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National Public Radio "Science Friday" Interview - Transcript


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

SEN. WARNER: Yes, I was privileged to know him quite well. He was a naval officer as he started life, and at one time I was secretary of the Navy and we developed a friendship between the two of us.

And yes, he was correct. We should have put more emphasis on alternative means to meet our energy requirements years ago. Also, I regret to say, we should not have stopped the nuclear program.

Look at France today -- 80 percent -- I repeat, 80 percent -- of their energy needs in terms of electricity being provided by nuclear power. And in our country, it's around -- 20 percent, Jeff? You're the chairman of the --

SEN. BINGAMAN: Yeah, that's correct.

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

MR. FLATOW: Senator Bingaman, you agree?

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

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

SEN. WARNER: Well, there are strongly held views on both sides. First, my position is we should try, almost across the board, everything, whether it's offshore drilling -- and I introduced one of the first offshore drilling bills here three years ago. I repeated it each year, and now my original bill is sort of the model for the various options being put forth by the Republican side. The Democrat side -- and I'll let Jeff speak for his distinguished colleagues -- are objecting to it.

But I think all forms of renewables, we should explore those. But you've got to stop to think, we're only receiving a very small percentage of our energy needs from wind and a very small, almost infinitesimal, percentage from biomass.

And while those options are attractive, they're just not potentially available at this time to move in and really help stop the escalating prices at the gas pump for when we refuel our cars or whether we're heating our homes or whatever it might be. So I think we've got to look at a package of long-term, you know, development of energy, like drilling offshore, intermediate, and also practice more conservation.

I'm pleased that my friend Jeff Bingaman and I, we put in a little bill the other day, it's very simple. It said to the executive branch, to President Bush, see if you can't reduce across the board -- and that's in all departments and agencies -- the use of energy by 1 or 2 or 3 percent. That could have made a substantial reduction.

MR. FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

Senator Bingaman, we've talked many times over the past few years about your state and your part of the country in the Southwest. Now, the abundance of solar energy down there, and scientists would tell us that if -- you have enough solar energy down there, and one company pointed out it would take a square 93 miles on a side, or one-tenth the size of Nevada, to install solar panels that are available today, solar thermal power panels -- nothing new needs to be invented to produce the electricity from them -- to power the entire United States.

One would think that there are these simple solutions -- large projects, of course, to get them installed -- that lend themselves to finding a national policy.

SEN. BINGAMAN: Well, I think there are such technologies and projects and I greatly favor going ahead with them. The truth is, you know, the utilities in my state have put out a request for a proposal to construct a concentrating solar power plant and they've made it very clear that they will only go forward if we go ahead and extend these tax credits. We have a 30 percent investment tax credit for solar projects of that type; it expires the end of 2008.

We've tried now six times, I believe, here in the Senate to get that extended for some period of time and we have not been able to. But if we'll just extend that and extend the production tax credit for wind energy and other types, I think we'll see a real increase, a dramatic increase, very quickly in the amount of funding going into these kinds of renewable energy projects.

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

SEN. BINGAMAN: Well, it came up this week and we failed again, and the problem is not only have we come down to the wire, we have actually let the production tax credit expire three or four times over the last 15 years.

So we need to go ahead and get it done; we should have done it before now. I hope that it's the first order of business when we come back into session in September. But clearly it needs to be done so that businesses can know that they have that tax treatment and can go ahead and make the investments.

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

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

MR. FLATOW: Right, "Drive at 55."

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

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


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

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

SEN. BINGAMAN: Oh, I think there's great hope. You know, we have passed significant energy bills in 2005 and then again last year. The president signed a bill in December which increased vehicle fuel efficiency requirements, or CAFE standards, up to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

There's a lot more we need to be doing; I hope we can get on with it. I don't know that it is doable between now and the time Congress adjourns this fall, because frankly, having gone through the effort to put these bills together a couple of times, they require some time. We spent, I think, six weeks on the Senate floor working on the bill in 2005; somewhat less in 2007. But there's a lot that can be done, a lot that can be done on conservation, a lot can be done to further promote renewable energy.

MR. FLATOW: All right, well I'm going to have to break it off here and we'll check back with you to see what's going to be done.

Thank you, Senators.

Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia.

SEN. WARNER: Thank you.

MR. FLATOW: Good luck to you, Senator.


MR. FLATOW: Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat from New Mexico, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Thank you, Senator Bingaman, for being with us.


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