Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), now officially running for speaker of the House, is awash in energy industry donations, an indication of his policy views and allegiances.
But observers on both sides of the aisle and in the lobbying world are watching whether the policy wonk on issues like entitlements and taxes will have a major impact on energy and environmental policy if, as expected, he succeeds Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as speaker.
"I would like to think that our colleagues in the House share the imperative that we certainly have on this side that energy issues, that energy policies are outdated. They need to be reformed and modernized," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski.
The Alaska Republican said it may take some time for Ryan to get things together in the House. "I think we need to give them a chance to put that organizational structure in place," Murkowski said.
Ryan was hesitant about leading a fractured Republican caucus but, after hearing from colleagues and finding signs of unity, said in a letter to colleagues last night that he is "ready and eager" to be speaker.
Koch Industries Inc., led by billionaire mega-donors Charles and David Koch, has been among Ryan’s top lifetime contributors, giving the Wisconsin politician more than $80,000 between the 1998 and 2016 election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the current election cycle, Koch Industries has given Ryan $2,500, the American Gas Association has contributed $2,000 and Chesapeake Energy Corp. donated another $2,500.
Exelon Corp. this summer gave Ryan $5,000. Exxon Mobil Corp. contributed $2,500, Dominion Resources Inc. donated $1,000, DTE Energy Co. chipped in $2,500, and Wisconsin Energy Corp. gave $2,500.
Other energy donations include $2,500 from Halliburton Co., $2,000 from Duke Energy Corp., $5,000 from the Action Committee for Rural Electrification, $1,000 tied to Southern Co. and $1,500 from PG&E Corp.
Ryan has not been among the top recipients of coal mining dollars, but that may change if he is elected speaker. Boehner has been a top coal beneficiary.
New speaker, same math
Republican strategist Mike McKenna, who has also been an energy lobbyist, doesn’t see a change on energy and environmental policy if Ryan becomes speaker. The leader may change, McKenna said, but not the Republican Party’s math.
"The configuration of the Republican caucus isn’t going to change just because Ryan is speaker," he said. "If you fire the coach and keep the 52 guys in place, it’s the same football team."
McKenna went on, "He’s no different than anybody else in House leadership — he’s solid on energy issues, and weak and dilatory" on the renewable energy production tax credit. Ryan is chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee with jurisdiction over taxation.
The bulk of Ryan’s environmental record comes from the budget proposals he’s helped craft in the House. His last version had provisions to cut federal climate funding and boost oil drilling. It would have also sold public lands for deficit reduction and cut "non-core" energy research.
"Unilateral restrictions on domestic energy production are not only harmful to our economy, but would actually hinder the environmental goals these actions promise to achieve," Ryan wrote in a 2009 op-ed.
Coal, nuclear and natural gas have been major sources of Wisconsin energy production. The state is home to NextEra Energy Resources LLC’s Point Beach nuclear plant, with one of the oldest operating reactors in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Wisconsin is not a major mining or drilling state. But it generated roughly 474 million gallons of ethanol in 2012 and was eighth in national production in 2014. Ryan, who represents a district south of Milwaukee, has not been deeply involved in biofuel issues.
While much of the focus has remained on Ryan’s handling of federal issues, six years ago he lobbied the Department of Energy for tens of millions of dollars in stimulus grants only later to attack the program as needless spending. The apparent contradiction generated controversy for Ryan and other Republicans.
At issue was a series of letters Ryan sent to then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2009, pushing for grant money for the Energy Center of Wisconsin’s geothermal proposal, which later received more than $20 million.
Ryan critics pointed out how the congressman harshly criticized and ultimately voted against the president’s stimulus program, dubbing it a "wasteful spending spree." Ryan later said the request for stimulus grants was a "constituent issue" that his staff handled.
Despite the lawmaker’s pro-production views, McKenna said energy issues are not necessarily Ryan’s thing, nor does he have a deep bench of aides who are experts on the subject. McKenna suggested Ryan keep Boehner’s energy policy adviser, Maryam Brown, on staff.
Still, Ryan has cultivated relationships with colleagues involved in energy policy. Earlier this year, for example, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) reached out to Ryan for support for his bill to lift the decades-old ban on crude oil exports.
The two met over dinner to discuss the measure in detail and then followed up with several conversations on the House floor before the bill passed the chamber earlier this month, Barton said.
Ryan showed an interest in the budget and tax aspects of the crude ban before ultimately voting for the legislation, Barton added. "He saw some of the economic benefits," he said. "He’s very much a details guy, a numbers guy."
Barton continued: "As a congressman from a pro-energy producing and consuming state, like I am, I don’t see any downside to him as speaker."
Other House Republicans said they’ve had less interaction with Ryan on energy issues. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said he hasn’t hashed over energy policy with Ryan.
But Whitfield, who is retiring at the end of next year, said he thought as speaker Ryan would create a more open process for energy bills and other legislation in the House.
"He’s going to be a person who wants the committees to do their work and wants everybody regardless of their opinions to offer amendments and debate it out," Whitfield said.
One question mark remains on the fate of the dozens of expired tax breaks, including the production tax credit for renewables, and an assortment of other alternative energy and efficiency incentives.
Sentiment against tax breaks for renewables runs deep in the House, and Ryan is no exception. His last budget rescinded unspent funds in the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program while calling for scaling back "corporate subsidies" in the energy sector.
"The administration continues to penalize economically competitive sources of energy and reward their uncompetitive alternatives," the budget plan stated.
The Senate Finance Committee in July passed a tax package that extends the PTC and other energy credits for two years (E&ENews PM, July 21), but the House’s so-called tax extenders package advanced by Ryan’s Ways and Means Committee last month omits the energy provisions (E&E Daily, Sept. 17).
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking member on Finance, said yesterday he has not spoken to Ryan recently but is holding out hope that extenders find a path to the president’s desk before the end of the year.
"The end of the year presents extraordinarily important challenges, particularly on economic issues that the Finance Committee and Ways and Means Committee deal with," he told E&E Daily. "I hope there’s an agreement that the next few months are going to focus on governance."
Wyden noted that last year’s extenders package expired just weeks after enactment, leaving the PTC and other key credits off the books for the current year. "The last tax bill had a shelf life shorter than a carton of eggs," he said. "That would be really bad for the American public."
Asked whether he was comfortable with Ryan leading the House, Wyden noted Ryan’s deep interest in policy. "The fact is these big issues that are coming up, these are the issues that Chairman Ryan spent his time on," he said.
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) yesterday acknowledged a tough road ahead for extenders but praised Ryan as someone who can rise above the infighting that has plagued the House GOP conference.
"I think he’ll be personally interested in it, and it will probably get through," he told E&E Daily. "Anything he does is going to be better than what most others can do. He’s a very fine man. And I think they’ve just got to grow up and realize that nobody is going to completely [get] everything that they want."
Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, top Democrat on Ways and Means, said he would miss having Ryan sitting next to him on the dais. "Paul and I have been able to have a relationship of cordiality and friendship," he told reporters yesterday.
But Levin said, "We need to have a very serious discussion about all of the tax extenders and also the duration. And we haven’t had that."
Environmentalists have excoriated Ryan for his record, particularly when he was the Republican nominee for vice president in 2012.
The League of Conservation Voters gave him a 3 percent 2014 score and a 12 percent lifetime score. It once accused Ryan of promoting "unfounded conspiracy theories about climate scientists" and called his budget proposal an energy giveaway.
Greens are watching with trepidation as major issues may soon fall into Ryan’s lap, including spending talks and discussion on potential riders to block Obama administration environmental priorities.
But at least some environmentalists also have hope there could be some movement in their direction. They see more Republicans open to discussing climate change, pushing for reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and challenging party leaders on issues like the Export-Import Bank.
And at 12 percent, Ryan’s LCV lifetime score is higher than Boehner’s at 2 percent. Ryan, LCV officials say, has been more to their liking on issues like flood control and agricultural subsidies.
"Should he become speaker, Paul Ryan has an opportunity for a fresh start. We hope he would heed the fact that there is widespread support for climate action, clean energy, clean water, and protecting our lands and wildlife and agree to a government spending deal that is free of harmful, ideological riders and adequately funds these popular priorities that are critical for our health and our future," said Sara Chieffo, LCV government affairs vice president.
Many environmentally minded Democrats are holding at least some of their fire on Ryan. They have described him as a man who would be a good speaker.
"I respect Paul Ryan. I know he has a lot of talent. I want him to succeed," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a former House colleague of Ryan’s. He added that "the overwhelming majority of Americans want a Congress that adds to the environmental record of our nation, they want us to be leaders globally on climate change, they want us to be leaders on clean water and clean air."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) touted Ryan’s role in developing a 2013 bipartisan spending compromise with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) when the two were the respective leaders of their chambers’ budget committees.
But Reid added on the Senate floor yesterday, "I said the Ryan budget would lead to a ‘Kochtopia,’" referring to the Koch brothers. "I believe that to be true now more than ever."
Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a stalwart environmentalist and skeptic of development on public land, echoed Republican strategist McKenna, but in less positive terms.
"I don’t seriously think that we’re going to see any change in terms of [the House GOP’s views] on regulatory issues, EPA or extraction of resources on public lands," Grijalva said. "I just don’t see it changing."
Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.