Van Ness Feldman's Tom Roberts Featured in ClimateWire Article on Climate Change Lobbying

May 27, 2008

It used to be that environmental lobbying followed a predictable pattern: polluters versus clean air and water advocates.

Climate change, though, is creating a new type of lobbyist -- like Tom Roberts, who advocates for companies that profit from things like placing methane digesters over animal waste.

Roberts, 53, is hardly new to K Street. The one-time aide to former Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), who as a lobbyist with Van Ness Feldman has represented developers of a coal gasification facility and the Alaska natural gas pipeline, is entering new eco-territory because of the market forces shaping the global warming debate.

Roberts recently co-founded the Coalition for Emission Reduction Projects (CERP), a group pushing for carbon offsets to be a central part of a federal system regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The coalition's members include corporations like Duke Energy and the financial powerhouse Deutsche Bank.

"We're finding that there's a lot of basic education that needs to be done on Capitol Hill about offsets," said Roberts, who has led briefings for Senate staff on the topic.

Going forward, he may help write amendments to a major climate change bill sponsored by Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) when it hits the Senate floor in June.

Lobbyists like Roberts underscore the ways in which climate change is different from other environmental issues that had monolithic interests lining up on opposing sides, many analysts said. With proposed legislation on climate change slated to affect most sectors of the economy, a slew of new clients and unusual alliances is emerging on K Street.

"I'm not sure there's ever been a piece of legislation with such a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, referring to the Lieberman-Warner bill, which would set up a carbon cap-and-trade system.

"Everybody and their brother is trying to get a piece of the action," he said.

Cement and religion both lobbying on climate

Indeed, lobbying reports filed with the Senate show that the list of companies trying to get their voices heard on global warming ranges from cement manufacturers to coal companies and from automakers to investment banks and forestry groups championing the carbon sequestration power of plant life.

Over the past two years, influence-peddling on climate change has skyrocketed. The Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, found that the issue was cited 444 times in federal lobbying reports in 2006 -- compared to just 27 mentions in 2004.

Wal-Mart, for one, is pushing for "robust energy efficiency provisions," according to company lobbyist Roger Ballentine, president of Green Strategies Inc. The company recently reached its goal to sell 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs in one year.

Meanwhile, the Evangelical Environmental Network -- whose president, Jim Ball, spearheaded the "What would Jesus Drive?" campaign -- supports controlling carbon dioxide emissions and has spent $100,000 lobbying Congress on a variety of issues including climate change, federal documents show. Other religious groups, however, have fought against the climate bill.

Each segment of the climate change advocacy world presents its own set of winners and losers, signaling how difficult it may be to implement and find agreement on the subject.

In Roberts' view, carbon offset projects provide the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the lowest cost, since they often involve something as simple as planting trees or erecting wind turbines. He is pressing members of Congress to let the market decide how many offsets a company can purchase as part of any federal system to combat global warming.

Roberts' coalition has been talking to other groups, like the Carbon Offset Providers Coalition, another lobbying group, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), to try to find common ground. Unlike some environmental organizations, EDF supports carbon offsets.

Under the scheme, corporations and individuals could purchase credits to counter their greenhouse gas emissions. The money could then go to clean energy projects, like capturing greenhouse gases from landfills.

Lobbying on carbon offsets is like a 'game of chess'

Under a revised version of Lieberman-Warner bill released last week, industries can meet their emissions caps by tapping into a pool where 15 percent of total allowances are slated for domestic carbon offsets and 15 percent for international credits. Some of the international credits can come from reducing tropical deforestation in developing countries to offset emissions, a change Roberts fought for.

What he didn't get: removing the percentages altogether. Roberts, who describes the allowance levels as arbitrary, said eliminating them was the coalition's "ideal scenario," and cautioned that the process of verifying a project's validity appears cumbersome.

The coalition also has called for allowing carbon offset providers to get projects approved on a multi-year basis rather than annually, to give companies a level of financial certainty.

"We want to make sure that a carbon offset company that has a good project doesn't get denied because it's at the bottom of a bureaucrat's pile of papers," Roberts said.

He insisted that all projects must have environmental integrity and be enforceable. Experts agree that means a project must have "additionality," meaning that it would not have occurred without funding from an offset provider.

To make sure CERP's voice is heard, the organization is planning to reach out to the Nature Conservancy as well as the Environmental Defense Fund. Ideally, the coalition hopes to find co-sponsors of potential amendments to federal legislation to make them more appealing to members of Congress.

Asserting that Lieberman-Warner "is not going anywhere this year," he emphasized that he wants to be careful not to compromise too much too early, however. Because of the legislative uncertainty, the strategy of the coalition is changing day by day until Lieberman-Warner hits the floor, much like a "game of chess," he said.

Carbon offsets have tough opponents, too

Regardless of how aggressive the group's efforts are in coming weeks, it faces a slew of critics like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who issued a statement Thursday slamming international offsets because of "serious questions" about their integrity and the potential of sending too many federal dollars overseas.

Others argue that carbon offsets do little to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and are hard to measure. The Tufts Climate Initiative wrote in a 2007 report that offsets are of "limited value" in solving climate change and "the quality of voluntary offset companies vary widely."

"Offsets just give firms an incentive to keep spewing carbon dioxide and avoid making changes at a power plant," said Erich Pica, director of domestic policy at the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

Roberts discounted such views, arguing that there are certain projects that "everyone knows how to do with confidence" because of watching the European experience. Capture methane from a lagoon at a dairy farm is one example, he said.

In a cap-and-trade world, an offset provider should be able to get the equivalent of an "E-Z Pass for a toll booth" from the EPA if it has that type of project, Roberts said. He pointed to a recent analysis of Lieberman-Warner from the EPA showing that carbon offsets lowered the price of allowances.

So Roberts will be gathering with CERP's members in the next week to assess the latest version of Lieberman-Warner, determine whether it is better or worse than the old version and come up with strategies to influence members of Congress.

If Roberts can get past the cement manufacturers, solar power companies, religious leaders and farm bureau representatives, that is.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2008 E&E Publishing, LLC.

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