Jeff Merkley Visits Lewis and Clark College

Nick Wirth

This Friday, the Lewis and Clark College Democrats (of which I am currently President) had the privilege of hosting a Town Hall Forum with Jeff Merkley on campus. It was an informative event from start to finish, and gave a good preview of what Merkley’s campaign will look like in the coming months. I thought that I might share some observations I had from the meeting.

Merkleylc_2First, lest I be labeled as biased, let me issue a disclaimer. The College Dems are hosting Steve Novick this week and I plan on discussing his visit as well. This is the first of a two part series taking advantage of my opportunity to see both candidates back to back. I should also note that throughout the post I am paraphrasing Merkley, and not quoting him.

Merkley spoke briefly about his past experience, from serving as State Legislature to his past work in the Secretary of Defense's Office and the Congressional Budget Office. He also outlined a good deal of his campaign platform, from immediate withdrawal from Iraq, to giving tax credits to students or their parents who are financing a college education. These positions, many of which were responses to student questions, were popular among the audience.

However, Merkley scored the most points with students when the topic of discussion was the environment and global warming. Merkley showed a thorough knowledge of the subject, and a deep passion for solving environmental issues. He impressed the crowd, not an easy feat with the environmentally conscious students that go to my school.

Merkley put a lot of emphasis on hybrid vehicles, especially on developing plug-in hybrids for mass consumption. He noted that plug-ins are good for the environment, but at the same time cost-effective for drivers. It costs less to fill up a battery than a gas tank; any given amount of energy from electricity costs a fraction of what that same energy from gas would cost. Once people start driving plug-in hybrids, you can ensure that the power grid is being fed through clean and renewable sources such as solar or wind power. The problem currently is that many families cannot afford the hybrid vehicles that are on the market, so it needs to be easier for more consumers to purchase hybrids.

One student argued that the consumer culture in America was contributing to global warming, and asked how the Senate could affect individuals’ purchasing decisions. Merkley responded that people are more apt to change their behavior if the government infrastructure is in place to help, case in point being the Oregon Bottle Bill. He noted that this year's expansion of the 5 cent refund to water bottles will mean that millions more bottles will be recycled. If just a five cent refund can be so effective at getting Oregonians to recycle, imagine how else the government can encourage environmentally conscious decisions.

Another student asked Merkley what Senate committees he would be interested in serving on if he’s elected, and he promptly replied Energy. He stated that next to the War in Iraq, global warming is the most important issue for the future of our country, and that the Energy committee would play a crucial role in determining our nation’s response.

These answers all highlight a major difference between Merkley and Gordon Smith; their environmental record. To say that Smith has a poor environmental record is an understatement; his voting record has earned him a career rating of 26% from the League of Conservation Voters. Contrast that with Merkley who is knowledgeable about climate change and passionate to confront the issue head on. Which position do you think will resound more with Oregon voters?

There was another more subtle comparison that I noticed as Merkley fielded student questions; the contrast between his and Smith’s personal backgrounds. Throughout the meeting, Merkley revealed facts like he was the son of a sawmill worker, or that current hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius were out of his family’s price range. He practically shuddered after hearing what tuition at Lewis and Clark costs for a year (over $40k), dryly remarking that he hoped his two children would earn large scholarships. Meanwhile, Smith is a multimillionaire with rather extravagant tastes. Again, I get the feeling that more voters can relate with Merkley.

Overall, it was an impressive showing by Merkley, and I came away from the event hopeful that someday we just might have a US Senator from Oregon who actually believes that global warming is a problem.

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    It was a WONDERFUL event. The students and Lewis and Clark asked great questions. And the emphasis on climate change by students was fascinating to me. There really seems to be a deep and abiding concern by those students to find solutions to fighting global warming.

    More on the event here (at the Campaign Trail blog). And if you're on Facebook, you can head over to the Jeff Merkley for US Senate group and see more.

    (FYI--I'm the netroots organizer for the Jeff Merkley for Oregon campaign)

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    someday we just might have a US Senator from Oregon who actually believes that global warming is a problem.

    Yes, I think it is safe to say that all of Smith's challengers share that view.

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    Thanks for a highly informative post which does not seem biased to me at all at this point, given what you say about the intention to give a similar report on Steve Novick's appearance. Kudos to LC College Dems for holding these events. And kudos to you for constructive writing that may improve the tone of discussion of this race around here. (Assuming of course that your report on Steve N. is of similar quality).

    It is a pity that it is harder to get this kind of information about candidate positions than it should be. Given this report, one suspects the issue may be what other reporters choose to regard as news, rather than what the candidates actually are saying.

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    About hybrid-electric cars -- I am somewhat skeptical of the way they are reported here.

    Many years ago I had a physics professor at Reed, Jean DeLord, who was an early environmentalist with strong interests and concerns about the various environmental costs of power generation in all forms, I think including "the greenhouse effect."

    Professor DeLord made several points about electricity generation. One is that electrical energy for the most part is generated by some form of kinetic energy, heat energy, or combination (e.g. water or wind motion, steam produced heat from combustion or nuclear reactions that turns generators). There is a loss of energy between the original form and its conversion to electrical energy; this loss is greater when it involves first creating heat to create the kinetic energy to turn turbines.

    Secondly, a great deal of electrical energy is lost in transmission, with more lost when transmission is over longer distances.

    If we turn this to running automobiles, there will be still more energy lost in turning the electricity in to kinetic energy to move the cars.

    Most of those losses along the way are heat energy.

    Now, to be fully comparable with the energy budget of bio-fuels (either fossilized plant carbon in petroleum or current crops or crop or cooking wastes), one would need to look at the energy it takes to extract or produce the raw fuels, the energy costs of refinement, & the energy costs of transporting it to wholesale and retail distribution points.

    And, since the concern here is greenhouse gases, one would need to look at the emissions involved in the power generation, uses and losses in both systems.

    Still, at the end of the day I am left wondering if the very large losses along the way before electicity gets put to use moving a vehicle mean that total emissions at the point of electrical generation may not be greater than those created by direct application of combustion energy to moving vehicles, plus whatever emissions occur in extraction/production, refining and transport.

    Relatedly I wonder about the possibility that further development of emissions control technology in vehicles might be more effective than plug-in hybrid electric propulsion systems.

    I'm sure more knowledgeable people than me have thought about this stuff in detail -- if anyone has pointers I'd be interested.

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    "steam produce by heat ... "

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    Thanks Chris, I'm glad someone liked the post. As for the plug ins, a few notes. First, of course, is that I am only giving my take on the event, so don't give it too much weight, my understanding is that we'll be seeing a lot more details on Merkley's site in the near future.

    That said, I think Merkley was focused on plug-ins (and I agree with him on this) as a solution in the short-term that we can make some progress very quickly. Like Merkley said, plug-ins make financial sense for consumers, which is why they are so attractive. Meanwhile, they run much cleaner than straight gas-powered cars, and you can ensure that the power source is renewable and clean. He specified wind as a good source, and mentioned that he would like to see more micro wind-power installations with just a few or even one turbine, on places like roofs or even power and telephone poles. So it's a good stop-gap solution because the technology is already there and drivers have incentives to buy the car en masse and immediately cut down on emissions, while in the long term we are looking at new and even better technologies. I think that was the meat of his argument, and it made sense to me at least.

  • wheels (unverified)

    Although hydroelectric power is far from perfect, no energy is lost to heat production in the creation of it that I am aware of. I think we're better off with hybrids or electrics in the greater Portland area.

    But you're right, Chris -- we do tend to forget that electrical energy doesn't just magically replace gasoline. It has to come from somewhere.

    Thanks, Nick, for the informative post.

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    But you're right, Chris -- we do tend to forget that electrical energy doesn't just magically replace gasoline.

    That's very true, but rather than dealing with controlling the emissions from millions of sources, we'd be controlling emissions from a few thousand sources.

    A car is a relatively inefficient fuel-to-energy conversion device, putting out lots of waste (pollution). A power plant is much more efficient, and we can more effectively invest in pollution reduction efforts.

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    .....even if you're not talking about hydro.

  • Gary Killpack (unverified)

    Lovins writes about the use of fuel cells in cars and the resupply of the gride. good science.

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    I was having the discussion about plug-in cars this weekend and a friend of mine said she'd just finished reading Zoom:The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future. She said it's an excellent overview of the debate about plug-in cars, the effect of generating electricity to power them and climate change.

    I haven't had a chance to pick it up yet--but I plan on it. It seems like it might hold a great deal of relevance in this discussion.

  • paul g (unverified)

    Chris, too close for comfort. Are you a Reedie? (I should have known after that time series comment!)

    My mother worked for Jean DeLord for many years and my brother was a math/music major. when was your degree?

    Paul Gronke

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    Paul, if your brother is Ed Gronke, we were contemporaries at Reed (as you know actual graduation years are somewhat loosely tied to matriculation years) -- I remember him as good guy, I think we crossed paths at KRRC. My degree was 1982. Also was visiting assistant professor of History and Humanities from 1991-96, taught mostly Hum 110 plus African, African-American & comparative slavery history. I think the search that brought you to Reed took place during my last year -- anyway, we have many friends, acquaintances & and colleagues/former colleagues in common. For a while I was a faculty spouse but since that ended I haven't been around the college as much as I once was, makes things simpler for my ex.

  • Pavel Goberman (unverified)

    Nick Wirth, you are a President of the Lewis and Clark College Democrats, invited Jeff Merkley and Steve Novick, as a Candidate for US Senate, but didn't invite me. You must know that it is a violation of the Constitution of the USA, violation of the Rules and Regulations of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and violation of the Equal Time Law. It is also a conspiracy with the Oregon Dem. Party. If you will not invite me for to talk to the students - I will file a lawsuit against the Lewis and Clark College and will file a Complaint with the FEC.

    Pavel Goberman - Candidate for US Senator P.O. Box 1664 Beaverton, OR 97075

    P.S. Copy to the Lewis and Clark College and in File. P.G.

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