Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is the senior member of the House of Representatives, having been first elected to his seat in December 1955. For 14 years he served as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, until Republicans gained a majority in the House in 1995. Dingell reclaimed his chairmanship this year after Democrats won control of the House, and he has turned his attention to the daunting task of crafting an energy policy that meets the goals of weaning the United States off foreign oil while reducing harmful environmental emissions — all without damaging the U.S. economy or infuriating consumers in the process.
Dingell calls himself a realist and says there is no single answer to the nation’s energy challenges. He says he wants to hear from all sides as his committee moves forward. According to Dingell, nuclear power is part of the answer, and he is blunt that ethanol is not a cure-all for the nation’s gasoline “addiction.” In fact, he wants the Bush administration to come forward with a detailed legislative plan to meet its goal of reducing gasoline consumption by 20 percent.
Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke recently spoke with Dingell for this extended interview.
ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON M. KONDRACKE: There is a bipartisan consensus that, as President Bush says, we are addicted to oil and that we ought to get off of it.
HOUSE ENERGY AND COMMERCE CHAIRMAN JOHN DINGELL (D-MICH.): And that has been my posture for a long time.
ROLL CALL: So how fast can we actually do it? To what extent can we do it?
DINGELL: First of all, we’ve got probably 200 million automobiles in the country. That is a huge capital investment that has to essentially be amortized. We have the buying habits and the customs and the desires of the American people. That is something that has to be heeded in a market economy. You can’t very well run up to a guy and put a gun to his head and say: “Now, you are going to buy this fuel efficient car.” It just doesn’t work. So we’ve gone to [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards. CAFE is very interesting. CAFE is written so that the federal government has the authority to fix the fuel efficiency of the fleet at the highest technologically feasible levels, subject only to considering the fact that they must not take steps which would have an adverse impact on the economy. And the result is that the original mileage that we put in back when we wrote the legislation back in, I think 1976, remains. The numbers are very close to those numbers. Now they have been tightened just a little bit and we’ve made some changes, saving some millions of barrels of oil. The Department of Transportation and the president are suggesting a new direction with regard to fuel efficiency for automobiles. We are having hearings on that.
Now all of this is going to be coupled with the consideration that we are making of global warming and climate change, where the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] (D-Calif.) has requested that the [House Energy and Commerce] Committee have a bill ready by the first of June. And so we have a very, very intensive schedule of hearings to hear from everybody, get the facts and try to figure out what it is that we can and should do with regard to increasing not just fuel efficiency of automobiles, but housing and transportation and other practices which use energy in this country. You know that every darn thing we do here in this country requires use of energy — whether it is to paint your house or cook your dinner or grow your food or make fertilizer or drive your car to work or run your home computer.
So we will be going into not only the question of fuel efficiency on vehicles, but very frankly the efficiency of energy use. And understand, the fact that energy use doesn’t appear to be a petroleum-based activity like driving an automobile or a truck doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect the use of petroleum, imported or produced domestically. The reason is that energy, like money, is fungible. You never know exactly where the particular unit of energy you are using at a particular time comes from because at different times electricity is generated by natural gas or residual fuel oil or coal or nuclear or wind or solar or whatever it might happen to be.
ROLL CALL: Do you think it is possible to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent, as the president is proposing?
DINGELL: We are going to be requesting the president to submit to us legislation to help us to respond to his request. After all, if he is making the suggestion that we ought to do that, it appears to me that he probably has already given thought to what the legislative form of that would be. So we are going to request him to give us the legislative form of that legislation to see what is his suggestion so we can evaluate whether in fact it is possible or it is the right way to do it or whether there is not some better, different way. And one of the things we are going to try to do is to hear from everybody what their thinking is so we can respond first of all, to the needs; second, to the administration’s proposals and concerns; and also the concerns of everybody else — the driving public, the auto manufacturers, the petroleum industry, the environmentalists and whoever else might have something to say to us.
ROLL CALL: On climate change, does it seem likeliest that some sort of cap-and-trade system is going to be enlisted?
DINGELL: Cap and trade is something that we will be considering very carefully. It is one of the very prominently suggested changes and concerns. And it appears that this is one of the things that the committee is going to have to consider, and right at this minute I know of no other way of addressing the overall concerns of the country on energy conservation in the areas where it would work than cap and trade. Now understand that this is a question both of conservation of energy and of course controlling the emissions. And those are just opposite sides of the same coin.
ROLL CALL: Among the various alternatives to using imported oil that have been suggested, are you one of these “do it all” kind of people? Do you think that we need to do coal and ethanol and nuclear and hydrogen and all the rest? And of those, which do you think is most promising?
DINGELL: Well, look. First of all, energy use in this country is a mix of resources and uses and practices and energy sources. And the answer to reduce uses of energy and to reduce emissions and to reduce dependence on foreign oil is a mix. So we are going to have to address how we use it now, how we are going to change that use, what uses we are going to terminate or reduce, what uses we are going to have to increase, how we are going to conserve, where we are going to get new sources of energy, such as solar and wind and biomass and ethanol and biodiesel and all the other sources. And anybody that tells you that there is one magic bullet here that will solve all these problems, I hope you will send him around to me because I haven’t found anything like that yet.
ROLL CALL: But you anticipate that Congress will produce some sort of comprehensive energy strategy that will reduce imported oil requirements significantly?
DINGELL: Mort, we have been hassling around on this since Hector was a puppy. I first began to work on this early in the 1970s and we have passed I don’t know how many energy bills going back to 1976. And we’ve reduced the problem, but the difficulty here is that the market, the growth, the population and the tastes and the free economic market of this country has changed the situation here so that very frankly we are using more energy than we did then. It is my recollection that the population of the United States in 1976 was something on the order of about 250 million. It is now 300 million. The cars on the road were something like 100 million. Today, they are something like 200 million or maybe more. And we are, in our efforts to conserve, are frankly having to run like the devil was behind us just to stay even. And remember this is a mix of two problems. One is energy use and the other is emission. And you will know from the laws of conservation of energy that you put a certain amount of energy in, you get a certain amount of energy out and matter is not destroyed. So when you put hydrocarbons in, you are going to get carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and other products from fuel use that are going to come out the other end of the tailpipe. So we are going to try and see what we can do to draft legislation that will address these problems and begin to meet the concerns that I think we legitimately have as a nation about imported fuel, energy use, cost to consumers, [carbon dioxide] and greenhouse gas emissions, and all the other things that go into this. But understand, this is a national policy. And, my friend, it’s got to be balanced and intelligent and it’s got to meet the goals. And, very frankly and practically, we’ve got to hear from everybody who has got a legitimate say. Remember, I just don’t work for one group or one part of our society. I work for the whole country.
ROLL CALL: So when do you expect to have actual legislation drafted after you do these various hearings?
DINGELL: Mort, that is a question I have been fencing with since I was a puppy and the answer is: just as darn fast as we can. But I can’t, you know this, I can’t promise you we will meet a deadline.
ROLL CALL: Now, I noticed that you’ve invited [former Vice President] Al Gore to testify before the committee.
DINGELL: We did that the day after the election.
ROLL CALL: Now that he has won an Academy Award, have you heard from him?
DINGELL: Yes, he is going to be here on March 21.
ROLL CALL: Where do you think nuclear fits into this picture? I mean do you think we should significantly expand nuclear energy?
DINGELL: Let’s be honest about it. If we are to produce energy to maintain the quality of life and the standard of living that we have, even with massive conservation and given the number of people we have in this country and in the world and the startling growth in places like China and India and the undeveloped world, we have no choice but to utilize the nuclear option — absolutely no choice but to do so.
ROLL CALL: And where do you think Congress is going to come out on the Yucca Mountain [Nev.] waste issue?
DINGELL: I’ve been trying for years to move forward to get Yucca Mountain dealt with in an intelligent fashion.
ROLL CALL: You are for depositing the waste there?
DINGELL: Yeah, I am. But I will tell you this and this is an aside that we have not yet addressed but it is a part of it. And Mort, it may lead to the delay addressing all the environmental and other concerns. We’ve seen to it that the environmental concerns being addressed very carefully is in fact a good thing, because it may well be that now, given the fact that the uranium and nuclear energy raw materials are also limited, it may be we are going to have to reuse and reprocess the nuclear power that remains in spent fuel rods. So this is one of the questions that we will be asking as we go forward.
ROLL CALL: And what about ethanol? I mean, should there be significantly increased ethanol requirements?
DINGELL: Well, let’s be honest. If we used every bushel of corn that we grow in this country we could only produce 70 percent of the needed ethanol to power our transportation fleets. And that tells you something, doesn’t it? So the president has suggested we go to cellulosic ethanol ...
ROLL CALL: Switch grass.
DINGELL: Well, switch grass is part of it. Switch grass, wood chips, paper, you know, there [are] all kinds of sources of that. And frankly they appear to be much more, after you hit a certain point, they appear to be much more needed in the country. Because at a given point you can use corn that you don’t need for food and other things for producing the ethanol. But at a given point you find that the use of corn is going to have an impact on food prices and on other parts of agriculture, such as feed for animals and things of that kind. Now they will tell you that the residue is an animal feed supplement, the high protein. That is true, but it is high protein and very, very low starch and hydrocarbons. And the reason is that you have converted all the hydrocarbons into either waste or ethanol.
ROLL CALL: Do you describe yourself as an energy realist or what?
DINGELL: My friend, I have always tried to be a realist and I have always tried to be a very practical fella. And I’ve always operated on the assumption that before you go writing laws, you’ve got to do a bunch of things. First, you’ve got to hear everybody. Second of all, you’ve got to know all the facts and, I repeat, all the facts. And third of all, you’ve got to have the input of everybody as you craft your cure. And without doing those things you can’t write good legislation for a country. And so you can call me a realist or whatever you want. But I am just a very practical fellow that tries to see that we use good sense in our legislative policy and that we function on the basis of both the facts and the realities that we confront.