Energy Policy

Center for American Progress' Cohen explains campaign to 'Kick the Oil Habit'

As both houses of Congress continue to debate the future energy policy of the United States, special interest groups are reaching out to consumers to affect change. During today's OnPoint, Ana Unruh Cohen, director of Environmental Policy at the Center for American Progress, talks about making "Kick the Oil Habit" a collective effort among policymakers, consumers and oil companies. Cohen also talks about the importance of infusing climate change issues into popular culture.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. With us today is Ana Cohen, director of Environmental Policy at the Center for American Progress. Ana thanks for coming.

Ana Unruh Cohen: Thanks for having me Colin.

Colin Sullivan: There's been a lot of noise lately in terms of what's going to happen with energy policy on Capitol Hill. Your group has been intensely involved in offering some suggestions to the primarily Democrats on Capitol Hill. Can you talk about what makes your campaign, you have this campaign called the "Break the Oil" campaign. What makes that different? What differentiates it between the other policy suggestions that are floating around Capitol Hill right now?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well you're right Colin, energy policy is really hot right now. America is concerned about gas prices. They're concerned about the security implication of our dependence on oil. And they're looking for ways to solve that. They're looking to Capitol Hill and we definitely have been involved with working with progressive representatives of both parties up on Capitol Hill to move policies forward that we think are important. The difference in our Kick the Oil Habit, which your viewers can see at, is that we also want to empower drivers and consumers to take action. Because it's going to take really the collective will of both policymakers and people and the oil companies and car companies to really solve this oil problem. So the campaign asked people to ask the oil companies to put in more E85, which is a high blend of ethanol, pumps at their stations, so we can start switching to alternative fuels.

Colin Sullivan: So the difference here is you're not necessarily focusing as much on the policymakers as you are on the consumers and trying to get them more actively involved? And how are you doing so if that's the case?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well the start of the campaign involved a cool video that you can see at the web site that we thought would inspire people as well as a portal to send a letter to the oil companies. That's just the first action and campaign aspect. We're hoping to get the activists who take part in the campaign to do more things throughout the summer. We've already had a really great response. Thousands of people have sent this letter. And we're hoping to build them into a group that can influence first the oil companies and other targets throughout the summer.

Colin Sullivan: Now isn't the best influence high gas prices? I mean it seems to me. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote a column saying the price of gas should be artificially capped, not go more a basement on the price of gas, not below three dollars a gallon, to encourage, especially U.S. automakers, to develop more fuel-efficient cars for the market. What do you think of that? Do you think the price of gas is where it should be or even higher?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well, the price of gas is definitely high and it's certainly moving people. You're seeing changes in what cars are being bought. People are driving less. And sadly we're seeing people-pinches in especially low income families budgets, they're having to make hard choices about what they buy. And I personally don't see gas prices or oil prices coming down anytime soon. So I'm not really sure we need an artificial policy to keep those high, because I think they're going to stay high.

Colin Sullivan: There's been a logjam, on the CAFE side especially, for years and years and years. Is that deadlocked? Is there a sign of that breaking now or is it going to be more of the same with CAFE going forward?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well, CAFE is a, it's a hard nut to crack. If you look at the public opinion polls though the majority, the vast majority, of the country is behind increasing the fuel efficiency of our vehicles. And I think there's support for that on Capitol Hill. If you look at Senator Cantwell's oil savings amendment, that got almost all the Democrats behind it and some Republicans. So I think there are other policies floating out there, other bills out there that may move us forward on reducing our oil consumption, but aren't necessarily CAFE. But we would certainly support raising the CAFE standards.

Colin Sullivan: What about this approach advocated by the Bush administration and Joe Barton especially? Is that not enough?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well, the president's rule in March was really disappointing, just because it was so little over such a long time period. And if you look at what technology is available on the shelf right now I think we could have done two or three times better than what was proposed. I do have some concern about the changes in how the program would run, whether that really would equate to oil savings or if we're just kind of moving the deck chairs around.

Colin Sullivan: Now your organization puts out a progress report.

Ana Unruh Cohen: That's right.

Colin Sullivan: I guess every day on your Web site. It's been fairly aggressive with the Bush administration and fairly aggressive with Republicans. Do you consider yourself aligned with the Democratic Party? Is that unfair? And how are you reaching out to Republicans to build consensus on energy issues specifically?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well we're happy to work with progressive politicians of any party. And we have reached out on a variety of issues. The center does everything from tax policy to health policy, immigration, a whole range, national security and so on all those issues we reach out. We co-hosted an international climate change task force which Senator Olympia Snowe was one of the co-chairs of. So we are looking for ways to reach and work with progressives in the Republican Party. We see energy and environmental issues as important national issues and we want both parties to be working on them and taking action on them.

Colin Sullivan: Now do you think Democrats are well-positioned to take advantage, in the fall, of what's been going on with energy prices and with Congress not enacting an energy policy that's really dealt with it effectively?

Ana Unruh Cohen: I think Democrats, it's a great opportunity for them. They're starting to lay out some policies and plans that will give them credibility with the voters. I think gas prices and the concern with energy policy dovetails with concerns Americans have on other issues like Iraq, like wages shrinking, like jobs outsourcing. And the price on the corner is just an indication of all these other failures that they see in the Bush administration. So it makes for fertile ground for the Democrats in the fall.

Colin Sullivan: OK. Switching topics a little bit. You wrote a column recently about climate change in which you talk about the need to reach out to sort of the common everyday normal American on climate change. How do you, and you talk about the need to sort of get Americans to accept, in their imagination, that climate change is happening. How do you do that? Specifically, in terms of your strategy, how do you reach out to those people?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well, it's not just us. Thankfully out in Hollywood, in other environmental groups, people are actively thinking about this issue. But it's something I think Americans really have to internalize the threat. And I think if you look at the polls they're doing that. Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" we hope will help that further. But they also need to be given the idea and understand that we could do things in a better way. And so I think one way is through TV. I asked in that column, if Ross from Friends had been a paleoclimatologist, rather than a paleontologist, might we be further down the road? TV is a huge motivator in our culture. It changes things.

Colin Sullivan: So how do you do that? How do you infuse that within popular culture? Do you try to get someone to write a script, a sitcom that has a climatologist prominently featured?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well, I mean that's one way. We hosted a panel. We had a science-fiction writer, we have a photographer, we had a filmmaker in who were all trying to take what they know and are learning from scientists and policymakers and translate that, through their art and their artistic medium, to get the word out.

Colin Sullivan: Now do you think "An Inconvenient Truth," you mentioned the movie is coming out. I mean Al Gore has been criticized recently for not making climate change or environmental issues specifically, a big enough part of his campaign back in 2000. It might have helped him. What's your take on that? I mean he sort of got some momentum going with this movie coming out. I don't know that he's going to run for president at all. But do you think, I guess it's a two-part question. Should a presidential candidate make environmental issues a bigger part of his platform, especially headed into 2008?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well I think they will. Both from an energy perspective and a security perspective I think the American public is becoming more concerned about oil in that respect. But I also think, you know, if John McCain is running for the Republican nomination then he's made climate change an important part. So I think that discussion will be there. I think a lot of the potential Democratic candidates see tackling the energy and climate problem as a way to create new jobs, new industries, really move this country forward and get some good jobs back here at home.

Colin Sullivan: And how aggressively do you try to make the connection with the intensity of hurricanes and climate change? It seems like it's a tough sell. I mean you don't want to go to the American public in the middle of a hurricane crisis and say, well ...

Ana Unruh Cohen: Right.

Colin Sullivan: ... this is further evidence that climate change is happening. At the same time, it seems like there's a little bit more of a willingness among environmental groups to start making that argument. Do you think that's an argument that you can safely make?

Ana Unruh Cohen: Well, scientists still have a lot to learn about hurricanes. But I think it's finally becoming clear that we are seeing an uptick in their intensity. It's been predicted for a long time and the first studies coming out are showing that. It's a good way, you can't, you know, the day after Katrina, make that statement. But as we're preparing for another hurricane season I think that's the opportune time to talk to people about the increasing impacts of climate change. What we need to do to mitigate those, as well as prepare. I mean we're already seeing impacts from climate change. There's going to be future impacts no matter what we do. And we need to get ready for that.

Colin Sullivan: Okay. We'll let that be the last word. Ana Cohen. Thanks for coming.

Ana Unruh Cohen: Thanks for having me.

Colin Sullivan: I'm Colin Sullivan. This has been OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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