02/29/2008 08:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Common Sense in Houston

I was in Houston for what was originally going to be a presidential debate on energy, sponsored by MSNBC in affiliation with The Sierra Club Foundation and the Greater Houston Partnership, largely comprised of energy companies. But in the end, only Senator Hilary Clinton agreed to appear, so it became a forum instead, sponsored by GHP. The first panel -- emphasizing production -- featured an amusing comment from an oil executive, who explained that Americans didn't want to drill the Arctic Wildlife Refuge because they believed it was full of snowy mountains, and that they thought that way because "California environmentalists control the media." I had to reassure the audience that, unfortunately, the Sierra Club's hostile takeover bids for the New York Times and CNN had been rebuffed, and that while we told the media our story, we didn't, alas, control them.

But that was really the only nonsense. One star, for my money, was the Mayor of Houston, Bill White, who simply laid it on the line, talked about how Houston, a Sierra Club Cool City, was making outstanding progress savings its taxpayers money by reducing its carbon emissions, and if Houston could do it, well, then so could anyone. White also told a revealing story as he  lamented that Congress had passed a weak 35-mpg improvement in fuel-efficiency standards instead of the achievable 50 mpg we needed. He, it turns out, was the Congressional staffer member who back in 1975 wrote the language instructing the Department of Transportation to set a separate standard for pickup trucks, making it very clear it should affect "...pickup trucks, working vehicles -- only when the lawyers and lobbyists got it later and twisted it did it become SUVs."

Hilary Clinton did a fabulous job, challenging the oil companies "to become energy companies" and lead America towards cleaner energy sources. But she didn't kowtow, also telling her largely oil audience," I do not believe that now is the time when subsidies for the oil companies are necessary and appropriate.... It is now time to subsidize new forms of energy." She described energy progress to date as a series of half steps.

She upped White on CAFE, promising to raise fuel efficiency standards to 55 miles per gallon by 2030. She also called for a Green Building Fund to invest $1 billion per year in energy-efficient public buildings, which would create 40,000 jobs in Texas, and said she would promote affordable loans for families wanting to make their homes more energy efficient.

When I spoke, I focused on the need to get rid of barriers to a higher performance, efficient economy by unleashing innovation. "Only in the energy sector," I said, "does the oldest stuff make the most money."

Speaking right before me was McKinsey consultant Scott Nyquist, who made the point that we can, indeed, cut our carbon dependence and make money doing so. McKinsey found that at least half of the measures we need for green energy are good investments at today's prices -- and that a carbon price, whether through a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax -- will still not be enough by itself to achieve the efficiency gains we need. We'll need regulations to fix market failure.

But however sensible things were inside the Forum, outside the craziness continues. While Mayor White is pushing hard for new building-efficiency standards that will save owners and tenants a bundle of money on utility bills -- the big developers are pushing back hard, and the battle lines of the past still stay -- sadly -- in place.