The Democrats’ Macabre Dance with Boone Pickens

The Senate screws up the climate bill but Pickens wins anyway

Center for American Progress Action Fund
via Flickr

I’m sure some of y’all have already seen this methodical New Yorker exposé on how Obama and the Senate royally screwed up the climate bill. It’s a depressing read even for a seasoned cynic. You come away from the article – or at least I did – torn between sadness and anger.

Sadness at how the last, best opportunity to halt runaway climate change is perhaps gone forever. Sadness at the cost future generations will have to bear for the short-sightendness and idiocy of our political system.

Anger at how thoroughly powerful interests have not just corrupted, but taken over the government. Of course, we already knew that in a general sense. But to behold the gruesome details…

There was just one more deal to make. The Edison Electric Institute represents the biggest electric utilities, and its president, Thomas Kuhn, was another grandee in Republican circles. The E.E.I. already had almost everything it wanted: preëmption, nuclear loan guarantees, an assurance that the cost of carbon would never rise above a certain level, and billions of dollars’ worth of free allowances through 2030 to help smooth the transition into the program. Now the E.E.I. had two new requests: it wanted a billion dollars more in free allowances, and it wanted the start date of the cap-and-trade regime pushed back from 2012 to 2015.

Within minutes, the senators had agreed to almost everything that Kuhn and his lobbyists were asking for. Their three staffers were dumbfounded.

It’s like a high-stakes game of “Mother May I?” Sens. Kerry, Lieberman and Graham trade away every last piece of the climate bill until there’s nothing left but a heap of give-aways and special interest goodies. The legislative process isn’t pretty – they don’t call it “sausage-making” for nothing – but allowing commercial interests to hold a landmark bill hostage for their own narrow benefit is sickening.

Take, for example, the role of T. Boone Pickens in the process. As I’ve tried to point out before, both the press and the Congress have given Pickens a pass on his energy plan. Their crush on the charismatic Texan blinded them to the truth of the so-called Pickens Plan: It’s always been more about Pickens’ personal gain than good public policy. And that’s putting it charitably.

Here’s the New Yorker‘s account of how Pickens insinuated himself into the climate bill, with the full cooperation of Senate Democrats (note: the bolding is mine):

In March of 2009, a senior White House official outlined a strategy for a “grand bargain,” in which Democrats would capitulate to Republicans on some long-cherished environmental beliefs in exchange for a cap on carbon emissions. “You need to have something like T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore holding hands,” the White House official told me.

In exchange for setting a cap on emissions, Democrats would agree to an increase in the production of natural gas (the only thing that Pickens, the Texas oil-and-gas billionaire, cared about), nuclear power, and offshore oil. If Republicans didn’t respond to the proposed deals, the White House could push them to the table by making a threat through the Environmental Protection Agency, which had recently been granted power to regulate carbon, just as it regulates many other air pollutants.

Remember how Pickens was telling everyone how he’d seen the light and was embracing wind power for the good of humanity and the health of the planet, yadda yadda? In private, it seems he had a somewhat different agenda – one that the Democrats, including John Kerry, were more than happy to accommodate.

Three weeks later, Kerry and some aides were in his office discussing the progress of their bill. Someone mentioned T. Boone Pickens, the author of the so-called Pickens Plan, an energy-independence proposal centered on enormous government subsidies for natural gas, which is abundant, cleaner-burning than other fossil fuels, and sold by a Pickens-controlled corporation at some two hundred natural-gas fuelling stations across North America. Back in 2004, Pickens had helped to fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that ran a sleazy—and inaccurate—ad campaign proclaiming, among other things, that Kerry had lied about the circumstances that led to his Bronze Star and Purple Hearts.

Kerry had an inspiration. “I’m going to call T. Boone,” he said. Frangione was surprised. “You really want to call that guy?” she asked. Kerry told an aide to get Pickens on the phone. Minutes later, Kerry was inviting Pickens to Washington to talk. Rosengarten, who watched Kerry make the call, thought it was “a show of extraordinary leadership.” The following week, Pickens and Kerry sat in two upholstered chairs in the Senator’s office. Between them loomed a giant model of Kerry’s Vietnam swift boat. Kerry walked Pickens through the components of the bill that he and his colleagues were writing, but Pickens seemed uninterested. He had just one request: include in the climate legislation parts of a bill that Pickens had written, called the Natural Gas Act, a series of tax incentives to encourage the use of natural-gas vehicles and the installation of natural-gas fuelling stations. In exchange, Pickens would publicly endorse the bill. At the end of the meeting, the Senator shook hands with the man who had probably cost him the Presidency. Afterward, staffers in one of the K.G.L. offices started telling a joke: “What do you call a climate bill that gives Pickens everything he ever dreamed of?” “A Boonedoggle!”

So Pickens gets a government-subsidized multi-billion-dollar gift in exchange for… a photo-op? I don’t get it.

The article goes on to detail the climate bill’s demise and ends on a tragic note pondering whether Obama’s failure to wrangle a climate bill will define his legacy. It leaves off there but the Pickens story goes on. The Senate eventually cobbled together a pathetically watered-down energy bill, which they then proceeded to water down even more. Now, with a lame-duck Congress looming, about the only thing left with a chance of passing is… you guessed it – about $5 billion in subsidies for natural gas vehicles.

For the last word on all of this, let’s turn to Pickens himself. In Luckiest Guy in the World, he had some wise words for the role of corporate types in Washington:

I want more politicians to develop the starch to tell corporate America’s CEOs, “Don’t come to Washington and expect to get any better treatment than anyone else.” They fly in like kings, announced by their lobbyists, and Congress roll the red carpet all the way from the Hill to National Airport. These guys don’t do a damn thing for either party, and what they’re up to doesn’t help this country.

Amen, brother.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

Published at 4:30 pm CST