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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has high hopes his upcoming Utah Energy Summit will drum up "forward-thinking and innovative" policies that will make the West stand out as a national leader on energy.
But, even before it begins Sunday, critics are grumbling the conference won't be the balanced forum Huntsman promises. Instead, they say, the Utah Energy Summit is shaping up as an insiders' party by and for big, polluting energy companies paying as much as $10,000 apiece.
Frank O'Donnell, president of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Clean Air Watch, says the summit looks likely to focus the discussion on what he calls the "dig-'n-burn crowd" at the expense of ordinary people.
"It appears to be an attempt to sell access to important policymakers," he said.
Conference organizer Jim Sims calls such criticism a "cheap shot" that ignores the diverse perspectives reflected in the summit's agenda.
"This is one of the most balanced energy policy conferences I've seen in a long time," he said in a telephone interview from his Golden, Colo., office.
But much of the grousing centers on Sims, the controversial lobbyist and activist whose company Huntsman hired to organize the summit. While Utahns may not know him or his company, Policy Communications, by name, they might be familiar with some of his controversial endeavors.
In 2001, Sims headed up communications for Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, a panel criticized for taking too much advice from the fossil fuel industry and doing so behind closed doors. In 2004, he gathered lawmakers - including Utah GOP Reps. Chris Cannon and Rob Bishop - on the energy industry's tab for an exclusive golf weekend at the posh Biltmore Resort in Phoenix to draft a "to-do" list for Congress and raise money for the lawmakers.
The governor's summit, held at the upscale Little America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, is being underwritten by some of the West's biggest names in energy, including $10,000-apiece Platinum sponsors Arch Coal, Rocky Mountain Power, Questar, Chevron and Bill Barrett Corp. The sponsorships cover expenses for, among others, a bipartisan lineup of six governors, two Cabinet-level Bush administration officials and U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
Proud of the conference he's organized, Sims is an unabashed advocate for people and organizations that support natural resource development, a new generation of Sagebrush rebels who often use a form of the word "radical" when talking about environmentalists.
Lately, his nonprofit groups, the Western Business Roundtable and Partnership for the West, are rallying against listing the polar bear as an endangered species. The groups call it "a major threat to all businesses/industries" driven by "environmental extremists and activist lawyers."
Last month, he quit Huntsman's Blue-Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change, leaving behind a list of guiding principles (modeled on those developed by the industry-funded roundtable) that said the panel's mission should be preserving jobs and growing the economy while discussing "climate variability."
Sims points out that his latest nonprofit is devoted to clean coal, carbon-pollution capture and other climate-protecting technologies. He also disputes the notion that his role organizing the conference clashes with his advocacy roles or that the Energy Summit debate will focus on old-guard energy.
And, like Laura Nelson, Huntsman's energy policy adviser, he said he had a "limited" role in setting the summit's agenda. His focus: raising much of the $145,000 to host a "substantial regional discussion" involving about 350 people.
"The agenda," Sims said, "speaks for itself."
Tim Wagner, energy coordinator for the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, said his group will pay his $125 admission but not to buy a table at the summit.
"I think a forum sponsored by the governor's office should have open access for everybody," he said.
Regardless of what anyone might say about Sims' politics, this week's summit is sure to be thought-provoking.
Energy costs are back in the news again as gasoline prices begin to climb. But the subject never seems to fade from the public consciousness, since everybody is concerned about keeping cool in summer, staying warm in winter and keeping the lights on.
In the business world, many have an eye on the future of a profitable industry, one with companies that have seen quarterly profits higher than $10 billion a quarter in recent years. Government, meanwhile, is preoccupied with energy availability, affordability and global security.
And, to complicate things, all three groups are wondering how to deal with growth in energy demand while fossil-fuel burning is blamed for making northern Utah's air unhealthy for weeks at a time and for the pollution linked to global climate change.
Brian Moench, a Salt Lake City doctor, called it discouraging that decision-makers are relying on polluting industries to fund the conference and sit with the policy makers when public health is at stake. His new group, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, has called for a moratorium on new coal plants and for air-cleaning upgrades at existing coal plants because of the pollution generated by those facilities.
"The public's interests are almost diametrically opposed to the interests of the fossil fuel industries," he said.
"The public will pay," Moench added. "They will pay with their health. They will pay with their lives. They will pay with their pocket books."
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said he is not troubled by "an energy person" organizing the conference.
"The summit should include people with different points of view," he said, adding that it is important to come up with new ideas. "I don't think we can continue to go down the road we're on today and maintain our quality of life."
Nelson is confident Sims' company can deliver a "visionary" discussion. Since Huntsman doesn't want public dollars spent on the conference, his political action committee, the Governor's Special Initiatives Office, is underwriting it. Under its contract with the governor's PAC, Sims' company stands to earn about $48,000, plus 10 percent of the sponsorship money raised - a formula commonly used by public policy organizations and political campaigns. She added that a steering committee - a panel that included public officials, business and environmentalists - set the summit's agenda, not Sims or his company. The discussion will not be partisan, but it will be diverse and open, she said.
"We have some pretty important things to talk about," she concluded.
* A Platinum Sponsor who gives $10,000 has a working lunch with Huntsman, a seat on the resources committee, high-profile sponsorship of various events with possible speaking role and prominent sponsorship signs/banners at events, five free conference registrations (worth $125 apiece) and seating at VIP tables at meals.
* Gold sponsors donate $7,500 and are entitled to a working lunch with Huntsman and most other benefits enjoyed by platinum sponsors, except just four conference registrations.
* A Silver sponsor contributes $5,000 and receives prominent sponsorship signs/banners at an event, a seat on the resources committee, three conference registrations, VIP seating and other profile-building perks.
* Bronze sponsors, for $2,500, receive two registrations and VIP seating, as well as other promotional opportunities.
* Supporter sponsors, with a $1,000 donation, receive one free conference registration, seating with VIPs, special name tags and other benefits.
* Individuals who want to attend must pay $150. A special student rate was set at $25. Governors and members of Congress don't pay. Nor do invited speakers, congressional staff or state and federal officials.
Sponsors of Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr.'s Energy Summit get certain benefits based on the level of their donations. They include:
* Summit sponsors get goodies. B4
* Link to summit webcast is at www. utahenergysummit.com.