Netroots Nation Day 2: Separation of oil and state

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A panel on day two of the Netroots Nation conference asked the question: is the BP oil disaster the breaking point for communicating about clean energy?  Kevin Grandia of Desmogblog.com led panelists in a discussion of whether the myth of cheap, abundant energy has finally been shattered, and how progressives can speak truth to the realities that made this disaster possible in the fight to transform our energy and climate future.
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CSW was at the Netroots Nation annual conference in Las Vegas from July 22 – 25 — a gathering of progressive voices working to bring technology to bear in influencing the public debate.  The conference is in its fifth year, and has enjoyed enormous success as a forum for thousands of progressive activists to exchange ideas and share strategies.  We’ll be reporting on the climate and environmental panels we attended and other discussions that took place. Note that keynote sessions and many panels are now web-archived at http://www.netrootsnation.org

Steve Kretzmann, founder of Oil Change International, said that this is indeed a breaking point, but not in a way we would have hoped for.  On June 15, the Senate defeated, by a 35-61 vote, an amendment to the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2010 in the Senate that would have eliminated tax loopholes for big oil and gas companies.

More on U.S. oil subsidies here.

“This lays bare the enormous influence of the fossil fuel industry on Washington and our elected politicians, and the entrenched corruption that is happening around this industry on a daily basis,” Kretzmann said.

While this measure went by relatively unnoticed in relation to the fate of the climate and energy package, Kretzmann pointed to it as indicative of what we have long known: Big Oil and elected representatives are as cozy as can be.

Kretzmann identified the facets of big oil-government collusion:

•  Campaign contributions—$35 million in the last cycle, and an additional $7-8 million from coal
•  Lobbying—approximately $150 million in the last cycle
•  The revolving door between industry and government.  A Washington Post investigation last week found that three out of four oil and gas industry lobbyists are former government employees

Although these entrenched relationships are a given in American politics today, Kretzmann also offered some strategies for fighting them.

•  Name and shame the dirtiest politicians—those who are taking the most money from fossil fuel industries. Oil Change International has a project tracking petroleum industry campaign contributions.
•  Target subsidy removal—President Obama has talked about removing between one-fourth and one-third of fossil fuel subsidies, and there are bills in the House and Senate that would enact subsidy removal (Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act; End Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act).

Obama helped put the issue of dirty energy subsidies on the agenda.  The administration’s 2011 budget proposal asked Congress to end $36.5 billion in subsidies for oil and gas companies over a ten-year period.  Naturally, industry representatives are not amused, threatening job losses and framing subsidy elimination as a “new tax.”

More info on global fossil fuel subsidies here.

Jason Miner, Managing Director of the Glover Park Group, said that while the disaster clearly wasn’t a turning point in the sense that clean energy and climate legislation is now essentially dead for the year, it has had “an enormous impact on the climate of the country—I’m not sure that we have seen it fully translate into the type of desirable change that we would like to see, but we do have a vehicle for that change.”

Miner also said that in relation to climate and energy legislation, the disaster hit in a complex messaging environment.  It did put an immediate face on the pollution and feed into ongoing messaging about making polluters pay, but because the “substance of the legislation was in a lot of ways separate from the spill, it was heading towards utility sector pollution and away from transportation, so it was hard to tack the electricity messaging onto that,” Miner said.

In the fight for progressive change in our energy system, it comes down to who can define the status quo more effectively, he said.  The other side’s message is that of cheap energy, stability, and a way of life that people are used to.  “Our job is to redefine that, to create a narrative showing that there’s nothing stable about people losing their livelihoods and ways of life.”  The BP oil disaster creates a visceral support for that narrative—“people get the core idea of clean energy versus dirty energy,” Miner said.

One trap that some activists have fallen into is the “boycott BP” approach, which may serve to bolster the oil industry’s preferred take, i.e., that this is an isolated incident of abuse by a rogue company.

“This is the real problem with the bad actor frame, singling out BP.  This might not solve anything in terms of the ongoing energy system.  Americans are finally seeing in their backyards what other communities on the other end of the production line have been seeing for fifty years…It’s on us to point out that this is not an isolated incident, it’s ongoing,” said Kretzmann.

More on the unseen impacts of drilling here.

The take-home message from the panelists: progressives must fight back against the opposition narrative that reliance on these fuels is inevitable, and that we need to just deal with these unfortunate side effects.  While we can’t get rid of coal and oil overnight, we have alternatives to accepting the status quo, and we can fight for that national mobilization now.

Resources: Fossil fuel money in politics

Institute for Money in State Politics

Lobbyist Disclosure Act Database

Tracking petroleum industry campaign contributions

Subsidies

Climate Progress: Turn Off the Oil Subsidy Spigot

International Energy Agency: Energy Subsidies: Getting the Prices Right

More CSW posts from Netroots Nation 2010:

Al Franken: “Net Neutrality is the First Amendment Issue of Our Time”

Environmental Conflict and Climate Change: the Grassroots versus ‘Big Green’

Supporting Science, Benefiting Society

Netroots Nation: On holding the Obama administration accountable on climate and energy

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