T. Boone Pickens And The Progressive Moment On Energy

Isaiah J. Poole

There they were, billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens, Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope and Center for American Progress president John Podesta on the same stage at The Big Tent in Denver on Wednesday, in near-perfect harmony. Something’s wrong here.

And indeed there was, and it was Pope who pointed it out.

“If our politics were even vaguely functional, anything that the three of us would have agreed on would have happened long ago,” he told the crowd of bloggers and Democratic Party activists who were sweating it out on the second floor of the tent.

But they clearly aren’t, and that was what seemed to concern Pope the most. And it should concern all of us.

When Pickens explained his plan, and the crowd was largely receptive. You know the basic details from his massive advertising campaign: Massively expand the amount of wind and solar energy being pumped into the electric grid and massively expand the amount of natural gas being used for automobiles (as well as increasing the number of hybrid electric vehicles). That would allow the country to dramatically decrease its dependence on foreign imports. And the effects would be more significant, and be seen more quickly, than the drill, drill, drill mantra being pushed by conservatives.

“As Boone says, this is not rocket science. This is pretty simple auto mechanics,” Pope said after Pickens spoke. “So let’s understand we have some deep, profound political problems that make us need to have this conversation.”

One of the problems is that the country is too comfortable with a fossil-fuel economy in which “we do not pay the bills” — others do, from lower-income people in oil-exporting countries who suffer from the environmental damage caused by oil drilling to people in coal-producing regions who have seen their environment and their health scarred by mining.

Pole said that what sold him on the basics of the Pickens plan was a visit to Sweetwater, Texas, a town whose economy had peaked in the 1920s and which had been on a long downward economic spiral ever since. But the town embraced wind turbines, and those turbines have spurred a green energy economic revival.

More people need to see examples of what Pope calls a “Dutch treat” energy economy, in which energy consumers in rich countries don’t shuffle the burdens of their energy consumption — the environmental damage, the health consequences, the lowered standard of living — onto others.

But perhaps more importantly for the political fight now being waged is to get the focus off of what Pope calls a massive “head fake” from the right wing. Even Pickens (a man who uses the words “drill, drill, drill” in one of his ads) concedes that the big U.S. oil companies aren’t nearly as interested in opening up offshore oil tracts to drilling as are conservatives in Congress and the White House. Nonetheless conservatives have too much invested in the oil companies that have funded the conservative movement for the past 30 years, and they know that changing the technologies that fuel America can shift the balance of who reaps the benefits.

“What we need to do is change the conversation,” Pope said. He says that we need to repower, refuel and rebuild. Repower by renewing the infrastructure we need to power a 21st century economy. Refuel using a mix of clean energy sources. (Imagine, Pope said, a “gas” station that sold natural gas or electricity for a plug-in hybrid as well as gasoline.) Rebuild so that we conserve energy. (Pope cited as an example Toronto, Canada, which has just launched a program of retrofitting all of its buildings to cut energy consumption and is expecting a 20 percent return on the public investment in the program. The next administration could launch a similar initiative even without significant government funding, since there are banks and other entities that are ready to commit the capital if politicians in Washington are prepared to commit the leadership.)

Conservatives are now touting “all of the above” rhetoric to hide what became naked when, under political pressure, Democratic congressional leaders indicated hat they would be willing to allow a vote this year on an energy plan that would include expanded offshore drilling—if it included such measures as having the oil companies give up tax breaks they received in 2003. When the question of what the oil companies would give up to break the nation’s dependency on foreign oil, the conservative answer was, “None of the above.”

Progressives are rightfully queasy about the man who not only funded the Swift Boat ads that helped derail John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 but who has funded the campaigns of men like Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., one of the Senate’s chief obstructionists on progressive energy legislation. But Pickens has opened a window of opportunity for a meaningful conversation about how to transform our energy future, and it clears the way for even bolder thinking about how to wean ourselves from our oil addiction. The challenge for progressives is how to best use it.

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