Rep. Tom Udall on resource depletion and climate change (transcript)

MediaRep. Tom Udall on resource depletion and climate change

David Room: This David Room, for Global Public Media. Interviewing Congressman Tom Udall, representing New Mexico's 3rd district; on December 9th, 2005. Well, than you for your work wth Congressman Bartlett. And, starting the Peak Oil Caucus. Let's start out, with you telling me about your family's history in politics and energy. And, how it's led up to you working with Congressman Bartlett, on peak oil?

Rep. Tom Udall: I learned from my father, at a young age, about the importance of oil, in our economy. In the 1960's' he was raising national security concerns, when we were importing 20 percent of our oil. So, that background, led me to work closely with Congressman Bartlett; on establishing a Peak Oil Caucus. And, I believe that this is a significant bipartisan effort in the House. And, I look forward to the fruits of our efforts.

David Room : What was your father's role in the government?

Rep. Tom Udall: In the 1960's, he was Secretary of Interior. So, he was in charge of all the imports into the United States. Imports were going up in that period. And, reached close to 20 percent. And, that's when he had these national security concerns. I remember him, visiting with Generals at the Defense Department. And, raising these issues.

David Room: My understanding is; he also had contact with M. King Hubbert.

Rep. Tom Udall: Mr. Hubbert, was a U.S. Geological employee for a long time. I believe, then he left the government. And, did work on the outside. And, my father was familiar with Huppert. And, worked with him and his ideas; to try to develop a national policy, around what we should do. In terms of imported oil.

David Room: Regarding your involvement in the Peak Oil Caucus; what has been your reaction from your constituents and colleagues on the Hill?

Rep. Tom Udall: My colleagues in the Congress are very interested. And, showed their interest, by turning out to the subcommittee hearing on December the 7th. My constituents, believe this is an urgent concern. And, want Congress to show leadership now. I hope to see our Peak Oil Caucus grow in a bipartisan way. With equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.

David Room: Can you tell me how you perceive the politics of peak oil?

Rep. Tom Udall: The politics, are very difficult. We need to break the mind set, that everything is okay on the energy front. Peak oil, brings a sense of urgency to the debate. We must get the political will, to create crash programs. Similar to the Manhattan Project, and landing a man on the moon. We need a major investment in basic and applied science. Directed toward our future. The big question is; can we summon the political will.

David Room: Do you see this issue, transcending the red-blue state division?

Rep. Tom Udall: I hope it transcends the red-blue state division. We need all Americans, aboard on this effort.

David Room: Why do you think many of your colleagues on the Progressive Caucus, who champion environmental and social causes, have been slow to speak out about peak oil?

Rep. Tom Udall: Perhaps, some of the reticence is because they haven't heard the details yet. One purpose of the Peak Oil Caucus, is to educate everyone about the urgent need to act. The hearing, was an important part of this. Peak oil, does not have to be negative. It's an opportunity, for our country to move forward, in exciting ways. New, cleaner technology, could change the way we live. Peak oil, can help us live in productive harmony, with the natural world. I think, that is the way we need to see it. A challenge, and an opportunity.

David Room: I'd like to ask you several questions about your testimony at the House Energy and Air Quality hearing on December 7th. In that hearing; Robert Essser, of Cambridge Energy Associates, had the optimistic view that oil peak would not occur for decades. Pretty much everyone else said; peak could occur, as soon as 2010. How does Congress deal with conflicting testimony?

Rep. Tom Udall: We need to weigh conflicting testimony. Dig into the issues at hand. Try to hear from as many experts, as possible. And then, come to a conclusion, for ourselves. Where we should head. I think the conclusion will be; that peak oil, demands urgent action.

David Room: You stated; the current price of oil, does not include the full cost of road maintenance. Health and environmental costs, attributed to the air pollution. The financial risks of global warming. Or the threats to national security, from importing oil. What are the financial risks of global warming?

Rep. Tom Udall: Global warming, is changing our climate. Some of the changes, are obvious. Melting ice caps, drought, stronger hurricanes. Others, we don't know about, yet. How much are the extensive damage, caused by Hurricane Katrina; is from change in hurricane strength and strength, from global warming? It is also, a compounding problem. Permafrost, is melting in the Arctic. And, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Adding to the problem. It is difficult to predict, what is going to happen. And, how much it will cost. Insurance companies, are very concerned. And, are watching this issue carefully.

David Room: Tell me more, about the threats to national security from importing oil. Does this encompass the U.S. military activities in Iraq?

Rep. Tom Udall: Our military is heavily dependant on oil; for all of it's activities. Our ability to respond quickly to threats, will be hurt. Unless, we take significant mitigation actions, to address peak oil scenarios. Iraq, is included in this. But, we haven't seen the peak oil scenarios hit yet. If we're still there, when the peak oil scenarios hit; then, we are going to have to act quickly.

David Room: You continued. Without these externalities in the market; significant private investment and alternative technologies, will not occur. Please explain, for our audience; what you mean, by externalities?

Rep. Tom Udall: If all the costs, that our society incurs. Because, of oil consumption, were factored into the price at the pump; then, it would be higher. Presently, the oil is cheaper, than the alternative. And, therefore; investments in alternative energies, is not that attractive to private investors. Until oil and alternatives compete, on a level playing field; alternatives will remain a minute portion of our energy infrastructure. We need a structured market; which supports clean, non-polluting, energy alternatives.

David Room: What can Congress do, to accelerate the transition to such a structured market?

Rep. Tom Udall: We could act quickly, and put a cap in trade system, into place. The market, should be structured, to put a price on carbon and CO2 emissions. This can be done, through a cap in trade. With a safety valve. To prevent and emolliate economic dislocation.

David Room: Would you also consider supporting a shift, from the traditional income tax model; towards a consumption tax? Based on energy or carbon consumption?

Rep. Tom Udall: No. I would rather see us focus on a cap and trade system. As I've just discussed.

David Room: Well, you mentioned the need to incorporate these externalities; at the price, at the gas pump. How do you envision that, potentially happening? With a cap and trade system?

Rep. Tom Udall: The cap and trade system, is an upstream system. That puts a price on carbon and CO2. By doing that; the entire economic system, then gets a major push. In terms of incentives; then, to find new alternatives. That would happen at the gas pump. It would happen in power plants. It would happen in our transportation sector, over all.

David Room: So, you're saying that; if you make the changes upstream. Then, downstream, at the gas pump; the prices would likely be much greater, than they are now. Because, they would incorporate the actual costs that are associated with some of those same externalities; that you explained earlier.

Rep. Tom Udall: I think the most important thing to do, is make the changes upstream. And then, certainly they would impact downstream, at the gas pump. And, many other places.

David Room: Later, in the hearing, you said; replacing this resource - meaning oil. In a relatively short time, is not only an incredible challenge. But, also, imperative to the survival of our way of life. How do you mean - survival of our way of life?

Rep. Tom Udall: The price of oil, affects everything in our society. If it goes up; then the price of everything, will go up. Driving to work. Food that is transported long distances. Family vacations. Family budgets, will have to be more focused on this. And, it will decrease disposable income. Cheap and easy transportation. Taking vacations; essentially, anywhere in the world. Eating foods, that are shipped from across the globe. The little things that we are used to, will change. And, those seem to be the ones that affect us te most. Our economy is built on the premise; that transportation is essentially free. As we have seen; it is not. And, unless something is done, it will get more and more expensive.

David Room: Now, do you anticipate us being able to continue some of those activities? Or, are you saying; those activities are going to have to change? We're going to have to eat more locally. We're not going to be able to transport goods and people all over the world, all the time? Or, at least at the scale that we do now?

Rep. Tom Udall: I think if we take dramatic action, like I've described earlier; we may be able to mitigate some of these impacts. But, we certainly are going to have some dramatic changes, in the way we do business.

David Room: How do you see the connectin between peak oil and climate change, from a policy standpoint?

Rep. Tom Udall: I think the major points here, would be; number one, preparing for peak oil. By switching to alternative fuels and renewable energy, as soon as possible. Will help slow the imput of carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Global warming, is another pressing reason to transition to a non-petroleum, non-carbon based economy.

David Room: What do you think about the U.S. policy on climate change?

Rep. Tom Udall: At this point, we don't have much more in the way of a policy; than in research. We're not part of Kyoto. We're not at the table, internationally. I think that we should be a player. And, be a leader. And, we aren't.

David Room: Yeah. It seems like we're getting increasingly isolated. As Austrailia seems to have made some shifts. Towards more international cooperation on greenhouse gas emissions, as well, recently.

Rep. Tom Udall: Many other countries, around the world; are taking significant action. And, we're being left behind. And, I think that will hurt us. And, will hurt our business, in the long run. We're not developing the technology, that could be a part of our business survival in the future.

David Room: So, do you see policy changes for peak oil. And, policy changes for global warming. As being less, one in the same?

Rep. Tom Udall: I think there's an intersect; between peak oil and climate change. And, many of the policy directions we need to move, will impact to both of those issues.

David Room: Do you see the U.S. ever getting to the 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; that's called by, from the Inter-Governmental Panel for Climate Change?

Rep. Tom Udall: Yes, but, the day is far off. With the current approaches. We've got to act immediately, with the cap and trade system. Put a price on carbon and try to move our economy in a different direction.

David Room: Are you familiar with the Hirsch Report?

Rep. Tom Udall: Yes, I am.

David Room: Tell me; how do you think about the findings?

Rep. Tom Udall: This is a significant report. He testified, before our subcommittee hearing on December the 7th. And, he was a very persuasive witness. I think the report, does a nice job of detailing the salient points, concerning the impending peak oil crisis. Mr. Hirsch includes a comprehensive list of opinions of many scholars on the subject. I think the most important part of this report, is the sense of urgency. I agree with Mr. Hirsch, that crash programs, similar to a Manhattan Project. Or, putting a man on the moon. Need to be initiated.

David Room: Is that report, making it's ways around Congress?

Rep. Tom Udall: It was front and center, in our subcommittee hearing. And, I believe my colleagues and I in the Congress, will in the next couple of weeks, read it. And, find it to be a moving report.

David Room: Every year, the U.S. becomes more dependent on foriegn sources of oil. Is there a realistic change, of the U.S. ever becoming independent of foriegn sources?

Rep. Tom Udall: It's going to be very difficult, under current practices. We must act immediately, and invest in research. To solve our transportation oil use. 16.5 percent of the world's oil consumption, is through our automobile transportation. We need to start with CAFE standards. And, move on to alternative technologies. There are new hybrid cars; that could be plugged in, overnight. And, eliminate gas use, by commuters who travel up to fifty miles a day. That's completely eliminated gas use. Inflated tires, save three percent on fuel economy. Which is equivalent, of one million barrels of oil a year. These are a few examples, of the major efforts we need to undertake.

David Room: North American natural gas supplies, have already peaked. And, are in decline. Many analysts are concerned, that there may be a severe gas price; if we have anything but a mild winter. What mitigations are needed to prevent a full scale, natural gas crisis?

Rep. Tom Udall: In the short term, efficiency is the answer. Our natural gas power plants, could be more effective. The heat escaping from our buildings, can be reduced. We waste, up to fifty percent of the energy, that goes into our commercial and residential buildings. We need to responsibly explore for natural gas. In our country, and around the world. We need to expand our infrastructure. We need to look into ways, to import LNG. Canada has great resources there. And, we must be more efficient.

David Room: Is Congress poor in stacked?

Rep. Tom Udall: I am going to continue to be urging Congress to act on this. Some measures were taken in the Energy Bill. I don't believe they were significant enough. I hope that we will follow-up on this peak oil hearing. And, do additional hearings. So, that we can address this issue.

David Room: What advice might you give a recent high school graduate for how to think about their future, in the context of peak oil?

Rep. Tom Udall: I go into high schools, quite a bit. I tell young people, their lives will be dominated by energy issues. And, I tell them; this is a must learn subject. Major changes in lifestyle. Cool new cars, that are focused on energy efficiency. Rather than horsepower. Lots of opportunity for young people in the sciences, dealing with energy efficiency. And, basic science research.

David Room: Your uncle, Moe, ran for President in 1976. Correct?

Rep. Tom Udall: That's right.

David Room: How might things be different now, if he had won?

Rep. Tom Udall: I think that he was a believer in alternative forms of energy and renewables. And, he would have made a significant push in his time in the White House; to change our current out-moded approaches. So, I'd like to think that we'd be a lot further down the road, today.

David Room: Alright. Well, thanks alot.

Rep. Tom Udall: Thank you.

David Room: This has been Dave Room, for Global Public Media. Interviewing Congressman Tom Udall, on December 9th, 2005.

End of interview.

MediaRep. Tom Udall on resource depletion and climate change