07/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Debating Chevron

Chevron's CEO, Dave O'Reilly, and I debated for an hour last night at the Commonwealth Club. We got to the bottom of some differences and found some common points -- but didn't come to closure on some of the most important.

My bottom line is that O'Reilly is willing to head in the right direction, with a decent set of policy tools, but far too slowly and cautiously. If the world changes as fast as I believe it must -- his company will need to change a lot faster than he's ready to admit -- or else get much smaller.

Unsurprisingly, he thought the goals set in the pending House Commerce Committee bill were too ambitious. I believe they were far too cautious. I think we can cut 90 percent of our emissions (below today's level) by 2050 -- he thought we could only do 20 to 25 percent. I pointed out that just getting the rest of the country to use electricity as efficiently as California does would do that much, without touching sectors like transportation or renewables, and he relented and said, "Well, if you can get efficiency done, we can go farther." (First point of agreement.)

We also agreed that the Commerce Committee bill gives far too much away to coal companies and their utility allies. I'd prefer a straight cap and auction as President Obama suggested. O'Reilly would prefer a carbon tax -- and suggested starting at $20 per ton and going up, which is a very serious offer. We discussed the idea that, since neither of us likes the compromises that were inserted into the Commerce bill to please coal, we might jointly lobby in the Senate to get rid of the giveaways. He tentatively said "yes." (And it's captured on YouTube -- along with a slightly more contentious exchange.) Dave O'Reilly and me together on Capitol Hill? Eyebrows would be raised.

If we were able to clarify our agreements and disagreements on how fast America needs to phase out its use of oil and coal, we made little progress on the issue of how to ensure that whatever oil we do produce, is produced responsibly. O'Reilly was questioned strongly on Chevron's record in places like Ecuador and Richmond, California, across the Bay. I proposed that we resolve all of these issues by having the oil industry voluntarily create a global trust, funded with ten percent of oil industry profits for a decade, to clean up the environmental and community devastation left behind around the world by the industry's drilling and refining operations.

Going forward, the international major oil companies should take full environmental responsibility for all of their operations, even ones where they are in minority partnership with other companies or national governments. Oil companies would no longer be able to hide behind the argument that their activities were authorized by governments like those of Nigeria and Myanmar, and that therefore they were not culpable for environmental and human-rights abuses. O'Reilly didn't flat out reject the idea but simply pointed out that the costs would probably be passed on to oil consumers (true, and fair).

I closed by urging him to engage in similar forums and debates in locations where Chevron has drilling and refining operations -- beginning in Richmond. He hedged on his own participation in such forums -- so we'll have to see.