An early version of this post appeared on Get Energy Smart Now, with follow-up on Think Progress.


The Senate held a Bipartisan Energy Summit on Friday, attended by some of the nation’s top experts from MIT, Google, CSIS, CERI, and Shell. (Regrettably, the nation’s top energy expert, Sarah Palin, was unable to bring her deep knowledge and wisdom to the table.) The hearing was well attended — Senators Dorgan, Bay, Landrieu, Domenici, Bingaman, Pryor, Conrad, Dewine, Salazar … 20-some Senators. It is a rare Hill hearing that has so many principals at the table.

It was standing room only, with hundreds of people in the room and several tables full of journalists (and bloggers). People actually seemed to be paying attention — an indication of the political importance of the issues at hand.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) provided perhaps the best moment. His question and comment to the panel:

WHITEHOUSE: Gentlemen, we’re in the middle of a near total mortgage system meltdown in this country. We have a health care system that burns 16 percent of our GDP, in which the Medicare liability alone has been estimated at $34 trillion. We’re burning $10 billion a month in Iraq.

This administration has run up $7.7 trillion in national debt, by our calculation. And there is worsening evidence every day of global warming, with worsening environmental and national security ramifications. In light of those conditions, do any of you seriously contend that drilling for more oil is the number one issue facing the American people today?

[NINE-SECOND SILENCE … crickets …]

WHITEHOUSE: No, it doesn’t seem so.

Whitehouse went on to ask thoughtful questions about quick steps to change our energy situation. Dan Reicher from Google.org emphasized (many times through the session) the importance of energy efficiency as the quickest, highest impact, highest payoff option. He highlighted the importance of providing energy efficiency (and other) assistance to the less fortunate, calling for a ten-fold increase in the program for energy efficiency in low-income housing.

Every one of the experts agreed that energy efficiency is the No. 1 low-hanging fruit. But did the Republicans listen to the experts? Perhaps not:

… listen to the Republican leadership, which seems still fixated on a policy centered around drilling. “Conservation alone is clearly insufficient,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “We still need more oil and gas.” … listen to Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), ranking Republican member of the Senate energy committee. Domenici said he’s dismayed by the number of people who want to cut oil use in order to tackle global warming. “We will have to use crude oil for a long time — and lots of it,” he said. The country therefore has a choice, he added. Drill more and use more of our domestic oil, or don’t drill and use more oil from other countries.

The better choice, as the panel of experts said, is to move much more aggressively on efficiency and renewables, thus reducing the need for oil — ours or theirs.

Of course, this isn’t just a disagreement about policy — it’s also politics. The Republicans have discovered that a call for more drilling is one of their most potent weapons in the upcoming election. But energy experts say that at a time when Congress hasn’t even been able to extend the existing modest tax credits for wind and solar energy because of this partisan fight over energy, it would unfortunate if the politics of energy get in the way of progress on policy

There was consensus among the experts on the surface — they all agreed on an “all of the above.” The question, of course, is relative priorities, emphasis, and timing. In any event, it was:

  • crickets in the room when it comes to drilling,
  • a chorus of agreement when it comes to efficiency.