June 16th, 2011


Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council


Climate One, in San Francisco, is an easy crowd for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. But the fact that he is so readily embraced by progressives can conceal that his message is an inherently conservative one. Listen to Kennedy talk for an hour and you’ll hear the words “free market” invoked more often than in any Milton Friedman tome.

“Show me a polluter, and I’ll show you a subsidy,” Kennedy is fond of saying, as he did tonight. The market is flawed, he said, by polluters who “make themselves rich by making everyone else poor” – externalizing their costs and internalizing the profits.

Kennedy, author and Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, was in San Francisco to promote The Last Mountain, a new film that features his efforts to end mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. That industry offered Kennedy opportunity to highlight a small but telling market distortion: the state’s roads.

Driving in West Virginia recently, Kennedy recounted, he noticed that the roads felt soft, like riding on a cushion. West Virginia, he learned, lays down 22 inches of asphalt on roads used by trucks hauling coal – nearly two feet, compared to the four to six inches of asphalt used on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Coal trucks, weighing 90,000 pounds, would pulverize less robust roads.

“The coal industry is not paying for those 22 inches of asphalt,” Kennedy said. “And that road has to be repaired every four years; whereas a regular highway has to be repaired every 20 years.”

“Coal says it’s cheap, only 11 cents per kilowatt-hour,” he went on, “but they’re not telling you that you’re also paying for those 3,000 miles of coal roads in West Virginia. That’s coming out of a different pocket.”

If dirty fuels were forced to cover their full costs, Kennedy said, not only could they not compete in the market, renewable energy would win. “We need to be in a marketplace that does what a market is supposed to do, which is to reward good behavior, which is efficiency, and to punish bad behavior, which is inefficiency and waste,” he said.

“Right now, we have a marketplace that is governed by rules that were written by the incumbents – coal, oil, and nukes – to reward the dirtiest, filthiest, most poisonous, most destructive, most vindictive fuels from hell, rather than the cheap, clean, green, wholesome, safe, and patriotic fuels from heaven,” he added, to the loudest applause of the night.

How did we get here? “Our democracy is broken,” Kennedy argued, with a campaign finance system “which is a system of legalized bribery.” And the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision will only hasten the decline, he said.

“The Citizens United case is the end of civilization, the end of democracy, with a 100-year-old law that said corporations cannot contribute to federal political candidates or officeholders. The Supreme Court just wiped that out, and we have a tsunami of corporate wealth that is now flooding into the political process.”

Even so, Kennedy remains optimistic. “We built, in this country, more wind and solar last year than all the incumbents combined. That is a critical milestone in the adaptation of disruptive technologies,” he said, citing the market takeover of flat screen televisions. “Nobody notices it because the other one is so dominant in the market.”

This is going to happen with clean energy, he said, not because government tells it to, but because the market is going to drive it there. “We can produce electric cars that cost six cents a mile to drive over the life of the car versus an internal combustion car that costs 60 cents. How long can they maintain that?”

– Justin Gerdes
June 16, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California