22 August 2013 — Is the fossil fuel industry worried? You bet.

The public relations man called to see if we wanted to follow up an email offering an interview with John Hofmeister, a man who had been president of Shell Oil and was now spruiking support for a kind of a Reserve Bank for energy.

No, we intimated… and, “Sorry, can’t find the email.”

But he’s a fossil fuel man turned environmentalist, we’re told. Reformed.

Mmmm, we’ve heard of those. The tend to worm their way into the tent only to sow seeds of doubt and muddy the waters.

Cynical? Hey, Journalism 101.

Besides none of this supposed concern for renewable energy was stated as part of the objectives in the media release, resent:

  1. Assure the uninterrupted supply of affordable energy from all sources
  2. Establish needed infrastructure to move energy from where it is produced to where it is consumed
  3. Ensure environmental protection to improve land, water and air quality
  4. Deliver efficiencies through technology.

So where was the bit about renewables? And please don’t talk to us about “environmental protection”, which is always absolutely respected and adhered to, of course. Until they find the next motherlode and start talking about “balance” with economic drivers and “social sustainability”.

(No-one mentions the trade-off with tumours and other cancers from fossil fuels.)

But the MR was clear: Hofmeister, who will be in Australia to give the opening keynote address at the All-Energy Australia conference in October, was “one of the world’s most respected environmentalists”.

He wants Australia to establish an independent Australian Energy Reserve Authority, to be run along the lines of the Reserve Bank.

And he wants the governments of Australia – and the US, too it emerged – to stop “playing politics with energy before it is too late”.

Too late for what?

We were intrigued and agreed to the interview: keep your friends close etc.

So here we are on a Skype call to the US.

It’s Friday after deadline, so we get to the point: Mr Hofmeister, there is no mention of renewables in this plan; we heard you were for the environment.

Hofmeister says yes.

“You shouldn’t sit by and play petty politics waiting to see the planet burn before you are compelled to act,” Mr Hofmeister says.

We watch for the catch.

“In my view, energy without a plan or environmental protection without a plan is left to the mercy of what’s politically expedient in the short term… and the only way to get a plan is to look roughly at a 50-year future… and look at all the sources of energy supply and environmental supply and work it over an extended period of time to achieve what you’ve set out to achieve.”

Hofmeister wants energy to step outside the political cycle and be treated as we treat central banking functions, immune from the next democratically elected government switching policies and tack.

Political cycles are dangerous, he says. True. Australia, on the eve of an election, could well soon have many environmental and climate change gains snapped by the next incumbent.

Democracies are dangerous for the fossil fuel industry, too, says Hofmeister.

“In a democracy most critical systems that support modern society have to adjust to the political process.”

He thinks energy and the environment is in the same category.

But we live in a market system, we say, surely the fossil fuel industry is its biggest champion?

Apparently not.

Hofmeister says nothing about energy or the environment is free market, and nor should it be.

“You can’t drill a well or open a mine or cite a renewable energy system or build a bio-fuel plant or gas stations without government permissions,” he says.

“Otherwise you could have one landowner wanting to poison the earth next to another landowner because he chooses to do so.

“I argue the free market was eliminated decades and decades ago… and industry has learnt to live with regulation and industry is generally compliant and supportive of it because they are protected by the regulations in terms of what they can and can’t do.”

Finally, a clue to what’s going on here. A big clue.

He wants a kind of Reserve Bank for energy, a “50-year plan run by an independent regulatory authority in a democracy that has statutory legal authority to make decisions and balance environmental legal protection with affordable energy along with infrastructure to convey the energy”.

And over time replace hydro and carbon energy with alternative sources.

A long time.

But we haven’t got 50 years, we say. Has he seen what’s happening in the Arctic? We need to stop burning coal today. And oil too.

But Hofmeister is onto it.

“Here’s the issue – if we rush this in the way certain politicians or environmental zealots want, we will go backwards because at the first sign of electricity blackouts we will elect people who will reverse the course and we will go back to doing more coal mines.

“Within a democracy you can’t predict what the public will say five year from now, or 10 years from now. We have to guide the transition with authority and strategic planning.”

That’s what environmentalists and sustainable planners say, too.

But for different outcomes.

Hofmeister says it’s all very well for one million Australian homes to sport solar panels, but factories and data centres need much more energy than some solar panels can produce.

Hmmm. So what’s he’s really after is not so much the environmental protection or deployment of renewable energy – which actually doesn’t make it past the media release – but an orderly segue for his industry into some other way to make squillions?

Yes, he says, an “orderly segue”. He doesn’t comment on the squillions.

So who is Hofmeister working for? Is he on the payroll of any oil or mining companies?

Yes, he says, three. These include Hunting, a UK company that makes well equipment; CAMAC Energy, an energy investment company; and a Spain-based testing and inspections company.

He is also member of the Fuel Freedom Foundation and the Consumer Energy Alliance.

Wikipedia says the foundation’s Board of Advisors for the Fuel Freedom Foundation includes former CIA Director R James Woolsey, Jr, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation Peter Goldmark,former dean of the University of Colorado’s Graduate School of Public Policy Marshall Kaplan, and co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security Gal Luft. The chief executive is Joseph A. Cannon.

These are organisations with “thousands and thousands” of messengers and ambassadors who carry the message to the communities and workplaces”.

What his groups are worried about is the high cost of oil. And energy security in the US.

“It’s a prime concern because energy is irrationally expensive – $105 a barrel.

“We have an expression in the energy business: the stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.”

Yes, we have the same fond expression, we say, but again, for entirely different reasons.

Is the fossil fuel industry scared witless?

You better believe it.

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