Alaska. Because of rising waters and climate change, the area's native Yupik population is being relocated nine miles away.

President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska yesterday on a visit aimed at highlighting the need for urgent action on climate change. The trip takes him from Anchorage to the Arctic, where he will become the first sitting president to visit the region. Along the way, the president is meeting with Native Alaskans, touring a glacier that’s melted more than a mile in recent years, and visiting an Arctic town that has undergone serious erosion. Supporters of the president’s efforts say Alaska is the “canary in the coal mine” of global warming with rising temperatures, melting permafrost and wildfires. But critics say these warnings are exaggerated and that Alaska should be able to decide what to do with its own natural resources, including drilling offshore for oil and gas. And even some of the president’s own supporters question the administration’s recent decision to grant permits for Arctic drilling. We discuss the president’s trip to Alaska, critics on the right and the left, and what it all means for efforts to combat climate change.

Guests

  • Coral Davenport Climate and energy reporter, The New York Times
  • Michael Brune Executive director, Sierra Club
  • Myron Ebell Director, center for energy and environment, Competitive Enterprise Institute.
  • Liz Ruskin Washington, D.C. correspondent, Alaska Public Media

Transcript

  • 10:06:54

    MS. TAMARA KEITHThanks for joining us. I'm Tamara Keith from NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's getting a voice treatment and will be back soon. President Obama continues his visit to Alaska today, meeting with Native Americans and touring a melting glacier in an effort to highlight the effects of climate change. The administration says the global Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world and requires immediate action to arrest this process.

  • 10:07:22

    MS. TAMARA KEITHBut critics say Alaska should be able to decide what to do with its own resources, especially in light of big declines in prices of oil, a major source of revenue for the state. Joining me in the studio to discuss the president's trip, controversy over Arctic drilling and what it all means for the upcoming world climate meeting in Paris, are Coral Davenport of the New York Times and Myron Ebell of The Competitive Enterprise Institute.

  • 10:07:48

    MS. TAMARA KEITHAnd joining us by phone from San Francisco, California, Michael Brune of the Sierra Club. Welcome to all of you.

  • 10:07:55

    MS. CORAL DAVENPORTHi. It's great to be here.

  • 10:07:55

    MR. MYRON EBELLThank you.

  • 10:07:57

    MR. MICHAEL BRUNEHi.

  • 10:07:57

    KEITHAnd hello. And we'll be taking your comments and questions throughout the hour. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Our handle is @drshow. But before going to our guests in the studio, I want to go to Seward, Alaska, where Liz Ruskin is currently. She's the Washington, D.C. correspondent for Alaska public media. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show," Liz.

  • 10:08:30

    MS. LIZ RUSKINThank you.

  • 10:08:32

    KEITHAnd it must be excessively early in the morning there.

  • 10:08:36

    RUSKINWell, it's 6:00 AM.

  • 10:08:39

    KEITHWell, we really appreciate you joining us. Tell us about the president's arrival there yesterday and what kind of reception did he get and also where is he going today? Well, let's see. He arrived about midday. It's exciting for Alaska to see a president. We don't get visits very often, except when they come to refuel. So there was a lot of excitement about it. The White House -- the president had invited Governor Bill Walker to fly on Air Force One so Walker flew to Washington, D.C. commercial and then came back on Air Force One.

  • 10:09:23

    RUSKINSo they walked down the steps together and, oh, you know, that was a smart PR move, I would think. And then, of course, there was the mountain-naming so that kind of started the visit off with a bang.

  • 10:09:36

    KEITHWell, let's talk about that mountain-naming. That's Mount McKinley. No longer Mount McKinley.

  • 10:09:41

    RUSKINYou mean, Denali, right?

  • 10:09:42

    KEITHDenali, exactly. So that was -- that raised some controversy here, especially among the Ohio delegation in Congress. But how was it received in Alaska?

  • 10:09:54

    RUSKINOh, it's hugely popular. Alaskans have been trying to change that mountain name for 40 years. McKinley has never -- President McKinley never set foot in Alaska so for, you know, all this time, that mountain has stood there as this symbol of control by Washington or control by outsiders, control by people far away that don’t understand the state. So when they changed the name, you know, that was a real big deal here.

  • 10:10:27

    RUSKINAnd the news of that came out just before the president came so it really generated quite a bit of excitement.

  • 10:10:36

    KEITHAnd that support was bipartisan. This was -- in Alaska, the name of the mountain is not a partisan issue.

  • 10:10:43

    RUSKINNo. I think there are some -- very few, you know, there's a minority of traditionalists who, you know, got used to calling it Mount McKinley and that's what they intend to do. But the congressional delegation was -- our all Republican delegation was pretty happy about the name change and there were signs all over town thanking Obama, thank you, Mr. President, that sort of thing.

  • 10:11:09

    KEITHAnd the president, today, is going to hike on a glacier and he's really there on this trip to call attention to his climate policy and his push for climate action quickly. Obviously, the backdrop creates an image that he's looking for. But where do Alaskans fall on his desire to push for action on climate change?

  • 10:11:38

    RUSKINI think there's a fair amount of skepticism and I do think that there's a worry that Alaska is just being used as a backdrop here and among Republicans, among our -- our senior senator, for instance says that, you know, he's just using Alaska and not listening to what real Alaskans have to say. And Alaskans, by a large majority, favor oil development and more oil development. They grew up with the oil industry and they tend to trust it.

  • 10:12:21

    KEITHAnd it's a huge part of the economy.

  • 10:12:24

    RUSKINOh, yeah. It funds 90 percent of the state budget. We don't pay income tax. We don’t have a state sales tax. The oil industry pays the bills.

  • 10:12:36

    KEITHAnd so President Obama, the Obama administration, two weeks ago, granted an approval for Arctic drilling for Shell. How was that received?

  • 10:12:50

    RUSKINYou mean, offshore drilling, yeah.

  • 10:12:51

    KEITHYeah, offshore drilling, yeah.

  • 10:12:54

    RUSKINI think that is quite a -- it is more controversial than drilling on land. I think that -- but I would think that in general, you know, Alaskans favor the oil industry and I think they favor that move, too, Democrats also. Former U.S. Senator Mark Begich was a huge proponent of offshore drilling in the Arctic.

  • 10:13:24

    KEITHAnd today, just finally, President Obama is headed to the Arctic and he's going hiking on a glacier with Bear Grylls, the reality TV star. Is that right?

  • 10:13:38

    RUSKINWell, I'm not entirely sure where Bear Grylls joins the show here, but the president is -- I'm in Seward now where the president is due in a few hours. He is going to hike to a glacier that's dramatically receding. I mean, a lot of glaciers around here are, but this glacier, you can drive very close to so it's, yeah, it's a dramatically receding glacier. Then, he's going out on the Coast Guard cutter for a view of the glaciers from the park.

  • 10:14:09

    RUSKINAnd he's flying to a community called Dillingham in Western Alaska and then, he goes to Kotzebue, which is above the Arctic Circle and he'll become the first American president to visit the Arctic, at least in the U.S. And I'm not sure, at some point, yes, he's meeting up with Bear Grylls and I am not sure where exactly that happens.

  • 10:14:34

    KEITHWell, Liz Ruskin of Alaska public media, thank you so much for joining us. It's 6:00 AM your time from Seward, Alaska.

  • 10:14:42

    RUSKINThank you.

  • 10:14:44

    KEITHAnd back in the studio now, I want to turn to Coral Davenport with the New York Times. The White House is hoping that this Alaska trip will highlight the president's climate change agenda, but the administration also, as we heard, approved this offshore Arctic oil drilling. How does that -- it seems like there's a mixed message there.

  • 10:15:04

    DAVENPORTYeah, there is tension in that agenda, although it should be clear the primary focus of the president's main climate change policy isn't on oil drilling at all. It's on electricity supply. The number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are emissions from coal-fired power plants. The central element of President Obama's climate change policy is an EPA regulation that would restrict emissions from power plants and set off a change from using coal-fired power plants to using other forms of electricity for coal-fired power plants, natural gas, which Alaska, of course, is a major producer of, wind, solar, nuclear, other renewable and low carbon forms of energy.

  • 10:15:55

    DAVENPORTNone of that really speaks to oil drilling. That said, of course, oil is a main source of fossil fuel, but -- and this -- environmentalists are highlighting what does seem to be a tension about this visit, sort of problems with fossil fuels and yet he's approved moving forward on fossil fuel. That's present in this visit, but it should be clear that the center of the president's climate change agenda does not address oil drilling at all.

  • 10:16:26

    KEITHAll right. Michael Brune, did the White House have a choice in approving this? Did they not have a choice in approving this?

  • 10:16:39

    BRUNEApproving the drilling by Shell, the offshore drilling?

  • 10:16:42

    KEITHYeah, yeah.

  • 10:16:43

    BRUNESure. Yeah, they did. So what the White House will say is that -- and what the president said in announcing the trip is that these were leases that were approved under the Bush administration and that is true. However, the Sierra Club and basically the entire environmental community has been arguing since January of 2009 that these are leases that should not go forward. They should be pulled back. There should be some way for the Department of the Interior to continue to develop new energy resources, but not to exploit the Arctic and not to double down on our dependence on oil when we need to fight climate change as aggressively as we can.

  • 10:17:23

    BRUNEI would say that what Coral said, completely agree with, that the administration has done a lot on climate, particularly through the clean power plan to cut carbon from the electric sector. The administration has also done a lot to cut carbon from transportation by reducing the amount of oil that's used in cars and trucks and SUVs and in the context of that, it doesn't make sense to drastically limit the amount of carbon and oil that's being used in transportation and then (word?) the amount of drilling that's taking place in some of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet.

  • 10:17:58

    KEITHMichael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. Coming up, more of our conversation about climate change and Obama's trip to Alaska.

  • 10:20:01

    KEITHWelcome back. I'm Tamara Keith sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we are talking about President Obama's trip to Alaska to talk about climate change. And I wanted to turn back to Coral Davenport of The New York Times. Is there a big announcement on this trip? Is there -- is there news on this trip?

  • 10:20:21

    DAVENPORTThis trip is a big photo op. There was one announcement yesterday, which is the president announced that the U.S. should increase its number of ice breakers in the Arctic because the Arctic is warming. There, you know, there is so much more area that -- land, water -- that's going to be accessible. Russia has many more of these ice-breaking vessels up there. He announced that the U.S. will -- the U.S. only has two -- the U.S. is going to increase its number.

  • 10:20:53

    DAVENPORTThis is -- the purpose of that announcement was kind of to, once again, highlight the environmental change that's happening in the Arctic. If there's more water and more area, you need more vessels up there to deal with it. But it also highlights the fact of the changing environment and sort of gets at this tension with Russia.

  • 10:21:13

    DAVENPORTOther than that, the primary purpose of this is the U.S. this year assumed chairmanship of the eight-member Arctic Council -- the eight countries that have a piece of the Arctic Circle. There's a conference going up there right now called Glacier. It's a meeting of those countries. Because the U.S. is the chair, there was an effort to kind of highlight the U.S.'s role. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry both really want to emphasize the issue of climate change in this role of chairmanship.

  • 10:21:49

    DAVENPORTAnd being on the Arctic where, you know, numerous scientific reports have show it's sort of the fastest melting, kind of earliest part of the planet that's showing the impact of climate change, is a great opportunity for a photo op to highlight that message. Big policy news, no.

  • 10:22:07

    KEITHOkay. That happens.

  • 10:22:09

    DAVENPORTYeah.

  • 10:22:10

    KEITHAnd sometimes the backdrop is too beautiful to pass up. Myron Ebell, the director for the center of -- for energy and environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, what do you make of the president's trip?

  • 10:22:22

    EBELLWell, as Liz Ruskin said, it's a backdrop and, as Coral said, it's a photo op. It's also really an insult to the State of Alaska and the vast majority of its citizens who -- this goes way beyond the Obama administration -- but Alaska is essentially treated as a federal colony and it's gotten worse under the Obama administration. They depend upon resources. The state is gigantic. It's more than three times the size of California. It's more than ten times the size of Wisconsin or Florida. It's huge, but it's got 500,000 people. They're never going to have a big manufacturing base up there or, you know, all these things that we talk about, high-tech jobs.

  • 10:23:07

    EBELLBut they have huge natural resources, which the whole country and the whole world can benefit from. But those resources are locked up. And the Obama administration -- despite this one little thing, these offshore oil exploration drilling that Shell is going, now going to be allowed to do after over 10 years of trying and, I don't know, it's over $6 billion that they've invested -- except for that one little piece, everything the Interior Department has done in the Obama administration is to shut down Alaska's resource base and rule it off-limits to production. And the vast majority of Alaskans, including the Eskimos and the Indians, are incredibly opposed to what Obama is doing.

  • 10:23:50

    KEITHCoral.

  • 10:23:50

    DAVENPORTMyron's absolutely right that Alaska's economy is primarily dependent on natural resource extraction, particularly oil and gas. It fuels -- the revenues from oil and gas extraction are essential for the Alaska State budget. It's also a major job creator. No question about that. What's interesting about Alaska, though, is in the broader energy and climate debate. It really does present this fascinating tension. Because as the 2014 National Climate Assessment showed -- a report put together by 14 federal agencies -- Alaska is also one of the states that is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

  • 10:24:27

    DAVENPORTWe're seeing right now, and the president is highlighting on his trip, one of the first impacts we're seeing in Alaska is the melting of the permafrost, which is a foundation for a lot of where the state is built. There are a couple of villages in the north where permafrost is melting as a direct result of global warming, literally falling off into the sea. And the people in these villages are having to relocate. Their lives and livelihoods are threatened. This is an issue that we've seen in other parts of Alaska where permafrost that highways are built on is melting and we've seen problems with highway collapses.

  • 10:25:01

    DAVENPORTThis is -- climate change is absolutely an economic threat to Alaska. Alaska is going -- is a state that's going to experience the economic impacts of climate change earlier than a lot of other states. At the same time, it is economically dependent on fossil fuel extraction. So it's a really, you know, it's a lot more complex than just, you know, oil drilling is good or bad, or climate policy is good or bad. It's a really complicated picture. And I think it's important to present it that way.

  • 10:25:29

    KEITHMichael Brune at the Sierra Club, is that complexity part of the arguments that you try to make? I mean, is the sort of the immediacy of the appearance of climate change in Alaska part of the case you make?

  • 10:25:48

    BRUNEYes, absolutely. You know, it's the president's job to identify, to recognize threats that face our country and to develop strategies to deal with those threats. I just returned from Alaska. I spent many of the past several years up in Alaska. I was visiting the city or the town of Kaktovik, right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, the town of Arctic Village. And these are communities that are threatened directly by climate change. The Inuit and other native communities that live off of the land are threatened when wildlife patterns are changing significantly, the permafrost is melting, as Coral just said, the wildfires in Alaska are unprecedented. And we need to see a strategy that actually deals with these threats.

  • 10:26:37

    BRUNEWhat is also true is that a lot of these rural communities, native and otherwise, are spending enormous amounts of money -- that they don't, of which they don't have much -- on energy costs. They're paying a huge amount of money to extract or to burn fossil fuels, usually diesel oil, to keep their communities warm and keep their communities lighted in the winter, when increasingly what we're finding is that solar and wind would do a much better job and a much cheaper job of keeping these communities in power.

  • 10:27:09

    BRUNESo what the president is doing is using Alaska as a backdrop to talk about the threats of climate change. But what he's also doing is showing the opportunities that we have in addressing climate change and, in many cases, saving money while doing so.

  • 10:27:23

    KEITHI actually want to head to the phones now and Ed in Kalamazoo, Mich. Ed, welcome to the show.

  • 10:27:30

    EDOh, yes. Hello. Well, you covered some of the points I was going to ask. I was going to ask about the evidence of climate change in Alaska itself. And I wrote down the lack of snow cover, because I know they've canceled -- or not canceled -- they've had to move the Iditarod Sled Race due to lack of snow. And, let's see, well you covered melting permafrost. And then, yeah, are all the glaciers in Alaska retreating? That's what I hear that almost all the -- there have been -- were receding for the last 30 years. And there's no other explanation that people can give other than the rising temperature and global warming.

  • 10:28:12

    KEITHEd, thanks for your call. Coral, is that something you can talk to? Or Michael?

  • 10:28:17

    DAVENPORTYeah. The best resource for this, I would say again, is the National Climate Assessment, the 14-government agency report that came out in 2014. That's kind of the best comprehensive assessment of the impacts of climate change in the U.S. And it does talk about receding glaciers in Alaska. One of the complicated things about assessing climate changes -- there are some things you -- some changes that scientists can say absolutely have happened due to climate change, others, researchers are still trying to draw that direct link.

  • 10:28:46

    DAVENPORTAlaska is one of the places where, yes, melting snow cover, receding glaciers, changes in some cases in salmon population, can all be linked to climate change. And this is something that we see throughout the rest of the Arctic as well.

  • 10:29:01

    KEITHMyron Ebell.

  • 10:29:02

    EBELLYeah. I don't think that we can put the finger on global warming here. I don't think the best source is the National Climate Assessment. I think it's the Alaska Climate Research Center at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. And here is their summary of climate history. The period 1949 to 1975 was substantially colder than the period from 1977 to 2009. However, since 1977, little additional warming has occurred in Alaska with the exception of Barrow and a few other locations. The step-wise shift appearing in the temperature data in 1976 corresponds to a phased shift of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation from a negative to a positive phase.

  • 10:29:47

    KEITHSo you're saying that...

  • 10:29:49

    EBELLIt's cyclical.

  • 10:29:49

    KEITH...you believe it's cyclical.

  • 10:29:50

    EBELLIt's cyclical. And there's very strong evidence that there was a very warm period when the Pacific Decadal Oscillation was in its positive phase back in the 1920s and '30s, when those glaciers were receding, Alaska was warming up, and yet nobody thought of global warming because everybody understood it was the cycle.

  • 10:30:11

    KEITHIs that in line with scientific consensus or is that one...

  • 10:30:14

    DAVENPORTNo. No. It is not.

  • 10:30:14

    EBELLThese...

  • 10:30:16

    DAVENPORTWith all due respect, I mean, the established scientific consensus -- not just from the National Climate Assessment, but also, for example the Nobel-Prize Winning 2000-member Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- is quite clear that human-caused carbon emissions, greenhouse gasses, are the direct contributor to the warming of the planet. That is established science. There's not any sort of reliable or credible debate on the basic fact of human-caused climate change.

  • 10:30:47

    KEITHI have a question that I got from Twitter. Someone tweeted in and asked, is there a way to sort of bridge the policy differences on climate change and the environment -- is there a way to bring on people who don't believe that it is human caused? And I guess that question would go to Michael Brune at the Sierra Club. Is there a way to sort of bridge this gap without re-debating this thing that is in many ways settled in the scientific community?

  • 10:31:21

    BRUNEYeah. Well, there should be. But, first, I mean, to solve a problem, you first have to recognize that a problem actually exists. So we've got to get beyond this denialism and trying to pretend like there's no problem here. I would say that there are great opportunities for bipartisan solutions. Because what we find is that, when we address climate change, we get a whole series of other benefits. Our country becomes more competitive. Our economy becomes more diverse and more resilient. We put more people to work. We cut down air pollution and water pollution. And we help local economies to thrive. Those are a whole series of things. We cut costs. We save consumers money.

  • 10:32:04

    BRUNEAll of these things should be supported by Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men and women, people living in urban areas and rural areas. We actually should be uniting around solutions to climate change. We shouldn't be fighting or even debating whether or not climate change exists or pulling really obscure citations from old and outdated reports. We have to agree that there's a problem and then let's come up with the best solutions to solve that problem.

  • 10:32:32

    KEITHI'm Tamara Keith of NPR and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Or send us an email to drshow@wamu.org, find us on Facebook or send us a tweet at #drshow. And we have some calls that have come in. And let's go to Gordon in Highland, Ind.

  • 10:33:00

    GORDONYes. The Sierra Club said it much better than I can. But my thing -- my comment was this: Whatever one thinks of the president's visit to Alaska, what are the scientists saying? They -- they're the knowledgeable ones. Alaska depends on oil. The rest of the world depends on solving the climate's change issue. Briefly, that's it. The Sierra Club said it better than I.

  • 10:33:26

    KEITHThank you for your call, Gordon. Michael Brune, anything to add?

  • 10:33:31

    BRUNEWell, here's what I'd say. So there's two big points here. One is that scientists are say that, if we're going to fight climate change effectively, we have to keep at least two-thirds or three-quarters of the known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground -- that's coal, oil and gas. They say that all of the oil that's up in the Arctic should stay underground.

  • 10:33:53

    BRUNEThe second thing I'll say is that, admittedly, that will be difficult to do, right? So we have to find a way for the communities that are more dependent on fossil fuels -- let's say, Alaska, Appalachia, other communities that historically have relied on fossil fuels -- we should figure out for them, with them, how do we make this transition? It won't be easy for those communities. We have to find a way to wean their economies off of dirty fuels and towards clean energy. It won't happen with a single presidential trip. It won't happen with a single piece of legislation. We should be reasonable. We should be thoughtful. We should look to the long term for where those economies can go and still thrive.

  • 10:34:32

    BRUNEBut, again, it starts with recognizing that there is a problem and then coming up with a variety of solutions to address that problem.

  • 10:34:40

    KEITHCoral Davenport from The New York Times.

  • 10:34:41

    DAVENPORTTo follow on what Michael said, again, the president's climate policies are chiefly focused on changing demand. They're focused on changing the transportation sector so that it demands and uses much less oil. When you do that, you end up causing a lot of harm to the oil industry. His electricity climate policy is about changing demand, shifting demand away from coal and eventually natural gas, to renewable sources such as wind and solar. When you do that, when you reduce demand for coal, that means that the producers of coal -- the coal miners, the coal companies -- get a big financial hit. That's going to be something that's absolutely going to play out in the next decades if we see these policies put in place.

  • 10:35:25

    DAVENPORTAnd so, you know, in the -- again, this is -- and the Alaska trip helps highlight this. There is a problem with climate change. There is also, you know, the shift, putting those policies in place, comes with tensions. There are winners and losers. The losers, ultimately, are the people whose lives and livelihoods and economies are primarily dependent on extracting fossil fuels. That's a real issue that the next administrations are -- the next presidents are going to have to face.

  • 10:35:52

    KEITHMyron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, are you worried about the economics here? Or...

  • 10:35:57

    EBELLI'm worried that the climate policies being proposed are much more dangerous than climate change. You can see this nationally, you can see it internationally and you can see it in Alaska. The United States has the world's largest reserves of coal. Alaska has huge reserves of coal. The United States, now, through the hydraulic fracturing revolution, has huge reserves of oil and natural gas. We are locking those up and taking away our competitive advantage in the global economy.

  • 10:36:28

    EBELLWe are impoverishing people. We are particularly impoverishing poor people, not just coal miners and people who work on the North Slope of Alaska. If you are in the bottom part of the income spectrum, you spend a much higher percentage of your income on food and energy than people -- middle-class people and upper-class people. So by raising energy prices, what we are doing is we are creating a huge economic problem for the people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

  • 10:37:00

    EBELLAnd we are --and if you go to Alaska, you will see that the people who are struggling, like the Native corporations, they are being done out of their own resources. They are not being allowed to develop coal, hard-rock minerals, and oil and gas. It's not just oil and gas up there. Alaska has huge amounts of copper, gold and other metals.

  • 10:37:22

    KEITHWe have to go to a break, but much more on this to come. Coming up, your calls and questions for our panel. So please stay tuned.

  • 10:40:01

    KEITHWelcome back. I'm Tamara Keith of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And where we left off was with an economic argument, an argument about whether limiting things like drilling in the Arctic would harm the population of Alaska and whether the president's climate policies are making energy more expensive for people. And I'm wondering, Coral and also Michael Brune, is it getting to a point where -- where in some time renewable energy is not more expensive than fossil fuels? Is there a tipping point nearing here?

  • 10:40:41

    DAVENPORTWell, on coal and natural gas versus, for example, wind and solar, the thing that makes difference in the -- first of all, in some parts of the country coal and wind are already competitive in price. And some states already have state-level policies in place designed to create aggressive markets for wind and solar. So in some of those states, states like Iowa, Texas, you see wind-powered electricity already competitive with coal.

  • 10:41:11

    DAVENPORTOne of the coals of the president's climate regulations is to essentially create that market nationally so that, you know, electric utilities know that they have to buy wind and solar, then you have bigger, you know, higher demand, it scales up, the more it scales up, the more the price goes down. So the hope of the administration with a policy like this is it triggers a market that helps drive down the price.

  • 10:41:37

    DAVENPORTStill a lot of challenges in that transition. Important to remember that renewables are only about seven perfect of electricity in the U.S. today, compared to about 30 percent for coal. So it is going to be probably a challenging scale-up, but economists will say there can -- that price parity point is visible in the future.

  • 10:41:55

    KEITHMyron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, you are raising your hand. Our listeners can't see it.

  • 10:41:59

    EBELLYes, Tamara, I think Coral is misinformed. I think she believes some of the things she reads in the newspaper. Wind is not competitive because -- for this reason. In the United States, the highest demand in most of the country, particularly in the South and Southwest, is in the summer. Windmills may blow at 30 percent capacity throughout the year, but in the summer they tend not to blow because there isn't much wind in the summer. So that means that if you have a lot of windmills in your system, you're also still going to have a lot of natural gas and coal plants to make up when the demand is peak, and you're going to have to have that as an additional investment on top of the wind and solar.

  • 10:42:46

    EBELLSo when you add that additional investment that is necessary to meet peak demand when the wind isn't blowing, you will see that wind is a net cost to the entire utility sector, that is it adds costs, which would not be there if we just relied on coal, gas, nuclear and hydro.

  • 10:43:10

    KEITHAre you...

  • 10:43:10

    DAVENPORTWhoa, whoa.

  • 10:43:11

    KEITHYeah, Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, do you want to jump in?

  • 10:43:15

    BRUNEYeah, yeah, so look, I have to inject some current, temporary...

  • 10:43:19

    KEITHContemporary?

  • 10:43:19

    BRUNERight?

  • 10:43:21

    KEITHOkay.

  • 10:43:22

    DAVENPORTI'm pointing out reality. So look, what is happening right now is that the fastest-growing sectors of the economy are the solar industry and the wind industry. Last week, Warren Buffett's utility in Iowa, Mid-American, announced that they were throwing -- investing $900 million into wind after investing $2 billion into wind. They will soon be at 42 percent of their power coming from wind in terms of electricity in the state.

  • 10:43:48

    KEITHI will say I just rode my bike across Iowa, and there were so many windmills. It was unbelievable to see all of them.

  • 10:43:58

    BRUNEYes, yes, and the same thing is true, increasingly, in Colorado, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Minnesota, Oklahoma, a lot of very red states. And more states are not only investing in wind and in solar, but they're saving money. I will post on Facebook later this morning an article that shows how Mid-American and other utilities are not only investing in wind and solar, but they're saving their rate-payers money in doing that.

  • 10:44:27

    BRUNEI want to go back for just a second to what Myron said just before the break. He said, and I quote, climate change policies are more dangerous than climate change. That is a big statement, and it is the opposite of what is true. It is the opposite of what is true. In the first administration, the biggest thing that -- first term of this administration, the biggest thing that the administration did was to cut carbon from cars and trucks and vehicles. What this enabled is the United States to reduce its dependence on oil, several million dollars of oil less per day. It enabled the average vehicle to go more on a gallon of gas, which saves consumers money. And it stimulated the next -- the next generation of technology in advanced vehicles and advanced energy technology. All of that is good for America, it's good for consumers.

  • 10:45:14

    BRUNEShifting from coal to clean energy is good for just about everybody. It might not be good for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but it's good for just about everybody else. We are making great progress in addressing climate change, but we have to, we have to face reality that climate change is real, and clean-energy solutions are the way to go.

  • 10:45:36

    KEITHAnd obviously that's the point that the president is trying to make on his trip to Alaska. Let's go to Dave in South Bend, Indiana. Dave, thanks for joining us on the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 10:45:44

    DAVEYeah hi. I want to comment on the president's decision to allow for drilling in the Arctic. I think that is basically insane, it's stupid. I don't understand why a man like Obama would do something like this. We just had an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where we lost 200 million gallons of oil. We only recovered from eight to 10 percent of the oil. This was in calm seas, calm wind, tropical -- practically tropical weather, infrastructure all over the place, Coast Guard station right there, you know, volunteers all over the place.

  • 10:46:28

    DAVEYou go the Arctic, you've got 20- to 30-foot seas, gale-force winds, ice floes all over the place, no Coast Guard station, no infrastructure, you have absolutely no way of cleaning up an oil spill if you have one. It would be an ecological disaster if they had a major oil spill out there. You know, we need our bowhead whales, we need our walruses, we need our polar bears, our ice seals much more than we need Arctic oil. The union will not fall if we don't get Arctic oil. We'll be just fine without it.

  • 10:47:01

    KEITHDave, thank you so much for your call, and Coral here with the New York Times wants to weigh in.

  • 10:47:05

    DAVENPORTSo Dave is expressing sort of the bewilderment that a lot of President Obama's supporters and a lot of environmentalists feel about this. They look at President Obama, and they say this is a president who is trying to carve out a historic environmental legacy. Why on Earth is he moving forward with approving this highly controversial project?

  • 10:47:27

    DAVENPORTIt has a little bit of a complicated history. As Michael Brune noted, President Obama came in with this project on the table. It was the Bush administration that actually sold the Arctic leases to Shell, to -- sort of opening up moving forward to drill. So the Obama administration came in. Shell then said all right, we've bought these leases. So they paid $2 billion to the U.S. government, to taxpayers, for them. Now we're going to apply for the permit that these leases imply we should have to drill.

  • 10:48:01

    DAVENPORTThe administration -- and in the years that they applied for their permits, assuming that they would eventually be improved, the company spent about another $6 billion preparing to go in. The administration looked at this and said, you know, there are so many environmentalists on staff in the White House and in the Interior Department who I know did not want to move forward with this. Their lawyers looked at this and said, okay, if we don't approve these permits, what we will probably have to do is buy back the lease from Shell at a cost of not just the $2 billion that Shell paid but possibly be on the legal hook for another $6 billion, $8 billion of taxpayer money that it could cost in, you know, in the legal liability to deny this.

  • 10:48:47

    DAVENPORTAnd so what they said is, okay, let's go ahead and move forward to this not -- you know, avoid these legal liabilities and try to make it as safe as possible. So the administration earlier this year put forth a series of new regulations on offshore drilling safety specifically in reaction to the Gulf spill. They said, you know, what equipment failed, what processes failed, what can we do, and they said okay, we're going to do everything we can to make this as safe as possible.

  • 10:49:16

    DAVENPORTThat said, the caller raises an important point. Environmentalists and other oil companies point out that a spill in the Chukchi Sea, in those pristine Arctic, treacherous waters, could, you know, with much less infrastructure that is in place in the Gulf, you know, could, if it happens, if all of those precautions don't work, you know, could potentially be a much worse on-the-ground environmental disaster than the Gulf spill.

  • 10:49:50

    DAVENPORTAnd if that happens, that will historically be placed at Obama's feet. If there is a spill in the Arctic, that will be Obama's spill. So I think this was a hard decision for this administration. I think they tried to weigh sort of what the legal issues on the ground were versus the idea of, you know, could there be a spill, and this is the path that they came up with.

  • 10:50:11

    KEITHAnd we have a couple of tweets sort of related to this that I want to read. Nancy writes, not a fan of Arctic drilling, but if we don't claim and drill, Russia will, and we will do it more safely. And then another tweet, also about Russia from somebody named Bubby's Coffee, isn't it true that this decision has more to do with military strategy surrounding our current escalation with Russia? Myron Ebell?

  • 10:50:41

    EBELLIf you look at what's going on in the Arctic, the United States has a small piece of it, Russia has a huge piece, Canada has a big piece, Denmark has a piece, and Norway has a piece. You will see there is going to be oil drilling in the Arctic regardless of what the United States decides to do, not only in Russia but also in Canada particularly. So I think the question is how safely can it be done in all of these countries.

  • 10:51:04

    EBELLAnd just the fact that the United States does it the most safely doesn't necessarily mean that we will not have environmental damage if Russia or Canada don't do it as safely as we do it. So I think this raises some big questions. On the other hand, it also raises an obvious question about why are we not drilling onshore because the Obama administration is adamant that we cannot drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the coastal plan, which was set aside when Anwar was expanded in the 1970s.

  • 10:51:33

    EBELLWe're not drilling -- the Obama administration has been dragging its feet on drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve, which was west of Prudhoe Bay, Anwar is east of Prudhoe Bay. And so if we don't provide some more oil production fairly soon, on the north slope, the trans-Alaska pipeline is going to close down because there will not be enough oil flowing in it to keep it moving. Once that pipeline is closed down, legally it has to be taken out.

  • 10:52:00

    EBELLYou know, President Obama says oh, we can do all these things, yes we can, but the trans-Alaska pipeline, built in the 1970s, is something that our country can't do now. We can't build these big projects because of environmental groups and the litigation that they bring. So we're -- if we take that pipeline out, those resources up on the north slope of Alaska will be stranded permanently because we can't build big things anymore like the trans-Alaska pipeline.

  • 10:52:25

    KEITHI'm Tamara Keith, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And I want to go in to -- back to the phones and to Charles in Caseville, Michigan. Hi Charles.

  • 10:52:34

    CHARLESHi, hi, how are you doing?

  • 10:52:37

    KEITHVery good. I understand that you grew up in Alaska.

  • 10:52:39

    CHARLESYeah, Ketchikan, Alaska, along the BC coast, rainiest city in the U.S.

  • 10:52:46

    KEITHThat's quite a distinction. And how has your home state changed?

  • 10:52:53

    CHARLESWell, I've been away from home for a few years, but growing up there in this rainy city, you know, people are surprised at the amount of rainfall, which was an average of 20 feet of years. But the last couple years have been -- have exceeded the yearly average. Last year alone, it reached almost 30 feet, an additional 10 feet of rain and so much so that during, like, full-moon, high-tide swells that the water has been washing up over onto the road and the streets and over bridges and stuff like that, which is kind of frightening in the, you know, at the outlook of things.

  • 10:53:41

    CHARLESAnd, you know, it's -- it's directly linked to some climate changes here and there around the world.

  • 10:53:52

    KEITHCharles, and do you have a question for our guests?

  • 10:53:55

    CHARLESWell, regarding, like, the economic debate here between, you know, if we look at making economic changes to save the economy versus the threat of global change in the long term, you know, you have to ask the question of whether trying to save certain sectors of the economy is worth the risk of the long-term and frightening outcome if we do not change certain things to save, you know, the ecosystem.

  • 10:54:36

    KEITHCharles, thank you so much for your call. And Michael Brune with the Sierra Club?

  • 10:54:42

    BRUNEThanks, Tamara. Well first, Charles, I'm calling from California today. The rain up in Ketchikan sounds pretty good.

  • 10:54:49

    KEITHYeah, send it on down.

  • 10:54:52

    BRUNEYeah, bring some down, please. We're suffering from the worst drought in our state's history, and it's only going to get worse this fall. So here's what I would say, is that to save the economy, to protect the economy in the 21st century, we have to address climate change because when there are droughts in California or wildfires up in Washington or severe weather events on the Eastern Seaboard or down in the Gulf, guess who pays for it? We all do. Taxpayers are footing the bill for all of these extreme weather events.

  • 10:55:23

    BRUNEAnd the economy in each of those regions is suppressed. The growth is suppressed because of climate change. However, as I said earlier, the fastest growing sectors of the economy are the solar industry, which is growing 10 times the rate of the rest of the economy, and other clean energy technologies. Yes, we do have to move beyond fossil fuels, and doing that will cause some pain and dislocation for those fossil fuel industries, but doing this is the best thing for our economy, as well as the environment. There is no war between the economy and the environment. Having the same set of strategies will help both.

  • 10:56:05

    KEITHCoral Davenport, anything to add there?

  • 10:56:08

    DAVENPORTNo, I -- Michael kind of laid out what I see as kind of one of the biggest economic stories of the 21st century, which is major transitions in the energy sector. It will be very interesting to watch, very, very important to be honest that it comes with the dislocation. If you're trying to fundamentally transform, you know, this institutional energy sectors that have powered the economy in some cases since the Industrial Revolution, it's not going to be easy, and it's not always going to be cheap.

  • 10:56:45

    DAVENPORTBroadly, economists looking at this issue will say the economic costs of the impacts of climate change will be a lot worse in the long run. It hurts either way, so just important to keep that in mind.

  • 10:56:59

    KEITHMyron, you have literally 15 seconds. We are out of time.

  • 10:57:00

    EBELLYes, Michael Brune keeps talking about the growth of renewable energy. He didn't mention that it's paid for by taxpayers. If you remove the taxpayer mandates and subsidies, the solar and wind industries, and the ethanol industry, collapse. Thank you.

  • 10:57:15

    KEITHWord is this is not the end of this conversation. Thank you so much for listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We've been joined by Coral Davenport of The New York Times, Myron Ebell of the center -- Competitive Enterprise Institute and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club. I'm Tamara Keith of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you so much for listening.

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