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Little consensus among energy experts

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emilys | Aug 27, 2008 09:30 AM

One of the near-unanimous take home messages from the Energy and Climate Change panels held at the Denver Performing Arts Complex on Tuesday was this: start pricing carbon emissions as soon as possible.

The most important role that government will play as the U.S. moves to new, cleaner energy sources is pricing carbon, whether it's through a cap and trade, tax or other means, according to Carol Browner, formerly with the Environmental Protection Agency. And her sentiment was echoed by at least 20 of the other panelists -- who ranged from industry executives to politicians, business people to scientists to think tankers -- during the morning's proceedings.

As the second of the two morning sessions got underway, a line of five suit-clad men filed into the theater -- CEOs from energy companies and Dow Chemical. The two men from coal exchanged cheap jabs with Robert A. Hefner III, founder and owner of The GHK Company, a natural gas producer, about whose energy was cleanest, most abundant and most likely to remain a crucial part of the world's "diverse portfolio" of energy supplies.

I had no bolo tie or cowboy hat sightings in spite of the large audience (a nearly full theater), Western setting, 31 roundtable participants and two moderators. Noticeable in the forest of suits, however, was the Western contingent -- Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, whose jeans, boots and absence of tie matched his casual and comedic stage presence, and Randy Udall, Co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, who walked on stage in hiking boots, khakis and a casual button down shirt (no tie). 

***

Four hours later, sitting in the Tattered Cover bookstore in lower downtown, I listened to more experts who drove home an almost opposite point from the speakers at the first event. "Carbon pricing is not going to be the primary vehicle that drives this change," argued Ted Nordhaus. 

The consensus among the four speakers in this discussion ("The New Environmentalism, Part II," hosted by The New Republic) was that charging for carbon emissions should not be the new administration's top priority (or a priority at all) with respect to energy and climate change policy.

The discussion here, in contrast to the first roundtables, partly focused on the consumer end of the energy crisis.  "How do we change (energy consumption) behaviors?" was one critical question. Consumers need more choices -- more affordable, energy efficient products. Consumers don't trust and/or understand alternative energy, and only a smart marketing campaign can make them understand.  ("We need to market solar like we market Coca Cola," argued Brian F. Keane, President of SmartPower.)

After five and a half hours of listening to the talking heads talk, it seems that there's very little agreement on strategy when it comes to solving the energy crisis. One general point of unity among the speakers and discussants was that presidential leadership on energy and climate change will be paramount (one caveat: the industry executives never spoke up on the McCain vs. Obama front).  There was also some general agreement that huge federal investments would be essential for the U.S. to succeed with alternative energy.

Additionally, not only was Western wear absent from the stages, but the Western region's stakes in the energy and climate change crises were notably absent from the discussions.

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