The art of the possible

The art of the possible

Earlier this year, while fossil fuel companies, business associations, conservatives and others were fighting President Obama’s environmental initiatives, the electric utilities largely charged with implementing them took a step back.

Instead of trying to get the regulations on power plants’ carbon emissions and ozone pollution overturned, Brian Wolff, the top lobbyist for investor-owned electric companies, was working largely behind the scenes with Obama administration officials to shape the rules to be workable for utilities.

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The strategy follows the same script Wolff has used throughout his six years at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).

He and his colleagues recognized early on that Obama wanted to take bold steps on climate change and air pollution through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and that it would be better to help shape rules that work for power producers than to constantly go to war with the administration.

“For us, it’s always about pursuing viable options,” Wolff, 52, said during a recent interview with The Hill from the EEI’s office overlooking the Navy Memorial in downtown Washington. “Not things that are really outside the scope of what’s possible.”

Now, as states and various industry groups gear up to sue the EPA to overturn the initiatives, Wolff is working intensely with his member companies such as Exelon Corp., Duke Energy Corp. and Southern Co. and with state regulators to implement the carbon and ozone cuts.

“It’s just never been our role to act as a challenging entity like that,” Wolff said of the more litigious industry groups in Washington. Utility executives steer the EEI’s strategy, he said, and they’ve pushed the group away from the courts.

The companies that run power plants and produce electricity have been the targets of major parts of Obama’s environmental agenda. But under Wolff’s leadership, they’ve avoided the worst outcomes.

Not only are the rules coming out in a way that works for utilities, but the Obama administration seems to be giving the electricity providers an important seat at the table in crafting its initiatives.

The strategy has yielded some significant dividends for the EEI in recent months. The climate rule, which asks for a 32 percent cut in the power sector’s carbon emissions by 2030, had a key deadline pushed back two years, an essential request from the EEI that gave valuable time for utilities to build up the infrastructure they need.

The ozone standard, meanwhile, was set at 70 parts per billion, the top end of the range that the EPA said it was considering in revising the previous 75 parts per billion level. Once again, it was the level for which the EEI had advocated.

In both instances, administration records show that Wolff brought some colleagues and utility company leaders to the White House for meetings on the regulations with top administration officials in the final weeks before they were unveiled.

“We’re in the business of having a good outcome as far as the rules are concerned and getting it over the finish line,” Wolff said. “That’s really what our strength was, having a great relationship with the White House, such a great relationship with EPA and constantly having working sessions with them to move the ball forward and to not speak past each other.”

Although the climate rule is the biggest under Obama for utilities in terms of its affect and complexity, Wolff worked with a similar strategy for Obama’s rules on mercury and other toxic pollutants from power plants, air pollution that travels across state lines and coal ash disposal, among other initiatives.

The officials on the other side of the table have taken notice of how Wolff works.

“His organization came to the table with some ideas that were interesting in and of themselves,” Joseph Goffman, a top EPA attorney who worked on the climate rule, said of Wolff’s lobbying for that regulation.

“He and his members were very effective at making sure we understood what they were driving at,” Goffman said. “We could then fashion a remedy that worked to address their concerns but also served the larger objectives of the Clean Power Plan.”

Heather Zichal, who was Obama’s top adviser for energy and climate change between 2011 and 2013, said Wolff’s presence was hugely important when crafting rules such as the mercury limits.

“He’s dogged when it comes to defending the position of his industry,” she said. “But he’s all about the art of the possible.”

It helps that Wolff has strong ties to the Democratic Party.

Before coming to the EEI in 2009, Wolff was the top political aide to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He previously worked for then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who was Obama’s first chief of staff and is now the mayor of Chicago.

That’s helped Wolff get a seat at the table in the Obama administration, while bringing the perception of the utility sector away from the heavily Republican image it previously held.

“By way of being a Democrat and coming in here, it was a huge opportunity for me, because I had a lot of those relationships with the administration,” Wolff said. “We’ve managed to build on those relationships, whether it’s from a regulatory aspect or congressionally.”

Though not as active as he once was, Wolff is still involved in Democratic fundraising and serves on the board of Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC working to elect Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP struggles with retirement wave Overnight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE president.

It also helps that the EEI has been lobbying for action on climate change since the failed cap-and-trade legislation the House passed in 2009 but the Senate never formally took up.

Wolff started planning for the next steps soon after the American Clean Energy and Security Act failed.

“When that didn’t happen, we realized we have to focus all our attention on EPA,” he said. And sure enough, that’s where the administration went.

Wolff, who speaks with a slight Arkansas accent that’s almost disguised by the speed of his voice, is now focusing much of his attention on the United Nations climate talks in Paris in December, which will likely yield a major international pact to cut greenhouse gases.

He sees his role as advocating for cap-and-trade or other carbon trading systems while ensuring that world leaders and negotiators understand how complex utilities work.

“We’ve always believed, even when we were lobbying on climate legislation, that a market approach was the best way to be able to deter carbon in the future, because you have to pay for it,” he said. “When you’re making the business case for something like that, it just becomes all the more clear.”