by Anna Cheshire Levitan
Former congressman Joe Kennedy has a unique solution for solving the nation’s oil crisis. Here’s why his plan, one he’s advocated for 25 years, is more important now than ever.
Joe Kennedy is fired up. Twenty-seven years after founding his Boston-based company Citizens Energy, he is working to provide real solutions to the current, burgeoning energy crises gripping New England and the country. Though it couldn’t be more relevant today, Kennedy actually name up with this plan -- to use the profit from oil trading ventures to purchase low-cost home heating oil for the elderly in Massachusetts -- in the late 70s. Now, the former US Representative from Massachusetts is leading the charge to provide heating oil, natural gas, low-cost pharmaceuticals, electricity, and other basic needs of the poor, elderly, and underserved.
“When you look at the energy crises we are facing, there has been no imagination or interest other than drilling our way out of the problem,” he says. “We have got to wean ourselves off dependence and come to grips with these kinds of initiatives. There is an opportunity for a company like Citizens to assist low-income people and start dealing with the problems our country is facing.”
The concept for Citizens resulted from a big dose of inside-the-beltway delusion combined with a national crisis. After graduating from University of Massachusetts at Boston, the first son of Robert F and Ethel Kennedy headed to Washington to pursue politics. He landed a job at the Federal Anti-Poverty Agency, which was started by his uncles, President John F. Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Sarge Shriver. “By the time I got there,” Kennedy says, “the agency, I felt, had been decimated in terms of its actual mission. I felt they were maintaining the poor in poverty rather than trying to get them out. It drove me absolutely out of my mind.”
The country was also in the throes of the massive Carter-era energy shortage, when OPEC became a household name and Americans realized, perhaps for the first time, that the land of plenty didn’t necessarily include gas and oil. “It was the kind of period like it is now,” Kennedy remembers. “Every single day the price of oil would skyrocket. It went from about $1 [a barrel] to over $40 in a very short period. We had very long gas lines, and yet oil companies were making enormous profits. At the same time, people were freezing because there was no federal fuel assistance program.”
Kennedy quit the agency, he explains, “in order to start an organization that would have the mission and capability of really doing something to help people.” Enter Dick Goodwin, a former speechwriter for President Kennedy and a good family friend, whom Kennedy credits for getting him off the couch -- literally -- and catapulting him into the energy arena. “We were watching the television set one day in Cambridge, and they scrolled across the screen these huge profits from oil companies,” he explains. “Dick said, ‘I wonder what the heck would happen if you took all that money they make every quarter and help the poor?’ And I thought, That sounds like a very interesting idea. So I went out and established Citizens.”
Kennedy then wrote letters to every OPEC country, asking if he could buy crude oil at official market prices. The Venezuelans took him up on the proposition, setting the groundwork for a lasting affiliation. This past April, Kennedy and a team of advisors headed to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez and CITGO to negotiate continued oil deals and to double Venezuela’s commitment to the program.
Unlike many nonprofits, Citizens Energy does not take government grants or money from foundations or solicit donations from individuals for redistribution. “One hundred percent of what we give away comes from business transactions that the company is involved with,” he says. “We make money, hopefully, on business deals and take that money to help poor people.”
Citizens Energy has grown substantially since the early days. But, says Kennedy, “you have to always change in the energy business.” He is most excited about the company’s new initiatives to conserve energy -- cutting-edge “green” ideas that can save the environment, such as geothermal energy.
“Geothermal is basically a little volcano underneath the earth’s surface, which is comprised of very, very hot rocks,” Kennedy says. “Pump water down into those hot rocks and it turns into steam, and you can generate electricity. Literally thousands of megawatts of new juice, which, for example, the state of California is in dire need of.”
In true Kennedy style, he is quick to reveal his discontent with the current political climate. And when it comes to the latest energy crisis, Kennedy’s commitment to change is unwavering, passionate, and, yes, electrifying. “Certainly, we can do this,” he says. “It’s still possible to save this country and save this planet. But by God, we have got to start now.”