Image by David R. Tribble
On Wednesday, POLITICO hosted a panel on energy at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association of the oil and gas industry. The group, whose members include EXXONMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, and Shell, lobbies against federal regulation of greenhouse gases and has tried to cast doubt on climate science.
American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard, who welcomed everyone to the panel.
“From the oil and gas perspective we see this as a unique historic time in our nation’s history, now that we’re not the world’s number-one oil and natural gas producer,” he said.
“Today the United States is near a twenty-year low in carbon emissions. That was brought to you by abundant, affordable, clean-burning natural gas.”
Panelists included Trevor Houser, Hillary Clinton’s top energy advisor; Heather Zichal, Former Deputy Assistant to President Obama on energy and climate; Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, who is seen as a friend of the environmental movement; and Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who has fought anti-fracking activists in his state.
Environmentalists worry that fracking, a process for extracting natural gas using drilling, high pressure water, and chemicals, can poison groundwater and cause tremors in the Earth. Hickenlooper explained why he opposed a law that would have kept fracking away from people’s homes.
“My job is to make sure that fracking is done absolutely safely,” Hickenlooper said.
But, he explained, senior citizens who own mineral rights on rural land in his state could lose everything if rich people from Denver move in and build second homes nearby, and then invoke the law to forbid fracking near their fancy dwellings. “So are we as governor going to say, ‘You no longer have that private property?’ ” Hickenlooper asked.
The panel was interrupted by a protester who jumped up shouting:
“You guys are liars! . . . Fracking cannot be made safe! I hold you personally responsible for poisoning America!”
The panelists chuckled and continued their discussion over bringing environmentalists and industry to the table together.
Hillary Clinton’s advisor, Trevor Houser, said the Democratic Party Platform, which disappointed environmentalists when a proposal to condemn fracking failed, is much better than the Republican Party platform.
“We’re a party of a diversity of views . . . but you compare our platform to where the Republican platform is on this issue, and I think there is no greater contrast,” he said. He went on to tout Clinton’s plan to offer competitive grants to states and to come up with creative ways to reduce emissions.
Governor Inslee, the one panel member with serious environmental credibility, touted Washington State’s “absolute cap on carbon pollution.” He called it “what our children and grandchildren deserve” and took a jab at his state’s legislature, which, he said, “is under the sway of the Flat Earth Society.”
At the end of the program, the panel was interrupted again, this time by an indigenous woman at the back of the room who shouted, “Indigenous people need everyone on the panel to take a strong stand against fracking!”
“Please, Governor Hickenlooper, we need you to stand for us! We don’t have time! We need your help! Please! You’re killing your constituents with fracking!”
Several more protesters began shouting, and the panel ended in chaos.
I spoke with Brad Johnson, the executive director of the group Climate Hawks Vote, who was hustled out following an altercation with a woman who was live-tweeting the event.
The whole event was “an offensive display of Big Oil’s corrupting power over our politics and journalism,” Johnson said.
Over 11,000 Climate Hawks Vote members signed a petition asking Democratic politicians in Philadelphia for the convention to boycott the event, he said.
“This is an example of the banality of evil,” Johnson said.
“Most of the people were sitting there enjoying their food and drink, that was bought for us by the oil industry, and acting as if what we were engaged in was not the deliberate destruction of human civilization.”
Johnson got emotional as he described how helpless he feels.
“I feel tremendous personal guilt that I don’t have the bravery or skill or ability to stop this,” he said, beginning to cry.
“And I don’t see us standing up against what is undeniable evil. And those of us who I do see stand up against it. I don’t know if that’s enough. And I fear that it is fundamentally too late.”
It was a dramatic illustration of the gap between the activists who came to Philadelphia to speak out about urgent issues and the politicians and lobbyists who came to party and make deals over drinks.
People like Johnson made things considerably hotter for the latter group.
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-Chief of The Progressive Magazine. Lily Cooper produced an audio version of this story for WORT News in Madison.