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September 23, 2014

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Reid summit in green spotlight

As clean energy forum nears, questions about its value, implications swirl

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Steve Marcus

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid discusses his National Clean Energy Summit, to be held next week at UNLV, during an interview Thursday in his Las Vegas office.

The biggest name on the program for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s first energy summit, last summer, was Harry Reid. And even he slipped out of the Reno Peppermill after delivering the morning’s keynote address.

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A year later, $4-a-gallon gas, melting polar ice caps and a presidential election have changed the landscape significantly.

This year’s summit, to be held next week in Las Vegas, will feature former President Clinton, oil tycoon turned wind developer T. Boone Pickens, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of other luminaries, including governors, researchers and environmentalists.

There will be no sneaking out of the spotlight this time, which is exactly the point.

Democrats hope the summit and an energy speech Reid will deliver at the Democratic National Convention this month will build momentum for their candidates heading into the November elections.

The party thinks its positions on renewable energy and imported oil will appeal to voters, especially when compared with the Bush administration’s record. Only a few elected Republicans are expected at Reid’s summit, although he insists it will be a bipartisan event.

At his right hand will be Pickens with his “Pickens Plan,” which links renewable energy development and a strategy for lowering gas prices.

The oil baron plans to use billions of dollars to build a 4,000-megawatt wind farm in Texas. The wind power will free up domestic supplies of natural gas, currently used for electricity production. That natural gas, in turn, can fuel buses and trucks, reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil by 38 percent.

The nation will save $300 billion of the $700 billion a year it now spends abroad, Pickens says.

“My focus is to get the cost of imported oil down and the only way you can do that is to cut down on the imports,” Pickens said in an interview Thursday. As a bonus, in his view, the plan will create jobs, produce profits and tax revenue, help the economy and reduce the national security and economic risks of relying on a volatile Middle East for so much oil.

Pickens says he’s trying to elevate the level of the debate over energy.

“You can push health care and education off to the side,” he said. “If you can’t solve this problem, you’re not going to have enough money to do anything” about the other two.

Pickens, no slouch when it comes to making money, is a perfect symbol of one of the main themes of the summit: the intersection of environmentalism and capitalism. Sessions on Tuesday will focus on a green energy economy environmentalists say will create hundreds of thousands of jobs; on the ways businesses can save money with energy efficiency; and on boosting American trade and manufacturing through renewable energy.

Clinton will kick off the summit with a speech Monday night.

Reid has become a hero among environmentalists, but in some of his positions — his opposition to coal-fired generating plants in Nevada, his “coal makes us sick” line — doubters see an approach that could leave Las Vegas in the dark, or at least short of electricity.

Reid was careful to avoid criticizing coal use during an interview last week, saying he wanted to “focus on the positive ... It’s time we start talking about some of the good things.”

Still, Reid has put himself at risk among his own constituents in the rural counties who favor the development of coal-fired plants as an engine for economic development, and some wonder whether he will pay a price for his anti-coal stance when he is up for reelection in 2010.

Nationally, critics of Reid’s summit say it’s too little, too late. Voters want action from Congress, not more discussion, they say. They criticize the summit for focusing only on green energy, which both parties say they support, rather than on the thornier issues of coal and nuclear power, which have stalled energy bills in Congress.

“How long are we going to talk about this before we do something about it?” said a senior Republican aide in the Senate. “The American people have had it past their eyeballs with senators and government talking about it.”

Reid says Republicans talk a good talk but haven’t backed it up with support for clean energy. He blames them for the energy gridlock on Capitol Hill. Republicans have kept all-important tax credits for renewable energy developers — set to expire at the end of the year — from passing the Senate, Reid says.

The summit comes as Americans face the worst energy crisis in at least a generation.

Republicans identified gas prices as the top voter issue in spring — and an opportunity to gain ground in a tough campaign environment for the party.

Republicans crafted a highly orchestrated operation around their presumed presidential candidate John McCain’s “drill more, drill now” strategy. Democrats failed to mount a strong alternative.

Congress adjourned for August with the blame game firmly established: Republicans argue that Democrats refused to hold a vote on allowing offshore drilling in environmentally protected areas, a step public opinion polls found had gained widespread support nationally, in part because of the coordinated Republican message.

Democrats respond by labeling Republicans the party of Big Oil, noting that oil companies have permission to drill offshore in unprotected areas. Democrats also note that oil from new offshore sites wouldn’t reach the market for years, long after the current crisis.

Reid’s third in command, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, acknowledged last month that it took Democrats time to find their “sea legs” on the issue, but said they are now forcefully striking back.

“No one believes that drilling is going to lower the price of gas in the near future,” Reid says. “If they do they have bad information.”

Democrats point to polls showing voters blame President Bush and the oil companies, before they blame Congress, for high gas prices.

Bill Wicker, the Democratic spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Republicans’ message isn’t sticking with voters.

“Just how stupid do they think the American electorate is?” Wicker said. “Everybody knows that two oil executives have run the White House for seven years. Everybody knows that Big Oil gives gobs and gobs and gobs of money to Republicans, and comparatively very little to Democrats.”

Republicans intend to continue with their own message. Some are talking about a government shutdown this fall unless they get a vote on drilling, and Nevada Sen. John Ensign told Fox News this week that the move is not out of the question.

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