Sometimes I come across information that isn’t publicly known. That occasionally happens because I am digging, and I uncover something newsworthy. I can generally report on those kinds of things. But sometimes it is because someone sends me information that is confidential – or they tell me something they learned in confidence. That has happened a couple of times with some of the biofuel companies I have written about. In those cases, I would never use such inside information. While I appreciate the knowledge that my intuitions were correct, it also hampers me from being able to objectively write about those companies in the future.
A particular example I will name (but not the only one) is that of Range Fuels. I have written about them in the past, and while I am a fan of gasification, I don’t think gasification to produce ethanol is the right path. But if you search through my blog, you will find that I have not written much about Range Fuels. Why? Because two different people have passed on sensitive information to me that compromises my ability to criticize the company. Now if I write that I expect Range Fuels to be wildly successful – or not – my writing could be influenced because I know some things that aren’t public. So, I play it safe and generally don’t say much about Range Fuels – even though they would appear to fit the criteria of a company that I would normally focus on.
Such was the case with some juicy information I received last year. In July of last year I received the following tip: Presidential candidate Barack Obama had summoned some of the CEOs of the top oil companies to a secret meeting to talk about energy policy. I knew who was at the meeting, and I knew what the meeting was about.
Some may know that Vice President Dick Cheney also summoned a number of energy executives to private meetings at the White House in 2001, and he had been criticized heavily over the secret meetings:
The task force’s activities attracted complaints from environmentalists, who said they were shut out of the task force discussions while corporate interests were present. The meetings were held in secret and the White House refused to release a list of participants. The task force was made up primarily of Cabinet-level officials. Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club unsuccessfully sued to obtain the records.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who posed the question about the task force, said he will ask the Justice Department today to investigate. “The White House went to great lengths to keep these meetings secret, and now oil executives may be lying to Congress about their role in the Cheney task force,” Lautenberg said.
So now we had Obama conducting secret meetings with Big Oil, but the press didn’t seem to have wind of it. I had a possible scoop on the story. The only problem was that I was asked not to divulge the information. So, I waited until it hit the press. And I waited. And I waited until now, almost a year later. I have finally seen the story in the press for the first time. Not surprising to me that Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson would have the story:
After a long day of campaigning on July 8, candidate Barack Obama arrived at his Chicago headquarters for a three-hour brainstorming session about a suddenly hot issue: energy and climate change.
He had summoned a cross section of experts, including top executives from three utilities and two oil companies, the chief energy economist of an investment bank, a climate scientist, a California energy and environment expert, an oil consultant-historian, and several campaign staffers. Despite the late hour, one participant recalled, “He walked in as if he had just gotten up after a refreshing night’s sleep to lead a class. He was clearly there to harvest information and then do something with it.”
My version is slightly different from this. I was told that the meeting happened in D.C. – not Chicago – and it happened on July 10th – not July 8th. Not sure which of those versions is correct [RR: My source has sent me a note correcting previous statements; the meeting was in Chicago on the 8th, although there was a similar meeting on the 10th in D.C.], although I got the information very close to the source. Otherwise, the description of the meeting is consistent with the information I had been given.
To be clear, the Washington Post story isn’t about uncovering a secret meeting with energy industry executives. That bit is just the preamble to the story of how Obama’s energy policy crystallized into a high-profile part of his campaign. Oil and gas prices were headed to record highs, and Obama wanted input from energy insiders on how to tackle energy problems (although I was told that he did most of the talking).
So how will partisans react to this news? Will those who denounced Cheney for his secret meetings now do the same for Obama? I had seen endless speculation that the Cheney meetings were all about carving up Iraq for the oil companies to loot. This, despite there being no public details about the meeting available. Once again, the Washington Post finally broke the news of who some of the attendees were to Cheney’s meetings:
Provided a copy of the list, Cheney’s office said he would not comment on it. “The vice president has respectfully but resolutely maintained the importance of protecting the ability of the president and vice president to receive candid advice on important national policy matters in confidence, a principle affirmed by the Supreme Court,” spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said by e-mail.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who unsuccessfully pushed for details of the meetings, said it is “ridiculous” that it has taken six years to see who attended the meetings. He described the energy task force as an early indicator of “how secretively Vice President Cheney wanted to act.”
Waxman said he was not surprised to see the prevalence of energy industry groups on the list of meetings. “Six years later, we see we lost an opportunity to become less dependent on importing oil, on using fossil fuels, which have been a threat to our national security and the well-being of the planet,” he said.
One thing that fueled the speculation was that Cheney fought to keep the names of the participants and the discussions that took place a secret. But that certainly didn’t stop the speculation that the meetings were for planning the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent division of the spoils among the oil companies.
Don’t get me wrong. I am glad Obama summoned energy executives to these talks. To formulate a good energy policy you had better be engaging those who provide the energy. I am also sensitive to the fact that this could have been unpopular with his supporters. But I suspect that those who suggested sinister motives behind Cheney’s meetings won’t do the same over Obama’s meetings.