Energy efficiency lobby hunts for new allies among Republican lawmakers

A top energy efficiency lobby is searching for new allies in the Republican Party after several friendly faces lost their reelection bids this year.

Many centrist champions of energy efficiency legislation in the GOP were defeated in primaries or the general election, dealing a blow to the bipartisan clout of The Alliance to Save Energy.

“I think there’s always a bit of consternation [about turnover],” said Rob Mosher, the group’s legislative director.

Among the Republican supporters of the group headed for the exits are Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Reps. Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Dan Lungren (Calif.), Charlie Bass (N.H.) and Nan Hayworth (N.Y.).

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Mosher identified several Republicans who sponsored energy efficiency bills this Congress who could take ownership over the issue. Reps. David McKinley (W. Va.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.) and Chris Gibson (N.Y.) all have demonstrated interest in the topic, he said. 

One Republican who has taken up the efficiency cause is Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). He has promoted greater use of a program that lets federal agencies pay private firms to implement energy saving upgrades. The improvements must pay for themselves through cost savings over the life of the contract, which can last up to 25 years. 

President Obama authorized agency heads to use up to $2 billion on the contracts in 2011, but Gardner said, “the government has been slow.”

“There’s been a lot of talk, and the action hasn’t kept up with the talk,” he told The Hill. 

Gardner and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) plan to launch an energy efficiency caucus in Congress next month.

“I feel it’s my task to really open people’s eyes up to energy conservation and energy savings,” Gardner said. “I really believe Republicans deep down are conservationists and that this is a real fit.”

But the nation’s fiscal situation makes the future of energy efficiency funding murky, Gardner said. As Republicans look to make cuts, spending for energy efficiency programs might fall under the budget guillotine.

On top of that, the expectation in Washington is that Congress will tackle tax reform next year. That effort could threaten financing for energy efficiency programs that are supported by carve-outs in the tax code. 

“I think right now all bets are off when it comes to knowing for sure what’s going to happen,” Gardner said. 

Mosher said the Alliance to Save Energy would be involved in those discussions, as well as the “fiscal cliff” talks that might carry implications for energy efficiency programs. President Obama and congressional leaders are working on a deal to avoid those automatic spending cuts and income tax increases set to take effect Jan. 1.

“There’s not going to be many legislative days on the calendar remaining, but we’re going to be monitoring those because sequestration means an 8.2 percent cut to energy efficiency programs,” Mosher said. 

The Alliance tried this year to boost efficiency through enhanced building code standards in a Senate bill that was sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). The group viewed it as a low-cost method for advancing energy efficiency during budget belt-tightening.

The building codes did not survive, however. While the larger bill was added as a rider to another that improved energy efficiency in certain appliances, the building codes measure was stripped. 

Though Republicans are very much supportive of ideas for cutting the deficit, Gardner said getting House GOP members to approve new energy efficiency standards “would be a difficult task.” 

With Capitol Hill’s political calculus remaining largely intact next year, Mosher said he does not anticipate a shift in policy approach on energy efficiency. 

Mosher said that is why losing people like Lugar, along with retiring Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), hurts. He fears energy efficiency might become less of a priority next Congress without some of the issue’s heavy lifters returning. 

But there also is plenty of room for hope, Mosher said. The Alliance to Save Energy already is vetting incoming lawmakers and setting up meetings with their staffs to press the issue and gain support. 

Mosher also said the experience with Portman and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), both of which were elected in 2010, showed new lawmakers can jump into the spotlight. The fact that Democrats picked up Senate seats also improves the chances of passing energy efficiency bills in that chamber, Mosher said, though the House will likely remain the thornier of the two.

“With regard to Sens. Lugar and Bingaman, these are longstanding senators with a great deal of seniority. So you ask, ‘How will we be weighing in with their replacements?’” Mosher said.