May 14, 2009 – America must move away from its dependency on carbon-based fuels – our national security and economic and environmental stability depend on it.
So argued John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, at a debate co-sponsored by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Thursday's debate on America's energy future was the fourth and final event of "Priorities of a New President," the 2009 season of the National Discussion and Debate Series.
Podesta and Woolsey debated Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Karen Alderman Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, on the resolution: "The United States must end its dependency on carbon-based fuels."
The debate, moderated by Jim Angle, chief Washington correspondent for FOX News Channel, took place in front of a live audience at U.Va.'s Newcomb Hall.
In his opening remarks, Podesta, who currently serves as president of the Center for American Progress, advocated more efficient energy use. "We need to move from polluting fossil fuels to get off that dependence [on carbon-based fuels]… to clean, renewable energy."
He added that clean energy development not only slows climate change, but "it creates four times as many jobs in the United States as the production of oil."
However, at our current rate of development, we are falling behind the rest of the world. "China today is spending $12.6 million an hour on clean energy technologies," he said. " … Japan and Europe are already well ahead of us. Germany – not known for being a sunshine country – is one of the leading countries on solar installments."
Harbert countered that such aspirations are admirable, but that the real-world implications, such as time and money, are the key determining factors.
"The devil's in the details," she said. "In what timeframe are we talking about? At what cost? And do we have the real options on the table that we need right now?"
Harbert cited solar and wind energy as examples: "Currently, they comprise less than 2 percent of our nation's electricity supply, so even if we tripled them overnight, we still need to find sources for that other 95 percent of our electricity demand and for our transportation needs."
Opening up America's oil and gas reserves, using nuclear energy and coal, and being more energy-efficient are all pieces of the puzzle, she said.
Woolsey, a partner in VantagePoint Venture Partners, expressed concern about the connection between oil consumption and national security.
"Eight of the nine top exporters of oil in the world are autocratic kingdoms or dictatorships," he said, adding that Americans' dependence on foreign oil is funding madrassas in the Middle East. "Next time you're in a filling station, before you get out to get your credit card, turn the rearview mirror just a couple of inches so you're looking into your own eyes," Woolsey said. "Now you know who is paying for those little 8-year-old Pakistani and Palestinian boys to become suicide bombers."
Whitman, currently president of the Whitman Strategy Group, argued that an economy that's totally independent of fossil fuels is unrealistic. Americans need to be open to many options, including nuclear energy, but "there's no silver bullet. There are going to have to be a variety of different sources of energy that we use over time."
Woolsey countered that turning to nuclear energy is too expensive to be feasible, in addition to the public's apprehension about another Three Mile Island incident or the proliferation of weapons.
"We do not want the United States with pro-nuclear policy," he said. "Particularly one that extends to exports to become the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear proliferation by traveling around the world putting in light water reactors, nuclear power plants, selling them and having people get into the business of nuclear weapons."
Harbert worried that some alternative energy proposals might hurt an already suffering economy, and argued that focusing on domestic prospects instead would be more viable.
"Some of the proposals we're talking about will pose unnecessary and burdensome costs on American business, which will drive our businesses overseas, our jobs overseas, and we will not be a competitive economy," she said. "… If we were to develop more resources here at home, the laws of supply and demand dictate that actually we would have more supply and prices would go down."
Citing the 9/11 Commission Report, Whitman argued that nuclear energy is subjected to very high production and containment standards.
"Chemical plants rated above nuclear plants as likely targets for terrorists because they were less secure and more able to create the kind of explosion that they wanted to see, rather than try to get a rod out in order to be able to use it," she said. Nuclear energy is pricey, Podesta argued – but it reduces CO2 emissions, Harbert countered.
The debaters also discussed cap-and-trade policy, natural gas as a possible bridge to using more renewables, individual choices about energy efficiency, land use and development, and the role of the private sector in energy innovation.
During her closing remarks, Whitman admitted that alternative energy will cost more and that decision-makers will need to be thoughtful in how they allocate their money and efforts. "And if we also got into this discussion thinking that somehow we can get free air, wind or water and it's not going to cost us anything because God made it or nature made it … we're kidding ourselves," she said.
In response, Podesta contended that all Americans must turn their attention to low-carbon energy now rather than later. "That's not a job for the next group of leaders, for the next President, for the next Congress," he said. "That's a job for this president, for this Congress, and all of us in this room and around the country."
The National Discussion and Debate Series is produced for broadcast by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" airs highlights from each debate, and PBS stations around the country will air them throughout the spring. Check local listings for details.
More information, including debate video and a transcript, is online at www.millercenter.org/debates/energy.