Southern frozen out by Barton

As House leaders prepare to write another energy bill, lobbyists for one of Washington’s top players in power politics are not on speaking terms with the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Republican chairman and majority staff.

According to several sources, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas has banned his personal and committee staff from talking to lobbyists from Southern Co., the nation’s second largest electricity producer.

A committee source indicated that staff members decided to halt interaction with Southern on their own.

“It is true that there is no real working relationship between our staff and the Washington office of Southern Co.,” the committee source said.

Southern’s aggressiveness in advocating its positions was the cause for the bad blood, he indicated. It is unclear what specific event or events led to the disagreement.

Asked to comment, Southern released this statement: “We have no problem with Chairman Barton or his staff. We have always maintained a professional relationship with Congressman Barton, as we have with all members of Congress, and we will continue to do so.”

But sources on and off Capitol Hill said that the dispute has been festering for more than a month. Barton’s office’s refusal to talk to Southern lobbyists apparently does not extend to the company’s executives in Atlanta, where the utility holding company is based.

“Everybody figured it would eventually solve itself, but it’s not immediately clear how it’s going to solve itself,” said a source close to both parties. “This seems to have some staying power.”

Southern Co. provides power to 4 million people in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, but its reach extends to the highest corridors of power in Washington.

Its government-relations team is headed by Buzz Miller, widely considered among the most effective utility lobbyists in town.

Miller has plenty of resources to play with. The company spent nearly $35 million on lobbying from 1998 to 2004, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Southern keeps on retainer as many as 10 firms to help it push its positions.

Its lobbying spending was double the amount spent by the next nearest utility. Only the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for investor-owned utilities, spent more among the electric-utility sector.

Southern is also a generous campaign giver. Its PACs and employees donated more than $1 million during the 2004 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Two of Southern’s PACs contributed $8,000 in total to Barton’s campaign committee in the last cycle. The company has not donated any money to Barton since 2004.

The energy bill that House Republicans are preparing is likely to focus on encouraging the construction of additional refineries and expanding development of domestic oil and gas production.

Electricity is not expected to be included, although utilities affected by Hurricane Katrina, in particular New Orleans-based Entergy, may get some disaster-relief money in supplemental appropriations packages.

Southern subsidiary Mississippi Power also was hit by the hurricane, although it wasn’t clear whether the company was seeking disaster help from the federal government.

Barton and Southern have butted heads before over electricity policy, but lobbyists said it was unusual for a committee chairman to refuse to talk to a company’s representative.

Disagreements have centered on how much power a federal panel should have to force electric utilities to deregulate.

Southern is a vertically integrated utility; it controls the generation and the transmission systems that serve its millions of customers in the Southeast, an area of relatively low power prices. The company has fought efforts to expand deregulation, which would mean it would likely have to give up control of its transmission assets to an independent operator.

It led a successful fight against a plan pushed two years ago by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that would have forced utilities to give up control of their power lines to regional transmission organizations.

But one of its highest priorities was left out of the energy package that finally cleared Congress in August. Southern lobbyists had pushed for a proposal called participant funding, whereby new entrants to a market territory would have been required to pay for the transmission systems needed to move their power to customers.  

Southern also lobbied to block FERC from further encouraging deregulation. Language it supported was included in the Senate’s energy bill but not in the House. It did not survive conference.

Southern did have some success. It led a push against an effort in the Senate to force utilities to use more renewable energy. In that fight, Barton was on the utility’s side.