T. Boone Pickens is a Republican billionaire from Texas who handsomely funded the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry. Carl Pope is a veteran of the environmental movement, executive director of the Sierra Club and fierce critic of both George Bush and John McCain.
That the two men are in furious agreement on the need for a radical overhaul of U.S. energy policy, Mr. Pope said, says something very bad about the recent state of politics.
“When you find truly unusual bedfellows — and I think we qualify as truly unusual bedfellows — it’s usually a sign that the political process has failed,” said Mr. Pope this week, taking time out of a brief Vineyard vacation to speak to the Gazette.
“That things that are so obviously in the national interest that Pickens and I agree about them, yet cannot get a hearing in Washington tells you Washington is broken.”
They have been jointly concerned about energy issues for decades; Mr. Pickens more out of concern for national security and Mr. Pope more out of concern for the environment.
“He and I have been pounding on the politicians on the same issue for a long time,” said Mr. Pope. They concentrated their hopes for positive change efforts on different politicians, though.
“His view was that he was going to get it done by helping elect people like Bob Dole and George Bush and Rudolph Giuliani. My view was we could get it done by electing Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
“We both turned out to be wrong.”
But hope springs eternal. Mr. Pope thinks this election will change things, if only because the average Americans now are starting to really feel the costs of America’s energy profligacy.
“People in the United States have been used to the idea that somebody else paid part of their energy bill. They paid the dollars and cents part, but somebody else paid the cost of producing that energy. The somebody else might be a community in Appalachia, it might be people in the Niger delta, it might be uranium miners in Mexico or fishermen in Louisiana. Somebody else paid that price.
“That was the attractive thing about fossil fuels. Now with climate change, that option of having somebody else pay your bill is gone.
“We’re going to need to have a Dutch Treat energy economy, where you actually pay your own bill. And people aren’t going to like it.”
But they will have to accept it, because the cost of oil imports — $700 billion a year, heading for a trillion — makes the status quo option more expensive than the change option.
“If we don’t change course, we will add to the balance of payments deficit, an amount double to what we’re spending on the war in Iraq. Every year we wait, the price goes up,” Mr. Pope said.
He describes three broad approaches to the problem of getting America free of its addiction to fossil fuels — in particular dirty oil and even dirtier coal.
“You can refuel America, repower America or rebuild America,” he said.
The first, he calls the Pickens model — vastly expand the generation of wind and solar energy, thus freeing up less-polluting natural gas to serve as automobile fuel.
Second, the Al Gore way — expand wind and solar and build lots of plug-in hybrid vehicles.
“And the third way,” he said, “which I think is getting little attention, because it’s not sexy, is to rebuild America.
“Forty per cent of America’s carbon use is in buildings. Fifty per cent of that energy is literally wasted, cooling or heating the outdoors and turning electricity into heat, not light.
“If we had government-organized but privately-financed retrofits of our building stock, first you’d double employment in the building sector. Second, you’d be backing out about 25 per cent of our natural gas, which is wasted, which could be used in vehicles.”
He envisions a scheme where towns or counties would organize energy audits of buildings and fund the cost of making them more efficient.
“They guarantee you, the consumer, will save, say, $200 a month, but they will keep those savings until you’ve paid them back,” he said, conceding:
“Now, that’s not going to happen by this November, when it gets cold.”
But he said there is a good chance it could begin to happen shortly thereafter, depending on the outcome of the November election.
“I think, given the state of the American economy, that may actually be [presumptive Democratic candidate Barack] Obama’s thing, if he’s elected,” he said.
Mr. Pope lately has become a vehement opponent of Mr. Obama’s opponent, Republican John McCain.
“If you asked me a year ago where’s John McCain going to be, I would have said he had two choices.
“He could break with the oil wing of the Republican Party, or he could become a member of good standing of the oil wing of the Republican Party.
“They brand all their cattle; they’ve branded John McCain now. He let Dick Cheney put out the premise that we need to drill off the coast. Then the Weekly Standard put out a piece saying he has to go for it or conservatives will reject him. The next day John McCain comes out for drilling. And the next day George Bush comes out for drilling.”
From an environmental viewpoint, he said it is vital for Obama to win. And win big.
“It’s very important he come to office with three things: a working majority in the Senate and a stronger majority — 10 or 12 more votes — in the House.
“And he needs a mandate. He needs to run on something and he needs to get elected because he ran on it, because that is what will make Washington pay attention.”
Energy policy, he suggests, is such an issue. For the first time ever, it was the number one concern of voters.
“I just saw a poll. People were more worried about energy — 52 per cent — than mortgage failures — nine per cent,” Mr. Pope said.
“People now understand the long term solution is more efficient cars and different fuels. Sure they want short-term relief as well — the majority of the public want everything. Let’s do it all, they say.”
He said building a national electricity grid is a priority. That way, when the sun is shining in the Southwest or the wind is blowing in North Dakota, the power harvested is available to both Chicago and Houston.
The government needs to direct money to alternative fuels which work, he said. Not, for example, corn-based ethanol, which was sold as an environmental initiative, but which actually served the farm lobby while doing little for the environment and creating a humanitarian crisis by driving up world fuel prices.
Nor is bio-diesel a viable large-scale solution, he said. And so-called clean coal technology, where carbon dioxide emissions from industry are pumped underground, is almost certainly technically feasible, but almost certainly not affordable.
“On the other hand, some people are talking about technologies that would put the CO2 into a relatively inexpensive and non-energy consuming chemical process that would make solid material. We should do the research. If we can find a tech to retrofit to existing plants in particular, it would be very helpful,” he said.
And he said cellulosic ethanol, derived not from corn sugar but from forest and grassland which are otherwise unproductive, could be a good source of automotive fuel.
“But corn-based ethanol is no answer,” he said.
But wait. Barack Obama is a big advocate of the corn ethanol industry.
“That’s because he was a senator from a corn state [Illinois],” said Mr. Pope. “He had to be.
“That’s why you would like him to have a bigger majority, because he’ll have more ability to say no to Iowa and Illinois.”
You need strength to deal with vested interests like that. Another example Mr. Pope points to is the Cape Wind development.
“You will see people come out and say ‘Yes, I’m in favor of wind, but not where I am.’ And I have a lot of questions for people here about Cape Wind, which the Sierra Club supported after studying it for a long time.
“Now, I don’t know myself if Cape Wind is in the best place in this region for wind turbines. There might have been a better place.
“If so, I would be fine with the people of this region saying ‘Here’s our wind site and it’s big and we’re going to make it really easy to build there.’
“As long as people take responsibility for what they need. It’s not a question of moving the burden to someone else,” Mr. Pope said.