Muckraker: Grist on Politics

In an event Tuesday that brought together a motley crew of leaders with an interest in the future of energy policy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised that the issue would be a top priority for him next year.

“As the new Congress convenes, I will make it a priority to work with the Obama administration to advance bold, broad policy ideas that can bring to America a vibrant clean energy economy and a healthy environment,” said Reid, at an event sponsored by Third Way.

Reid was the marquee speaker, but perhaps the real significance of the event was the wide range of groups represented around the giant table. There were at least 44 different speakers, representing renewable energy companies and industry groups, fossil-fuels industries, labor groups, big green groups, think tanks, and local government agencies. There was the American Petroleum Institute and the Alliance for Climate Protection, the Teamsters and Dow Chemical.

There were also several folks with close ties to the next administration in attendance — Rose McKinney-James, who is heading up the transition review team for the Federal Regulation and Oversight of Energy (FERC), and Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and an Obama campaign adviser. There were also several individuals rumored to be top candidates for key posts in the administration, like Google director of climate and energy initiatives Dan Reicher and World Resources Institute president Jonathan Lash.

With such a large group, each representative was allotted just two minutes to speak. For the most part, they agreed on what the next administration needs to do, at least in broad terms: invest in infrastructure, improve the electricity grid, increase energy efficiency, and put in place a price on carbon. Several others called for massive federal investment in renewable energy and the creation of a federal renewable portfolio standard.

One of the few dissenting statements of the day — though relatively polite, and still calling for a price signal in the near future — came from American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard, who made an appeal for keeping fossil fuels in the picture.

“We know we have relied on these important fuels for many years and they are the backbone of our economy. But as we look to the future as we make this transition to a more clean environment, a more clean energy future, we hope people remember the important role of the basic fuels like oil and gas in making this transition,” he said.

Gerard tried to make the case that fossil-fuel industries are critical players in moving to renewables, arguing that over the last seven years they have spent $188 billion on research and development on new energy technologies — $121 billion of those dollars from the oil and gas industry. “We’re significant players in terms of the innovation that we’re going to have to have moving forward,” Gerard said.

Reid, perhaps having heard that ExxonMobil, for instance, only spent 1 percent of its massive 2007 profits on renewable energy, asked Gerard for more specifics.

“We’re in all sorts of things, Senator. As you might be aware, British Petroleum is one of the key players in the solar sector, Chevron and others are big into wind, ExxonMobil spent a lot of time on battery development for electric cars and others. The list goes on,” Gerard replied. “I’d be happy to come visit with you and go through that at great length.”

He also pointedly noted that the revenues to the federal government for fossil fuels will be essential for making investments in other energy sources.

“Since 1953 we’ve generated over $200 billion into the federal Treasury, and it’s estimated based on only what we know of today in terms of oil and gas resources here in the United States, there’s an additional $880 billion to be generated in royalties alone. So we can help solve that question and bring additional revenue to the federal Treasury as part of expanding the energy infrastructure.”

At that rate, revenues will reach $880 billion in … 244 years.

For the most part, the panel was enthusiastic about shifting to a new energy economy. Reid also expressed hope that there will be green components of a second stimulus package, to come early next year. It will most likely include massive infrastructure investment, upgrading the country’s energy transmission system and investing in energy efficiency programs, Reid said.

Speaking to reporters after the event, Reid indicated that Congress will look to the Obama administration for the next stimulus package. While he hasn’t yet seen what they may have in the works, he said they “have to have something that is robust,” and he expects it to be “big — big in terms of $400 billion and up.”

“Obama will give us a plan and we will sort through it as quickly as possible,” Reid said.

As for what to do for the automobile industry, which is lobbying for, ahem, stimulus as soon as possible, Reid said he expected to have something on the floor by next Monday.