LONGMONT– The right and left protesters and counter-protesters gathered here off a sprawling suburban four-lane road and around a wall-less field house at the Boulder County Fairgrounds agreed on at least two things: that the group hosting the gathering, Americans for Prosperity, is suffering an image problem and that government subsidies to oil and gas companies have got to end.
“I don’t think we’re really fighting here about energy. These [counter protests] are about something else,” Sean Paige, AFP deputy state director, told the Colorado Independent. “I think we actually might share common ground on a lot of these issues but it never gets to any level of detail. They have something against our group. There’s anger and disruption. It’s politics. That’s what’s going on across the nation.
“The fact that our group draws attacks, it just shows that we’re being effective.”
AFP is bankrolled by conservative politics string-pullers Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who run blockbuster oil and gas company Koch Industries. The Kochs have spent millions over the last decade battling government regulations on business and have become well-known as the political fights they have chosen have grown nastier and as the media focuses increasingly on their influence. They played a key roll through AFP in the battle against health care reform last year and in the battle to break public employee unions in Wisconsin this year.
AFP’s “Running on Empty” tour is making stops throughout the Colorado Front Range this week, arguing that high prices at the gas pump are tied to over regulation of the oil and gas industry in the Obama era.
The talking point among AFP staffers at the event was that the average price for a gallon of gas was $1.83 when Obama was elected and that it is now closing in on $4.00. An inflatable oversized fuel pump set up at each stop visualizes the point.
Young AFP staffers here repeated those figures with the sort of zeal that betrayed the fact that they haven’t been paying for their own gas for much longer than Obama has been in office. Salt-and-pepper headed Paige wasn’t one of them.
“Listen, this was just a way to start a conversation,” he said, conceding that gas prices during the Bush years skyrocketed after “the Katrina mess” and that individual presidents don’t really have that much control over the global price of a barrel of oil.
“Point is, we don’t have an energy policy in this country. I hear pie-in-the-sky energy policies. We all want water-powered cars. I’ve heard it for 35 years: ‘We’re right around the corner.’ But, seriously, how do we get there from here?” he said.
“The cost of energy is built into everything we do. People are suffering– and the poor more than the rich. We think the free market is the way to go. The transition may not be as fast as a social engineering solution but that approach will waste a lot of money along the way. Great innovations come from entrepreneurship. Why make war on the profit motive?”
Paige pointed out, as did several of the AFP speakers at the event, that the counter protests, rallied in Longmont by activist group ProgressNow and the Boulder County Democratic Party, were calling for an end to government subsidies and tax breaks to oil companies.
“You see, we agree. If they looked on our website and listened to what we’re saying, we agree that the country should end all subsidies, that there should be a level playing field [among industries] and that government should stand aside.”
Counter protesters, who outnumbered the AFP crowd, agreed that a level playing field would be nice. Oil and gas is not only getting enormous tax breaks and subsidies now but they have been incentivized by the U.S. government for most of the last century, one way or another, with the government laying roadways coast to coast and stimulating the auto market (including special incentives for the SUV market) for years.
ProgressNow Executive Director Kjersten Forseth said that, with the country facing a soaring deficit and oil companies notching record profits, she agreed with Paige that the time for the government to be handing over billions in breaks to the oil industry is over.
“Yeah, OK, that’s something we can agree on. I’d like to lock arms with [AFP State Director] Jeff Crank and walk up to our lawmakers with that proposal.”
Forseth joked that maybe the reason AFP wasn’t drawing large supporter crowds this week and had become a kind of toxic brand was due to its ties to the Koch brothers.
“I think the tea party people in Colorado probably felt duped when they found out their grassroots movement was being funded by Koch, when they found out Big Oil was into their politics and using them.”
The groups were now trading barbs across a rough wooden park fence, but even those exchanges seemed oddly to meet in the middle.
“Exxon pays no taxes,” yelled a counter protester over an AFP speaker.
“Neither does GE,” said an AFP supporter.
“Exactly,” yelled back counter protesters.
“You know, none of those [counter protesters] got here on a skateboard with a wind sail,” said Paige. “We have to have the old economy and the new economy. It’s not either/or. It’s not a zero-sum game.”
At least one AFP supporter took a tea party-style dim view of prospects for change.
“I heard there was an earthquake in Washington,” she said, meandering between the lines of protesters. “I heard that and I was happy. Maybe that’ll shake ’em up.”[ Image: ProgressNow mobile counter-protest message ]