Big Business wants bigger voice in energy policy debate

Two broad-based business groups are angling to play a larger role in shaping the outcome of the debate over energy policy currently consuming Congress.

One is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business behemoth that spent more than $45 million on lobbying last year. It announced yesterday it was creating a side group that would spend millions of dollars more on energy policy in particular, revising a model the Chamber used in a successful campaign to change tort laws.

Chamber President Tom Donohue said one focus of the new group would be to show how the nation’s energy policy is inconsistent. As lawmakers complain about the dependence on foreign oil, for example, they do little to expand domestic resources, by opening up the Outer Continental Shelf, for example.

A similar disconnect exists for Americans who use power-sucking computers in ever-greater numbers without understanding where the power comes from, Donohue said.

The other group is the Business Roundtable, a collection of CEOs from large American companies. It released a policy report last week detailing a series of energy-efficiency efforts it supports and highlighting the need to increase domestic energy supplies.

Both the Chamber and the Roundtable have lobbied energy policy debates before. But representatives describe the new efforts as a stepped-up campaign driven by new factors. Those include the growing support for national greenhouse gas limits, which would affect a variety of businesses; rising costs for fuels like natural gas and other energy sources; and nervousness among businesses about the future availability of foreign oil.

For its efforts, the Chamber tapped retired Gen. James Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to run the Chamber Institute for 21st Century Energy. The Institute plans to release a national energy policy in a year as part of a longer-term effort to shape the political debate.

Meanwhile, Congress is moving forward with its own plan, which includes several components that the Chamber and other business groups oppose.

For example, the Chamber believes that a congressional proposal to require the production of 36 billion gallons of alternative fuels is unreachable. It also opposes efforts in both the House and Senate to rescind language in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that would make it easier to build transmission lines in certain corridors designed by the federal government.  

“It’s gone from ‘not in our backyard’ to ‘not on my planet,’” Donohue said, referring to the difficult “NIMBY” hurdles that energy projects of all types have to overcome.

Donohue didn’t specify how big the new group’s budget would be, but indicated the Chamber would spend a considerable amount on an education campaign to dispel what the Chamber calls “energy myths.”

As for the budget, Donohue indicated that it might be close to what the Institute for Legal Reform initially had when it started seven years ago, around $8 million. Last year, the institute spent $40 million.

So far, stakeholder groups have dominated the energy debate. But Donohue said the Chamber would bring a more cohesive voice to the debate that includes a huge grassroots network cutting across all segments of the economy.

“There is a difference,” said Marian Hopkins, public policy director for energy and environment at the Roundtable. “The Roundtable really represents every sector of the economy.”

The Chamber and the Roundtable may also have better public standing than, say, large oil companies, whose record profits on rising gasoline prices makes for public-relations difficulties.

The Roundtable’s energy policy report is a more detailed strategy to meet goals the group set in a broader effort it released a year ago. That was followed by a summit Roundtable members held last November to develop consensus on energy issues. The Roundtable will focus in particular on increasing energy supplies.

“It’s not that the Roundtable hasn’t been interested in energy. We have,” Hopkins said. “But what happened is that energy costs became the second-highest cost pressure for our members — second only to healthcare costs. When it reached that kind of significance in the business sector, the CEOs wanted to become a thoughtful participant in the debate.”