Clean energy all-stars

With control of the House hanging in the balance this November, four congressional aides could largely blaze the path forward on energy issues in the next Congress.

The similarities between Karen Wayland and Mary Frances Repko are stark. Both are 43-year-old former environmentalists with scientific backgrounds who worked in the Senate before becoming the two top Democratic energy policy staffers in the House.

Wayland — top climate and energy staffer to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — even lived in Repko’s hometown of East Lansing, Mich., when she attended Michigan State for her dual Ph.D. in geochemistry and resource development.

“Our issues are, by their nature, very technical,” said Repko, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) senior energy and environment policy adviser. “I have a science background and so does Karen, and I think that helps.” Repko — who received a Master of Science in resource policy from the University of Michigan — added: “We do the things that scientists aren’t comfortable doing. … They like to bound scientific outcome; we actually legislate, so, at some point, we actually have to pick an answer.”

“It often comes in handy to be able to pull out your science background when you’re listening to somebody who’s so clearly trying to push you to believe that it’s something in a different direction, and you have a much deeper understanding of the technical subject matter than they assume when they walk in the room,” added Wayland. “That’s always really fun.”

If Wayland and Repko — sitting side-by-side for a recent interview — tag-teamed their answers, it merely underscores how they helped lead House Democrats in what Pelosi labeled her flagship energy and climate agenda this Congress.

“Whoever gets it first ends up taking it, usually,” Wayland said, regarding how the two split their responsibilities. “Whoever gets it first gets to run it to ground, where I can spend two hours on it and I’m handing it back to you,” Repko quickly chimed in.

The two worked side-by-side in the Senate as well, “which is why we might be a little more sympathetic to the problems of corralling 60 votes,” said Wayland, with a laugh. Wayland was a former science fellow with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on water and energy issues and also was legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council for five years.

Repko’s Senate experience includes time on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which “helps in having conversations between committees if you really have the ability to step into their shoes and to try to view their product as a peer,” she said.

Lobbyists on opposing sides of energy policy debates agree their roles are well-defined.

“They are the LeBron James and Dwyane Wade of clean-energy staffers,” said Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Wayland “brings to the table where the Speaker is,” while Repko “brings the concerns of the Blue Dogs to the table, which is critical,” he said.

“Though our views have usually been diametrically opposed, she is whip-smart on the issues and accessible,” said Stephen Brown, vice president and counsel for federal affairs at the independent refiner Tesoro Corp., of Wayland. “It is almost impossible to fundamentally alter her position but she is substantive enough to appreciate the gray areas of a given issue.”

Repko, Brown added, “manages to combine true command of a subject matter with a good sense of caucus politics and where members need to be at the end of the day.”

The two helped push through an ambitious agenda this Congress, including first-time economy-wide greenhouse-gas controls and this summer’s response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Both bills have languished in the Senate but could bounce back into play in the next Congress if Democrats retain control.

“You don’t get everything you want the first time,” said Repko, a longtime aide to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who, she noted, worked seven years before helping get campaign finance reform signed into law.

But Republicans are predicted to make great strides toward gaining seats this November, with some predicting a House takeover.

If that occurs, Mike Ference — senior policy adviser for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on energy, environment and other issues — said to expect a lot more oversight of federal agencies, especially EPA. “We feel right now that EPA has been given a pass,” Ference said. “There’s the potential for EPA to run wild and try to go around Congress.” That, he said, “would be a primary focus for our conference in the majority.”

The party, he said, also wants to “cast aside this idea that Republicans are in the pockets of Big Oil and that’s it. I think we have a lot of great ideas.”

At the same time, Republicans are still formulating any concrete action plan if they took over the House. “I think we need to think outside of the box, frankly,” he said. “We now need to tighten our belt, we need to think of new ways.” One area of possible agreement with the Obama White House, he said, is reducing the amount of time needed to get permitting approved for renewable energy and other facilities.

Ference has worked as a leadership aide for more than four years, both for Cantor and former House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.).

He also founded a now-defunct coal company back home in Pennsylvania just a couple of years out of college, reclaiming fine coal discarded by mining companies and selling to coal-fired power plants. “It was something really cool to do,” he said.

Ference works closely with Jay Cranford — top energy and environment aide to House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Cranford — who declined to be interviewed — joined Boehner’s leadership team when the Ohio Republican became majority leader in 2006, and was previously a subcommittee staff director on the then-House Resources Committee, as well as director of government affairs at the National Ocean Industries Association.

The two GOP aides “are a very effective and savvy pair of operatives,” Brown said. “They both are able to connect the dots on the intersection of energy policy with other dynamics like national security or foreign policy.”

John Shaw, senior vice president for government affairs at the Portland Cement Association, said Cranford “has worked tirelessly with industry coalitions to play defense on some overly aggressive majority legislative initiatives.”