Companies from the Midwest and Southeast stormed Capitol Hill yesterday in an effort to swing the climate votes of senators from Ohio to Arkansas.
Environmental groups corralled nearly 150 business leaders from 43 states and the District of Columbia. Many of the closed-door meetings targeted Rust Belt Democrats considered critical for passage of legislation that would cap greenhouse gases.
Climate advocates argued their case as concern mounts about the U.S. bargaining position in Copenhagen this December, where nations will negotiate a post-2012 global warming pact. In their effort to sell the need for congressional action this year to senators from states hard hit by the beleaguered manufacturing sector, they hit a single message: jobs, jobs, jobs.
Top members of President Obama's energy team also rallied the troops, inviting clean energy executives to a morning meeting at the White House for a question-and-answer session with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Obama's chief energy and climate policy coordinator, Carol Browner.
"The cost of not doing something is we will lose the chance to lead in this next Industrial Revolution," Chu said.
"We want to get America back in the business of exporting technology instead of dollars," Entergy Corp. CEO Wayne Leonard said during the White House event. Entergy's utilities crossing much of the south-central and southeast regions could benefit from a climate policy that rewards low-emissions nuclear power plants.
Pressing for a U.S. foothold for clean tech
Dave Vieau, CEO of battery maker A123Systems Inc., reiterated the day's mantra that the clean energy business won't get a significant foothold in the U.S. economy unless the federal government puts a price on carbon emissions and adds more financial incentives aimed at jump-starting the clean-tech sector.
Chu announced plans to pump in another $750 million in stimulus bill funding to support loan guarantees for clean energy companies, and Locke said Commerce plans major patent office reforms to speed new technology to market.
The investor coalition Ceres and the Clean Economy Network organized the campaign, but word of the event spread through the corridors of the environmental movement.
One executive, Bill Keith of SunRise Solar in Indiana, said he heard about the event from the Environmental Defense Fund, among other groups. Another cited a flagging from the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, business, environmental and community leaders supportive of "green" jobs.
Then there were well-known executives who showed up spontaneously, even though they were not on the official list of participants.
For one, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers popped into a meeting with business leaders, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). He then hovered in the U.S. Capitol and grabbed the hands of lawmakers who were passing by, like Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
"I've had a whole series of meetings," Rogers said, while declining to say with which senators.
AEP executives and algae farmers prowl the hallways
The companies from the Midwest, which ranged from utility giant American Electric Power to an algae-farming company, offered multiple messages to senators on the fence about a mandatory cap on heat-trapping gases.
They all pressed for passage of comprehensive energy and climate legislation, but not necessarily the U.S. Senate bill released last week by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
That legislation differed from a House version by calling for tougher emission cuts by 2020 and offering new incentives for natural gas and nuclear power, among other things.
American Electric Power, which sent representatives to attend the event yesterday and backed the House bill, is withholding support of the Senate plan until more details are filled in, said Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for the Ohio-based company.
"We need to ensure that the reductions and the timelines are realistic," she said.
Similarly, other executives and company representatives said they wanted to see Congress enact a mandatory cap, but some offered few requests for specific provisions to fill in the Kerry-Boxer proposal.
"I'm not a policy person," said Keith of SunRise Solar. "It's hard for me to comment [on Kerry-Boxer]." The key thing for his company, he said, is for legislation to put a price on carbon, provide incentives for renewable energy and help small businesses battle large players in the renewable space.
Will the solar business still shine in Ind.?
He said he has contemplated moving his company out of Indiana, even though his entire family is there, because the state is not forward-thinking enough about enactment of renewable incentives. "We need leadership," he said.
He expressed disappointment that he couldn't get a meeting yesterday with the two senators from his state, Richard Lugar (R) and Evan Bayh (D).
Even as he called Lugar a "rock star," he said he sensed "a bit of hostility" from some of the senator's staff about moving forward on climate legislation. To that, Lugar aide Mark Helmke said, "I don't think I expressed hostility. I, like most, including the leadership of the Senate, doubt the prospects of a bill this year."
Others had better luck. Representatives of six Michigan companies met with staff from Stabenow and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), another potential swing vote on a climate bill.
Justin Sutton, founder of Interstate Traveler Co., said his optimism grew after the meeting. He said he felt that both Michigan senators want to move forward with legislation, but are concerned about the Senate calendar and preoccupation with health care. The staff also spoke about trying to determine the appropriate price of carbon, he said.
Would a border tax lubricate industries in the Rust Belt?
It became clear throughout the day that the debate isn't all about creating new jobs, but also about protecting old jobs.
"There probably won't be 50 votes, there sure won't be 60 without taking care of manufacturing," said Ohio Sen. Brown, who met with several of the high-profile executives.
Brown supports a mandate on industrial emissions, but he says protectionist tariffs are a non-negotiable aspect of a bill.
A "border adjustment" would increase costs for exporting countries that decide not to regulate emissions, thereby protecting small and medium-sized U.S. companies from cheap foreign goods. He plans to press Senate bill drafters to weaken presidential discretion in the House-passed climate bill to reduce border tariffs, and to place in tougher requirements forcing countries to verify that domestic policies force foreign competitors to slash carbon emissions.
"I only want this border adjustment to make countries do the right thing," Brown said. A border tariff is likely to end up in the Senate bill in some form, analysts have said, but the provision and others raised against clean energy competitors such as China don't have unanimous support in the business community, especially among U.S. companies with global operations.
Timothy Richards, international energy director for General Electric Co., one of the largest global manufacturing conglomerates and a major developer of energy technology, yesterday urged House members on an Energy and Commerce subcommittee to "reject protectionism."
Raising trade barriers would encourage retaliation and stifle a global market for solar panels, wind turbines and other equipment that relies on a robust market. He urged the rejection of future "Buy America" provisions for energy goods and called for the elimination of "green" tariffs.
"The U.S. has an opportunity to lead by example in this area," Richards said. "If the world's largest economy and importer of wind turbines eliminated tariffs, many of our trading partners would consider following suit in order to stimulate their own economies and trading activity."
Brown acknowledged that not all U.S. manufacturers agreed on his approach.
"Some companies that have a lot of production abroad don't want to do that. I didn't know that what GE says is automatically in our national interest," the senator quipped. "GE is a great American company, and they've done great things for this country. But they have a lot of production in China. This bill isn't written for GE. This bill's written to deal with climate change, and it's written as a jobs bill."