Here Come the Green Lobbyists Renewable Energy Lobbyists Get Busy on Capitol Hill

The nation’s capital is now clogged with enough climate-change lobbyists to dole out four apiece to each member of Congress. That’s a 300% jump since 2003. At least 770 companies and interest groups have hired an estimated 2,340 lobbyists to influence federal policy on global warming, according to early 2009 research by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity (CPI).

But that doesn’t mean the playing field has been levelled. “David is never going to be bigger than Goliath,” says Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy for the D.C.-based Center for American Progress. “We’re never going to outgun our [oil and coal] opponents.”

For Weiss, there’s a 180-degree contrast between the “Davids,” those lobbying on behalf of people’s health, green jobs and the renewable energy movement, and the “Goliaths’ of the coal, oil, utility and manufacturing sectors.

Clearly, the push for climate policy has expanded beyond the old green guard. As more diverse environmental, health, religious and alternative energy organizations huddle under the climate umbrella, the number of their lobbyists has rocketed from 50-plus in 2003 to at least 315 today, according to CPI figures. But even though the environmental sector is gaining ground, it is still outnumbered more than 8:1 on the lobbyist front.

Still, three environmental advocacy groups cracked the Top 10 list for the number of climate-change lobbyists hired in early 2009. Not surprisingly, Atlanta-based Southern Co.—the nation’s largest power generator—led the pack with 63. But sprinkled among the usual suspects are: the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank with an advocacy arm, with 26; the Environmental Defense Action Fund, Environmental Defense Fund’s advocacy arm, with 24; and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a trade group, also with 24.

Daniel Weiss (above), with Center for American Progress. © Center for American Progress

Environmental advocates have no quibble with these bulked-up numbers. “It’s a good thing for members of Congress to know that they have a constituency for clean power,” says EDF spokesperson Tony Kreindler. “And these guys are the best ones to deliver that message.”

The profusion of lobbyists looks different than it did two or three years ago, he says, because awareness has grown that climate policy also encompasses health, energy, national security and immigration. That recognition, he says, caused environmental advocates to switch course and unite with labor and even some industry partners.

“If we didn’t have this political muscle, the bill never would’ve gotten out of the House,” Kreindler says about the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation. “You need big constituencies coming together and saying, “We need to do this and we need to do it now.””

Only recently has the renewable industry been able to compete financially. “We’ve finally grown to the point where we have the budget,” says SEIA spokesperson Monique Hanis, adding that membership in the solar trade group has grown from 60 to 900 in the last five years. “We have to be part of the process and work within the system that exists. If we’re not here, who is going to recognize the solar option?”

Not all of SEIA’s lobbying power was directed to making sure Waxman-Markey designated allocations for clean energy, Hanis says. Other priorities included niche issues such as restoring solar tax credits, strengthening the national renewable electricity standard and creating net metering standards.

What alarms Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder is not the renewable energy industry’s lobbying efforts, but what lobbyists affiliated with J.P. Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street banks might have in mind as the emissions-allowances market climbs to a possible $2 trillion within five years.

“They see new derivative opportunities in carbon,” he says. “These are smart people who know how to make a bundle packaging together permits and offsets. And controls in Waxman-Markey are insufficient to prevent gaming of the system. There’s the potential to create speculative bubbles.”

To make a complete end-run around lobbyists, Blackwelder offers two suggestions. One, Obama could follow the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Massachusetts vs. EPA to regulate greenhouse gases via the Clean Air Act. Or, the president could ditch the idea of cap-and-trade and adopt a carbon tax. (NASA scientist James Hansen endorses this idea as well. See “Countdown to Copenhagen,” page 28). “The IRS collects it, it sends a price signal on carbon intensity, and it’s transparent,” Blackwelder says. “And it doesn’t take 1,200 pages to do it.”