Some say Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, could play a role in killing climate legislation. Others call him just a blip in the current political radar.
English, for his part, says he may not be able to support the federal global warming legislation now pending in the House until it reaches the Senate -- or as he calls it, "the fourth inning."
That's because NRECA represents some 930 rural customer-owned utilities that are more dependent on coal than many other generators. Under the federal climate bill, English fears, his members' customers will be hit hard.
"We're at the beginning of a long ballgame," English said after meetings this week with Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) about their bill proposing the first nationwide mandatory cap on greenhouse gases.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee last month approved Waxman and Markey's measure. But with House members sparring over provisions, it faces an uncertain future in that chamber and a vote climb in the Senate.
English's concerns have pitted him and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) -- whose committee includes many lawmakers sympathetic to rural co-ops -- against supporters of the legislation and the Edison Electric Institute.
EEI represents investor-owned utilities. They provide a much greater percentage of the nation's power than co-ops but are less numerous.
'Nothing to do with fairness'
At issue is Waxman and Markey's plan to distribute carbon allowances freely to the electricity sector. Under a formula that EEI helped devise, utilities would receive financial breaks under a greenhouse gas cap based partially on their historic emission levels and partially on their retail sales.
A cap-and-trade system like that envisioned by Waxman and Markey would set an overall ceiling on heat-trapping gases and force businesses to buy and sell a limited number of allowances representing their emissions.
English, a former Oklahoma Democratic congressman, wants the language altered so that utilities receive allowances based solely on their historic emission levels. That approach, he argues, would help co-ops, which tend to rely on coal more than larger, investor-owned utilities.
"The EEI formula has nothing to do with fairness. It has nothing to do with right," he said in an interview on Capitol Hill. "We would argue it's decidedly wrong."
In recent testimony in front of the House Agriculture Committee, English claimed that some co-ops would only receive 60 percent of the "proportionate share" of the carbon allowances they need, largely because of their coal dependence. Other utilities, like those with hydropower, unfairly would receive well over 100 percent of their requirements, he argued.
EEI spokesman Jim Owen defended the plan. He said in a statement that the bill's current formula takes the whole country into account and "evenly and fairly distributes" the cost impacts of climate change legislation.
"[Our] approach would substantially reduce the cost of complying with this bill for all electricity consumers -- including customers of coal-dependent electric cooperatives, who would not be treated any differently than their neighbors next door being served by an investor-owned utility or a municipal system," Owen said.
Perceptions of 'fairness' vary
Bill backers also argue that it will be difficult to change the current blueprint, because it was carefully negotiated in the Energy and Commerce Committee. Getting a deal meant winning support from big utilities with lower emission profiles because of their investments in nuclear, renewable or hydroelectric power.
The argument of many of those lower emitters is that their customers have paid more over the years for such clean power and now deserve a reward.
"The cleaner guys want to be rewarded for being cleaner, and they think that distributing allowances [based] on historic emissions only is unfair to them. The EEI methodology tried to strike a balance," said Christine Tezak, a senior energy and environment policy analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co.
"Eeveryone and their mother" is going to seek changes if the bill's sponsors give too much to NRECA or any other group, Tezak said.
English, though, argued that the reward-the-clean-emitters argument is flawed, since decisions about fuel usage at power plants were not made years ago with carbon footprints in mind. Because many rural co-op generators were built in an era when congressional regulations made the use of natural gas more difficult, many of his members had no choice but to turn to coal, he said.
"We shouldn't be penalized now," he said.
How did we get here?
Yesterday, resolution on the issue appeared distant.
According to Peterson, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) offered a tweak in the legislative language that would be more favorable to co-ops, but it didn't "do much" to move things along. English echoed that sentiment yesterday, and said no further meetings were planned between himself, Markey, Waxman and Peterson.
Boucher, a strong backer of the coal industry and the EEI formula, attended some of the meetings with English, along with Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute.
Boucher put a more positive spin on the situation, saying that he felt like "there's been substantial progress" on the rural co-ops' demands after the meetings. But he also emphasized that the basic EEI formula should remain.
Late yesterday, a congressman also told E&E that Waxman offered to give additional allowances specifically to rural electric cooperatives.
Meanwhile, disputes linger over how the current kerfuffle developed and whether it could have been prevented.
According to English, Energy and Commerce Committee leaders did little to reach out during the wheeling and dealing on the bill.
"The thing that troubles me most is that it seems so unnecessary," he said, claiming that his attempts to get a private meeting with Waxman went nowhere until Peterson started raising questions about the bill. Meanwhile, Peterson said this week that the meetings came about after he "told those guys that English needed to be in the room."
Waxman spokeswoman Karen Lightfoot did not respond to requests for comment.
Passage still 'likely' despite concerns
But Boucher said he and other committee members reached out to the co-ops two years ago, at the very beginning of the global warming debate.
"Investor-owned utilities expressed a broad interest in working with us. That broad interest was not expressed by the co-ops," Boucher said yesterday.
"Now they are coming to us with recommendations for changes in the bill," Boucher said, "when we've been very open to working with them from the beginning. We're still open."
English said he had met privately with leaders in the last Congress, but said that when the committee debated the bill last month, he was asked only a few questions in writing.
"That certainly doesn't match my definition of outreach," he said.
The bigger question could be how much influence English wields. Already, the association has spearheaded a campaign leading to the dispatch of about 2 million letters to members of Congress. House Agriculture Committee members like Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said this week that they remain undecided on the climate bill partially because of their concerns about the impact on the huge number of rural co-ops in their districts.
But in a new newsletter, analyst Kevin Book wrote that House passage of energy and climate legislation "remains likely" by the end of July, despite the current conflict.
'It's not going to be fun'
"Credible sources estimate Democrats may be only six votes short of a House majority without the entire House Agriculture Committee," wrote Book, managing director at energy research firm ClearView Energy Partners.
Yesterday, Waxman said "we have worked out a lot of the issues, resolved them completely," after an afternoon meeting with Peterson, Markey and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (E&ENews PM, June 18).
Even if a bill gets through the House without changes favorable to NRECA, the Senate could be a different matter. The farm vote is "important" in the House, but it is "essential" in the Senate, according to Manik Roy, vice president of federal government outreach for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Chelsea Maxwell, a former climate adviser to now-retired Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), said that the rural co-op situation was "maddening" during a failed attempt last year to push a cap-and-trade bill through Congress.
"No matter what you do or what you say, there's a sense that their head is in the sand and their response will be 'No, no, no,'" she said. She did not meet with English directly, but her thoughts were echoed privately by other NRECA critics.
Saying some progress was made in the negotiations, English denies that his goal is to scuttle the bill. He insists that he ultimately wants climate legislation, and that "chances are good" that NRECA will get behind legislation at some point. Regulation of greenhouse gases by U.S. EPA under the Clean Air Act would be disastrous, he said.
"I'm hopeful that this matter is going to get resolved," he said. "Even if it's not going to be fun."
Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.