- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

Special correspondentJohn Zaracostas spoke in Geneva last week with Harlan Watson, the State Department’s senior climate negotiator, about the spike in world oil prices and the search for cleaner and cheaper alternative fuels.

Question: World oil prices are at about $70 a barrel. Will this revive the global debate of the 1970s about new and renewable sources of energy that seemed important until the early 1980s, when the price of oil crashed?

Answer: I think it’s different this time round. We just had major energy legislation passed in the United States signed by the president on Aug. 6. In that legislation was a panoply of tax incentives to increase the use of solar and renewable energy, strong funding for research and technology for clean-coal technologies and to move technology away from fossils to renewables.

So there is already now in place legislation to address the problem. What happened in the U.S. in the ‘80s was that a lot of programs were passed, but [they] became a fixation on building large demonstration projects, which cost a lot of money, and were simply not realistic unless the price of oil went to $100 a barrel.

Q: Do you think people are indifferent about energy? We see everyone saying that even at $70 a barrel, the effect on the world economy is minimal?

A: Definitely, the impact on the economy, so far I think, has been less then expected — primarily because the world has become much more efficient in its use of energy. In terms of production, we’re using about half of the energy.

Q: But what about the future?

A: I think the market is going to sort that out, as prices of energy go up.

Q: Is the price of crude the benchmark?

A: Pretty much. It’s obviously the largest energy commodity in terms of price. When the price of crude goes up, it tends to drive up the price of coal and natural gas.

Q: The Chinese are opting for coal in a big way, as are other countries, and the U.S. is a big producer. But does that square with climate change and clean environment?

A: One of the things we’re working on is to develop technologies — so-called “carbon capture” and storage technologies — which will have the ability to construct zero-emission coal-fired facilities. In fact, the Department of Energy is in the process of building a $1 billion plant which will allow you to burn the coal, capture the carbon dioxide that’s coming off the combustion stream, and then use that carbon dioxide for things like enhanced oil recovery, for example.

Q: At the commercial level, at least in Europe, 80 percent of day?to-day commerce relies on road transport. What’s the alternative for road transport?

A: There’s little alternative for road transport at this time. We’re working, and the world is working, on hydrogen, either using hydrogen in fuel cells [or] directly.

Q: How far in the future before it’s commercially viable?

A: We hope it will be commercial within a generation. Right now, we’re about a factor of 10 off. There are demonstration cars now.

Q: By 2020, you could have [hydrogen-fueled] trucks going across the U.S.?

A: That’s what we’re hoping for. That’s what we’re shooting for. We already have some demonstration buses right now. And all of the automakers around the world have hydrogen programs, so it’s not just some dream the governments are pushing — you really have the private sector all over the world looking at the hydrogen technology.

Q: The U.S. has come under a lot of criticism from the international community for its stance on climate change. What’s the administration’s current position?

A: Our position is, as the president stated many times, it’s an important issue and we’re taking many actions to address it. We’re spending more money than the rest of the world combined on [research and development] activities, to get cleaner technologies out there.

Q: Is it fair to say the administration will keep [the same] position until it gets future major polluters like China and India to make similar commitments on emission-reduction levels?

A: Certainly it’s a global problem and needs a global solution. … The developing world needs to be part of the system, and we’re working very hard to achieve that.

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