Democrats and the energy industry ... It's complicated

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Delegates and lawmakers attending the Democratic National Convention here could spend time this week perusing a 32-page publication promoting the Queen City's energy industry while riding natural-gas-industry-sponsored vehicles on their way to one of a dozen events sponsored by Duke Energy Corp. and other industry groups.

But Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni insists the Charlotte-based company -- which has spent nearly $3.6 million lobbying Congress in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics -- isn't looking to promote specific energy policies this week, or even generally influence lawmakers or delegates, despite its prominent role in the festivities.

"Duke Energy's goal in bringing the convention to Charlotte is all about Charlotte's economic development," Scanzoni said, noting the Democratic convention is the first such meeting in North Carolina in the state's history.

But other organizations -- including the American Petroleum Institute and America's Natural Gas Alliance -- acknowledge that sponsoring events or transportation here isn't merely a goodwill gesture toward citizens interested in their government.

"Our view really is that we wanted to be sure that energy was going to be a visible and critical issue for voters and for candidates who are running for office this year," API Executive Vice President Marty Durbin said yesterday.


Durbin said he views the conventions -- API was also a prominent sponsor at the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa, Fla., providing delegates with branded sunglasses and personal battery-powered fans -- as the culmination of the institute's yearlong "Vote 4 Energy" advertising campaign, which targets swing-state voters and urges them to consider energy issues when casting their ballots.

"The public, the voters are going to be focused on what is said both in Tampa and here in North Carolina. It gives us a great opportunity," Durbin said. Later, he added: "It's not that we're coming here with a specific goal where we want Congress to do X or the parties to do a specific policy."

But API President Jack Gerard, whose name has been floated as a possible chief of staff should GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney win the presidency, has promoted the themes of his group's campaign -- oil and gas development's role in job creation, for example -- during a "Vote 4 Energy" forum API sponsored with The Washington Post yesterday.

"We're going to need a true all-of-the-above strategy as energy demand continues to grow in this country," Gerard said and later added: "Today energy can help provide that stimulus to bring us back on the road to recovery."

In addition, API issued its own recommendations for the parties' platforms in May -- making identical requests to both Democrats and Republicans -- calling for expanded drilling and environmental deregulation (Greenwire, May 15).

While the new Democrat platform dropped 2008 language referencing the "tyranny of oil" and calls for the development of oil and other fossil fuels along with renewables, Durbin said he objects to language describing tax benefits the oil industry receives as "subsidies."

Durbin also acknowledges API's footprint is smaller in Charlotte than in Tampa -- teaming with the Congressional Black Caucus and Democratic Governors Association for evening soirees and the Post for an energy forum -- but said the difference is the result of funding restrictions.

Although there are no legal limits on convention donations -- both corporations and individuals can offer up cash or in-kind contributions -- Democrats imposed their own restrictions for 2012, including a ban on direct corporate donations and a $100,000 donation limit per individual. The ban does not extend to nonprofit or union contributions.

That ban also did not prevent Duke Energy, a major player in civic affairs here, from providing the Charlotte host committee with a $10 million line of credit for the event (E&E Daily, May 15).

Piedmont Natural Gas, Ultimate CNG and ANGA -- which represents 29 natural gas exploration and production companies -- likewise donated a fleet of 12 buses powered by compressed natural gas to the Charlotte event.

ANGA spokesman Dan Whitten said the organization, which similarly co-sponsored buses with Tampa, hopes the vehicles generate interest in natural gas production and usage "in terms of environment, energy security and also the economy."

"We view natural gas's role in a clean energy future as every bit as important and significant as any other energy source," Whitten said. "Being at the conventions, we certainly hope that lawmakers recognize that."

While Duke Energy will also co-sponsor policy forums -- targeting renewable energy and clean-coal technologies -- Scanzoni said the sessions wouldn't advocate for a specific position.

"We're using it as a great opportunity to inform individuals about different points of view, but no effort to sway one way or another," Scanzoni said, referring to the sessions as "democratic with a small 'd.'"

'Never a dull moment'

While it is difficult to ignore the energy industry's presence at the convention, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters' governmental relations director, Dan Crawford, questioned whether free busing and breakfast foods would ultimately sway voters on energy policy.

"They say 85 percent of everything you do in politics is wasted time; the problem is, you don't know what the 15 percent is. The conventions are nice parties, they're going to get access to a lot of folks, but at the end of the day legislators are going to have to make their own decisions about where they stand and what they believe in," Crawford said.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) echoed that assessment last night as he stood inside the Irish-themed Rí Rá bar, where API and the Democratic Governors Association sponsored an evening bash set to feature a performance by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's band O'Malley's March.

"Most of these events, I don't think members [of Congress] even know who sponsors them," said Pallone, who serves on both the House Natural Resources and Energy and Commerce panels.

But at least one group did take notice of the industry's presence yesterday.

At a forum on energy research and development sponsored by The Atlantic and National Journal and funded by Southern Co., held at an old church that has been converted into an art gallery, a knot of protesters burst in, unfurled a banner that said, "Corporate Cash Nukes This Election," and spilled a sticky substance on the floor.

"Corporate power buys elections -- take the money out!" they chanted a few times before being removed from the room by security guards as Southern CEO Thomas Fanning and other industry executives looked on.

"Never a dull moment," said Victoria Lion Monroe, a senior vice president of the National Journal Group, and the forum proceeded without further comment.

Reporters Josh Kurtz and Noelle Straub contributed.

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