U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert on Peak Oil (transcript)

MediaU.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert on Peak Oil

David Room: This is David Room, for Global Public Media; interviewing Congressman Sherwood Boehlert. Representing New York's 24th District. November 3rd, 2005.

What is your responsibility, as Chairman of the Science Committee?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, I have a responsibility - like all my colleagues in the Congress, to identify problems that are facing us. Develop and be responsive to the problems, in a responsible way. But, as the Science Committee Chairman; we have jurisdiction over just about all non-Defense research and development. We have an obligation to look forward. We have an obligation, to use science to the best advantage possible. To help us solve problems we are facing now. And, problems before they develop and get out of control. We also have jurisdiction over the Office of Science at the Department of Energy, at the EPA. We've got alot of responsibility. And, we take that seriously. It used to be considered - we used to call ourselves 'the space committee'. I never did. Some people did. And, thought all our responsibility was vested in minding the store for NASA. We're so much more than that. Our involvement in energy, environment, education. And, of course; in space.

David Room: Well, tell me; how do you characterize the state of science based decision making, in the United States?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, that's interesting. Because, I work in a town with colleagues that love to say that they're for science based, decision making. That's almost a mantra. Everybody likes to recite that. Until, the scientific consensus, leads to a politically inconvenient conclusion. Then they want to go to Plan B. So, we're not using science, nearly as effectively as we should be. We're still relying too much, on the glib phrases, and the sound bites. When we should be concentrating on people who really know what they're talking about think. And, we're really never going to get unanimity, when we're dealing with science. But, you have consensus. That should guide you. And, the consensus is clearly there. That we need to do something. The day of reckoning is coming. I've said; we're on a collision course with disaster. I don't use that phrase lightly. We are. We have a finite supply and an insatiable appetite.

David Room: chuckles Well, tell me the story, of how you ended up participating in the hearing on October 17th, on peak oil?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, peak oil - we had the Special Order in the House. That was conducted and managed by a respected colleague, Dr. Roscoe Bartlett. Who is a valued member of the Science Committee. And, this is something he has taken on. That is the challenge of educating. One; his colleagues. And, two; the American people, about peak oil. It is a very real issue. But, if you mention peak oil to most people, they won't know what you're talking about. So, it's a gradual process. It's a time consuming process. But, when he had that Special Order, I thought it important that I participate. And, add my two cents worth. And, it's part of the overall, grand strategy. To do our best at outreach. To convince the American people. That yes, we have a real problem on our hands. And, it's only going to intensify in magnitude. We better darn well do something about it. Sooner, rather than later.

David Room: Right. How and when did you first become aware of our energy predicament?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: The peak oil concept. I can't give you a time and date, when suddenly the light went on. It's something that has been discussed. You know, in the circles I travel in; in about a couple of years now. But, the discussion is building to a crescendo. Thanks in large measure to the outstanding work of Dr. Bartlett. I discovered, long ago - and, I've been in this business, for quite a while. This is my completion of my four decade in Congress. The first 15 years, were as a staff member. And, that's where the real work is done. But now, for the last 23 years. As a member, in my own right. And, all that time on the Science Committee. And now, as Chairman of that Science Committee. So, I have some special responsibilities, that I take seriously. So, when concepts or ideas are bandied about. When respected people, like Dr. Bartlett, are talking more and more about the idea. Or, when someone brings to my attention, an article in one publication or another. You usually don't see these articles in mainstream press. You see it in some of the technical journals. I take notice. I say; hey, I should try to do something about that.

David Room: How do you think about peak oil, with respect to it's ramifications to the United States' economy. And, the way of life here?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, there's - look it - with the emergence of China. Which is developing an appetite, even greater than ours. For the finite supply of oil in the marketplace. Present and projected. I know there's only one way that we're going to have to go. And, that's the prices are going to go up, and up, and up. And, that's going to have a dramatic impact on our economy. And, my concern has been right along. And, I've been deeply and totally engaged in the debate about energy. Over all, my concern is that we're devoting almost all of our time, attention, and resources; to finding new sources of supply. And, they're limited. I mean, we've got to continue that. But, we should place much greater emphasis on conservation. On developing alternative energy sources. Because, both of those offer far greater promise, than drilling every other mile.

David Room: To what extent are you also concerned about global warming. And, how does it rank, with respect to other ecological problems?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, I'm very concerned about global warming. That's another one, where I'm deeply and totally immersed and engaged in a debate. It's for real. We've come a long way on that, in essence. Because, some people used to say; ah, that's just a figment of their imagination. They, being people like me, who are quoting eminent scientists about the problem. So, now we're at the point, where you're having specials. Like CNN carried, just the other night. That was an outstanding one. Miles O'Brien, was the central reporter on that. And, I've ordered a copy of it, to show my colleagues. And, I wrote a dear colleague of mine, to say; hey, come ot the Science Committee room, at such and such a time. At such and such a day. And, we've give you something, that will really get your attention. And, it's this documentary on global warming. It's for real. But, that's one of those areas, where scientific census makes it clear. That global warming, is not just a figment of someone's imagination. It's for real. We have to deal with it in a responsible manner. But, yet you still have people, who should know better; making jokes, like on a day when it might be 60 in December. So much for global warming. (sarcastic snicker) It may be 60, but it may be 60 below. All sorts of jokes. It's for real. Even the administration. I mean, the President himself, has acknowledged. One, that global warming is for real. Two, man has contributed to it. Three, we've got to do something about it. Now, what he wants to do about it - what the administration wants to do about it; puts them at odds, with some others in the Congress. And, in alot of instances, the world community. Mostly, in response to Kyoto. But, that gets into geo-politics. Where there are a whole lot of different reasons for the U.S. non-participation in Kyoto. But, it has nothing to do with the acknowledgement that the problem is for real. Two, that man is contributing to it. And, three; we've got to do something about it.

David Room: You had mentioned earlier, that we need to place much greater emphasis on conservation and alternative energy. And, I'm wondering what the low hanging fruit are, for conservation

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, the easiest one to do. And, it can be accomplished in an instant. It would be to increase CAFE Standards, into the American vocabulary. And, to the governmental action. Instead of concentrating as they do, in energy proposals on drilling in ANWAR. Or, in the Outer Continental Shelf. If you dealt with CAFE Standards; you could get more than you could get, from either source quicker. And, the big beneficiaries, would not only be the consumers. Who are fed up to their teeth, with the high price of gasoline. And, demanding that we do something about it. But, it is a National Security issue of the highest order. We are so dependent on foreign sources of oil to fuel the American economy, it is almost embarrassing. Embarrassing, isn't a strong enough word. It's shameful. Because, of the National Security implications. And, the irony of that is; we consume about 21 million barrels of oil a day. We import 14 million of those barrels a day. So, we start out every day, about 750 million to a billion dollars in the hole, in trade. That all depends upon the price of oil. But, it's now at a $60 range. Some people are forecasting, that it's going to go significantly higher in the near term. That is a matter of deep, deep concern to alot of us. And, it should be to all of us. And, the irony of that is; that in many instances, all of the dollars that flow overseas to buy the oil. Go to countries, that don't exactly share our values. And, as a matter of fact, in many instances; find some of those dollars that we send abroad. Ending up in the hands of people, who want to do us in. As Frank Gaffney, who used to be Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration. Hardly a shrinking violet, said; we're paying them, to kill us. Not a very good idea.

David Room: (chuckles) How do you frame the possibilities of what can be accomplished with CAFE?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, let me tell you what. CAFE, is an interesting example. This is not something I've been working on, in the last two weeks. It's something I've been working on, over the years. In the 107th Congress, when we proposed increased CAFE standards; we were able to garner 160 votes. In the 108th Congress, we upped that to 162. Not a significant increase. But, movement in the right direction. In the 109th Congress, earlier this year; we got 177 votes. That's a pretty good jump. And, people said to me, when I wanted to have an amendment to the Refinery Bill. Which passed the House, without my vote. I might add, it was a terrible bill. But, that's another story. But, when people say; well, why do you want to try to amend this. You already had a vote earlier in the year, on your CAFE Standards. What's changed? So, I'll tell you what's changed. Katrina. $3.00 a gallon gasoline. Suddenly, the American people are paying attention. And, there is not a member of Congress, that hasn't been back home. Hearing from our constituents, about the need to do something about it. You guys are in Washington. And, we expect you to do something about it. Well, we had an opportunity. But, low and behold; this time, my amendment was not made in order. So, we were not given an opportunity to debate it. Why? Because, I think an informal check of the Whip Organization, indicated that support was growing. And, this proposal, which some people think is not a good proposal. Or, they oppose it, for a variety of different reasons. Most of which are not very positive, in my estimation. They wouldn't allow the vote. Because, probably this time it would have passed.

David Room: Can you characterize the changes, which you're suggesting?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Sure. Essentially, I want to go from the average right now, of 25 miles per gallon. Gradually, over the next decade - don't want to do it overnight. That's not fair to ask anybody, to just do something overnight. But, I want to go from 25 miles per gallon, up to 33 miles per gallon. Now, that doesn't mean that we're not going to deny anyone choice. Government shouldn't be in the business of limiting choice. If somebody wants to buy a Hummer, for example. Which gets about six blocks per gallon. They still would be able to do so. But, we're saying that the overall fleet average, has to attain this higher level. And, guess who would be the beneficiaries? The American consumer. Every member of Congress could go home and look at his or her constituent in the face, after voting for CAFE Standards; that we have done something meaningful. And, you don't have to wait until 2016, to get the benefit. It's a gradual increase, over those ten years. But, guess what? That sends a very strong signal. And, what about the futures market for oil? If they see the United States taking meaningful action, I think the price in the futures market, would not continue to go upward. It might level off. Or, it might even go down. So, that would provide price relief, for the consumer at the pump. I mean, I think Americans - I can remember the movie, "Network". It came out about 20 years ago. When the anchor on this program said to his viewers; you should go to the window, throw it open. And, yell out; I'm mad as hell. And, I think that's exactly what the American consumer should do. They should be mad as hell. Because, the technology is there to do it. Essentially, on the shelf, gathering dust. It will not limit choice.

And, some of the arguments that are used to express opposition, don't hold their weight in salt. For example, it's going to be - if you go to higher CAFE Standards, the vehicles are going to be less safe. And, as a matter of fact, I knew that I had won the argument on merit. But, was probably gonna lose the vote. When two Congress' ago, in the closing argument against my amendment, a spokesman from the well chimed; if the Boehlert Amendment passes, our nation's highways will be strewn with thousands of dead bodies. Now, unless you're following the issue; you listen to that rhetoric. And, you say; wow, I don't want to be with something that's going to produce thousands of dead bodies on our nation's highways. Therefore, I vote no. That argument was unmitigated nonsense. Not because I say so. But, because the National Academy of Science says. Because, the American Automobile Alliance said so.

And, just this year, most recently; we had a hearing in our Science Committee. In February, when I asked directly; do you have to make cars - do you have to sacrifice safety, to make the cars more fuel efficient? Answer, no. You don't have to do that. You've got some engineering designs. Some adjustments that could be made. You're going to add, to the cost of the vehicle. But, they're all sorts of studies, that prove that you more than make up the cost of the addition. Plus, save an additional $2,000 in the life of the vehicle; by having these new efficiency standards, that are higher. And, you do that - the latest study was factored, when gas was $2.00 a gallon. And, I think most Americans, are hoping for the good old days. And, they weren't years and years ago. They were months ago, when gas was $2.00 a gallon. Now, ironically; people are filling up, as I did the other day. It was $2.69 a gallon in upstate New York. Down from a high of $3.49 a gallon, just a couple of months ago. And, people at the pump were saying; boy, we're getting a break. Gas prices are down. But, they accepted $2.69, like it's a fact of life. And, think of the impact that has on the family budget.

You don't find many Sunday Drivers. As a matter of fact, my grandkids don't even know what I'm talking about, when I talk about Sunday Drivers. But, if you're in my generation; you used to be out on the highway, and somebody ahead was rubbernecking. And, driving slow. And, said; they're Sunday Driving. They're just out in the countryside, looking around. Enjoying the scenery. People don't do that anymore. They really cut their discretionary driving, down to an absolute minimum. Because, the driving for necessities of life - to work, to school, to Dr.s, to church, to shops. To put food on the table; you haven't got any money left for anything else. And, in so many instances, when you're paying $60 to fill up the family vehicle.

David Room: What gives you confidence, that CAFE Standards can be raised significantly?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: You mean from a scientific standpoint? Or, from a political standpoint?

David Room: From a scientific standpoint.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: From a scientific standpoint. Not only does the National Academy of Sciences says the technology is there. It exists. You don't have to launch a massive, new research program. It's off the shelf technology. But, I love to hold up in debates, the front page of an Automotive News of just a couple of years ago. Which took a car, took it's component parts. And, said; if you changed this, that will cost you $17 to change this. And, that will cost you $29 to change that. I mean, it would be $180 in changes. And, it adds up to $700. It's probably over a thousand, now. But, you could do it. And, guess what; when gasoline was thirty-nine cents a gallon, there wasn't any real incentive for anybody to be demanding that. But, with the price of gasoline now, there's a lot of incentive, for people to demand it. And so, my hope is that more and more constituents will contact their Representatives. And, say; look it, we've heard about this. What do you think? We think you should do it. For all of the reasons, I just outlined to you. So, our job as individual Representatives. And, as advocates of what we think is a common sense policy, that will pay huge dividends. Our job is to continue the education program. So, whether it's participating in a Roscoe Bartlett Special Order on the floor of the House, in the early evening. Or, the wee hours in the morning. Literally, hundreds of thousands of people across America are addicts. And, they watch that. And, if they do what we think they're going to be prompted to do. They're gonna write and demand action. That's how we get it.

David Room: Okay. Has the Science Committee or the National Academy of Science, done any research on whether patents that could greatly increase fuel efficiency, have been purposely buried?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Have been purposely - ?

David Room: Buried by companies. I often just hear -

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: I don't have any evidence of if they've got technology that can really do the job. But, they've been purposely buried. I don't have any evidence of that. I don't need evidence of that. Why do I have to look for more evidence, when my case has already been proven? From the National Academy of Science Report, there are a dozen technologies that exists right now, that could be used. And so, before we devote alot of time, attention and resources to developing a new technology. And, as Chairman of the Science Committee, I'm always advocating for the development of new technology. But, I point out, you don't have to wait for that to happen. You've already got existing technologies. I don't just say so. The National Academy of Science says so. And, they've outlined it in their report.

David Room: Some green planners believe that better cars - absent other policy changes; make worse cities. In other words, more efficient cars, encourage people to drive more. What do you think about that?

Sherwood Boehlert: Well, I know we've got to do something else, too. Our policy can't be one dimensional. You'll notice what we have. And, it's happened in my lifetime, as a Congressman. But, that's a generation. But, we used to have - what we refer to as the Highway Bill on the floor. That was always a massive, multi-year bill; involving tens of billions of dollars. To, in essence; pave America, from coast to coast. Now, when we have a bill. And, we just had one. No longer called a Highway Bill, except by the old timers, who have been around a long time. It's called a Transportation Bill. And, we're talking about inter-mode transportation. And, we're talking about public transit systems. Which are a more efficient way to carry people, from point A to point B. Than going in individual vehicles. And, we're putting alot of money into public transit systems. And so, that's why it's not just New York, and Chicago. And, Los Angeles, and Washington; that have these public transit systems. And, subways and buses.

But, now you're finding we've changed the name from the Urban Transportation Administration within the Department of Commerce, to the Federal Transportation Administration. Why the change? The change - because, communities like Oneida, New York in my district. A city of 10,000. Or, Rome, New York; a city in my district of 32,000, have public transit systems. And, they're moving people efficiently. And, not only does that save energy. But, it protects the environment. So, 40 people going on a bus in Rome, New York. From one end of town, to the other; is so much more efficient, from an energy standpoint. And, beneficial from an environmental standpoint. Than those 40 people, getting in their vehicles and going from one end of Rome, to the other.

David Room: Do you consider rebuilding our nation's rail systems, to be and effective response to peak oil?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Oh, I do indeed. On rail - I'm a strong advocate on rail. And, freight transit, you don't need much convincing of anybody on the benefit of frieght rail. But, rail passenger service. We're having a pretty difficult time trying to sustain support for what is affectionately called AMTRAK. America's National Rail Passenger System. Our European friends looked at us, scratched their heads and said; you mean, you haven't yet discovered the benefit of rail passenger service? What we're doing, is starving AMTRAK for resources. We never give them enough, to continue to function with a reasonable cash flow. And, flexibility for them to need to do what they do. And, as a result; it's hanging by it's fingernails. And, that shouldn't be. We subsidize highway transit. We subsidize air transit. We subsidize BART Transit. What about rail transit? It should be a subsidy there, too. Not, because we like to give the taxpayers' money away. But, it serves a very beneficial public purpose. Lessening our dependence on foreign source oil. Helping to ease the pressure on the demand. And, if you ease the pressure on demand, you provide relief on prices. So, that benefits the American families. I think it's a win, win, win situation.

David Room: Absolutely. On October 17th, the Special Orders Speech on peak oil; there were six Republicans who stood up. And, I'm wondering, why isn't raising awareness of peak oil a bipartisan effort. Where are the Democrats and the Progressives?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, best I can detect; they're AWOL

David Room: (chuckles) Oh.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: As an old Army MP. And, I was one, when I was in the Army. That means Absent Without Leave. I don't know where they are. I'm trying to figure that out. I mean, some of my strongest allies, are across the aisle. On CAFE, for example; Ed Markey is my partner. The Democrat from Massachusetts. On some of my other environmental initiatives, I have strong support. But, I haven't heard anyone over there, talking about peak oil. But, maybe Roscoe Bartlett, is just so far ahead of everybody; that they're just waiting to catch up. But, I think it makes so much sense, that we'll get more support from the Democrats. But, quite frankly right now, this is such a highly partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill these days. I used to think last year - the beginning of the year, when the ugly specter of partisanship, raised it's head. That well, this is a Presidential election year. It happens every four years. And, once we get beyond November, people will settle down. And, for the next three and a half years; they'll work across the aisle in common cause. It shows you how good I am at forecasting. The partisanship hasn't gone away. So, let's hope partisanship does go away, when we're dealing with issues like this. Because, you know what - it's an old cliché; but, I'll say it. There's not a Republican solution or a Democrat solution to the energy crisis, we face as a nation. There should be an American solution. Fashioned with Republicans and Democrats, alike.

David Room: Are you familiar with the DOE funded Hirsch Report and it's findings?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: No, I'm not. But, my expert staff, I'm sure is.

David Room: Okay, okay. And -

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Hey, you know what? I'm a candid politician. There are alot of things, I'm not familiar with.

David Room: That's good to hear. That you acknowledge that. 'Cause, I can't imagine one person being on top of everything that's out there.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, now - speaking of being on top of things; I've got to be on top of my schedule. And, my next appointment is now running ten minutes behind.

David Room: Can I ask you one more question?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Sure.

David Room: When might there be a peak oil hearing in the Science Committee?

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Well, we have to consider this, in line with all the other request. And, we just had one today, on the crisis of the moment. Talking about the future of the space vision for America. We had the Administrator for NASA. We've got alot of things on our plate. But, peak oil is something we're very much concerned about. And, it's in the offing. Sometime in the future. In the meantime, with Dr. Bartlett leading the way. And, supporting people like me and Wayne Gilcrest. And, other members of the Congress. We hope to increase our members, that are talking about this. Pointing in a direction, for what we think are solutions offered to the problems presented.

David Room: Well, thank you, so much.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Thank you. Good to talk with you.

David Room: Yes. Very much.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert: Bye, bye.

David Room: Bye, bye. This has been David Room, for Global Public Media. Interviewing Sherwood Boehlert. November 3, 2005.

MediaU.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert on Peak Oil