After a week that saw President Obama and a conservative group backed by the Koch brothers trade multimillion-dollar jabs over energy jobs on the airwaves of six states, one thing is clear: The 2012 election's environmental narrative is taking shape fast.
Less certain is the kind of conservationist cavalry that Obama's re-election campaign can count on as it sells his record to voters in the face of a likely onslaught from business groups irate at his rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. As the XL project and bankrupt solar firm Solyndra migrate from Capitol hearing rooms to TVs across the nation, greens are counting on their grass-roots to fill the fundraising gap.
"We can't compete with Big Oil in terms of campaign cash -- we don't have tens of millions of dollars to throw into TV ads -- but we can outcompete Big Oil in terms of people," Sierra Club chief Michael Brune said in an interview.
But Brune acknowledged that "of course we're worried" about the financial muscle that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and other groups can bring to the table this year to pitch the benefits of Keystone XL to the public.
The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling is poised to set off a flurry of political activity from business, labor and other advocacy groups that can donate unlimited amounts to "super PACs" without reporting the identity of individual donors. The "bad situation" environmentalists faced in 2010 "after Citizens United, it's gotten worse," Brune said. "We've got to out-hustle, we've got to be smart and creative."
Low-cost, high-impact strategies scored a key victory for Brune's camp on the pipeline, which Obama denied a permit Wednesday. Yet with Republicans already wielding Keystone XL as a campaign cudgel against red-state Democrats and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP) spending $6 million to slam the half-billion-dollar Solyndra loan guarantee, greens could be forced to make hard fiscal choices during a broader fight to define the president's energy record.
One veteran green advocate, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, warned that his fellow conservationists could be caught flat-footed in the spin war over a pipeline killed in part "because the collective decisions Obama had made up to this point put him in a perilous political position" with the Democratic base.
"Nobody's afraid of the environmental community on Capitol Hill," this advocate said, noting that the president's re-election campaign last week took charge of an ad response on energy jobs that greens are not yet positioned to amplify. "They don't have political money ready at hand, but it's not that they don't have money."
The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) appears to maintain environmentalists' only super PAC at this point in the election cycle, as well as a tax-exempt 527 group that reported a $195,000 donation in May from Lynde Uihlein, an heir to the Schlitz beer fortune who sits on LCV's board of directors. The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) maintain political action committees. Many environmental groups are subsidized by wealthy donors.
Heather Taylor, director of the NRDC Action Fund, praised LCV's super PAC work and vowed that her group "is going to be present when it comes to politics in a much more literal way than we have in the past."
While Taylor did not rule out the emergence of more green super PACs, she also downplayed the need for multiple environmental groups running similar political operations: "I'd much rather not compete for dollars and just make sure every dollar is used wisely."
Obama's re-election race, however, is one arena that may lack for green dollars ahead of Election Day. LCV spent nearly $1 million to elect him in 2008, but in an interview, its campaigns director Navin Nayak called the Senate the "top priority" for 2012.
"We feel we can play a very big role," Nayak said, in a handful of races pivotal to protecting Democrats' narrow upper chamber majority, "where there's a stark contrast between a pro-environment senator and someone in the pocket of Big Oil."
The battle for the White House, he added, "is its own beast, and we want to be smart and strategic about picking our places where we can be helpful."
Going on offense
Groups representing oil and gas interests that would benefit from Keystone XL and a more pro-drilling president are eager to begin communicating their messages about what they bill as sweeping economic and security gains to be made by approving the pipeline and ratcheting down federal clean energy spending.
API President Jack Gerard, whose group already has run TV spots on the XL link and made it a part of voter-outreach programs, predicted last week that the import of Canada's oil sands crude "will likely be an issue throughout the entire year, as Democrats and Republicans recognize that the president missed an easy opportunity to do what's in the best interest of the nation" by approving the project.
In addition to defending the president's veto of Keystone XL and his move to route $2 billion-plus in clean-energy loan guarantees through the 2009 stimulus law, greens also hope to go on offense against API ahead of the election. The oil industry's successful defeat of Democratic plans to strip several of its tax benefits is bound to re-emerge during the campaign, Nayak of LCV predicted.
Slamming Republican Senate candidates in Montana, New Mexico and Virginia who support preserving the oil tax breaks is "a hugely effective message, not just for environmentalists [who vote] -- Republicans and independents are astonished that they're sending politicians to Washington who still believe we should be subsidizing an industry that made $100 billion in profits last year," Nayak said.
Money on the table?
This week is set to bring fresh squabbles between more cash-poor, grass-roots-focused opponents of Keystone XL and the pipeline's well-funded supporters. The House Energy and Commerce Committee's energy subpanel plans to host Kerri-Ann Jones, the senior State Department official who led the Obama administration review of the project, for a politically charged hearing on the factors driving the denial of a permit to Alberta-based TransCanada Corp.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and his party point to election-year concerns over alienating environmentalists as the motivation behind Obama's decision against the pipeline, which would nearly double U.S. imports of Canadian oil sands crude. The White House, for its part, points a finger back at the GOP for insisting on a 60-day deadline to settle the pipeline issue that forced a decision not "on the merits" of the project.
As the number of fronts on which oil, gas, coal and renewables are driving the political debate increases, this year could prove a definitive test of how greens cope with their long-running campaign fundraising disadvantage. Two years after Citizens United, most environmentalists are loath to view their camp as permanently behind despite the torrent of no-holds-barred spending already gushing into the still-young election cycle.
The conservationist cash crunch is "true to some degree," the veteran green advocate said in an interview, "but the environmental community actually has a lot of resources. They tend to be tied up in (c)3 funds and foundation money and things like that, but a lot of those assets and resources can be used to make the case that the president is making."
That effort "doesn't have to be a political ad," the advocate added, "but it can certainly be a policy engagement with the American public."
According to their most recent Internal Revenue Service filings made publicly available, NRDC had $181 million in net assets, while Sierra Club held $49 million and LCV $6 million. That data does not reflect money held under separate, smaller nonprofit umbrellas.
Schedule: The Energy and Commerce Committee hearing is Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 8 a.m. in 2123 Rayburn.
Witnesses: Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones; others TBA.