Sen. Lamar Alexander likes talking about carbon. In the past two years he's talked about carbon more than any other member of Congress.
Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, also uses the words "coal," "renewable," "climate" and "power" quite a bit. He is among the current and former members most likely to pepper their speech with energy- and environment-related words. The club also includes such familiar names as Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and former senator and now Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of Colorado.
The leaders of energy and environment speak are found in a new Web site that put the bulk of nine years worth of the Congressional Record into a database. After tossing out words such as "and," "in," and "the," the site allows users to search for which words are spoken and written most often and what words individual lawmakers say the most often. For energy and environmental topics, it reveals who spends the most time mentioning concepts as technical as "sequestration," or as general as the word "land."
"We created this as sort of a starting point to look further at what's on Congress' mind," said Gabriela Schneider, spokeswoman for Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that uses the Internet to increase government transparency. It created the word search site, capitolwords.org. "The best way to get a sense of that is to see what they're actually talking about on the House and Senate floor."
For the 111th Congress, which began in January, the word most often used is "health," followed by "public," "service," "fiscal" and "funds." The word "land" comes in at eighth place and "energy" cracks the list at No. 9. The site does not provide context, so there is no way of knowing if references to health are mentions about health care, or the health of the economy, the health of the planet or the health of the country.
"Health" was popular in the 110th Congress as well, scoring first place over the two-year span. "Energy" came in second.
The site only tracks what members of Congress said either on the House or Senate floor, or in written comments. For instance, it does not note all the times energy words were said by President Obama while campaigning as a senator or by Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the campaign trail.
Energy talk hints at future
For energy words used over the last two years, lawmakers landing in the top 10 for usage largely are not surprising. Bingaman chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He ranked No. 1 for utterances of the words "energy," "transmission" and "efficiency." He is in the top 10 for "carbon," "renewable," "power," and "greenhouse."
Former Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who retired in December, ranks in the top 10 for "coal," "sequestration," "oil," "energy," "transmission," "biofuels," and "nuclear."
While searching for those words only turns up what has been said in the past, it also offers a window into what Congress and the Obama administration is likely to do on energy and environment issues in the future.
For instance, Bingaman's panel is working on legislation that will address transmission lines, and if Republicans can be brought on board, carbon sequestration, said committee spokesman Bill Wicker. All of the energy words Bingaman dominates in use of are "what we're working on today and it's what we're going to be working on the rest of this Congress," Wicker said.
Bingaman does not rank in the top 10 for the words "drill," "drilling" or "oil." Wicker rejected the notion that it means Bingaman does not look at those issues as well. But the focus of Congress now is on energy independence, he said.
Alexander, the lead Republican on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, ranked No. 1 for both "carbon" and "power," No. 2 for "climate," seventh for "coal," and ninth for "renewable." He talks often about the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned electricity provider. In an April 16 speech Alexander noted that renewable power provides 1.5 percent of the nation's electricity. Coal, nuclear, and natural-gas plants, he said, are "an essential bridge to a clean-energy future -- and even to expanding renewable power."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who left the Senate in January, ranks in the top 10 for saying "sequestration," "power," "renewable," and "energy" when he was a senator. Salazar used the word "biofuels" as a senator more than any other lawmaker in the past two years.
Salazar's interest in biofuels will be evident as he heads Interior, said spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley. "He's talked a lot about the opportunity for advancing biofuels," Lee-Ashley said. "One of the reasons he took the job at [Interior] is that he gets a chance to influence land-use policy," and the development of renewable power on public lands.
He is working with other Cabinet members to identify federal land where permits can be accelerated for solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy production, Lee-Ashley said.
A search of the site also reveals potential allies for industry.
The word "coal," for example, was said the most in the past two years by Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) who retired after the last session. The person in second place is Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). He said "coal" 253 during that period, compared with Domenici who said it 93 times, ranking 10th.
"He'll probably be number one next year. He's talking about coal all the time," said Shimkus spokesman Steve Tomaszewski.
Shimkus, who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to educate the public on the "many uses of coal" and remind voters it is a major part of electricity production, Tomaszewski said, "so coal workers and users aren't forgotten in the energy debate." In 2008 there were 1,713 jobs in Shimkus' district from mining operations.
The top 10 people using the word "coal" appear to be largely coal supporters, said Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for shareholder-owned electric utility companies. Owen called the word database an "intriguing," though also "blunt" tool, because there is no context and because you cannot search for a phrase, like "climate change" or "carbon sequestration."
When it comes to the words "climate" and "warming," the lawmaker who ranks first for both is Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) the former Environment and Public Works chairman and skeptic on the science linking human-made emissions to global warming. Inhofe said "climate" 346 times in the past two years, more than twice the No. 2 lawmaker, Alexander.