"Chu: U.S. needs to be the Wayne Gretzky of clean energy. Obama: “I hear that the Republicans were shouting ‘BTU’ on the floor…. that tells me those guys are 16 years behind the times.”"
In the first half of his Sunday interview after the passage of the Waxman-Markey bill, Obama said he was confident the Senate will pass the climate and clean energy bill. He also asserted “My strong belief is that innovation and technology are going to accelerate our process beyond these targets, and that we’re going to look back and say we can do even more.”
Then Obama invited Energy Secretary Steven Chu and climate czar Steven Carol Browner to chime in (transcript here). Here is the rest of the interview:
Secretary Chu: Well, I just want to reiterate what the President said in terms of how do you prepare the United States for the future — with some reasonable certainty we’re going to be looking towards higher oil and gas prices 10, 20 years from today. I think what the contractors are finding out about the climate, especially in the last five years, we will be looking at a carbon constrained economy, whether it’s two years from now or 10 years from now.
So this is an opportunity for the United States to say that’s where the puck is going to be — to quote Wayne Gretzky — 10 or 20 years from now this is where it’s going to be, so why don’t we meet in this new industrial revolution, meaning that we’re going to get energy, abundant energy, the clean energy. So we have the ability to lead.
And if you send this long-term signal that there is a cap on carbon and it’s going to ratchet down, then industry has shown remarkable innovation over the years on everything we’ve done, whether it’s sulfur dioxide cleanup, whether it’s getting appliances more efficient. As soon as you say this is where we’ve got to go, we’ve always gotten there a lot faster, a lot cheaper. And so this bill with the cap and with the slowly ratcheting down will send a signal to industry that says, you know, get your engineers thinking about it, get your scientists thinking about it.
And once you unleash that great American research and innovation machine, it’s going to be — it’ll take us into this new future.
So the future part of it — this really hangs that the future part is greater in the United States; that, you know, Ford is now deeply committed, and I think GM and Chrysler are coming along, deeply committed — their future is not to lobby to sell big, heavy inefficient cars. They’re realizing now in a world 10 or 20 years from now their future will be in manufacturing light, energy efficient cars, because will have to want to buy those because the price of oil will be higher.
So this is really a bill that helps give industry a certainty that this is coming along, rather than depending whether you start now or five years from now — let’s start it now. I’ve seen over the last decade more and more industries that the United States used to have a leadership in — from nuclear power to power engineering of transformers to cars — just one by one going away, being off-shored. And we’ve got to capture back this high-value engineering, which is the future.
So this bill signals the ship has turned. And, you know, people can say about allowances yes, but there’s a transition away from allowances that — but the cap is still there and it’s still ratcheting down. So it gives industry and it gives regions time to make adjustments. But the long-term signal is very clear. So this is the heart of why it’s so important.
President Obama: And I just want to point out my Secretary of Energy used a very cool Wayne Gretzky metaphor. (Laughter.)
MEDIA: There still will be ice in the future is what you’re saying? (Laughter.)
Secretary Chu: You know, here’s this skinny kid who is arguably the greatest hockey player in the world. And they say how — and he says, I position myself on the ice. Well, how do you do it? I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been. And so for decades we’ve been trying to figure out how to — you know, this is where we wanted it — do we want it back to 1950? Well, it isn’t going to be back to 1950. And so this bill begins to say to America this is where it’s going to be and so why don’t we take the industrial lead on this.
President Obama: Carol.
Ms. Browner: Three quick points. The President talked about the 1990 Clean Air Act. During that debate industry projected that the cost per ton of sulfur dioxide reductions would be over a thousand dollars. It turned out to be a fraction because American innovation and ingenuity rose to the occasion and we found solutions that allowed us to do it more cheaply once industry had that certainty. And that story can be told time and time again about environmental rules, that’s probably the clearest — same thing for CFCs. The Senate decided to ban — the bill banned CFCs, there wasn’t a replacement via the guaranteed market — the investments were made, the replacements came forward, it was cheaper, much more quickly than we thought.
Secretary Chu: Catalytic converters –
MS. BROWNER: You can tell it over again. The second point I would make following on the President and Steve is what we see are industries eager to be a part of a clean energy future. The fact that the President was able to announce proposed car tailpipe standards, the first-ever greenhouse gas standards and have 10 CEOS stand with him, governors, the environmental community, I think it’s a testament to where industries are going. They see the future.
And finally, we had tremendous business support for the stimulus act, which was — your Department got the lion’s share of it — but it was a tremendous opportunity for new, clean energy jobs and we’re starting to see that happen as the money rolls out.
MEDIA. The House vote was obviously tough, 44 Democrats took a walk, voted against it. Are the Democrats that are voting for it going to pay a price at the polls, as the Republicans predicted?
President Obama: I don’t think so. It was interesting, I hear that the Republicans were shouting “BTU” on the floor.
For background on the BTU tax, read this Time story.
MEDIA. They were.
President Obama: Which I think is fascinating, because that tells me those guys are 16 years behind the times. I mean, here they are having an argument about the 1990s and we’re in 2009 — and they’re making the same argument on health care. They’re doing the same thing. They are fighting not even the last war, they’re fighting three wars ago.
The American people have moved forward. They are way ahead. And for all the fear-mongering I think that, as I said, there’s a recognition that the status quo is unsustainable. We have now an additional 15 to 20 years under our belts where we’ve seen energy prices continue with their volatility, the environmental consequences moved more rapidly than anybody had anticipated, our economy has not been strengthened — we’ve actually been — we’ve actually fallen behind other countries on this front. The same is true on health care, what we’ve seen is huge increases in health care costs, less satisfaction, decreases in quality.
And so we are not going to succeed by looking backwards. We’re going to succeed by moving forward. That’s what has always been true about America. Nobody ever looks back on American history and says — whether it was the transition from the agricultural era to the industrial era, whether it was the shift from the industrial era to the information era — nobody ever looks back on American history and says, boy, if folks had just kept things exactly the way they were, America would be wildly successful. Those arguments are always made. At every juncture in our history there has always been somebody who says: Be afraid of the future, this is a disaster, we can’t change. At every juncture.
But that’s not how we operate. What we do is we say, yes, the future is going to be tough, but we see opportunity there, along with challenge, and we’re going to meet it.
And it was interesting, just — because you’re talking about sort of I think a Republican congressional mind set that is looking backwards, because Republican governors and mayors have been largely supportive of all the steps we’ve taken on clean energy.
I had a lunch with a handful of corporate CEOs and they were talking about the ’90s — actually the ’80s and the ’90s, and they said back in the ’80s everybody was sure that Japan was going to take over — remember, they bought Rockefeller Center and we had these huge trade deficits, and everybody was certain that the American era was over. And what the best companies did was not shy away from this new challenge, but they embraced it and they said, how are we going to become more efficient, how are we going to cut our costs, how are we going to get more bang for the buck? In other words, how are we going to compete?
And what these CEOs all told me is that if we as a nation can make the same transition, take the same approach on the energy sector, on health care, on education — and frankly, on government, because government is not as efficient as it needs to be — but if we had that same mind set, then as a nation we’re going to be able to compete effectively.
So are there going to be nay-sayers? Absolutely. Are there going to be short-term instances where you can get political gain by scaring the bejesus out of people and telling them that their electricity rates are going to go up a thousand percent and this is going to be a tax of $3,000 — even though the studies that they cite the authors of say that these guys are just lying about these costs? Yes. Those political talking points will, in some cases, have some short-term impact.
But long term, I look at America’s history and that tells me that we don’t shy away from the future.
Media: Were those 44 Democrats not coming along with the future?
Obama: No, I think those 44 Democrats are sensitive to the immediate political climate of uncertainty around this issue. They’ve got to run every two years, and I completely understand that. As I said, our job is to make sure that we’re moving this thing forward and that as this thing gets implemented everybody starts realizing this is a jobs-producer, this is pointing industry towards the future, this is going to make our environment healthier for our kids, and that this is going to be one of those situations where people look back and say — they’re not going to worry about what the specific vote was in the House, what they’re going to be thinking about is how America decided to move forward.
MEDIA: The Clean Air Act got about 490 votes, because more people came to understand what that bill did.
Obama: At the end?
Obama: Yes. At the end, right. Well, like I said, once things work, everybody likes it. (Laughter.)
Media: Were you able to turn all the people you called yourself?
Obama: You know what, a lot of people I called, it wasn’t a matter of turning as much as it was just a matter of talking through specific concerns that people had. But, look –
Media: Did they all vote for it, or did you miss a couple?
Obama: Well, I’ll have to go back, I haven’t checked the roll call yet.
But, look, I just think that what we’ve been doing over the last six months is getting people back into fighting trim. This is a town where there was just a belief that nothing could get done. Steve used the Gretzky metaphor — I’ll use just the workout metaphor, and that is, you know, when you start training again and you’re pushing your body a little bit harder, sometimes it hurts. But if you keep on at it, after a while your body adjusts. And I think that’s what’s happening to politics in Washington. Folks have been sitting on the couch for a while, and now they’re starting to feel like, hey, you know what, I can run. And that’s why we’re getting stuff done.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be times where it hurts a little bit. All right?