Wind energy’s top lobbyist navigates political crosswinds

Though her résumé says otherwise, Denise Bode has been lobbying Congress since she was 13.

It started when Bode, now the American Wind Energy Association’s top lobbyist, visited Washington with her Bartlesville, Okla., Young Democrats chapter.

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That’s when she learned girls could not be pages in the House or Senate. Upon returning to Bartlesville, she commissioned her father to help write a petition to change those rules.

That letter eventually made its way to then-House Speaker John W. McCormack (D-Mass.) and ultimately helped change the rules to permit girls as pages.

“A lot of kids my age — particularly girls — it was the era when women were more and more thinking, ‘Well, why shouldn’t I be treated more equally?’ ” Bode said.

It was that trailblazing effort that set Bode’s professional life in motion.

“That really gave me the bug,” she said. “I realized after that that I really wasn’t — really wasn’t good, or as happy, as an observer. I was much happier as a doer. And it sort of carried through in every phase of my life.”

Growing up in northeastern Oklahoma, the oil-and-gas industry was already pervasive in her life.

Bode’s maternal grandfather fell to his death from an oil rig. Phillips Petroleum, the lifeblood of that region, employed Bode’s father in its tax department.

“They took care of the community and did a lot for the community, and so [I] had a very positive impression of the oil-and-gas industry as a result of growing up there,” Bode said of Phillips.

Both of Bode’s parents managed balance sheets for local businesses, with her mother keeping the finances of grocery stores and the local Kawasaki dealership in order. In the summer, Bode would assist her parents by completing tax returns for those businesses.

“I really saw how tax policy influenced everything,” Bode said, noting how crucial tax and rate incentives are in fostering energy development.

She translated those summers in the family trade into a master’s of law in taxation from Georgetown. Shortly after completing her degree, Bode was presented with a choice: become a tax partner in a new law firm, or join then-Sen. David Boren’s (D-Okla.) Senate Finance Committee staff as tax counsel.

Bode decided to join Boren’s staff, in part because of the history she shared with the senator.

As a college student, Bode and her future husband won a lawsuit against the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents. The regents were attempting to impose a tuition increase on veteran students, even though the state constitution outlawed such a move without approval from the Legislature.

Boren was in his first term as Oklahoma governor at the time. Impressed by Bode and her lawsuit, which she eventually won, Boren hired her to work in the governor’s office.

Bode’s second stint on Boren’s staff was on the Senate Finance Committee, the same panel she is now lobbying to secure an extension for a wind-energy tax incentive.

The wind production tax credit is set to expire Dec. 31. It credits wind power producers 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. The Senate Finance Committee passed it in August in a $205 billion tax extenders package, which has yet to be called for a vote.

Extending the incentive one year would cost about $5 billion, while leveraging $15 billion in investment.

The incentive has been credited with galvanizing the wind energy industry. But its future is in jeopardy because some fiscal conservatives believe the federal government needs to retain the tax revenues to help close the deficit.

Calls for a phase-out of the credit have been growing. The credit’s supporters say Congress should extend the incentive for one year and that the phase-out must be part of tax-code reform discussions expected to occur next year.

Bode said she is ready to have those debates and that the wind association’s goal has always been gradual elimination. Still, she said the targeting of wind is disingenuous, considering the provisions other energy industries get.

Bode said what she wants from Congress and the president is “some certainty” that there’s going to be “parity in energy policy so that the people we compete with don’t have tax incentives or provisions that put us on an unlevel playing field.”

Wind energy never used to be a partisan issue, Bode said. That divisiveness started with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and continued with the success of the wind incentive, she said.

At the time, natural-gas producers were gearing up to go after coal’s market share in the electricity-generating sector. That rattled a formerly all-inclusive, cross-sector energy policymaking atmosphere, turning it into a survival-of-the-fittest arena.

On top of that, wind energy started scaling up to take a larger bite out of coal’s market share. A mainstay since 1992, the wind incentive started drawing the manufacturing base and driving costs down, and states were implementing renewable electricity standards that buoyed installations.

“A majority of the [wind] energy is in Republican districts. But when they started chanting, ‘Drill, baby, drill,’ and that became the mantra, it kind of devolved into if the Democrats and the president are for it, then the Republicans are against it. And if Republicans are for it, Democrats are against it. And so we’re all kind of going, ‘What? This is not a partisan thing,’ ” Bode said.

So Bode is left navigating the tension points between the political parties as Dec. 31 steadily approaches.

For the moment, the action rests with President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as they work on a bargain to avoid deep automatic spending cuts and income tax increases scheduled for Jan. 1.

Such tensions keep Bode busy and draw attention to the fact that she is a woman in a male-dominated energy and lobbying world. It’s a position that comes with its own set of challenges.

She said it “requires you to be nuanced, because if you’re too aggressive, folks can use the ‘B’-word with you. If you’re not assertive enough, well, are you a wuss? Are you a girl? It’s all about balance and nuance and, again, being assertive, being pragmatic, but never losing your optimism or passion.” 

Losing optimism or passion is certainly not Bode’s problem. She’s cultivated both since at least age 13, and she’s ready. Her character and her skills are put to the test on a daily basis.

“It became clear when I was offered this job to be the head of the wind association that it was a great opportunity to build a legacy,” Bode said, adding that it’s an opportunity a person gets only “rarely in life.”