POLITICS:

Coalition plans campaign to protect EPA climate action, mulls future direction

A coalition thwarted in its effort to secure climate legislation will launch a campaign this week aimed at protecting what it sees as a last line of defense: U.S. EPA's ability to regulate carbon pollution.

Clean Energy Works, an alliance of about 80 environmental, labor, religious, veteran and other groups, plans a host of strategies including television ads, petitions and town hall meetings.

"If we're going to do this in a meaningful way at the federal level, it's got to happen through EPA," said Steve Cochran, vice president of Environmental Defense Fund's climate and air program and a member of Clean Energy Works. "There's no other way to deal with greenhouse gases at the federal level."

The effort comes as Congress returns from its August break. Several lawmakers have indicated support for amendments that would block or delay EPA's ability to act.

The coalition's thrust on EPA also happens as the alliance decides how it will approach the climate issue moving forward. Members of Clean Energy Works are talking about whether the group will exist in its current form or significantly retool now that it appears unlikely this Congress will act on climate or energy legislation. It is also searching for new strategies, which could include a greater emphasis at the state level.

The group insists that it's not disappearing. Politico last week reported that the group planned to shut down.

"There's no question that there will be another version of this going forward," said Maggie Fox, CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, the group founded by Vice President Al Gore. "It's less about an ending and more about a semicolon. All we're going to be doing is trying to do it better."

One conservative analyst predicted that will mean adopting more "guerilla" strategies.

"They won't talk about climate change, it will just be 'pollution control,'" said Ken Green, resident scholar with American Enterprise Institute think tank in an e-mail. "They'll move to state and local levels and claim that greenhouse gases are pollutants that need regulating under state law, local law, laws affecting waterways, laws affecting species, laws affecting zoning, etc."

But before it decides how to remake itself, the coalition plans to push hard on the EPA issue.

Clean Energy Works' television ad, which will run on cable news networks including MSNBC and CNN, plans to point a finger at "big polluters," coalition spokesman David Di Martino said. While the script has not been finalized, it will make a point, Di Martino said, along the lines of "Big Oil and their lobbyists are trying to rewrite the rules in Congress. Congress has to stop them from rigging the system so that they get off the hook for their emissions."

Coalition members also are circulating petitions that will be given to lawmakers and the White House. Alliance for Climate Protection members are going door to door in states throughout the country, gathering signatures, Fox said.

"For too long, big polluters and their lobbyists have delayed action on clean energy to protect their profits," the petition says. "Now some in Congress want to give polluters free rein to dump carbon pollution into our air by delaying enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Congress should not be cutting a special deal for big polluters."

Oil group shrugs

American Petroleum Institute, the trade group for oil and natural gas companies said it was not concerned with either attack.

"The oil and natural gas industry, and the workers at the 9.2 million jobs supported by the oil and natural gas industry, are not focused on what Clean Energy Works says they want to do in some future ad campaign," Cathy Landry, API spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "We're focused on what we do: we produce the energy this country needs to grow the economy, create more jobs, and protect our energy security."

Many industry groups fear that EPA regulation of carbon emissions will drive up costs and kill jobs. They argue that the Clean Air Act was never designed to address carbon, which is produced globally.

"You're fitting a square peg into a round hole," said Frank Maisano, energy specialist at Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents several companies that would be affected by EPA regulations. "Because environmentalists want to regulate greenhouse gases and they can't get Congress to do it, they're looking for other ways to do it."

EPA regulations are subject to court challenges and being changed by a future administration, Maisano said, adding "it isn't the best legal framework to impose long-term, expensive, economywide regulations on industries and therefore consumers."

Clean Energy Works' members said it was essential that they not lose the battle over EPA regulations.

"The EPA standards that exist today are about public health, and they can't be weakened," Fox said. "You have to tell that story and connect the dots for people."

Clean Energy Works coalition members also plan actions at the state and local level to drive support for their position on EPA, as well as to continue building support for climate legislation.

Operation Free, a veterans group that supports action on clean energy, will hold town hall meetings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Each event will have at least one retired general or admiral and other veterans talking about climate change as a national security threat, said Jonathan Murray, campaign director of the group.

At those meetings, they will tell people how floods in places like Pakistan give terrorist groups an opening, Murray said. When local governments cannot respond quickly or fully enough, residents can become disillusioned. That gives terrorist groups space to recruit, he said. As well, he said, "it's pretty widely known that dependence of foreign oil is a threat."

Operation Free also plans to hold telephone town halls. The goal is to drive calls, e-mails and letters to members of Congress and the White House.

Choosing strategies

Members of Clean Energy Works both separately and together are examining what might be their best moves after the election. The coalition came together in summer 2009, after the House passed its climate bill. Run by Democratic strategist Paul Tewes, who was Iowa state director for President Obama's campaign, the alliance took on a kind of campaign approach with about 200 state activists and a Washington, D.C., war room near Chinatown.

Groups in the coalition decided that once the climate fight moved to the Senate it would make sense to have a coordinated effort, said coalition spokesman Di Martino. He said it was always intended to end at the end of this congressional session.

With the main goal not achieved, members of the group said it is clear they need to do something different. With a new Congress coming in after the election -- likely with a smaller number of Democrats -- they are looking for alternatives.

When the next Congress starts, Cochran with EDF said, climate legislation advocates may need to look at "what would a dozen Republicans be willing to do," while in the past the strategy was "find one or two Republicans."

"We've exhausted that question," Cochran said, referencing passing climate legislation with a Democratic majority and a few Republicans. "In order to be successful," he said, "you have to make more Democrats and Republicans comfortable with policies that meet their needs."

Green with AEI said the group and others like it may have lost their best chance at their top priority.

"The green movement, as a whole, is realizing that their big-picture goal, the attainment of Al Gore's 'wrenching transformation' of industrial society, isn't going to sell even with the Democrats, their most amenable political party, in complete control of all branches of government.

Green rejected that Republicans blocked climate legislation, saying that Republicans could not block the stimulus bill, bailouts of the auto companies, health care and financial services regulation and that "if the Democrats really wanted it, the Republicans could not have stopped national greenhouse-gas legislation."

While waiting to see what the elections bring, many Clean Energy Works members are taking a renewed look at the states. Green with AEI said he expects green groups to act more aggressively at the state and local level, creating a "crazy quilt of economic pain.

"Look for them to turn to that as their primary strategy now that national action has been shot down for the foreseeable future," Green said.

Alliance for Climate Protection members and other green groups are working in California, campaigning against Proposition 23, which would delay implementation of the state's 2006 climate law that cuts greenhouse gas emissions.

That law has played a role "in driving policies across other states," said Cochran with EDF.

Clean Energy Works members also will be fighting to protect the Northeast states' Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. Operating in 10 states from Maine to Maryland, it restricts emissions from the utility sector. There is an interest in adding other states to RGGI, Cochran said.

There will also be other state pushes on improving energy efficiency and how fuels are produced and transported, Cochran said.

"My experience is that new strategies are usually made up of pieces of old strategies," Cochran said. "We have to continue to look for places to reduce greenhouse gases."

Pro-climate legislation groups need to more forcefully connect international events, like flooding in Pakistan and droughts in Russia to climate change, Fox said.

"Those impacts are dramatic, and they are forcing the leaders of those countries to act," Fox said. "We're trying to wake up the country in which the impacts are less dramatic at this moment. The impacts are still delayed in a dramatic way in the U.S. and that makes our work harder.

"Much of the work that has been done already, it just has to be done more of," Fox said.

'We needed to stay engaged'

But Green with AEI said environmental groups made major errors.

"They over-reached massively on the science propaganda and the policy goals," Green said. "They've been shot down everywhere, and they're in for some international wound-licking: not just here, but in virtually the entire developed world."

There is a self-critique going on, Clean Energy Works members said, as they look at what worked, what did not and what is next.

"In every campaign you learn how to do things better," Di Martino said. "You learn how to do things more efficiently."

During a conference call last week among Clean Energy Works members' CEOs and senior staff, there was a general feeling those in the group wanted to stay connected, said Cochran with EDF.

"Our sense is we needed to stay engaged," Cochran said, adding that the members planned to "see what we're looking at" after November's election and "make a choice on Clean Energy Works based on the facts on the ground."

"Then we'll assess what makes the most sense for a long-term basis," Cochran added.

Di Martino rejected that the reshaping of the group had anything to do with money, when asked if members were unwilling to keep financing the effort.

"In the donor community the resolve has actually gotten stronger to get something done," Di Martino said. "The issue isn't really money. The issue is what are the issues [the next] Congress is going to take a look at, and what's the best way to impact those issues."