ASPEN -- This beautiful insulated water bottle is adorned by a Chevron sticker. "Rinse. Reuse. Use less. Let's put more energy into saving energy." Chevron's slogan is "Human Energy." I asked Chevron's corporate marketing chief, Helen Clark, to explain, in a word, what Chevron wants us to know about their company from their sponsorship of Aspen's drinking water.

"Conservation," she said.

I participated in a dinner last night with Chevron executives, including EVP for Downstream (think oil refining) Mike Wirth and the company's vice president for government and policy, Rhonda Zygocki, and climate change experts, including John Holdren of Harvard and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and national security experts like Joseph Cirincione of Georgetown University. Policy-makers were absent, which was a shame, because I got the strong sense, even though there were many different viewpoints represented in the room, that a consensus about climate change and energy has already been formed, and that the stakeholders are waiting for politicians to explain it to the public and to put it into law. The contents of the discussion were off-the-record, but I very much got the sense that Chevron is acutely aware of what oil companies will face over the next ten or fifteen years.

Everyone seems to agree that a carbon tax, or, more likely, the indirect carbon tax that is a cap-and-trade system, is the next step. The cap-n-trade system will include a "safety valve," a term of art that refers to a mechanism whereby government promises that, once carbon emissions prices reach a certain level, they'll cap the price but allow for more emissions credits to be purchased. The big questions, of course, are what the price of carbon will be initially, how to structure the system so that it can't really be gamed, whether the permits will be given or sold initially, and whether the legislation comes equipped with poison pills.

Most likely, at least in the near term, a cap and trade system will cost consumers. And it's not clear to me, if oil prices are still very high when the McCain or Obama administration sends legislation to Congress next year, Congress will be brave enough to explain to the American consumer that the system amounts to an indirect tax, and that, unless or until technology catches up, they're going to have to pay more for electricity.

The Lieberman-Warner climate change bill that failed so utterly in the Senate earlier this year is a lesson to policymakers that the public and those in Congress outside the relevant committees still have to be educated about the true costs and benefits, and that any legislation has to take into account regional differences in power usage and numerous other factors.

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By the way: did you know that the "Chevron stripe" is a fashion term? It refers to a fabric pattern with the v-shapred ribbon stripes that make up the Chevron logo.

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