The climate lobby's nonstop growth

Not just the usual suspects: Power companies and big oil, but Microsoft, Google, and eBay as well

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Makers of sneakers, blue jeans, and computer network servers joined forces late last fall and vowed a bigger push in Congress on climate change. Meanwhile, consumer-owned utilities — relatively quiet in the global warming debate compared to the big investor-owned power companies — decided they needed to weigh in once a new president took office. Food producers felt they, too, needed to watch the global warming issue more closely to protect their interests. And promoters of electric vehicles saw their long-awaited chance for a boost from Uncle Sam if their needs were addressed in a climate bill.

They’re all part of a crazy quilt of about 140 businesses and organizations that jumped into the climate change debate on Capitol Hill in the first quarter of this year. Those new players drove a 14 percent increase in the number of interests lobbying on global warming, compared to the same time last year, according to a new analysis by the Center for Public Integrity of lobbying disclosure forms filed with the U.S. Senate.

Manufacturers, power companies, and the oil and gas industry still dominate the roster of interests, accounting for more than half of the 880 total businesses and groups that reported they were seeking to influence climate change policy. Just 10 lobbying firms represent nearly 100 of these corporate players, including some of the largest trade associations and companies that have long been active in the climate debate. But as California Democrat Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and his energy subcommittee chairman, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey, move forward this week with a mark-up of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, their landmark legislation to curb the global warming threat through a complex cap-and-trade system, the interests seeking to be heard are more diverse than ever.

The increase comes on top of already rapid growth from 2003 through 2008, when the number of interests lobbying on climate change jumped more than 400 percent, to over 770. With serious legislative action now slated for Capitol Hill, the total has continued to increase.

“The difference between this year and last year is that, with George Bush sitting in the White House, nobody thought there was going to be a bill passed,” says Deborah Sliz, leader of the lobbying firm Morgan Meguire, LLC, which saw its already large list of climate clients expand. Sliz’s firm represents consumer-owned water and electric utilities from across the country, including the Imperial Irrigation District, in Southern California’s huge agricultural heartland. Since the irrigation district’s ratepayers would bear any increased expense due to limits on carbon emissions, these utilities noted closely the cost estimates that surfaced during last year’s Senate debate on climate legislation. “They thought, ‘Holy Mackerel, we’d better be involved from the beginning,’” Sliz says.

Publicly-owned utilities have a different perspective on some aspects of climate policy than many of the giant investor-owned power companies that have been more vocal in the debate up to now; they don’t have shareholders who stand to benefit or lose in the carbon emissions control regime. But Sliz sums up their bottom line in a way that would echo a stance adopted by companies of all sizes in the power industry: “Most of our clients would acknowledge that there is much more consensus on the science, there is more political consensus, and there’s going to be a climate change bill,” she says. “So they are focused on doing it in the lowest-cost possible way that meets reduction targets.”

Sliz’s company, Morgan Meguire is among the top 10 lobbying firms, by number of clients, engaged in the climate debate in Washington. Most boast staffs replete with former government officials and former Capitol Hill staffers, and serve as the go-to representatives for large power companies and giant energy trade groups like Edison Electric Institute and the American Petroleum Institute.

But companies that want to make sure Congress hears from more than the usual suspects in the climate debate — including technology firms Sun Microsystems and eBay and consumer brand names Nike, Levi Strauss & Co., and Starbucks — are engaged in an organized lobbying push this year. Their new coalition, Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP), rolled out after the presidential election last November, seeks even more aggressive limits on carbon emissions by 2020 than the Waxman-Markey legislation envisions. The companies are lobbying on behalf of themselves and with help from the organization Ceres, a network of institutional investors and environmental groups that has been active for two decades on sustainability issues.

“Typically, the voices from business you hear on Capitol Hill are the big emitters,” says Marcy Scott Lynn, director of corporate sustainability and responsibility for Sun Microsystems, a Santa Clara, California, company. Sun manufactures the hardware that is the backbone of computer networks, and is a founding member of the BICEP coalition. “We have a different voice to bring to this conversation,” says Lynn. “We have a real desire to see climate change legislation that makes sense.”

Although the companies in the coalition are varied, she says they share a sense of opportunity in climate policy. Sun, for example, (in the midst of being acquired by business-software giant Oracle) has been developing computer servers that take less space and use less energy. But there’s little incentive for companies to pay a premium for more efficient models with electricity prices relatively low, and there are currently no nationwide goals — as there would be under the Waxman-Markey bill — to reduce energy use. In the run-up to the new climate bill’s introduction, representatives of BICEP companies met with 44 members of Congress or their staffs to make the economic case for including energy efficiency standards in legislation. But they may have an uphill battle; Waxman and Markey agreed to weaken the energy saving provisions before officially introducing the bill last Friday, to try to lure more votes from the moderate and industrial-state Democrats on the committee. BICEP vows to continue to work to get higher energy efficiency goals back into the bill.

Other technology firms that have jumped recently into the climate change fray have disparate agendas. Northrop Grumman did not respond to inquiries about its views, but its executives have been speaking and writing in recent months about the need for a national initiative to gather and make better use of climate change data from the satellite sensor technology it has developed. A spokeswoman for Lenovo, the personal computer manufacturer, said only that “an abundance of caution” had prompted it to keep closer watch on what was happening on climate on Capitol Hill. Software giant Microsoft declined to comment on why it joined in the lobbying on climate this year.

Another industry sector displaying enhanced interest in climate change in the first quarter of 2009 was the food business. Land O’ Lakes, Tyson Foods, the American Beverage Association, the American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation, and the U.S. Beet Sugar Association all were among the new entries. Food processors — like all manufacturers — are wary of a possible increase in energy costs under any program to limit the carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning. Some have facilities large enough that they might be required to obtain allowances, or pollution permits, from the federal government, in order to do business under a cap-and-trade program. The Waxman-Markey bill would give away many of these allowances for free to the power industry, and agreements also have been struck to bestow these valuable allowances on the ailing auto industry and certain manufacturers like the steel industry. But the food industry — which has not previously been aggressive on the climate lobbying front — has seen no similar special provisions worked into the legislation thus far.

Promoters of electric vehicles also entered the climate lobbying fray in a big way in the first quarter of the year. Among them are Better Place, the company started up by former software executive Shai Agassi to accelerate mass market adoption of battery-powered cars, and Segway, the firm that seeks to revolutionize the art of getting around with its self-balancing personal transporter. “Why we really stepped up to the plate this year has to do with the probability of something happening being much greater than in the past,” says Matt Dailida, global director of government affairs at Segway.

The electric vehicle world was heartened that the climate bill would require utilities to provide charging stations for the plug-in cars that automakers are now developing. But the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA), which includes Segway, Better Place, Google.org — the philanthropic arm of the Internet search giant, and a host of other interests from battery makers to power companies and even Detroit automakers, hasn’t gotten all it wanted. The association had been lobbying to strengthen the so-called “low-carbon fuel standard” for motor vehicles that Waxman and Markey included in their original draft. But the co-sponsors jettisoned that section of the bill altogether in an effort to win the votes of oil industry supporters on the committee. EDTA vice president and lobbyist Genevieve Cullen, who previously was energy counsel to Indiana’s Democratic Senator Evan Bayh (a crucial swing vote), says the intricacy of the climate bill rivals anything she has worked on as a lobbyist or on Capitol Hill. “The stakeholders are almost infinite,” Cullen says.

At least one lawmaker appeared philosophical. Representative Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who worked to broker protections into the bill for “energy-intensive, trade-exposed” manufacturers like aluminum and steel, said in an e-mail message that the lobbying on the bill has been no different from any other major legislation he’s worked on. “I’ve met with a wide spectrum of stakeholders — including constituents, all of the major environmental groups, and energy-intensive industries,” he says. “I welcome the chance to talk with people who support, oppose, or have concerns about a bill before Congress — and it’s my office’s policy to do so.”

But many other lawmakers embroiled in the climate battle declined to comment on the difficulty of putting together the legislation amid the onslaught of interests. And with so many agendas to address, it’s no wonder the climate bill has ballooned to more than 900 pages, growing nearly 50 percent since the draft was originally floated on March 31, even while many of the original tougher provisions were stripped out. Most large environmental organizations still strongly support the package that Waxman and Markey have put together, viewing the compromises as the inevitable price of getting critical legislation passed — although they vow to work hard to strengthen the bill. But the deal-making has frayed any green group unity. Friends of the Earth and Public Citizen have raised concerns on the deals struck, while Greenpeace said it could not support the measure in its current form. “This bill has been seriously undermined by the lobbying of industries more concerned with profits than the plight of our planet,” the group said in a statement.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether the changes to the bill designed to capture the votes of wavering House Democrats will be sufficient to win support in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada views the politics as brutal enough to make health care reform look easy in comparison. It’s a scary assessment, but one that’s hard to argue with. Accommodating 880 angles is a daunting job for anyone.

Data editor David Donald and staff writers M.B. Pell, Matthew Lewis and Laura Cheek contributed to this report.

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