Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - Clean Energy and Oil Spill Response

Posted on June 15, 2010

Madam President, I thank the Senator from Florida for his comments. All of us are deeply concerned about his State, the coast, and those others on the gulf coast. I know he is working hard to see that the Federal Government makes the appropriate response.

Tonight the President of the United States speaks to the Nation from the Oval Office about the oil spill. The oil spill is in its 57th day. I would like, with respect, to suggest what I hope the President does not do tonight and what I hope he does do, because the entire Nation's attention is focused on this tragic spill, the consequences for the people in the gulf, the consequences for the people of this country, and the consequences for our energy and economic future.  

What I hope the President does not do tonight, No. 1, is use the oil spill as an excuse to pass a national energy tax, collecting hundreds of billions of dollars from Americans and driving jobs overseas looking for cheap energy. The so-called cap-and-trade national energy tax is not appropriate here because it has nothing to do with cleaning up this oil spill. Not only does it drive jobs overseas, it also does not work when applied to fuel. We have had plenty of testimony before the Environment and Public Works Committee. It would you simply raise the gasoline tax but it is not going to change behavior enough to reduce the amount of gasoline consumed or carbon emitted. Finally, when applied to utilities, is premature because we have not yet found ways to recapture carbon from coal plants cost effectively or in a way that would enable coal plants to make money from the carbon rather than raising the price of everybody's electric bill.

So, No. 1, I hope the President stays focused and does not follow the advice of the White House Chief of Staff, who has been so often quoted: Never let a crisis go to waste. This is a crisis, but do not try to mislead the American people into thinking the cure for the oil spill is a new national energy tax that drives jobs overseas looking for cheap energy.  

No. 2, I would hope the President -- while helping us figure out what to do about the oil spill and making sure it never happens again -- does not destroy the rest of the gulf coast economy in the meantime. The Senators from Louisiana, Ms. Landrieu and Mr. Vitter, have both spoken eloquently on behalf of the livelihoods of so many in that area. We do not stop flying after a terrible airplane accident, and we are not going to stop offshore drilling after a tragic spill such as this one. What we need to do is to find out why it happened and to make sure it does not happen again.

Thirty percent of the oil and twenty-five percent of the natural gas we produce in the United States comes from thousands of wells in the Gulf of Mexico. If we were to shut them down, natural gas prices, home heating prices, and gasoline prices, all would skyrocket, and we would rely more on tankers from overseas that have a worse safety record than the offshore oil drillers.  

No. 3, I hope the President will not recommend, as the current legislation pending in the Senate does, that we spend taxes collected for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund on something other than cleaning up oil spills. Let me say that again. I think Americans might be looking at Washington and wondering: What is this? You mean to say I am paying a higher gasoline tax, in effect, to go into a fund to clean up oil spills and the Congress is thinking about spending that money on something other than cleaning up oil spills? The answer is exactly right.  

The proposal that is on the floor before the Senate today would raise from 8 cents to 41 cents the per-barrel fee on oil that is supposed to be used to clean up oil spills and spend it on more government. So that is another thing I hope the President does not do tonight. I hope he remembers it is called the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. If we want to re-earn the trust of the American people, we would spend the oil spill cleanup money on cleaning up oil spills.  

Finally, I hope the President does not pretend that renewable electricity has anything to do with reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Already, I see the ads for the windmills that the big corporations are putting out. But let's think about renewable electricity for a minute. We are talking about oil in the gulf. We use oil for transportation, not to create electricity. Renewable electricity -- wind, solar, and biomass -- creates electricity, which we do not need more of for transportation because there is so much unused power at night. So a clean energy program that is a national windmill policy or a national solar energy policy or national biomass policy may be useful for the country in some ways, but it has nothing to do with reducing our dependence on foreign oil. I will say more in a minute on how we can do that.  

But let me stop for a minute, if I may, to back up what I said. Solar energy, for example, is two-hundredths of 1 percent of the electricity we produce in the United States. We all hope someday we can reduce its cost by a factor of four and put it on rooftops as an intermittent supplement to our electricity needs. It has great potential for that. But the better way to spend money is on research and development to reduce its cost, not to pretend that somehow solar panels have anything to do with cleaning up the oil spill or reducing oil consumption. 

Biomass, which is sort of a controlled bonfire, has the potential to help clean up our forests and generate electricity. We have in the forests of Tennessee, New Hampshire, and other places dead trees from the pine beetle or from other disease. Cleaning them up and burning them to create electricity is a good idea, and there is biomass is also an important source of energy for our industrial sector as well. But the idea of cutting down and burning trees to create large amounts of electricity is a preposterous idea in the United States.  

As an example, one would have to continuously forest an area one-and-a-half times the size of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in order to produce enough electricity to equal one nuclear reactor. And in foresting an area one-and-a-half times the size of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you would have hundreds of trucks every day running up and down the mountain, belching out fumes, carrying the wood to a place to burn it.  

Finally, wind, which has become the "pet rock" of the 21st century energy policies. Wind can also be a useful supplement in our country. But it is important to know that it only produces 1.8 percent of our electricity, and wind turbines have nothing to do with reducing our country's dependence on oil. In addition, there are many other more efficient ways to produce clean, carbon-free electricity. For example, I just mentioned that wind produces 1.8 percent of all of our electricity and about 6 percent of our carbon-free electricity. Nuclear power produces 20 percent of all of our electricity and 70 percent of our carbon-free, pollution-free electricity. To produce the 20 percent of our electricity that comes from about 100 nuclear reactors today would require 186,000 of these 50-story wind turbines covering an area the size of West Virginia. The Tennessee Valley Authority, in the region where I live says that it can depend on wind to be there when it needs it 12 percent of the time because, of course, you can only use it when the wind blows. This compares to the dependability of nuclear to be there 91 percent of the time when it is needed.  

Then we have all seen and heard the awful stories of the pelicans immersed in oil. Well, that is not the only form of energy that causes a problem with birds. The American Bird Conservancy says the 25,000 wind turbines we have today can kill up to 275,000 birds a year, and one wind farm in California killed 79 Golden Eagles in one year.  

So the point is, we need renewable energy. We need to advance it. We hope solar becomes cost competitive. Biomass can be useful. So can wind power. But it has nothing to do with reducing our dependence on foreign oil.  

Now what do I hope the President does say tonight. Well, No. 1, I hope the President stays focused on cleaning up the oil spill -- cleaning up the oil spill and taking care of those who have been harmed. We need a plan to fix the problem. We need accountability in the regulation of energy production. We need to ask the question, Where is the President's plan? Where are the people and the equipment necessary to implement the President's plan to clean up an oil spill? This is not the first time we have had such a spill. After the Exxon Valdez tanker spill -- that was different, but it was still a big spill of oil -- the country was convulsed by that, and Congress acted and passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. It said the President shall ensure that he has a plan to clean up a worst-case oil spill and have the people and equipment to do it.  

Effectively, the President has delegated that job to the spiller. Perhaps President Bush would have done the same. Perhaps President Clinton would have done the same. But if the only option the President has is to delegate the law to the spiller, perhaps he should amend his plan or we should change the law. We should discuss that, and perhaps the President will make a recommendation on that.  

But tonight the first thing is: Clean up the oil. Get the job done. Plug the hole. No. 2, help people who are hurt. I come from a State where we have just had a thousand-year flood event, where we have had $2 billion of damage in Nashville alone, and the flood damage went all the way to Memphis. We know what that kind of pain is, and people are busy helping each other and cleaning up and not looting and not complaining. But we feel deeply for the people on the gulf coast and we want to help them. We would like to help make sure BP pays for the cleanup and damages as they have promised. We would like to help raise the limits liability and address the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Congress might consider the nuclear energy model of insurance for the future because that model gets all of the nuclear companies involved in, No. 1, making the nuclear reactors safe, and in, No. 2, addressing any sort of accident they had.  

I wish to see a similar sort of insurance fund for the oil well companies so you do not have just BP involved in cleaning it up, but you have every other oil company interested also in providing the technology, the expertise, the help and the advice to do the job.  

The third and final thing I hope the President does is chart a way for our clean energy future. I have heard a lot about that on the other side of the aisle, and there is a great deal of bipartisan cooperation in this area. Let me be specific. For fuel, I hope the President will renew his support for electric cars and trucks. Republican Senators -- all 41 of us -- have said we support the idea of electrifying half our cars and trucks. That is a very ambitious goal for our country. But we can do it. It is the single best way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. If we were to electrify half our cars and trucks -- which would take a while -- we could reduce our dependence on oil by perhaps one-third. But we would still be using 12 million barrels of oil a day.  

Senator Dorgan and I and Senator Merkley have introduced bipartisan legislation to create a better environment for electric cars and trucks in America. The President has strongly urged this idea, and Secretary Chu has worked hard to create support for batteries and for cars. There is room for bipartisan agreement on the single best way to reduce our dependence on oil, and that would be by encouraging electric cars and trucks; electrifying half of them.  

No. 2, for electricity, the single best way to produce clean electricity is nuclear power. One hundred nuclear reactors produce 20 percent of our power, but 70 percent, as I said, of all of our carbon-free electricity. Senator Webb and I have introduced legislation to create an environment in which we can build 100 more nuclear reactors.  

We do not need these reactors in order to have electric cars and trucks. The Brookings Institution and Obama administration officials have said we do not need to build one new powerplant in order to electrify half our cars and trucks because we have so much extra electricity at night. If we plug them in when we sleep we can have electric cars and trucks and would need no new windmills, no new nuclear plants, no new coal plants for that purpose.  

But if we need new green electricity, the best source for it is nuclear powerplants. They are the most useful. They are the most reliable, and they do the least damage to the environment. The number of deaths due to nuclear accidents at American commercial U.S. nuclear powerplants is zero. The number of deaths due to nuclear accidents in the Navy nuclear fleet is zero. There is a system of accountability, and as a result, a very good record.  

So it is electric cars and trucks for fuel, nuclear power for electricity. The President has been very good in the last few months on nuclear power. He has appointed strong members to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He has appointed strong members to a commission to deal with used nuclear fuel. He has done a good job of beginning to get the loan guarantees going for the first new plants. So electric cars and trucks and nuclear power are areas where we should be able to work in a bipartisan way in the future. 

The third area is on energy research and development. The President has recommended and the Congress has approved more money for energy research and development. Republicans support doubling our energy research and development for a clean energy future. That would mean projects such as reducing the cost of solar power to one-fourth of today's cost. That would mean recapturing carbon from coal plants. It would mean developing a 500-mile battery, which would almost guarantee the electrification of half our cars and trucks over time. It would mean intensive research to find ways to recycle used nuclear fuel in a way that does not isolate plutonium. It would also mean research for making clean biofuels from crops we do not eat.  

Making great advances in solar, carbon recapture, electric batteries, nuclear recycling, and biofuels would be the third important part of our energy future. While we are at it, Congress should pass the clean air bill Senator Carper and I have authored, and that 13 other Senators have cosponsored. It is cosponsored by eight Democrats, six Republicans, and one Independent. 

While we are figuring out what to do about carbon, we can go ahead and do what we know how to do, which is reduce pollution from mercury, sulphur, and nitrogen from our coal plants to improve our air quality, reduce health care costs, and save lives. 

So there are many things I hope the President will talk about to have bipartisan support: fuel, electric cars and trucks, electricity, nuclear plants, energy R&D, solar, carbon recapture, batteries, nuclear, clean fuels, and finally, the clean air bill Senator Carper and I and others support.  

This is an important time for our country. It is a time when we deserve bipartisan action. It is a time when we deserve to look to the future. It is a time when we need to focus on cleaning up the spill, helping the people who are hurt, planning for a future, and doing it in a realistic and bipartisan way.  

Mr.President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record an op-ed I wrote and which was published in the Wall Street Journal on Friday and an address I gave yesterday in Knoxville to a group of scientists entitled "Nuclear Power is Green."  

           Mr. Alexander: Thank you, Mr. President.