May 9, 1997: Briefings

Office of the Press Secretary
(San Jose, Costa Rica)

For Immediate Release May 9, 1997


Real Camino Hotel
San Jose, Costa Rica

1:00 P.M. (L)

MR. JOHNSON: There have been a number of questions I think that some of you have had about the agreements and declarations that were signed this morning by Secretaries Pena and Babbitt. We thought it would be helpful if we could give you an opportunity to hear from them, and also an opportunity to ask them some questions about how these issues are going to affect Costa Rica and the United States.

Secretary Pena is going to be first. I will let you know in advance that he has to duck out pretty soon and go to the airport, and so if he has to leave it has nothing to do with your questions. And the other thing I want to bring to your attention is for technical reasons and because some things have already been packed up and taken to the aircraft, we won't have a transcript of this until we get to Barbados.

Secretary Pena.

SECRETARY PENA: Thank you very much. Let me be brief in giving a little more clarification to the agreement that was reached with Costa Rica that the President witnessed this afternoon. I think all of you know that President Figueres and the government of Costa Rica has been very focused on their electric initiative.

We met -- I came here a day early from our trip to Mexico to meet with the President personally about this, President Figueres, and Minister Castro -- thought through the implications of what they were doing, and they are embarking, first of all, on a five-year project to acquire a hundred buses, 350 cars, 500 motorcycles, at a total cost of $35 million -- all electric. Part of that is a pilot program, a demonstration program, which would only include 15 buses, 50 cars, and 50 motorcycles, at a cost of $5 million.

So we talked about that and how we could work together in a supportive way. And so the agreement we reached was that, number one, the Department of Energy would work with the Costa Rican government to help identify additional funds, either from foundations or the private sector in the United States or elsewhere, to help them to begin to finance this pilot project; number two, that we would come back to Costa Rica and conduct a conference involving U.S. experts, U.S. companies, et cetera, to provide further information and assistance as respects this electric initiative; number three, that the Department of Energy would provide additional technological support based on our own experience in electric vehicles -- and that was basically the notion of the agreement reached today.

Let me tell you why this was important to us in the United States. Number one, there are a number of U.S. companies that are already involved here. The electric bus that was out at the site was provided by a company in the United States. President Figueres already has two electric vehicles provided by another U.S. company in the United States. So we see this as opportunity for U.S. companies to be more engaged here in Costa Rica, providing more electric vehicles. And any time U.S. companies have a leg up, we want to continue to support that.

Number two, we think it's very important that a developing country like Costa Rica demonstrate, as it is doing through the leadership of President Figueres, that they can support both economic development and protecting the environment by engaging in things like the electric vehicle initiative and other renewable energy projects, which are very much active here in Costa Rica.

And number three, we want to be able to demonstrate in the United States if we can do this here in Costa Rica, I believe there are communities in the United States, given my transportation background, that can also replicate what is being done here and convert their systems to electric vehicle systems.

So for all those reasons, this was a very important discussion for us to have with President Figueres and Minister Castro. We were very pleased to participate in today's announcement, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. This is the first such agreement we've reached with any country in the world to particularly be engaged in this kind of supportive way, but I think it has lots of very positive implications for the United States, for our companies, and for the whole effort to deal with global climate change.

So let me stop there and try to answer your questions.

Q Can you tell us what companies, and where they are, are involved?

SECRETARY PENA: There is ABF, ABS -- excuse me, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.


SECRETARY PENA: AVS. From Chattanooga, Tennessee, that provided the bus, and the company in Massachusetts that provided the two cars is Solectria.

Q And that's the company --

SECRETARY PENA: No, they are the ones who have simply already provided the one bus and the two cars, but there are other U.S. companies, as you know, who are in the electric bus, electric car business. So we would expect that a number of U.S. companies may have an interest in coming here and making these kinds of investments. The idea is to get the pilot project moving, show some success, and then hopefully generate even more interest.

Now, the other thing the Costa Rican government is going to do is to reduce the tariffs on electric vehicles imported into the country. Right now, they have reduced the tariff down to 46 percent, which of course gives an advantage and an incentive to a Costa Rican who wants to purchase one of these vehicles, and there is a proposal before the Costa Rican Congress to totally eliminate the tariff altogether, to make it zero.

So if that happens, then, if you're a Costa Rican looking at options to buy a vehicle, you now have a level playing field to purchase electric vehicles. So I think that's quite innovative on the part of the Costa Rican government, and that's why we had a great interest in coming here and trying to reach this agreement with them.

Okay, if there are no other questions of me, let me introduce Secretary Babbitt, who will talk about his issues.

SECRETARY BABBITT: Just a few words -- I'm staying on in Costa Rica because the functions that began up there at the park today are now moving indoors and melding into a two-day conference that will take place between biologists, park administrators, and related groups, both from the United States and Costa Rica. As the President mentioned today, this extraordinary system of protected areas and national parks here in Costa Rica really originated in the United States with Costa Ricans who, a generation ago, went to the United States to look at the national park system and came back to establish a system which now has spread across nearly 25 percent of Costa Rica. In effect, an American idea has been taken and translated onto this landscape with some important innovations that now we, in turn, are beginning to learn from in the United States.

I'll give you just a couple of examples. This concept of biological prospecting is brand new, but it's of real importance. You've all heard that there are many, many alkaloids in chemicals that are being extracted from rainforests -- plants are directly implicated in possible cures for Chagas Disease, a variety of cancers, and other illnesses.

The Costa Rica park system has taken the position that people who want access to these compounds ought to view that as a natural resource for which there should be a return to Costa Rica and to the park system. Several years ago they signed an agreement with the Merck Company, out of New Jersey, which has set up a formal prospecting arrangement which, in turn, now helps support the Costa Rican park system as a result of providing Merck access and laboratory space to work on prospecting for these compounds.

It turns out that there are a variety of these resources available in the United States -- the most interesting recent discovery is a thermobacteria up in the geysers and hotpools in Yellowstone. It's a bacteria which does not break down at high temperatures, and it's used in gene splicing on the way to all kinds of medicinal purposes. Well, under American law, the National Park Service simply writes a free permit and the benefits flow elsewhere.

We're really interested in the Merck-Costa Rica arrangement because it increasingly seems that we might be doing that in the park system in the United States as a way of financing some of the infrastructure deficit that has been the subject of so much discussion in the Congress and in the American press in the last couple of years.

A variety of other issues -- I'll leave you with just one other example, and that's the Instituto Nationale de Biologia -- NBO Institute. The Costa Ricans have pioneered a process of designing their park system by reference to inventories that they take of the entire landscape of the country to make sure that their park system is based upon protecting representative samples of the entire diversity of Costa Rica.

That's of interest in the United States because our national park system grew up in the American West, and if you look at a map of the United States, the West is over-represented and many of the earlier developed areas in the Eastern United States and in the South are very much under-represented, both in terms of where the population is and in terms of protecting the species diversity and the ecology of the entire country.

Okay, you've now heard more than you ever wanted to know about ecosystems, biological diversity, and prospecting. If I have prompted a question it is purely accidental. (Laughter.)

Q Can you tell us a little bit more about this proposal to harness resources out of the United States national parks? Where does that stand? Is it just something you folks are considering? Can you give us an example of what hypothetically could be done under that?

SECRETARY BABBITT: Yes. It's not just hypothetical. The discovery of these thermobacteria, living in the geyser -- most bacteria -- I don't know how elementary I need to be. I guess I should -- do I speak up or down to the press?

Q Down.

Q Way down. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BABBITT: Okay. If you boil water, if you heat water, most life and bacteria are killed dead. It turns out that, in order to do a lot of modern gene-splicing in biological applications in the medicinal field, you have to run these at high temperatures. But it's very hard to find the medium, the bacterial mediums of that process, because they're all killed at high temperatures. Some bright guy went out a couple years to Yellowstone and said, I'll bet I can find something that evolved in hotpools, and if I can find this we can run these analytical processes to a level of efficiency that's never occurred before.

Lo and behold, the guy who had this idea went out there, looked into the pools and he found the stuff. Now, how much did he pay to access this? Well, just like when you go prospecting for gold on public land -- it's free. And in Costa Rica, had that discovery been made, there would have been a royalty fee attached to the discovery and use of that product.

Now, the superintendent of Yellowstone and a couple members of the National Park Service came down here about six months ago to look at the arrangements between Merck and NBO, and we are now moving -- we have a sample prospecting license now under review in Washington with the idea that future discoveries might carry with them some kind of contractual royalty agreement which would, in turn, support the operations of the National Park Service.

There are lots of other examples. This is the most park-centered one because these hot pools don't seem to exist anywhere else. But there are a lot of other interesting examples.

Q Mr. Secretary, could you just tell us briefly the significance of Clinton going to this U.N. conference next month?

SECRETARY BABBITT: That's a very significant commitment. That was under discussion, been under discussion for the last several days. The President, to my knowledge, made that decision either last night or this morning. And he explained, I believe, the significance of it. This U.N. conference, as a follow-on on Rio, is to examine the ways in which to step up international commitment to sustainable development, to dealing with climate change. I think it has real significance again for the reason that the President stated -- that he hopes that his presence will lead to the attendance by other heads of state and hopefully elevate this follow-on conference from a relatively low-key proceeding to a high-profile international assessment of where we've been.

You should also note, in the Presidents's speech, he made some, I think, very significant comments about the global climate problem that certainly would be a part of this conference and the need to find and accelerate some of the international commitments -- to find them and accelerate them.

Q Do you know the specific date in June, and do you know if any leaders have already committed to come?

SECRETARY BABBITT: I do not know the answer; no, I don't. I think President Figueres said in some of his remarks somewhere in the last two days that he was committed to attend, but I'm not sure of the dates.

Q How do you feel about these new commodities that Costa Rica is trying to -- which essentially are like emissions credits but across international borders?

SECRETARY BABBITT: It's a very important idea that works to the benefit of developing countries and the United States. It is a market mechanism which acknowledges that the output of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a global problem. A unit of carbon dioxide emitted in Costa Rica has as much effect on the climate in Arizona, where I'm from, as it does in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Now, given this global fungibility of carbon dioxide, economics would say you ought to try to get the most bang for the buck, and what we're learning in the United States is that there are many areas in developing countries where a power plant which is building can invest $100 in emissions control and get twice as much carbon dioxide reduction, or ten times as much in Costa Rica, and so in that sense it's a very significant and important step.

Q A follow on that. Does EPA recognize such an investment as a trade-off under their rules for U.S. pollution?

SECRETARY BABBITT: There is not yet a clear framework of credits. In a sense, Costa Rica is, in effect, sort of anticipating the development of this kind of system. Now, there are some mitigation credits under state laws and a whole variety of arrangements. There is not yet a national framework, if that is your question, and in that sense, this is an anticipatory design.

There are, however, in some states mitigation requirements where they are recognizing -- that's true especially in the northeast.

Q Is the administration weighing to follow up and make such a system?

SECRETARY BABBITT: This issue of having a credit framework will surely be a subject at the Rio follow-on and, very importantly, a subject at the Climate Change Convention which is being held at the end of this year -- somebody help me -- I think it's in --

Q Japan.

SECRETARY BABBITT: Yes, at the end of this year. Okay, everybody sated with --

Q (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY BABBITT: What a shockingly cynical question.

Q The Washington Post. (Laughter.)

Q I'm sorry, could you repeat the shocking and cynical question? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BABBITT: He said, Secretary Babbitt, with all due respect, don't you think that the issues being discussed today are way below the level of presidential involvement and even dubious for a Secretary of the Interior to be involved in. (Laughter.)

Q Close.

SECRETARY BABBITT: Look, from my perspective, the President's statements today, if you read them, are enormously important. We have been verging up on two of the major issues of this century in the international arena and we're still not quite there. One is this issue of biodiversity -- protecting the diversity of God's creation. It is a transnational issue that we are beginning to recognize, but we still aren't really moving toward workable international arrangements.

Now, having said that about biodiversity, let me just say the climate change issue even to this group ought to be looming way up as one of the major challenges of our time. The President's remarks today I thought were very interesting, because there has been a lot of this press sort of stuff, well, maybe this isn't real, maybe there's not enough evidence. The President I thought today, absolutely unequivocal when he said, science has now -- there is now a vast scientific consensus that the Earth is warming as a result of the consumption of fossil fuels and that although we cannot predict the exact effects in a given place, there will be enormous effects on this globe. I'd urge you to sort of underline that language.

We now have an emerging awareness of this, but we do not yet have a workable international consensus about the best way to go about what will surely emerge as the single largest, most urgent environmental issue on this planet. Now, I'll rest my case.

Q I'm sorry, I didn't mean to --

SECRETARY BABBITT: You don't accept that. Okay.

Q I didn't mean to say the issue was small, but that the initiative to deal with that doesn't seem to be especially on a bold or grand scale.

SECRETARY BABBITT: Well, you've got to -- yes, yes, it is. The importance of Costa Rica, a small country, is that its President has a large vision, and it is really quite remarkable to hear the President of a country articulate these issues with such a sense of urgency and to set the kind of example that is being set here in Costa Rica, with their biological inventory, with the energy conservation issues that have been discussed about -- discussed their plans to go toward non-fossil energy sources, including putting up an electrical distribution system across Central America; the credits for carbon mitigation; the fuel taxes -- a whole variety of really visionary things. And it seems to me that what President Clinton has done is recognize this by his presence as a remarkable initiative from what would have, at first glance, seem an unlikely source, although it isn't unlikely in reality. The Costa Ricans have been at this for a considerable length of time.

And these initiatives, as the President pointed out, are really selling well, to the benefit of this country. The per capita income from tourism and all these related activities in Costa Rica is 20 times the level that it is in Nicaragua, for example. It's really -- it could really become an extraordinarily important facet of this economy.

Q Mr. Secretary, did you get asked yet about banning leaded gasoline, that the President mentioned? Is there legislation already on the books that would eliminate all leaded gasolines in the U.S., or is that something that you're going to pursue?

SECRETARY BABBITT: No, we're passed that in the United States. That's a done deal. What the President was talking about was --

Q There are still some leaded gasolines available.

SECRETARY BABBITT: Well, I'll tell you, I haven't seen leaded gasoline in a gas station -- where do you live? (Laughter.)

Q In Chevy Chase we got it all the time. (Laughter.) That's off the radar screen, that's a done deal?

SECRETARY BABBITT: It's a done deal in the United States. The amazing thing about the leaded gasoline issue is it is still the norm -- leaded gasoline is still the norm in most countries of the world. And the important statement today was that Costa Rica is now on a statutory track to a phase-out. Once again, that is still the exception rather than the rule.

Okay. I'm astounded by the seminar-like quality of this. (Laughter.) Don't ever let it happen again. Thank you.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

President Clinton's Tour of Mexico, Costa Rica, and Barbados

Central America Trip Briefings

May 10, 1997

May 9, 1997

May 8, 1997

May 7, 1997 Press Briefing

May 7, 1997 David John Briefing

May 6, 1997

May 1, 1997

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