The lead authors of the Senate climate bill are courting key members of an industry coalition that once cheered on Dick Cheney's energy policies.
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) say they are writing a business-friendly global warming and energy measure, and they are taking their case to the biggest umbrella group of them all: the Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth, or AEEG.
The senators hope to bring the coalition's members into their tent as a way to win over new votes and avoid the type of multimillion dollar ad campaigns two of its biggest members -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute -- launched against last year's House bill and earlier proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
"I'm delighted to have them at the table," Kerry said. "We'll see whether we can reach a meeting of the minds. It's one thing to be at the table; it's another to meet the minds."
Led by several U.S. Chamber employees, the 1,200-member AEEG coalition formed in 2001 just before then-Vice President Cheney rolled out a series of pro-industry recommendations from his White House Energy Task Force. The group lobbied forcefully for those ideas throughout the George W. Bush administration, culminating in the enactment of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
More recently, the coalition has sponsored economic studies and public lectures in key swing states questioning the need for past versions of climate change legislation and also filling lawmakers' mailboxes to sway votes.
The coalition's history of battling legislation that sets limits on greenhouse gas emissions is making environmentalists skeptical about the meetings between the senators and industry officials.
"The appearance is the senators have kissed so many polluter rings that a residue of soot has been left on the lips," Frank O'Donnell, head of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, wrote in an e-mail. "The senators appear to want to GET A BILL no matter how many corporate giveaways are involved."
Graham counters that the only way to pass climate legislation that places a first-ever price on greenhouse gas emissions -- something environmentalists want -- is with significant industry support.
"Tell them to do it without the API and the Chamber," Graham said. "This has got to be better for business."
Kerry, Graham and Lieberman met with several of the most prominent AEEG leaders last week, and according to sources in the room, outlined concessions they have already made for industry, including Graham's push for an expansion of domestic oil, gas and nuclear power production.
An industry official said Kerry got attention with a pledge to include a "price collar" that gives certainty about how high compliance prices would go -- something long sought by electric utilities, oil companies and many others. "This is when people's ears picked up," the source said.
In a nod to the National Mining Association, Kerry pledged to provide funding for "clean coal" technologies. And Graham said he agreed with American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard's complaint that the House bill did not treat oil companies fairly. The senators are weighing a suggestion floated by BP PLC, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. to impose a carbon fee on transportation fuels, with the revenue funneled toward construction and repairs of new highways and other infrastructure (E&E Daily, March 3).
Another round of closed-door talks between the industry officials and senators is scheduled for today.
Industry opposition to climate bill
The senators' outreach to the industry groups comes in the wake of a well-financed campaign, namely by API and the U.S. Chamber, to attack the House-passed climate bill, H.R. 2454.
API helped fund a series of "Energy Citizens" rallies around the country last summer questioning the costs of the House legislation to the refining and oil and gas industries (Greenwire, Aug. 12, 2009). And the U.S. Chamber lost several members in the fall over its stance on climate change issues, including one official's call for a scientific inquiry on global warming akin to the Scopes Monkey Trial (Greenwire, Oct. 1, 2009).
This go around, some of API's member companies have been invited into the negotiations. And the U.S. Chamber's president, Tom Donohue, has met at least twice with the Senate trio. Graham said the meetings are all about finding language acceptable to industry that in turn can lead to hard-to-get votes.
"If business supports what we're doing, it'll be easier to get Republicans and moderate Democrats," Graham said.
"They'd like the Chamber's support," said an industry official close to the negotiations. "Certainly, the next level down is a bill that the Chamber doesn't oppose."
API and the U.S. Chamber say they are waiting until any legislation emerges from the negotiations among Kerry, Graham and Lieberman before making any comment about their stance on the measure, let alone future advertising campaigns.
"The chamber will not agree to anything until we see it, and we haven't," said Matt Letourneau, a U.S. Chamber spokesman.
"That's 150 miles into the future," said API spokeswoman Cathy Landry. "We've not seen the bill. We don't know if we like it. So there is no plans on any advertising."
One former GOP energy staffer sees the industry-Senate meetings as nothing more than information-gathering session for constituencies that do not want to be left out of an opaque process that to date has not yielded any legislative text.
"I don't think it's a sign they're wanting to support it," said Andrew Wheeler, former staff director to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "It's a sign of a vacuum."
Wheeler said the meetings are more of an effort by industry to decipher all of the conflicting messages emerging about the legislation, especially after several committees backed away from their pledges this year to hold hearings on the climate legislation.
"They're picking winners and losers, just like anyone who's addressed this issue," said Wheeler, now a senior vice president for energy and climate policy at B&D Consulting. "And no one wants to be the loser."
The three senators are trying by the end of next week to prepare a "narrative" ready for public release and have legislative text to U.S. EPA in order to start the five- to six-week agency analysis process, Lieberman said yesterday.
Environmental groups watch warily
Environmental groups have also been in the room for talks with the Senate climate bill authors. Asked about the senators' outreach toward groups they have long battled with, several said they would be willing to give the senators the benefit of the doubt -- for now.
"No, they can't be trusted, but you can't ignore them either," said David Moulton, director of climate policy at the Wilderness Society. "They are powerful, and you have to understand what's motivating them and their members in order to be effective in overcoming that."
"I don't trust them, but I trust Senator Kerry," said Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America's Washington, D.C., office.
League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said he has his doubts specifically about the senators' negotiations with the oil industry. "Unfortunately while Big Oil claims they want reform, all their resources have been spent trying to block progress," he said. "We'd like to hope that some of the more enlightened oil companies become more aggressive advocates for the changes that we need. That remains to be seen."