Republican biofuel advocate detours to run for Congress

By Tiffany Stecker | 06/10/2016 07:24 AM EDT

For action on climate change, 2009 was a promising year. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation passed the House. U.S. EPA finalized its endangerment finding that carbon emissions threaten public health. Global leaders met in Copenhagen, Denmark, to pen a deal on climate change.

For action on climate change, 2009 was a promising year. The Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation passed the House. U.S. EPA finalized its endangerment finding that carbon emissions threaten public health. Global leaders met in Copenhagen, Denmark, to pen a deal on climate change.

That was also the year Sapphire Energy Inc. hired Denise Gitsham, a young attorney and former George W. Bush White House aide, to promote its algae-based biofuel. Sapphire had a plan to wean the country off foreign petroleum and reduce greenhouse gases by growing the green slime in large saltwater ponds in the New Mexico desert.

Seven years later, Gitsham, 39, is running for Congress against a strong backer of advanced biofuels, Rep. Scott Peters (D), in California’s 52nd District. She narrowly made second place in California’s primary Tuesday night to become the Republican nominee, beating out Marine veteran Jacquie Atkinson (R) but earning 16 percent of the vote to Peters’ 59 percent.

Denise Gitsham
Denise Gitsham. | Photo courtesy of Denise Gitsham for Congress.

Her campaign has centered on her parents’ immigrant background — her Chinese mother is the daughter of a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, her father is Canadian — and her time in the White House as Karl Rove’s protégé. She also gets many questions about her short stint on the TV show "The Bachelor" in 2008.

On energy, she’s a backer of an "all of the above" strategy and, in contrast to many Republicans, is a believer in climate change. On the campaign trail she occasionally brings up her role helping bring renewable energy to the forefront.

"We would have become the Saudi Arabia of clean, renewable, crude algae-based oil," she said in a recent interview with radio station KFMB.

Key word: would. Much like Waxman-Markey’s failure to make headway in the Senate, and the disappointing results of the United Nation’s Copenhagen summit in 2009, Sapphire struggled to accomplish its renewable energy dreams. A spike in domestic fossil fuels dampened the energy independence argument for biofuels, and the more recent slump in oil prices killed Sapphire’s deals with refiners to blend their algae crude with petroleum crude. The company still exists, but markets its algae for food products and supplements.

"The reason I was enamored with that idea is because I worked in the White House [during] 9/11," she told KFMB. "The last thing I wanted to do was to fund the coffers of those who hate us by buying their oil."

When Tim Zenk hired Gitsham to work for Sapphire, he was looking for a moderate Republican with an interest in renewable energy.

"At the time, it was an important part of our strategy to reach out to both parties," he said. "She is excellent at establishing relationships in a nonpartisan way," said Zenk, himself a Democrat.

Gitsham helped establish the company as a credible organization with refiners and refining trade associations, Zenk said.

"She is sharp," he said. "She really has an ability to dive in and resolve complicated problems."

E&E Daily was unable to speak with Gitsham after her campaign staff cancelled three scheduled interviews.

Gitsham left Sapphire in 2013 to open a marketing and public relations firm in San Diego.

But her ties in Washington, D.C., still run deep. A review of her campaign contributions show donations from former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who represented oil company BP in its settlement case after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Eugene Scalia, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s son, is also a donor.

Top energy contributors include Paul Dickerson, former COO of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and currently an attorney with Mintz Levin PC in Houston. Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) — a staunch backer of the oil industry — has handed Gitsham $2,000. Other oil donors include Chevron Corp., Devon Energy Corp. and the Petroleum Marketers Association.

"All of her corporate support is from the oil and gas industry," Peters told E&E Daily. "I don’t think those contributors are concerned with renewables."

Gitsham had raised $477,174 through May 18. By comparison, Peters had raised $2.3 million through that date and outspent Gitsham nearly 3-1. A former state coastal commissioner and San Diego city councilman, Peters has supported green causes in Congress, including efforts to boost the Navy’s use of renewable fuels — a commitment that favors fuels like algae over corn ethanol or biodiesel.

Still, Peters raised the possibility that Republicans could rally behind Gitsham before the general election. The National Republican Congressional Committee has put Gitsham in its "Young Guns" program for the most promising House GOP challengers this election cycle.

"The race could still be hotly contested should national Republicans decide to invest heavily," his campaign said in a primary night news release.

Covering most of San Diego and its suburbs, the coastal 52nd District is a historically moderate district, veering red to the North and blue to the South. It gave President Obama 52 percent of the vote in the 2012 White House election.

First elected to Congress that same year, Peters narrowly defeated six-term Rep. Brian Bilbray (R). He squeaked through his 2014 race against former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio (R), who was derailed by sexual harassment allegations a month before the election.

Gitsham’s decision to run for Congress puzzled some of her former colleagues in Washington, who worked alongside her at Sapphire.

"I was surprised because Scott has been such a terrific advocate," said Beth Viola, a senior policy adviser for Holland & Knight LLP and lobbyist for the Advanced Biofuels Association.

"I think the world of Denise personally and I wish her all the best," added Viola. "[But] I think she’s got a tough road ahead with Scott Peters."

Reporter Corbin Hiar contributed.