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Pound-the-Table Time?

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There is an old lawyer's saying, "When the facts are against, you argue the law. When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the law and the facts are both against you, pound the table."

For the advocates of holding on to the old fossil fuel economy, last week strongly suggested that as the science and the economics move decisively against them, it is table-pounding time.

The centerpiece of this bluster was the hearings held by the House Energy and Commerce Committeed on Chairman Henry Waxman's draft clean-energy jobs plan. Here a few of the choicer table-pounding moments:

Newt Gingrich, who agrees global warming requires action and actually appeared in a television commercial with Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, made it clear that action doesn't include any action proposed by anyone who happens to be a democrat. Gingrich showed up to blast the Waxman bill and anything else that might vaguely solve our energy dilemma, and began by pounding the table with quotes from George Orwell's 1984 about whether two plus two equals four. This was, in fact, a dangerous rhetorical ploy. Gingrich clearly wanted to claim that he belonged to the straightforward, honest school of thought that believes that two plus two does, indeed, equal four. But Gingrich promptly shifted into Orwellian newspeak -- his training at the hands of pollster Frank Luntz clearly sunk deep into his soul. Talking about the threat posed to our national security by oil imports, Gingrich claimed, "Our current energy import strategy is entirely a function of our own government's anti-domestic energy policies. ... It is an artificial, government-imposed shortage, not a naturally occurring phenomenon... ." In other words, just "drill here, drill now, pay less" as he claimed last summer.

Well, to quote T. Boone Pickens "this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of." And, in particular, we can't drill our way out of it if we want to pay less. Gingrich's strategy for reducing oil imports by increasing domestic production turns out to rely on a combination of oil shale, coal-to-liquids, and nuclear power -- quite simply the three most costly (and environmentally destructive) energy technologies ever dreamt up.

The truth is that the United States, with less than three percent of the world's oil reserves, uses 25 percent of its oil. There is no way to end that dependence without reducing our use of oil -- without, indeed, slashing it to a fraction of its present level. But that shift requires precisely the kinds of governmental actions that Gingrich is opposed to. Gingrich knows this, but in his rhetoric, three percent + smoke + mirrors somehow can be made to equal 25 percent.

And Gingrich was not alone in pounding the table. Texas Representative Joe Barton, the committee's ranking member no less, claimed that the huge deposits of oil in Alaska proved that global warming wasn't man made, but natural, because Alaska is currently too cold for oil formation. Barton sarcastically pointed out that the oil didn't get there because of "a big pipeline that we've created from Texas and shipped it up there and put it under ground so we can now pump it up." This, he seemed to argue, disproved EPA's recent conclusion that the evidence of global warming as a man-made phenomenon was "compelling," something he had tangled with EPA Administrator Jackson over earlier in the hearing. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu gently reminded Rep. Barton that owing to plate tectonics, Alaska has not always been in its current geographical position relative to the Arctic, and was once much further south.

Representative John Shimkus of Illinois broadened the attack, going after the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 because, he claimed, they had hurt Peabody Coal. But Shimkus completely ignored the benefits side of the study, which showed that the net gain to the American economy over 20 years from those amendments was at least $510 billion.

Perhaps fearing that this logic flaw might get pointed out, Shimkus closed out his attack on the Waxman bill with the following gem: The bill, he angrily protested, was the "largest assault on democracy and freedom" that he's lived through. He went on to say it was worse than both the Iraq and and Afghanistan wars, as well as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

That's table pounding of a very high order.

Table pounding may be the style du jour, particularly in Washington, but denial is spread more broadly. To the north, in New York, it is corporate shareholder time, and CitiBank CEO Vikram Pandit was being strongly questioned about Citi's continued involvement in investing in companies engaged in mountaintop removal mining. Pandit kept assuring shareholders that Citi was taking action. When Stephanie Pistello from Appalachian Voices, told Mr. Pandit that Citi's financing of mountaintop removal mining was destroying her culture and heritage, Pandit said he agreed. He went on to add, "I can assure you that I take this very seriously and that we are holding companies to a very high standard of due diligence".

But when asked what "due diligence" means when it comes to mountaintop removal mining, Pandit seemed stumped, falling back on the remark that Citi would insist that companies it invested in use "best practices."

At this point Rainforest Action Network's Rebecca Tarbotton had heard enough. She asked Pandit if Citi would stop investing in mountain removal mining, and when Pandit again fell back on "best practices" Tarbotton cut him off. "With all due respect Mister Pandit, I don't think there is a best practice for blowing the tops off mountains"

Pandit, chastened, finally conceded, "You may very well be right." But the concession didn't yield any promises of corporate change by the bank.

We do have the facts -- both scientific and economic -- on our side. And Big Carbon knows it. But it's not going away. And table pounding will work if we allow it to go unchallenged. Let's make sure it doesn't.