Trip Report: A Visit to the Capitol

This was written for my Sun blog and cross-posted here

Last week I was down in DC with a group of investors and business execs, many of whom were in the green space under the banner, a collaboration between Ceres and the Clean Economy Network. John Doerr was the headliner of the group, but there were CEOs of some hot company like A123 and Seventh Generation. The motivation for us all to be there was to impress upon our legislators that well-constructed, comprehensive legislation could be good for business.

(Aside: one of the dangers of these events is that the “well-constructed” part of the message is ignored or left to be defined by the audience, so the message can be interpreted as “pass anything!". My experience with business folks who are savvy about climate policy is that they are fairly particular about what “well-constructed” means. Another risk is that the press and others will try to figure out what your profit motive is, and often zero in on one part of your group, such as happened here. So whenever agree to participate in one of these missions you have to think through risks like this.)

Overall we were well received, and the trip garnered good press attention. In particular, the executive branch pulled out all of the stops, allocating time from three Department Secretaries: Sec’y Salazar (Interior), Sec’y Chu (Energy) and Sec’y Locke (Commerce). We also heard from Carol Browner, Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, and several other members of the administration.

With all of these meetings we were able to get a sense of the administration’s overall mood and approach to climate change legislation. These impressions were probably slanted somewhat by the fact that the administration knew it had a favorable audience. The good news was that, overall these folks all knew their stuff. Obviously Sec’y Chu is deep into the science side of energy and Director Browner into policy, but Sec’ys Salazar and Locke both exhibited a deep knowledge and personal passion on environmental issues.

Compared to past trips to DC, the biggest change for me was a new focus on clean energy competition with China. Particularly Sec’y Locke and Director Browner emphasized China above all other reasons to get legislation done, and done soon. Personally I think this is a good change. I believe it can get more broad-based support, and will focus the discussion more on innovation. However, if China truly takes center stage as the driver for legislation, it can’t help but change the focus on the individual elements of the package. In particular, is cap and trade a central mechanism in a competitive agenda as opposed to a climate change agenda? This will be interesting to watch.

Beyond the emergence of China as a motivator, there were some other notes of interest:

  • The administration isn’t waiting for climate legislation to get started. They discussed what they were doing with stimulus money and within the jurisdictions of their own departments. Earlier in the week the President had signed an executive order to drive the greening the federal government.
  • The message on timing for climate legislation is “as soon as possible”. But it was pretty clear that a climate bill is second fiddle to health care, and everyone was very careful to avoid making commitments about Copenhagen. Carol Browner was particularly careful with her words, and I was left with the sense was they’re willing to let the timetable slide past December if the higher priorities aren’t complete yet.
  • Nuclear is back on the agenda. Sec’ys Locke and Chu both talked about an increase in US nuclear capability in a manner that assumes its a done deal. There was none of the hedging about the usual concerns, no hint of upcoming deliberation, etc. There will be more nukes.
  • Public lands will be used for renewables. Similar to the discussion on nukes, Sec’y Salazar spoke with a confident certainty about opening up public lands for renewables, including solar in the southwest and wind farms on the continental shelf off of the Carolinas. Again, not even a nod to the expected concerns.

Finally, when one talks about “comprehensive climate policy”, the scope of what we heard in DC and what’s in the proposed legislation is certainly comprehensive in the sense that there are lots and lots of programs there. But listening to two days of discussions it is still very hard to see how the decarbonization math adds up in order to meet the goals that people are proposing. As someone commented “it’s a mosaic, but there’s no picture”.

I remain particularly concerned about the lack of an R&D; plan to support the innovation that is required to meet these goals. Lots of faith is being put into “the market” and the effects of a cap and trade system, but so far that faith eludes me.