A Conversation With S. David Freeman

Had a most interesting discussion at lunch today (3 September 2014) with Dave, whose name is well known to older generations of energy policy types but less well known to many younger folks. He and I first met when we both joined the staff of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on October 1, 1974. Dave joined as a full-time energy staffer just after leading a major review of national energy policy sponsored by the Ford Foundation (‘A Time to Choose: America’s Energy Future’), and me as a Congressional Fellow/Staff Scientist. Dave is now 88 years old (I’m a relatively young 77) and in my opinion is as sharp, feisty and opinionated as he was when I first met him forty years ago. In the interim he has held a series of high level jobs (Chairman/TVA, General Manager/Sacramento Municipal Utility District, General Manager/New York Power Authority, General Manager/Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) and is still active in trying to close down California’s aging and poorly located nuclear power plants. We had not seen each other in a number of years and today’s lunch was a chance to catch up a bit.


We met at noon at his apartment building in DC, and after walking to a nearby barbeque restaurant we got down to filling in the years. We reflected on the work we both did in the 1970’s on energy issues during Senator Warren Magnuson’s tenure as Chairman of the Commerce Committee, and on the many talented people we worked with at that time. We then discussed Dave’s time in Knoxville where he pushed hard to introduce conservation and solar energy into TVA’s energy portfolio and resisted the pressures to add more nuclear power plants. These priorities characterized his subsequent roles at SMUD, NYPA, and LADWP, and remain his priorities today. He was an early voice for clean energy in the U.S., and was appointed by President Johnson in 1967 as “..the first person with an energy responsibility in the federal government.” He has also been termed an “‘eco-pioneer’ for his environmentally-oriented leadership of SMUD.”

Our lunchtime discussion, after appropriate reminiscences, devolved into a discussion of energy policy under President Obama. Dave appreciates that Obama has an understanding of the importance of energy efficiency and renewble energy to our future energy system, but feels strongly that Obama is indecisive and has failed to put action behind his words. In fact, Dave called him “gutless” for failing to provide needed leadership on reducing our use of fossil fuels and making an all-out push on renewables. Dave’s feeling is that Obama is too cautious by nature (he quoted the opinion of an Illinois politician who had worked with Obama) and unwilling to stick his neck out, when what this country needs is a Preident who does just that. Notwithstanding the argument that the President is having a hard time getting any legislation through the Congress, and may have even more trouble after the November elections, Dave’s argument is that we have a critical need to reduce carbon emissions and that we have to start somewhere, even if it takes 10 years to get a meaningful program implemented. It is a powerful argument, as nothing gets done if one doesn’t try.

Dave gave me a lot to think about, as I’ve been a strong supporter of the President and his energy policies, but admit to being concerned about the President’s limited public explanations of his policies, whether energy or foreign policy. He may understand the issues, and Dave and I agree that he does, but is the President being too cautious by far? As a result, is he passing up an opportunity to lead the country in a needed direction at a critical time? As the leader of the nation is it encumbent upon him to propose legislation that limits our use of fossil fuels and puts us more aggressively on the path to a renewable future, even if the likelihood of passage is low to nonexistent in the near future? Upon leaving Dave after lunch I decided to write about our conversation and raise the question that Dave poses. This is the result.

My thoughts upon reflection are the following: despite the obvious resistance that Obama faces from Republicans on anything he proposes, and the need to keep a Democratic Senate if at all possible (so that his last two years in office will not be even more difficult than his first six years), should the President think big and propose what he knows the country needs as opposed to what is politically feasible? My heart says yes, and the side of me that claims to be practical, after many years in Washington, DC, tries hard to understand Obama’s strategy and support it. But Dave may be right – we may have an intellectual President whose nature just won’t allow him to stick his neck out. As I said to Dave, the test for me will be after the November elections, when Obama will have no Democratic candidates to protect and nothing to lose by proposing farseeing energy and environmental legislation. He will not succeed in getting it passed by the most dysfunctional Congress I’ve seen in forty years, but as Dave says, we have to start somewhere.

As those who read my blog will recall, I’ve taken issue with the Clinton-Gore Administration for not doing more on clean energy when they had the chance in the 1990’s. Dave’s point about Obama is similar – we need leadership that looks down the road despite today’s political realities. My final verdict on the Obama Administration’s achievements on energy policy will depend on what comes out of the White House after November. I hope that the President has it in him to do what Dave and I both agree the country needs, but at this point I still have confidence in President Obama. Dave does not.

This is a lot to think about, and I will continue to cogitate on Dave’s perspectives. Hopefully, others will join this discussion via comments on this blog post.