LOBBYING:

U.S. Chamber plans yearlong campaign pushing 'reality' of energy

When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launches a campaign later this month to stir support for its energy agenda, one of the first places it plans to go is to the state with the nation's toughest climate law.

The powerful lobbying group will take its "Energy Reality" tour to the San Francisco area, where chamber executives will talk with small business owners and potentially community leaders and newspaper editors.

California in 2006 passed a law seeking cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from all sources. But the chamber, which advocates less regulation, said it is not heading into hostile territory.

"You can't really view the business community in that sort of red state, blue state divide," said Matt Letourneau, a chamber spokesman. "In even the bluest states the issues facing businesses are the same, the high cost of energy and the concern about a stable supply."

That message about cost and supply is one the chamber plans to spread across the country as it works to affect energy policy this congressional session. The business trade group last week issued a platform of priorities that included reduced regulation, more domestic energy, and support for research and development of new technologies. The chamber also positioned itself as a likely combatant against President Obama's clean energy plan, with one chamber executive dubbing it "impossible" to achieve (Greenwire, Feb. 2).

Obama in a speech at the chamber yesterday reached out to the trade group that has often been his foe. The president said he wanted to lower the corporate tax rate and pledged to simplify and reorganize the federal government "in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America." But the president also defended some regulations, arguing that that they often prove less costly than businesses fear (Greenwire, Feb. 7).

"Companies adapt, and standards often spark competition and innovation," Obama said.

The chamber today pushed back some, saying that "most regulations are necessary to ensuring there are clear rules for operating a complex society.

"But what's needed is to rein in excessively costly regulations that are harming the economy," said Tom Collamore, senior vice president of communication and strategy." The process has lost all balance as Congress has yielded power to the federal agencies without proper accountability. Reform is needed to restore the proper checks and balances."

Chamber executives will spend the next year promoting the group's energy objectives, some of which clash with the president's plans. As legislation starts to move forward in Congress, chamber leaders will work to generate calls, letters and e-mails backing the trade group's positions. Engaging business owners and other supporters will be a key part of the chamber's strategy.

"We want the business community, we want opinion leaders more involved in this," said Karen Harbert president and CEO of the chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy. "Bringing new voices, new analysis and a new sense of urgency based outside of Washington may empower politicians to move forward."

Grass roots?

The "Energy Reality" tour marks the latest in a series of community efforts by groups working to drive action on energy. Some have stirred controversy with critics questioning whether calls, letters and e-mails generated were truly grass roots or part of an orchestrated campaign.

The American Petroleum Institute along with FreedomWorks, the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform in summer 2009 sponsored a series of rallies where people voiced concerns about climate legislation and the potential for higher costs. Climate bill supports argued that the events were organized by lobbyists and packed with employees. API at the time said that those attending "Energy Citizens," events were "ordinary Americans citizens with valid concerns" (Greenwire, Aug. 21, 2009).

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in summer 2009 recruited 225,000 volunteers dubbed "America's Power Army." They visited town hall meetings, fairs and other functions attended by members of Congress and asked questions about energy policy (Greenwire, Aug. 6, 2009).

Last summer, Clean Energy Works, an alliance of about 60 groups that wanted congressional action on climate, held a "Carnivoil" event in 25 cities. Modeled after a traveling carnival and featuring the subtitle "The Greatest Addiction on Earth," it aimed to show the oil industry as a sector run amok and with too much political power (Greenwire, Aug. 17, 2010).

Letourneau said the chamber events are not rallies but rather forums sponsored by groups like smaller chambers, economic clubs and local councils. Chamber executives speak about energy at those gatherings.

"We don't control the audience. The crowds always vary," Letourneau said, adding "we wouldn't know how to sort of pack the crowd so to speak if we wanted to. That isn't what the goal is."

But one chamber critic questioned how much the tour was about connecting with people and how much of it was motivated by corporate interests.

The chamber receives money from supporters in "a pretty one-to-one relationship" between donation and business issue, said Christy Setzer, spokeswoman at U.S. Chamber Watch.

"The money that comes in is directly invested in a campaign that attacks the issue," Setzer said. "My deep suspicion is that this campaign is brought to you by Chevron.

"The only reason they would go out and fight the president's energy agenda is that they are being funded by big oil companies to do exactly that," Setzer added.

The money for the campaign comes from the chamber's general fund, Letourneau said.

"The Energy Reality tour is not the recipient of any specifically earmarked funds," Letourneau said. "Our platform and our message reflect the diversity of the entire energy industry as well as consumers themselves."

Successful strategy

The chamber's bid to stir action at the grass-roots level could be very effective, said Susan Del Percio, a Republican consultant with Susan Del Percio Strategies. When people in towns and cities begin calling and writing lawmakers, it generates results, she said.

"Elected officials, their priority is to get re-elected," Del Percio said. "When they have their community crying out for something, they are going to be as responsive as possible."

Both the 2008 and 2010 elections showed the results of grass-roots action, Del Percio said. In 2008, she said then-candidate Barack Obama started small and was able to slowly build support. In 2010, the tea party movement developed within small communities, she said.

Energy is an issue where it is necessary to talk to people in small settings, Del Percio said. While energy is a huge cost for businesses, she said, they often do not know what steps they can take that will make a difference.

"This matters to so many people, but you have to explain it and you have to educate and they will be forever on your side," Del Percio said.

Even though the chamber is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, it still needs grass-roots backing for its energy platform, Del Percio said.

"They are smart enough to know that change does not come from Washington. Change comes from the grass roots," Del Percio said. "They're smart enough to put their money and time and effort into it."

But Setzer with Chamber Watch questioned how much the priorities of the U.S. Chamber align with local chambers. During the last election, more than 40 local chambers distanced themselves from the U.S. Chamber's $75 million ad campaign to elect a Republican House, Politico reported in December. Other local chambers planned to end their association with the U.S. Chamber.

"I suspect that the U.S. Chamber will support an energy agenda that will be fiercely critical of the Obama administration," Setzer said. "I don't believe that view is representative of all or even the majority of its members."

The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group for that industry, questioned whether the tour would reflect the chamber's assertion that it supports greater development of all forms of energy.

"Getting more Americans concerned about where they get their energy and where they are going to get it in the future is always good for wind power," said Peter Kelley, vice president for public affairs at AWEA. "My concern is that they tell the truth to the American people, that we need true renewable energy and not just the old forms of energy that will run out some day and are damaging."

The campaign is a sincere effort to talk to people outside Washington, said Letourneau with the chamber. For the past year, in part one of the tour, chamber executives listened to people's energy concerns. That revealed that there is a desire to learn more about "our energy picture," he said.

"The discussion in Washington is insular," Letourneau said, with people speaking in shorthand and acronyms like cap and trade, RES and CES.

"The people who are out there paying the bills aren't really a part of it," Letourneau said. "We forget when talking about various policy proposals who it is it's going to affect."

The chamber has just begun planning where it will go on the tour, which will last for the next year. Early stops other than California include Michigan, Colorado and Wyoming.