Community College of Allegheny County
July 16, 2001
Remarks by the Vice President at Town Hall Energy Meeting
GOVERNOR RIDGE: So far we've heard quite a bit about the importance of technology and conservation and production and how we put this together in a mix that comes up with a national energy plan.
And those are concepts in design. And what we're trying to find is a national consensus to put them into a national plan. And I would like to give you one very good example with the right kind of incentives -- the kind of incentives and the kind of plan that the Vice President has been working because it has worked very well in Pennsylvania where conservation, 21st century technology and increased production has had enormous benefits to a particular community.
We have a power plant here in Western Pennsylvania that was constructed when Warren G. Harding was president. That technology is fairly old. So is the facility.
We have a company that just came in because of the incentives and because of clean coal technology and the kinds of things that Vice President is trying to do, they've come in and they're going to invest $800 million. They're going to replace that old facility.
One of the things that President and Vice President feel very strongly is the need to modernize our infrastructure. One of the things we want to do is to replace these old plants -- they're still polluting. They're meeting minimum standards. But we can. 21st century technology gives us cleaner technology and better plants.
Here's the outcome: They will replace this plant with this investment because the incentives and the climate was right. This plant will now generate two and a half times as much electricity. The emissions will be substantially fewer. And they will consume -- because of the clean coal technology and the incentives very much a part of the package the the President and the Vice President are talking about nationally, they will consume in 15 years 40 million tons of waste coal that are scattered in several of the countries here in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
So they decrease emissions, increase capacity, help us deal with the heritage of a very proud and historic coal industry, but we don't really need these mountains of coal in these communities and the byproduct is non-toxic. And we can use the byproduct as reclaimed mines in other parts of the state, as well. It's a good plan. It gives you conservation, production, it's 21st century plan.
The architect of that plan, the leader, the point person is my great pleasure to introduce our friend, the Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, very much. Thank you, very much. I am going to do my best this evening. We're trying to work it out so that we have an opportunity to hear from a lot of you.
What I'm going to ask, instead of my original presentation, I'm going to ask Mary Matalin to say a few words to lay out some of the highlights of the administration's program. And then at that point I'll come back and try to preside over the Q&A, call on all these experts we have up here, as well. And then we'll have an opportunity to hear from all of you.
But at this point, let me introduce to you Mary Matalin. Mary is communications director for me at the White House, works for both me and the President. Many of you may know her if you've watched "Crossfire" over the years. She is an able and articulate spokesman on behalf of the administration, has been intimately involved in putting all of this together, and we're also accompanied tonight by Andrew Lundquist on the end, who is the man who deserves much of the credit for having crafted the plan.
So at this point let me turn it over to Mary. And then I'll be back and we'll go to your questions.
MS. MATALIN: Well, I'll be brief. Much of what is in the plan was already articulated by the Pennsylvania delegation and the Pennsylvania governor. We're so happy to be here, thank you very much all of you wonderful Pennsylvanians.
And thank you, community. This is a wonderful cross section of Americans who care and are concerned about energy. While people are telling you it's not a problem, it's not a crisis, you represent the unions and consumer groups and students and seniors and advanced technology energy producers. So it's wonderful to get beyond the Beltway to talk about our challenges and our potential on energy.
And we're doing this all across the country tonight. There's close to three dozen of these kinds of meetings going on across the country. Many of them are attended by Cabinet members who helped the Vice President put the plan together in the first place.
Rather than get into all the details, I want to just tell you what the philosophy was going into this, putting together this plan. We need a 21st century dialogue on energy. It's time to stop stereotyping. It's time to work together for a comprehensive and balanced and responsible plan to provide abundant and reliable energy for America today and for our future.
And we are working with Congress. We're working with both chambers. And we're working with both parties, trying to work with both parties because we know these are tough challenges. But as the President and the Vice President said when they came to town, they came to Washington -- they came to that office to do something, and that's what the energy plan is about.
This problem, crisis, challenge, whatever you want to call it, was identified by then Governor Bush his running mate in the campaign. They saw this storm cloud coming. They saw it not only as a diminution of our quality of life, our standard of living, but a huge economic crisis -- both in individual terms and the economy at large.
Individual families are caught in a crunch -- their budgets are caught when the prices of energy rises. And the economy at large is caught in a crunch. This entire economy, indeed, the world's economy is fueled by energy.
It doesn't matter if you are building a car, or cranking up your computer, that is energy. And the lack of national energy plan will drag from the economy about $6 billion, it's estimated, over the next couple of decades.
And if you're a union family you know you're in a double crunch because your budget -- working families budgets are crunched and your jobs are being lost. It's a crisis when industry stops jobs because they can't pay their energy costs.
So conversely a modern infrastructure which would be required by a national energy plan creates a lot of jobs. And unions are ready to step up to meet that challenge to bring the United States into the 21st century. So our philosophy is that while this took -- was years in the making to get to where we are today, and there can't be any short term fixes, and there aren't any, and there aren't any gimmicks, we need action now, it's not politics as usual, that's not what we're interested in dwelling on.
We are interested in coming up with solutions. So the number one philosophy of the plan is balance. It's responsible. It's forward-looking. It has five components, as has been addressed up here, starting with conservation.
Conservation is a must in this plan, all the fiscal incentives that went to Congress revolve around conservation. They're being marked up this week.
Earlier this year the President himself issued an executive order directing the federal government to conserve energy. That is a great start on increasing supply and reducing demand. But it's not enough. If you want to close that gap, you have to increase conventional production.
And we can do that, as has been reference up here, in a clean way. And we can do that because another guiding philosophy or principal is we must use or do use in every single recommendation 21st century, cutting edge, new age technology. And it exists out there.
We already see it in action, producing conventional sources cleanly and producing and developing new and renewable and alternative sources of energy.
Now, once we close that gab between supply and demand, meeting the energy needs for our future, we still have to get it to the user. Your electricity doesn't come out of the switch in the wall. It's not generated from something, a crank in the basement of the Department of Energy. It has to be delivered to you.
We have a very antiquated infrastructure delivery system here. And a big part of the plan deals with streamlining the permitting process and the regulatory process -- simplifying that regulatory process so we can have the infrastructure, the delivery system to bring you that energy once more gets online.
As was alluded to, or discussed so eloquently by Senator Specter, this is not just about our domestic security. This is really about our national security. We are too dependent on foreign oil.
A big part of the plan addresses strengthening our energy independence, strengthening our energy security. The plan does this in two ways. It protects particularly low income families from the wild vacillations in the price of energy with assistance. And it also seeks to bill and does work on building relationships with energy producing countries, particularly in our hemisphere, so we're not as dependent as we are today on foreign oil.
Finally and most importantly and maybe most overlooked is that this plan, it really improves and accelerates environmental protection. Having been in many, many meetings. There were about 14 of them. And the President joined us in five of them. If any recommendation was brought to the table that wasn't 100 percent contributing to cleaner air and cleaner water, it was soundly rejected. This is an environmentally progressive plan and we're quite proud of it.
So the real guiding philosophy over the plan was -- and why we know we can do and why the President and Vice President and we are all so optimistic about it and want to share it with you -- is because this is a country that meets its challenges because of "can do" American spirit.
We have the best scientists. We have the best researchers. We have the best engineers. We have the best workers. We can be in the 21st century where the false choice between energy and environment no longer exists. We can have abundant reliable energy, a great quality of life, a clean environment and we are proud to bring that and talk to that, and talk about that with you.
Mr. Vice President, it's not only an honor to work with you, I'm sure you all share our feeling that this Vice President has not only brought a depth and breadth of experience to the White House but an integrity and dignity that we can all be proud of, the Vice President of the United States.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, very much, Mary. We've got microphones here at each of the aisles. And I think the plan is to have people come forward. We'll try to take as many questions as we can during the time available. We're also here to take recommendations, suggestions. We can get them right to the top.
And I'll be happy to hear what you have to say at this point about this set of issues and policy proposals. Yes, sir?
Q My name is Dana Henry, and I'm the president of the chamber of commerce in Indiana, Pennsylvania. I'm located in the county that the Governor referred where we've got the $800 million power generating station coming online very soon.
One of the things that we've learned in Southwestern Pennsylvania is that we need to cooperate. We need to work as a team. We need to work as a region. What can we do as a team to do exactly what Senator Specter talked about and that's bringing the price of gasoline down at the pump for the consumer?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think the question of gasoline price is an interesting one because it's one of the reasons we had the perception of a crisis earlier this year, as gasoline crept its way up towards $2 a gallon and people were having to pay a lot of money to fill up their tank. Now it's easing off a big again. And so now we've got people saying, well, there's no crisis.
The fact of the matter is that we are now dependent and will be dependent for the foreseeable future on petroleum products for transportation. There are a lot of exciting new technologies out there. I spent the day up at General Motors recently looking at hydrogen fuel cell automobiles and hybrids that are both combination diesel and electric, they get 80 miles to gallon.
GM built the electric car the EV1. The first 200 sold like hot cakes. But now they've got a lot of EV1s on their hands because they weren't all that appealing to the public.
The fact of the matter is we are going to be reliant for the foreseeable future on petroleum products for our transportation needs.
That means we need adequate supplies. And as Rick pointed out, one of the problems we have is our growing dependence on foreign sources. We're never going to get rid of our dependence on foreign sources. But the forecast that we developed as we did the study is that we're going to go from about 56 percent imports today to 64, 65 percent 20 years from now.
That means our price of petroleum and all its derivatives -- gasoline and diesel and home heating oil and everything else is going to be tied to what happens in that international market. And we're going to be subject to control of prices set by others, some of whom don't wish us well.
So we need to do everything we can to reduce that dependence as much as possible, to the extent we can take the edge off and keep that percentage from growing, that's a plus. One of the things we need to do is to build more refineries.
We have not built a big new refinery in this country in over 20 years. We've shut down a lot of the old ones, the smaller ones that were inefficient or polluting.
To the extent we've kept up with demand at all it's been by adding to existing capacity in a few refineries. But we've also complicated the process significantly by requiring so call boutique fuels.
Different communities all over the country in order to meet their air quality standards require a very special form of reformulated gasoline. And the formula differs from Chicago to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Indianapolis.
And what happens now if the refinery breaks down that's producing the gasoline for Chicago, you can't take gasoline intended for Indianapolis and move it in there because it's a different formula.
I talked to a guy that runs a refined fuel pipeline the other day up and down the East Coast. When they started in the '60s they had six different grades of fuel to put through the pipeline. Today they've got over 90. And that complexity makes our system -- it hasn't been expanded very aggressively -- inflexible. And it leads to these price spikes in fuel for the consumer lots of times.
One of the things we're looking at in the legislation that's before the Congress is to move to a way to standardize these boutique fuels. Instead of having such an enormous variety out there, see if we can't go to just a few that will still satisfy the clean air requirements but simplify the whole process of refining and providing this fuel to our plants.
In the final analysis, price depends on supply. If we've got adequate supplies of gasoline, abundant supplies of gasoline, then we're going to have it available at a price that people can afford.
If we don't look for it, if we're totally reliant on foreign sources, if we don't have refineries in place to produce the refined product we need, then we'll find ourselves periodically having to pay a $1.70, $2, $2.25 a gallon for gasoline. And that effects the truckers and the homeowners and the recreationists and people driving to work every day.
So we try to address all those issues. There's not any one sort of silver bullet there. We've got to do several things to guarantee that over time we've got abundant supplies at affordable prices.
Q It sounds like a partnership opportunity. We're willing to work with you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
Q Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, sir.
Q My name is Josh Earle (ph). I'm a political science student from Geneva College. My question is this: The U.S. is highly dependent on foreign oil. What does the administration plan to do to reduce our dependence in terms of exploration and domestic drilling?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We want to explore for more here at home. Just as I said earlier, we don't expect we can go to a situation which we're 100 percent reliant here in the U.S.
We've made the choice as a nation that certain areas ought to be off limits. And so we don't drill off the West Coast, off California; or off the East Coast; or around Florida. We do develop in the Gulf of Mexico. There are parts of the West that are wilderness areas that we don't explore in.
We have developed Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. The administration, we think we ought to explore ANWR right next to it, that there are significant resources there, as well, too. Well, that's controversial. That will be debated in the Congress this year, as well.
A key part of it is also to make the distinction between OPEC and non-OPEC sources. OPEC produces about 40 percent of the world's oil supply. But there's a lot out there overseas that comes from non-OPEC sources. And we need to encourage our companies to be exploring and developing in those non-OPEC areas, as well, too.
For example, an areas that comes immediately to mind is in the Caspian, Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is not a member of OPEC. They've got what looks like very enormous reserves. It used to be part of the old Soviet Union. One of the things we're trying to do now is to make certain we get pipelines built out of Kazakhstan to the outside world so that, in fact, we can tape into that supply. And bringing that supply on line will help stabilize international oil prices. So it's a combination of doing what we can here at home to produce more and reduce our dependence and enhance our security and also trying to diversity overseas in terms of seeing to it that we get it from several different sources.
Q Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, sir.
Q I'm the East Region President of the Green Mountain Energy Company. Mr. Vice President, over the last three years thousands of people in Pennsylvania have been able to switch to a cleaner form of electricity. In fact, because of choice -- the electricity choice program here in Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of people have been able to select green electricity.
And it's the power of consumer demand and a deregulated marketplace that has allowed Green Mountain to build a new wind farm, for example, just down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
My question for you really involves the report that's been issued by your task force. And in that you specifically directed the Secretary of Energy to develop a comprehensive electricity policy that promotes competition -- i.e, promotes deregulation in as many states as possible. Can you tell us a little bit more about the specific plans you have to bring the benefits of choice and competition to customers across the country -- just not in the states that have been deregulated to date? THE VICE PRESIDENT: I can. But I'm going to ask Andrew Lundquist who is the architect of the program and knows all the details and whose voice is in better shape than mine to respond. Andrew?
MR. LUNDQUIST: Right, the DOE, as part of the plan is working on comprehensive electricity legislation and drafting a proposed bill to send to Congress that would do many things.
It would increase competition in electricity markets, enhance efficiency, enhance increased renewable power and many other aspects that are currently involved in the drafting of this. And it's a very, very complicated as you know and time consuming process.
They're actively proceeding and I think they're looking to release that in the next month or so.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We met just last Friday with the Cabinet members and agency heads that have been involved in the task force for the first of what will be a series of monthly meetings to follow up on each of the recommendations that are in the report.
So we didn't just produce the report -- 105 recommendations, about 20 require legislation. That's going forward in the House and Senate. And the rest fall within the purview of the administrative departments and agencies. And we're convening those heads on a monthly basis to get reports directly back from them on the status of every single one of these items that they've been asked to undertake.
Q Thanks, very much.
Q Excuse me. My name is John Brill (ph), and I'm with AARP. I would like to talk to you just a little bit about the senior and the predicament that we're finding. Governor Ridge was correct. In the past four years we saw a drop in energy prices. However, within the last year, they've gone two to three cents per kilowatt up. Our gas prices have gone up 25 percent in one year. Even clean water has gone up 12.4 percent in the last year.
We feel that since the deregulation that we are in the same position as we are dealing with OPEC, as we are dealing with our own utilities. We're being squeezed. And that check -- that pension check that does not go up gets smaller and smaller and smaller as the bills come through. Would you respond to that, please?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Sure. And I'm going to ask Governor Ridge to talk about it since it focuses on state issues.
GOVERNOR RIDGE: Well, we appreciate very much your question because Pennsylvania has the second largest group of second Americans and a lot of pensioners. And we appreciate the squeeze and the personal budget that you're talking about.
First of all, to put it all in perspective, before we had our competition and choice proposal, our electricity prices were about 15 percent above the national average. Now, they're about 3 or 4 percent below.
But I think the long term solution to the challenge that you have articulated that faces your membership is a competition and choice scheme across the country so that the generators or the transmission companies within Pennsylvania and without have access to cheaper natural gas, that have access to the incentives that they build generation capacity, they build alternative sources of energy.
So while I think Pennsylvania's scheme of competition and choice has brought significant benefit, I think that benefit will be even greater under a national energy plan. That's why I think Pennsylvanians ought to support it across the board. We know it's important for our coal industry. We still have coal miners. We know it's important for our trucking industry. We're the Keystone State -- within about 50 percent of the population in 24 hours and we've got a lot of traffic through our state. We know it's important to senior Pennsylvanians.
But until there's a national energy plan where there is national competition, national choice, national incentives to use clean coal technology, a national plan to wean ourselves away from reliance on OPEC oil, we won't maximize the benefit of the overall plan.
So we understand what you're faced with. We're proud of what Pennsylvania has done. But the reason I think Pennsylvanians should be so supportive of the national plan because this will give us access over the long term to a cheaper supply of energy, which in our system will mean cheaper prices -- stable prices, predictable prices -- for our consumers.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, ma'am.
Q First I want to welcome you -- can you hear me? -- to Monroeville. This is my hometown. I'm very proud of it. And our manager is over there, Marshall Bond. And he's done a terrific job.
You've used nuclear as part of the mix for the power solution to our crisis. Would it not be feasible now to not reauthorize Price Anderson? If new technology is present, and I presume that it means that it's safer, then we are we still perpetuating this insurance?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, Price Anderson is a statute for those of you who don't know as much as our questioner down there that limits the liability that would have to be paid in the event of a nuclear accident. In effect, the government would take up the slack.
And it traditionally has been viewed as part of being necessary in order to persuade utilities to invest in nuclear power. It is now about to expire and the proposal is to renew it for some additional period of time.
We recommend that we continue with Price-Anderson for the time being. We may want it to be modified or changed to some degree. But let me talk about nuclear for just a moment if I can because it's important, we think, in the total scheme of things.
Right now today one out of every five homes in America is run on electricity generated by nuclear power. A lot of people have forgotten because we haven't built a new nuclear plant in this country in about 25 years. And nuclear power does produce abundant supplies of good, clean, safe reliable energy.
The technology has gotten much, much better over the years. We're much more efficient at how we run the plants now than we were even when they were built 20 years ago. And we would like to increase the percentage of our electricity, say which runs about 20 percent of our total today. 52 percent comes from coal, 16 percent from gas, 20 percent from nuclear and the remainder from other sources -- hydro and so called renewables and so forth.
But to do that you have to get utilities to look at nuclear as an acceptable alternative to coal or gas or any of the other possibilities out there.
The problem we've had with nuclear has been a couple fold -- first of all has been the enormous cost as the regulatory process got bogged down. It took years to get these plants licensed. A lot of utilities went broke or picked up enormous debts 20 years ago trying to go forward with it. There was, I think, a general public concern about nuclear power. I think a lot of that has faded now because we've done so well with the track record of operating those plants for so long.
But a lot of these plants are running out of the license period for which they were originally authorized. So they have to be relicensed. And that takes time. We also have to deal with the spent fuel problem.
Now, we've got fantastic technology in this country. There are other countries -- Britain, France, Japan -- who deal effectively with the spent -- issues that have been raised in connection with the Kyoto Treaty and so it was for us to rely more heavily on nuclear going forward.
There is also a lot of exciting new technology that Rick Santorum mentioned being developed -- some of it right here in Western Pennsylvania -- on new, safer plants, smaller plants, cheaper plants that operate more efficiently and more safely than ever before in the past in the nuclear arena.
That is an area we would like to deal with, but we do believe that Price Anderson has to be part of that total solution if we're going to get the private sector to invest in nuclear plants.
Q But doesn't that fly in the face of assuming that it's safe? If you have to insure new investment, what does that say to the public?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we insure all kinds of investments even though we are confident they are safe. And you can look at the track record in terms of the operations now of our nuclear power industry, and it's one of the safest industries in the country if you look back over the last 20 years.
Q Thank you.
Q Hi, name is Karen Digman and since I have your ear I'd like to ask a question on the topic of my choice. Campaign finance reform seemed to be an important issue, especially to the Republican Party, until George W. Bush raised a record amount of money in his campaign.
As part of the administration, how do you see having significant campaign finance reform enacted, and when? I don't see that as necessarily a partisan issue.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, campaign finance reform is something the President has supported. In terms of money we raised during the campaign, it was all done in accordance with the current statutes. There has never been any suggestion to the contrary.
But throughout the campaign, he did also say he was prepared to support campaign finance reform. It's a question of what kind of reform, and there are certain principles he has laid forward and sent forward to the Congress in terms of how he would like to proceed.
Today, there is a bill that has been passed through the Senate. Nothing yet has been passed through the House. If and when Congress does ultimately come to agreement on a bill, then he will evaluate it and decide whether or not he wants to sign it if it is consistent with his principles. He said, for example, he is prepared to ban soft dollars from campaign activities.
So we are prepared to do that, but we want to make certain we do it in a way that enhances the participatory process, doesn't discriminate against any one particular player or participant in the process, and basically protects the right of the American people to participate in the political process.
Q I'm Anne Gerase (ph) from Conservation Consultants, and here in Pennsylvania, our low-income families pay one third of their total income for utility bills. And you have stated that this plan will help low-income families because it will help stabilize energy prices.
But the really only proven way that I know of to reduce household energy costs is through efficiency or conservation, and I wondered how much the administration will dedicate to subsidizing conservation programs to help low-income and elderly remain in their homes and pay their utility bills.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we have, if you look at the total package we sent forward, we, for example, have asked for increased funding for LIHEAT (ph) for the low-income assistance program for folks who have those needs and responsibilities. A lot of the -- in fact, most of the financial incentives that we have recommended to the Congress in connection with the total energy package are in the area of conservation and renewables and the more exotic forms. We're not advocating subsidies for oil companies and coal companies and gas companies.
Basically, the financial incentives we've put out there have been to encourage conservation. We have directed the Secretary of Energy to move aggressively on the EnergyStar program that rates appliance and encourages people to buy the more efficient appliances, and to expand the scope of that program to several new types and kinds of appliances as well, too.
Q I would like to maybe -- I'm sorry.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's all right. Go ahead.
Q Sorry -- ask if you might consider subsidizing some process where low-income families can buy the energy-saver appliances. Right now, they wouldn't buy that because it would be too expensive. They might be too expensive for them.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we hope that the fact of efficiency becomes something attractive to consumers; that companies, in order to compete, are going to want to produce the most efficient devices possible out there.
Our track record on this whole area really, as a nation, in terms of efficiencies is superb. Over the last 30 years, our economy has grown 126 percent; our consumption of energy has only grown 26 percent. That means we've gotten much, much more efficient going forward in terms of how we operate.
And again, the ultimate solution to the price problem is adequate supply. And every time we think about price, we need to think about supply. The marketplace does work -- the old law of supply and demand out there -- and if we artificially constrain supply, sooner or later we'll end up with higher prices than we would otherwise have to pay.
Q Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, ma'am.
Q Hi, I'm Barbara Digman and I would like to address this question to Congressman Hart, who is my congressman. I, too, am looking at -- the issue here seems to be OPEC and big business concerns, and that looks like -- well, one of the things that I'm concerned about is one of the things that AARP is obviously concerned about too is campaign finance reform, which I hope raises its head again soon.
But the big thing I'm thinking about is that when we're talking about the big oil companies and OPEC, we're not talking about certain other things that could be very important to the individual, and that is some sort of mass transit for those people who live in communities where they have a very difficult time reaching certain centers to do shopping, to get medical attention.
So I'm hoping that some of this money that is being spent for research is also being spent to look at alternative -- not just sources, but alternative ways to use our energy.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I might mention, and then I'll turn it over to Melissa, I mentioned (inaudible) the other day, they've now got a bus that will be one of these hybrid vehicles that will get enormous savings in terms of the amount of fuel they actually use, but can have a tremendous impact if they can simply refit 10,000 busses in key cities around the country -- a bigger impact than 500,000 automobiles because of the amount of fuel they consumer -- providing mass transit for people who don't have cars or can't afford it.
So that the work is under way lots of places out there in the private sector to do this, and we want to encourage that, obviously.
CONGRESSMAN HART: First of all, thanks for the question. We have an opportunity on the Science Committee to be investigating alternative fuels as well as alternative uses. One of the things that we have also supported are some of the research that is going into having things be more efficient. I think that is one of the most important things. Maybe we'll use the same resources, such as coal, but we'll use them in a different way. We'll use coal waste to produce energy, as well. That sort of thing, I think, is very important.
Plus, when you talk about mass transit, we've done a lot of very innovative things in this area. Allegheny County's Port Authority has not only been provided with a lot of assistance on the federal level to make sure they continue to operate their normal routes, but they have done more creative things like provide lower energy-consumer, smaller busses to reach people who are out in harder-to-reach areas.
So we are looking at it really with a new light to try to make sure that we're efficient, perhaps with the same energy we use now, but also, as the Vice President suggested, using alternative fuel sources.
One of the things that we're working on in Congress -- and I also want to mention Congressman John Peterson from Venango County who has joined us tonight, Congress Phil English who is here from Erie County tonight -- we're all working together to make sure that we're doing smart things, smart, efficient and innovate new uses.
Q I have been advised I have the honor of asking the last question.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I didn't know how we were going to end, so that's good to know. (Laughter.)
Q I am John Wilson and I am the director of the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania. It's a network of locally established community organizations helping low-income people become self-sufficient, working in partnership with community, businesses, private organizations and the government.
I also have the pleasure of serving on the Council for -- the board of the Council for Utility Choice, on the board of the Dollar Energy Fund, which is a statewide, non-profit that works in partnership with utilities and receives donations from individuals to help low-income people meet their energy bills.
You have an ambitious and excellent energy policy. As our Governor has stated, we need an energy policy; it's time. There were issues addressed about low-income people, and obviously we are concerned. As Senator Santorum mentioned, in some of our economies that lag, but have the raw natural resources base of their economy, we have seniors who are living on $12,000 or less a year and 40 percent of their annual income is going to health insurance and household energy cost.
I serve on the low-income energy -- Home Energy Assistance Advisory Council, Department of Public Welfare, so we see what is being done. You have a very laudable -- the administration has done a very laudable thing in this bill in that you have increased the energy -- you asked to increase the energy assistance -- weatherization assistance program -- excuse me -- the weatherization assistance program dramatically. It is time that that occurred.
Unfortunately -- and I want to ask you what the administration will do yet in the remaining days to get Congress's attention. The Democrats certainly aren't supporting it to the extent that it should have been. They are not at all coming up to the request that the administration has mentioned. The Republicans, your own party, has not met that yet.
And these are people, even as we move into the transition of efficiency in generating electricity and gas and in efficiencies in using it and stabilizing our economy by creating more jobs, these are people who are caught in that transition who have to choose between health or heat. And I would encourage the administration to remind Congress that this is not a large part of your program and your policy, but it is an extremely important part. And I commend the administration on the increase that they requested this year.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you for those comments. We have tried to address it, I suppose, in several different ways, and I personally am optimistic that we will get good legislation out of the Congress before the end of the year. The House, I think, will take up a bill on the floor before the August break.
I met last week with what is called the "Centrist Coalition" in the Senate. I think Arlen is a member of the group. It's chaired by Olympia Snowe from Maine and John Breaux from Louisiana, a bipartisan group. And they are very interested in moving forward on a bipartisan basis on the program. I met with Jeff Bingamin, who is the chairman of the committee. He hasn't moved the bill yet, as Rick says, but I am hopeful that he will and that we'll have legislation before the end of the year.
To some extent, though, we need to address the problem of seniors, not just through the energy legislation but with some of the other things that the President has recommended as well to Medicare reform. And there is no more important program to seniors than Medicare, and unfortunately Medicare is dated. It badly needs to be brought into the modern 21st century. It doesn't provide prescription drug coverage, and prescription drugs are more important than ever before in terms of basic fundamental health care in the country. (Applause.)
So that is an area that we are moving aggressively on in terms of the President having just within the last week given a speech, laid out principles he would like to see embodied in Medicare.
Social Security reform -- one of the tough issues that nobody has wanted to touch for a long time is the fate of Social Security, but we are off and running now. The President has appointed a commission. We've got Pat Moynihan, a Democrat from New York, recently retired, co-chairing it. It's a good bipartisan mix of Republicans and Democrats. They are to come back to the President by the end of the year with a set of recommendations on what we can do to protect and preserve Social Security to make sure it's going to be there for future generations.
So we've got to address it, I think, on several different dimensions. Energy obviously is part of it, but in terms of sort of the basic fundamental living standard for our seniors, I can't think of anything more important we can do for them than to reform Social Security and the Medicare system.
Q I agree. Can I just make one comment on that? While that is occurring, the weatherization assistance program needs the increase that you have recommended. In our mountains in Pennsylvania in Summerset County, they close the weatherization program down at the end of the spring because there is not enough money to meet the waiting list. They lay off crews until the fall and try to meet the needs of those not only seniors but young families starting out with low earnings with children trying to meet their needs in the winter.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you. Let me, on behalf of all of my colleagues up here as well, to thank all of you for being here tonight and for participating, being willing to come listen to what I think is a very important subject. The President called me into the Oval Office after we had been there only four days last January, and said, "Look, this is a big problem, Dick. We need to get started on it," and asked me to put together the task force and move forward. And that is exactly what we have done.
There is a reason why nobody has addressed this in recent years. These are tough issues and I'll be the first to admit we get into all of these areas and we get into questions that involve environmental issues and affordable supplies of energy and all of the other sort of touchstones that are involved in this operation. It's going to involve controversy. It's going to involve tough decisions. But we do need to do it.
And as Tom said at the outset, if there is a storm cloud out there on the horizon for the American economy, it would be that somehow we would not continue to have the abundant supplies of affordable energy that have been the building block of the American economy for over two centuries now.
And we can do it. There is no reason in the world why we can't do it. Our technology is so good. Our ability to go out and to both produce more and conserve more and get more efficient and protect and enhance the environment, it's there. And if we can just get everybody to sort of settle down a bit in terms of the debate, calmly listen to one another, express your points of view -- they're very important -- but we really do need to engage on these issues and go forward and don't be thrown off stride here by the kinds of things that people throw up when we get sort of labels tossed back and forth across the aisle at each other. This is very, very important. It's important for us; it's important for our kids and grandkids, future generations in America in terms of the quality of life they have and the quality of the environment that they live in depends directly on our making certain we make the right choices here and that we make the investment and take the time and the energy to address these issues.
So thank you all very much for being here. We appreciate it.