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Falling for the PR 

When the national interest starts to trump private greed, it's time to crank up the public-relations machine. 

It turns out that with enough money and guile you can persuade lots of people — even most of them under the right conditions — that the public interest and narrow private interests are really one and the same.

Arkansas in the fall of 2009 provides just the right conditions — a sympathetic media, vacillating or agreeable political leaders and a population distracted by economic hardship — so the state is treated to one of history's most ruthless public-relations campaigns. Two, in fact.

First, the insurance companies and their shills persuaded people that, without saying it in so many words, the country will suffer grievously if the insurance companies aren't handed 25 to 35 million new customers on a platter through health-care reform that does not include a public insurance plan.  Now, the oil, gas and coal industries along with the same corporate shills are trying to stop urgent national legislation to turn back catastrophic climate change by telling us that it will destroy the United States if the government does anything that might diminish the long-term profit prospects of the big energy industries.

Arkansas is the main battle area because, as an Arkansas oil executive explained it, Arkansas has two malleable U.S. senators and the issue may depend upon their siding with Republicans to prevent a majority vote on the cap-and-trade bill, which is the country's response to the climate crisis. As on insurance reform, Sen. Blanche Lincoln cast her lot with the industries on the bill early but they worry that she still might vote to let the Senate debate and vote on the bill. Sen. Mark Pryor has been noncommittal on both health insurance and climate change. There apparently is a real threat that he could side with the national interest.

So the big Arkansas newspapers, which are grateful for the cash, are full of ads from the oil and gas industry and its friends, and every popular television program is sandwiched between commercials warning Arkansans that their taxes, motor fuel and heating bills are going to skyrocket and their living styles plummet if Congress passes a climate-change bill. They must call their senators.

It works, too. If industry-run polls are correct, most Arkansans are now scared to death of climate legislation, which would set goals for reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions over the next 40 or so years.  Only six months ago, they were scared to death of climate change since the peril seemed to have spread from the ice caps of the Arctic and Kilimanjaro to New Orleans and even Calion, Ark.

The so-called cap-and-trade bill establishes carbon-emissions caps for electricity producers, refineries and energy-intensive industries and allows them to trade carbon credits. It is supposed to drive the country toward renewable and clean energy sources and higher energy efficiency.

More effective maybe than the millions of dollars in advertising is the one-man (or one-company) road show of Claiborne Deming, former CEO of Murphy Corp. and still chair of its executive committee, who proclaims that the bill would unfairly punish oil and gas companies for damaging the atmosphere with the result, if the bill passes, that the United States of America will be destroyed — his word.

Never was self-interest in more evidence, but Deming gets a pass because he is something of an Arkansas hero. He announced in 2007 that Murphy Corp., which is headquartered at El Dorado, would pay the college tuition and fees of youngsters who graduated from the city's high school.

So when Deming gave his climate-change pitch to the legislative Joint Revenue and Taxation Committee, the lawmakers were so surprised and impressed that an oil company executive would oppose legislation that rolled back oil and gas incentives that they instantly adopted a resolution telling Lincoln and Pryor to block the climate bill. You would not expect anything different from the legislators.

Deming's central case is that the emission limits and the trade scheme would drive up the cost of oil and gas, which would amount to a new tax on consumers and would force people to drive less, reducing highway revenues. He says it would raise living costs so high that it would lower people's living standards and slash jobs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculates that by 2020 the legislation would cost the average family about the price of a postage stamp a day.

The bill also is flawed because it doesn't force China and India to reduce their carbon emissions. If you think climate change is real, he says, you should be making China pay because it has now surpassed the United States as the largest atmospheric polluter. (China and India are four times as large. We're still far ahead per capita.)

The solution is not government regulation that will stymie American industry, Deming says, but a change in American lifestyles. He is thinking about doing his part by trading in his wife's gas-guzzling Lexus for a diesel Lexus. That should do it. The carbon dioxide from diesel production is about 3 percent less than gasoline, and diesel vehicles emit about 75 percent of the carbon of gasoline vehicles.

This kind of thinking, that more carbon-based energy is better, is not isolated. Last week, a new industry lobby with the majestic name Progress Arkansas boasted that the people of Arkansas consumed more energy per person than people in nearly every other state. We were 15th per capita in burning oil, gas and electricity in 2007, the group said, citing new national energy statistics. We burn nearly twice as many BTUs a day as people in California and New England, where the states have mandated efficiency.

“Arkansans use a lot of energy, and that's a good thing,” a Progress Arkansas news release said, adding that this meant that the state had more industry, business and good-paying jobs than the rest of the country. So, you see, we don't need government trying to drive energy efficiency.

In Arkansas at least, that is the foundation of public policy.

 

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