‘An energy ecosystem’
Luminaries powwow at Aspen energy conference

A pumpjack works tirelessly in the San Juan Basin south of Durango. A group of high-profile politicians, activists and luminaries gathered recently in Aspen to forecast the future of energy./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Allen Best

With their sparkling skies, verdant landscapes and dressed-down atmosphere, the mountain towns of the West have no trouble getting people with big credentials to stop by to share thoughts about how to save the planet.

Aspen does this especially well. The Aspen Renewable Energy (ARE) Days conference held in late August boasted a podium list that included billionaire titans of industry and commerce, one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, governors and more. The unwritten premise of the session was that we must move more swiftly away from fossil fuels and the energy policy impasse currently miring Washington, D.C.

Ted Turner and T. Boone Pickens were the billionaires on hand. They shared the stage twice, sharing jokes and sometimes viewpoints. Out at the Pitkin County Airport, Turner’s jet was easily identified: it has a bison’s head on its rudder. Turner has 55,000 bison, some of which end up on platters at his restaurant chain, Ted’s Montana Grill. He’s also the nation’s largest landowner, with 2 million acres, including large ranches in Montana and New Mexico. On his land in New Mexico, Turner is partnering to create a 1-square-mile solar farm, equivalent in output to a tiny coal-fired plant.

His great wealth and interests are also revealed in his philanthropy. He founded and endowed the UN Foundation with $1 billion, with a portion of its mission being to reduce greenhouse gases through energy transitions. While in the audience, he sat in the front row, attentively listening to presentations about wind energy and the idea of nuclear energy as a “renewable energy of the West.”

On stage, Turner was blunt, both funny and grim. Asked by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman how he had come to embrace the challenge of global warming, Turner talked about his early investigations of power plants. “You have to be a not-very-smart person not to get it,” he said.

Friedman, aggrieved by the failure of the U.S. Senate this year to pass climate-change legislation, kept wanting to know what had gone wrong. The coal and oil industries “shut us down, and I don’t like it worth a damn,” Turner replied. He especially targeted the coal sector with “confusing the issue” with bogus claims about clean coal.

His solution? Talk to your representatives and senators in Congress, he said.

Among fossil fuels, Turner and most mainstream environmental groups make an exception for natural gas, because it releases only 58 percent of the carbon dioxide of coal. That fits in with the agenda of Pickens, who wants to convert 18-wheel trucks to burn natural gas.

Pickens is hard to pin down. A stalwart Republican, a Texas twang betraying his residency, he paid $2 million to a group that painted presidential candidate John Kerry as having made exaggerated claims about his record in the Vietnam War. And, while he seems to accept global warming as a legitimate threat, Pickens speaks mostly about curbing imports of oil from what “our enemies.” He’s sure that some of the $750 billion paid for oil from foreign countries goes to bankrolling the Taliban.

Pickens said he’s impatient – and has been for a long time. Every president since Nixon has talked about reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil. Instead, dependence has steadily increased, now up to 67 percent. Obama promised to do the same – but hasn’t carried through.

“I think the president has to come through on this promise to get us off foreign oil in eight years,” said Pickens.

Two lame-ducked governors, both named Bill (Ritter of Colorado and Richardson of New Mexico) claimed accomplishments worthy of national emulation.

Ritter related Colorado’s mixture of carrots and sticks that produced what he describes as an “energy ecosystem.” Utilities were mandated to increase their use of renewables, a climate action plan was adopted, and energy efficiencies were given incentives. All this made Colorado more attractive to wind turbine manufactures, solar companies and other businesses.

Over fierce objections from the natural gas industry, Colorado also adopted regulations governing the impacts of extraction on wildlife and water. This, in turn, has allowed Colorado’s largest utilities to replace older, less-efficient coal-fired generators with plants that burn natural gas. Utilities have also been ordered to meet progressively higher renewable energy portfolio standards.

But Ritter also sees the need for electrical prices to better reflect external costs. He cited the pollution of lakes and reservoirs from mercury emitted by power plants. “We’re not charging people for the trust cost of burning coal,” he said.

Richardson, in a bit of one-upmanship, claimed that New Mexico has done most of what Colorado has done – and perhaps a bit more. He’s also fought coal plants, but New Mexico has also moved toward directly limiting carbon emissions.

A former energy secretary in the 1990s, Richardson said that renewable energy must get the same subsidies long enjoyed by oil, natural gas and nuclear sectors. He also called for a tax structure that encourages creation of manufacturing and workforce training associated with the new energy economy. “I don’t believe in taxing the rich,” he said.

But ultimately, Richardson said that he also does not have the answers to how to more rapidly convert from fossil fuels. “We need to find another way,” he said.

For James Cameron, in Aspen fresh off his success with “Avatar,” the answer lies in visceral reactions. He called for use of emotion in pushing the conversation about how to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. People in 2050 will look back and wonder, “What the hell were you thinking?” he said.

Later that night, a film called “Climate Refugees” was shown. Created in part with funding from Aspen residents, the film has a world-wide scope. The scenes were from poverty-stricken parts of the world where rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change may well force large-scale relocations. One statement in the picture by Lee F. Gunn, retired vice admiral from the U.S. Navy, resonated. “I think there are very few truly bad people in the world,” he said. “There are many desperate people. I think one of the unfortunate results of climate change will be that the many desperate people will be preyed on by the truly bad people.”

Sitting in the velvety cushions of an auditorium in Aspen, having just listened to a couple of billionaires ruminate, all this seemed far away. But then the film showed projections of where the world’s millions of homeless people would escape. A rain of arrows pointed toward North America. •



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