Muckraker: Grist on Politics

A fleet of oil industry reps, enviros, venture capitalists, national-security hawks, and think-tankers walk into a room. After a day and a half of debate, can they walk out with at least three oil-related policy recommendations for the next president?

That was the challenge presented by the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Brookings Institution, which hosted a meeting of a wide range of energy and environmental stakeholders in Washington on Dec. 18 and 19, under the banner of the “Oil Solutions Summit.” The invited parties — from the Natural Resources Defense Council to Chevron to members of Obama’s transition team — have all crafted their own plans for the future of energy in the U.S. But the question for this event was whether these groups could agree to some clear policies that would make the country more economically, environmentally, and physically secure. If they could put those recommendations on Obama’s desk in the next few weeks, it would be an unprecedented step forward.

Politicians often remark that we’ve gone decades with no concrete energy policy. But as Charles Ebinger, director of the energy security initiative at Brookings, said in the convening session, “The problem is not that we don’t have a plan, but that we don’t have a plan we can all agree on.” The point of the summit, he said, was to come up with one. They started by discussing 15 different plans from the stakeholders in the room and identifying areas of agreement.

“All these participants are very thoughtful people, with experience in the energy sector, so let’s get everybody together and see where we can agree,” said Ebinger. “At the end of the day, take the areas where we have agreed or some of the newer ideas coming out, and say to the new administration, ‘Here’s about as wide a spectrum of energy specialists as you can imagine, and they agree on these issues and have some interesting new ideas. Why don’t you take that as the cornerstone of your new energy policy?'”

And on the areas where the parties disagree — there are plenty, considering the range of participants — this meeting could be a foundation for more collaboration, said Ebinger. “We can try to work out those differences over time.”

“I would hope that all of these people who come with their own individual points of view and their own prejudices … that we will have a more informed debate about these energy issues, which are hugely important and hugely expensive, and getting them wrong is very dangerous,” said Marshall Nichols, executive director of the National Petroleum Council. “The more informed the debate, the better.”

Areas of disagreement included the core issue of whether the goal is to end dependence on oil altogether or end dependence on foreign oil, not to mention the very definition of “dependence.” There were nitty-gritty differences as well — will plug-in hybrids enjoy a market penetration of 20 percent or 50 percent by 2020?

The attendees met in three different plenary sessions to talk about the bigger-picture issues of what the barriers to changing policy are, what the policy prescriptions might look like, and possible partnerships the groups could forge. Lots of ideas were tossed into the ring, like creating an “Organization of Importing and Consuming Countries” to counter OPEC, raising the federal gas tax, setting a declining cap on oil imports, and raising fuel-economy standards to 100 miles per hour by 2020.

Among the more widely agreed-upon ideas were vast investments in upgrading the electricity grid, funding energy research and development, and expanding mass transit. Creating an “open fuel standard,” which would require that all cars sold in the U.S. be able to run on a variety of different fuels, was also met with wide support (more on that from Eoin O’Carroll).

“It’s about how do we turn oil from being a strategic commodity to just a commodity,” said Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and a proponent of the open fuel standard. “It’s not about how much oil we import, it’s not about even how much oil we use, it’s about the fact that we have no choice … For us it means stripping oil of its strategic status.”

Luft noted that the real challenge is not just what the groups can agree on, but what is politically feasible. “The question is, can you have the plan of plans that really brings together the collective minds of all the leading thinkers on this issue?” he said. “At the end of the day, Washington is a very pragmatic city. People like big ideas, but at the end of the day big ideas are only good as far as they can be translated to a legislative reality.”

There was some disagreement over what should be considered a “bold” policy idea and what is actually “passable.” The very definition, folks at the summit agreed, has shifted in the wake of this year’s presidential and congressional elections, and the massive government funding going to bailouts these days.

Over the next few weeks, Brookings and RMI will gather the ideas generated at the summit into a draft summary, which each group will then be able to examine and discuss. Ideally, they’d like to continue the conversation online, and be able to deliver to Obama three to five ideas that the group agrees widely on by mid-January.

“At the end of the day, the proof is going to be in whether you can come up with a set of policies that are actionable and the majority of the stakeholders here today can actually stand behind,” Kirsten Thorne, public policy adviser for Chevron, told Grist at the conclusion of the summit. “It’s a great start, and fundamentally, it’s a fantastic way to talk about a very serious problem for our country.”

The groups represented at the summit: Brookings Institution, Rocky Mountain Institute, Better Place, International Council on Clean Transportation, Securing America’s Future Energy, Pickens Plan, Advanced Technology Ventures, Center for American Progress, Management Information Services, Our Energy Policy, Hunt Green LLC, McKinsey & Company, MIT’s Vehicle Design Summit, Grove Foundation, Innosight, Union of Concerned Scientists, Earth Track, Set America Free Coalition, DeMatteo Monness LLC, Natural Resources Defense Council, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Vision Ridge Partners, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Google.org, Council on Competitiveness, National Commission on Energy Policy, National Petroleum Council, and Chevron.