07/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sometimes Oil and Water Do Mix

The chiefs of Chevron and The Sierra Club sat down in public yesterday for the first time ever and moments into the conversation the audience of nearly 700 people realized something amazing was happening.

While many thought they were about to see a smackdown between Big Green and Big Oil, Chevron CEO Dave O'Reilly and Sierra Club Executive Director quickly struck a cordial and respectful tone.

Prodded by the moderator, Alan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, they both acknowledged the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which stipulates rising temperatures are in fact happening and are due to human activity. Secondly, O'Reilly said Chevron didn't join the United States Climate Action Partnership because he didn't want to be "hog tied." Pope quickly replied saying The Sierra Club didn't join for "exactly" the same reasons.

The climate group, known as USCAP, is an alliance of about 40 large energy producers such as Shell and BP, manufacturers such as Dupont and Ford, and environmental groups including Environmental Defense, Natural Resources Defence Council and others. They have been a major force in shaping the Waxman-Markey climate bill.

Pope and O'Reilly disagree passionately about many questions, particularly the cost and pace of the transition from fossil fuels. Pope cited scientific suggestions that carbon pollution must be reduced by 80 percent by 2050 to avoid catastrophic consequences of severe climate change. "We'll be lucky if we can get 20 percent or 25 percent by 2050," O'Reilly countered, saying that pace is determined by turning over capital stock such as refineries.

The unprecedented gathering happened as part of Climate One, a leadership dialogue I run in San Francisco at The Commonwealth Club of California. It convenes thinkers and doers in public and private forums to advance the transition to a prosperous low carbon future.

The climax occurred when they ganged up together on the coal industry. Agreeing with Pope that reducing coal is critical to carbon reduction, O'Reilly bemoaned the "coal lobby getting free handouts" in this "new crazy bill." Pope then invited O'Reilly to go to Washington together to push back against coal. After a pause, O'Reilly shook Pope's hand and nodded his head. But he didn't say a word.

"The coal industry sent oil and gas its share of the dinner bill," Pope said, later. As O'Reilly listened intently, he praised the oil industry for greatly improving the technology and methods of drilling for oil and said the problem with oil is not extracting it, but burning it. And getting in one last, irresistible dig, Pope said: "We waste a lot of oil. That isn't your fault. It's General Motors' fault."

Oh, how times are a changing.