Green energy means work for lobbyists
By: Jeanne Cummings
May 6, 2008 12:51 PM EST
Congressional leaders and all three presidential contenders are talking about spurring the economy by pumping money into renewable fuel research and creating green jobs.
But unlike many political promises, this is one for which they can actually begin to take some credit. Already, they have created new green jobs, and many of them are right here in Washington.
Ten years ago, the alternative energy industry spent less than $2 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As Congress began moving on two global warming bills last year, that spending reached nearly $16 million.
The American Wind Energy Association spent $815,700 on lobbyists last year, according to lobbying disclosure reports. The National Biodiesel Board shelled out $1.2 million — more than double its lobbying budget for 2006.
Behind those figures are lots and lots of new jobs.
In the first quarter of this year, for instance, the USA Biomass Power Producers Alliance paid Ernst & Young $70,000 for help on Capitol Hill. That relatively small contract alone helped keep 18 individual lobbyists busy from January to March, according to lobbying disclosure reports.
The emerging industry has also stepped up its political giving to lawmakers, which, of course, represents a different kind of jobs program.
In 1998, the alternative energy sector accounted for $308,000 in donations to candidates. So far this cycle, green industry donors have given nearly $528,000 — putting them on track to match or surpass their high water mark of nearly $957,000 in 2000, when global warming guru Al Gore topped the Democratic presidential ticket.
To be sure, the investment of the green companies in Congress pales in comparison to that of the established energy sector players.
Political giving by the oil and gas crowd this cycle has already surpassed $11.5 million — roughly 22 times more than the energy sector’s green newcomers.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas industries are a perennial entry on the center’s list of top lobbying sectors. They spent $82.6 million on lobbying last year, up from a record-breaking $75.3 million in 2006.
But the promise of economic growth and government grants in the green sector is turning some of the old energy giants into converts.
Take coal, for instance.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, representing coal producers, transporters and customers, is circling the Lieberman-Warner global warming bill, looking for a way to get in on the research grants and other goodies that might be included in it.
The coal industry, a perennial polluter, is developing new technology to capture its greenhouse emissions and transform itself from a dirty industry into a cleaner, if not clean, one.
That makes it a competitor of the wind and solar companies for research cash. But it also could turn it into a powerful new ally in pushing the legislation through the sharply divided Congress. Historically, the greens have given overwhelmingly to Democrats, while old energy’s political donations have tilted heavily toward Republicans.
Of course, old disagreements still simmer.
Much of the environmental community still shuns coal and questions its ability to go clean. An Illinois demonstration project aimed at creating a cleaner coal plant ran well over budget and didn’t meet expectations.
Meanwhile, the newly converted coal industry executives who see a green future must also keep an eye on their smokier present and resist change that comes too fast and is too costly for their industry.
The speed of reform proposed in the Senate global warming bill is a concern of theirs, but the industry hasn’t come out against the legislation. Instead, it has launched a nearly $40 million campaign to educate lawmakers about the role it hopes to have in a new green economy. The effort includes a national advertising campaign on cable television and a mobilization of hundreds of thousands of coal-friendly voters to reach out to House and Senate members.
Their pitch: Any new energy policy should proceed incrementally, include a broad diversity of fuels to protect national security and keep costs affordable for consumers.
“It’s obvious the next president and the next Congress are going to make decisions that will leave an indelible mark on the energy future of our country,” said Joe Lucas, a former Clinton administration energy official who’s now the coalition’s vice president for communications.
“If we have too abrupt a shift, it will create a disruption in energy markets that disadvantage consumers,” he added.
But Bruce Nilles, who heads the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, says the federal government has waited too long to implement new energy policy.
Like the coal industry, the Sierra Club has stepped up its lobbying efforts in Washington. But it is being badly outmanned. Sierra’s lobbying payments amounted to $380,000 last year, while the National Mining Association spent $4 million.
Nilles is working with state governors to combat global warming, and he’s coordinating a grass-roots effort to block some two dozen applications to build new coal-burning plants. Approval of those applications would increase pollution and reduce the market need for cleaner renewable energy producers, he argues.
“Rather than stepping up to make the demonstration project work, the industry goes on a $40 million ad campaign to confuse the issue and delay strong action at the federal level and oppose state efforts,” Nilles said.
“The coal industry has consistently refused to demonstrate how it can have a future in a world where we are trying to reduce global warming.”
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