October 26th, 2011


U.S. Senator (D-OR)


He hears North Dakota called the Saudi Arabia of wind power, Nevada, the Saudi Arabia of solar, Oregon, the Saudi Arabia of cellulosic ethanol. “With all of these Saudi Arabias, how come we’re still importing oil from Saudi Arabia?” U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), asked a Climate One audience on October 26. The problem, he said, is that the transition to clean energy is being stymied by the power of the fossil fuel incumbents, unlimited corporate money, misplaced energy subsidies, and Senate paralysis.

Importing that oil from Saudi Arabia and other exporting nations is an expensive habit. “We spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil; it’s half of our trade deficit. That billion dollars a day spent here would create a lot more American jobs,” said Merkley. “If you want to create wealth and jobs overseas, then purchase foreign oil; if you want to create wealth and jobs in America, then replace that oil with American energy.”

So why is America not moving faster to deploy renewable energy?, asked Climate One’s Greg Dalton. “When you look to policy, you can’t just look at the policy itself. You have to look at the power behind the perspectives in the policy,” replied Merkley. “There are huge, powerful interests in the oil and coal world that the last thing they want is for us to move to non-carbon sources.”

He added that as a result of the Citizens United ruling fossil fuel companies can spend enormous sums on money, anonymously, to protect their interests. He gave an example: “If Exxon spent 3%, in 2008, of its net profits, it would have exceeded all the dollars spent in the last presidential campaign.”

A seminal point, for Merkley, was the demise of the DISCLOSE Act in the Senate, which aimed to return transparency to federal political campaigns. “We may look back 30 years from now, and that moment, when we failed to get 60 votes to close debate on the DISCLOSE Act, in order to end secrecy and to end foreign donations, may be the moment when we went from our vision as President Lincoln laid out government of the people, by the people, for the people to something that is much more akin to government by the powerful, for the powerful.” 

Merkley said he wanted not just to reduce the influence of corporate money in politics, but to end lavish subsidies bestowed on the nation’s largest oil companies. The companies defend the subsidies by stating that they are needed to support exploration. “That’s an archaic argument today, when prices are often over $100 a barrel for oil,” he said. “When such a subsidy has outlived its original purpose, then it should be viewed like any other expenditure. If it’s not the best use of taxpayer dollars, then end it, and put the dollars where they will help more.” 

That money would be better spent, he said, to provide sustained, predictable support for clean alternatives to fossil fuels. Critically, a few key incentives for renewables expire at the end of this year. “At least a four- to five-year extension is merited,” said Merkley. “We shouldn’t do it one year at a time because industry doesn’t plan projects based on support that comes one year at a time.”

Merkley would also like Congress to increase its support for electric vehicles (EVs). He co-sponsored a bill with Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would select deployment communities, promote advanced battery research, and encourage EV purchases by government and corporate fleets. 

Merkley, a Senate freshman, was perhaps most passionate explaining his zeal to reform the body he recently joined. In January, he and fellow freshman, Tom Udall (D-NM), announced a package of reforms to Senate rules. Merkley identified his two most important proposed changes: a protocol for amendments, so that that the minority and majority have fair chance to amend a bill on the Senate floor; and to replace the so-called “silent objection filibuster,” which doesn’t actually require a senator to talk on the floor of the Senate, with the “talking filibuster.” 

He explained: “When there was a complete social consensus that the majority was the correct way to go, when people objected to the simple majority, they stood on the floor and talked about it because they wanted to take responsibility, and they wanted to defend what they were doing.”

“What the talking filibuster would do,” he went on, “is say rather than simply quietly objecting, which takes five seconds, and then you can go off on vacation or to a fancy dinner, instead, if you want to block a simple majority, you or someone else has to be on the floor speaking to the issue at hand.”

If, to take one example, the GOP senators who wanted to defend secret, unlimited donations by foreign companies by blocking the DISCLOSE Act had had to defend their position on the Senate floor, said Merkley, they would have been forced to do so in public, and sustain it for hours, days, or even weeks.

“The talking filibuster makes you accountable, and you can be considered either a hero or a bum,” he said.


- Justin Gerdes
October 26, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California