'Lone voice in the wilderness' finds place in climate debate

For a man who's quick with a smile and a handshake, Tyson Slocum has earned a reputation around Washington as a fiery prophet.

Slocum, 36, the go-to guy on energy for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, is known for his harsh condemnations of "self-regulating" energy markets and what he sees as a laggard U.S. response to global warming. His reputation for delivering blunt criticism led comedian Stephen Colbert to call Slocum a "professional buzzkill" and a "wet blanket."

"Nothing makes you people happy," Colbert told Slocum during an appearance last fall on "The Colbert Report."

But after years as a self-described "lone voice in the wilderness" on the need for greater government protections for consumers, Slocum finds himself now in a strange place. He is on the inside. With Democrats who control the White House and Capitol Hill pushing for sweeping changes in U.S. energy policy, Slocum is no longer the lonely Jeremiah.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission invited Slocum in May to join the Energy and Environmental Markets Advisory Committee, which is preparing for regulation of the carbon derivatives market. And he has been working on toughening commodity regulations with House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and with staffers for Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Still, Slocum hasn't lost his edge. Last week, as environmentalists heralded the House's passage of a landmark energy and climate bill, Slocum labeled the legislation a "huge disappointment" with inadequate protection for low- and moderate-income consumers. He called "alarming" the bill's reliance on futures markets to set carbon prices and trade allocations. And he derided as "a joke" the free distribution of almost a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emission allocations to utilities through local distribution companies.

"We operate much differently than other advocacy groups in D.C.," Slocum said in an interview. "We feature a little bit more aggressive style than others. We have carved out a very unique role for Public Citizen in that we are both a consumer advocacy and environmental advocacy group."

With Public Citizen tending to adopt "take no prisoners" policy stances that flow from the spirit of its founder, Ralph Nader, victories are measured in increments, Slocum said.

"You get used to losing," he said, "and that's OK."


But Slocum and other consumer groups did manage to smile about the climate bill. They claimed a victory with passage of an amendment to the climate bill by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) that would create an Office of Consumer Advocacy at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Sonny Popowsky, Pennsylvania's consumer advocate, said Slocum has done a lot to give consumers a place in the national energy debate. "There are just too many debates that go on between the coal generators or nuclear generators or different factions," Popowsky said. "I would like to see a lot more public participation by folks on the consumer side of the fence."

And Slocum has done that with a lot of gritty work, said Michele Boyd, the director of the safe energy program at Physicians for Social Responsibility and a former co-worker of Slocum's at Public Citizen. Slocum is an expert, she said, at "following the money trail" in analyzing FERC, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies that get little attention from most advocacy groups.

"He has become the community's expert on things that no one, no one looks at," Boyd said.

'I think I am very candid'

Slocum grew up in Newport, R.I. His father was a career Navy officer who worked at the Naval War College, and his mother was a public school teacher. He said he became aware of class differences in Newport by caddying for many years at an exclusive country club.

"I saw these folks and got to know these folks, and some of them were nice and some were not so nice, but I didn't see that they were different than my parents or the parents of my friends -- other than they had money," Slocum recalled.

Slocum's sense of justice was augmented when he was elected as vice president for campus affairs for the University Democrats as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Austin. "I was very interested in continuing to examine what the power of activism could accomplish ... how I could bring my energy and skills to social change," he said.

After graduating in 1996, Slocum got hired as an analyst at Citizens for Tax Justice. And after three and a half years there, he went to Public Citizen in December 2000 as an analyst researcher on the California energy crisis. With no background in energy policy, Slocum came armed with economists' reports, information from advocacy groups and a lot of enthusiasm.

Though Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute -- a lobbying group for shareholder-owned utilities -- is usually on the opposite side of Public Citizen in most electricity-market debates, Owen appreciates Slocum's spirit.

"Tyson brings a vigorous and imaginative perspective to electricity policy debates," Owen said. "Though we rarely agree, he forcefully advocates his point of view."

Other groups -- including the Electricity Consumers Resource Council, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners -- declined to comment on Slocum or his battles against them.

Slocum says he treats no lawmaker, opponent or issue with "kid gloves" and does not prepare his remarks before talking to reporters or at public hearings or Washington policy seminars. "I think I am very candid," he said. "I think I am fairly honest in telling folks what I know."

At times, Slocum's tendency to speak his mind receives more attention than his case.

At a rally shortly before he was to testify on a 2007 FERC panel on electricity-market competition, Slocum called FERC "corrupt" for not protecting consumers and for participating in closed-door meetings with industry. The comment brought a harsh rebuke from then-FERC Chairman Joseph Kelliher and Commissioner Philip Moeller, and some nonprofits became reluctant to collaborate with Public Citizen on electricity issues because of FERC backlash.

Slocum issued a letter of apology, saying he was criticizing politically appointed FERC members, not career employees. "I was at fault for using a loaded term like 'corrupt,'" Slocum said. But he added that FERC's tendency to dismiss concerns of consumer advocates for the past eight years was a "serious problem."

"There are always ways I could be more delicate," Slocum said. "But my strong-willed personality does not preclude us from joining hands and finding common ground with folks and working constructively with folks."

His relationship with FERC has improved of late. It does not hurt that the agency's new chairman, Jon Wellinghoff, was at one time a consumer advocate himself.

'I never take it personally'

Despite the intense policy debates, Slocum concedes, "The people opposed to us are not evil."

He explained, "I debate people all the time. ... I never take it personally, and I try never to personally attack them. Understanding that a hallmark of democracy is a peaceful exchange of ideas is something I always try to remember. I am not always adherent to that, but I try to learn from my mistakes."

But there is a method in the sometimes fierce debating style.

"I think the fact that we make noise," he said, "forces them to acknowledge some of the things we say."

With no budget for advertising and a staff of three, Slocum relies heavily on media coverage and collaborations with other groups to reach lawmakers and the general public. Believing he is representing the more than 100,000 dues-paying members of Public Citizen is a motivation, he said.

Slocum's ability to grab attention is more than a professional asset. He is also an amateur actor, appearing in local theater productions for fun. He has appeared three times at Washington's Studio Theater, playing a businessman, a "happy go lucky" drunk and a gay man who falls in love with a prostitute.

"A lot of politics is theater," he said.

"Testifying before Congress is as much a dialogue on substantive issues as it is political theater," Slocum explained. "Witnesses are presented by either side to promote an agenda that was already there. Sometimes there is generally fact-finding initiatives but more often than not, they are ammunition to get for their case."

Slocum added with a playful smile, "That might preclude me from ever getting called as a witness again."

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