Power Lunch: What Happens When Energy Executive Sit Down with Environmentalists? They Come Up with a Plan for the Future That Leaves Fossil Fuels to the Dinosaurs. (beyond Fossil Fuels)

By Snell, Marilyn Berlin | Sierra, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Power Lunch: What Happens When Energy Executive Sit Down with Environmentalists? They Come Up with a Plan for the Future That Leaves Fossil Fuels to the Dinosaurs. (beyond Fossil Fuels)


Snell, Marilyn Berlin, Sierra


When Vice President Dick Cheney and his National Energy Policy Development Group met last year, they were supposed to come up with a plan that would best serve the country. Instead, Cheney's task force, made up exclusively of energy-industry executives and lobbyists, sought massive subsidies for the oil, gas, coal, and nuclear industries; the construction of 1,300 power plants ("More than one new plant per week, every week for twenty years running," said Cheney); and increased drilling and mining on public lands. The only serious attention conservation and renewable energy received was when the Department of Energy tapped those program budgets to pay for printing 10,000 copies of the White House plan.

Asked why the vice president would turn exclusively to people like then-Enron CEO Kenneth Lay for energy advice, Robert Bennett, Enron's attorney, responded: "Where are Mr. Cheney and others supposed to get their information from? The yellow pages?"

There are other voices to be heard, though, and other energy paths. For 30 years, the United States has had the means to meet its energy needs and decrease dependence on Mideast oil without having to drill, dig, and destroy this country's exquisite natural places. So Sierra decided to flip through a more diverse Rolodex to put together our own energy task force.

We didn't only talk to environmentalists. We also invited the head of a multinational oil company, a labor leader, an architect, a state policymaker, and a utility executive. And on a wintry day in San Francisco, beneath Ansel Adams photographs of blooming dogwoods and Yosemite Valley, we gathered (several joining by telephone) and talked about how we might get past the status quo to implement environmentally positive energy goals.

The group, while more inclusive than Cheney's, was potentially more volatile as well. But instead of sparks between adversaries (which we worried about), there were genuine surprises: a corporate head questioning the sustainability of our consumption-based economy; an environmentalist arguing that growth can be good if we're growing the right things; and the man once responsible for some of our largest nuclear power plants saying that "in this age of terror, we just can't have them."

All agreed, moreover, that the path ahead can and must lead beyond fossil fuels. Even BP's Lord John Browne concurred--though he would not take the bait when the Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown asked him to finally declare what "BP" stood for these days. (His company had floated the idea in promotional material that the former British Petroleum was now going Beyond Petroleum.) "BP stands for BP," replied a good-natured Browne.

Most remarkable was the consensus among participants that a peaceable, sane, and sustainable energy policy is within reach. "In the United States, we have the means to kick the oil habit," says the Electric Power Research Institute's Kurt Yeager. "It's very important to set this as a leadership goal." Or not: "If we like Gulf wars," Yeager also says, "we don't need to do anything."

Despite the fact that much of the Bush administration's plan made its way into House and Senate energy bills, we still have a choice. "Technology isn't what's inhibited our energy policy," says the California Power Authority's David Freeman. "It's been pure politics."

All we need is political leadership in Washington with the vision and courage to choose wisely how we light the way ahead.

Carl Pope: In "Challenges and Opportunities for the 21st Century," the U.S. Department of Energy published the following statement:

"Our environmental well-being--from improving urban air quality to abating the risk of global warming--requires a mix of energy sources that emits less carbon dioxide and other pollutants than today's mix. Our national security requires secure supplies of oil or alternatives to it. …

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