When Amy Hargroves made the rounds in Congress last fall to lobby for an extension of the wind production tax credit, she was often greeted with confusion: Why was she here talking about wind power?
That's because Hargroves wasn't fighting for the credit as a representative of a turbine manufacturer like Vestas or an interest group like the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Instead, she was representing Sprint Nextel, a telecommunications giant with no direct ties to the wind game.
Sprint is among dozens of seemingly unrelated corporations, including Starbucks, Levi Strauss and New Belgium Brewing, who lobbied to save the wind tax credit. It's hard to gauge how much effect they had on lawmakers' last-minute decision to give the tax credit a one-year reprieve by putting it in the fiscal cliff tax package. But their involvement shows that the business community has identified a need for renewables and could become an important lobbying force in promoting clean energy.
"This signals a change in the coalition structure," said Clyde Wilcox, a professor in the government department at Georgetown University. "In the past, it would be green energy companies or environmental groups that have either a business interest or a public interest in these issues. But people look up when a new series of players lines up."
A committee that advises the federal government on how to make offshore oil drilling safer could be disbanded next month, even as the recent grounding of a Shell rig in Alaska is drawing new attention to the dangers of deepwater drilling.
The Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee (OESC), an advisory panel to the Department of Interior, was created after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill to gather input from a variety of stakeholders about the government's drilling policies. The 15-member panel—composed of government officials, academics, industry representatives and environmentalists—will meet today and Thursday for what could be its last meeting.
The committee is expected to vote on recommendations that its six subcommittees have been working on for almost two years, including a subcommittee focused on Arctic drilling. The recommendations will then be sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and to Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement director James Watson.
The committee will also discuss whether to ask to keep the panel alive after its two-year charter expires in February, said chairman Tom Hunter, a former president of Sandia National Laboratories. Salazar will make the final decision.
Recognizing the impact of global warming—or perhaps just looking for a little positive press—large corporations are adopting internal greenhouse gas reduction and renewable energy goals.
Noticeably underrepresented? Oil and gas companies.
A report released last month by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) showed that 58 of the country's Fortune 100 companies set goals in 2012 to either use more renewable energy for their operations or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, the number of participating companies was even higher—68 of the world's 100 largest companies have set some sort of greenhouse or renewable energy goal.
But energy companies lagged behind on both lists. Eight of the 11 domestic energy companies on the Fortune 100 haven't set internal energy goals. The exceptions are Hess and Chevron, which both set renewable energy and greenhouse gas targets, and ExxonMobil, which set a greenhouse gas target. (Hess was accidentally omitted from the report, according to a WWF spokesman.)
Eleven of the 20 energy companies on the global list hadn't set targets, the lowest participation rate of any industry.
As a stalemated Congress shies away from taking serious action on climate change, environmentalists are focusing on potential cabinet openings at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy that could further their efforts.
If the top jobs at the agencies open up as expected at the beginning of Obama's second term, the new leaders would step into the spotlight at a critical time. Recent scientific reports warn that polar ice sheets are melting at a rate three times faster than in the 1990s and methane emissions from melting permafrost could dramatically accelerate global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's next report, due in 2013, will likely add to evidence that carbon emissions are causing Earth's climate to warm.
The EPA docket is already crowded with key environmental issues. The agency is expected to consider new regulations for coal-fired plants, smog and the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing. It also could weigh in on the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Energy Department, meanwhile, is trying to decide how to foster the nascent clean energy industry amid the political minefield left by the scandal over Solyndra, a failed solar company that received federal funding. A new energy secretary would have to be adept at fielding political questions and making the most of a much smaller pool of loans for renewable energy.
Statistically, the November elections seemed a win for the status quo in Washington—neither chamber of Congress nor the White House switched parties, and the gridlock that has plagued the 112th Congress seems destined to continue through the 113th.
But some of the nation's leading environmental groups say a closer examination of the winners and losers shows the situation isn't as static as it seems, at least when it comes to climate and energy issues. More than a third of the 95 newcomers to the House and Senate are Democrats who are expected to support environmental issues. And a campaign to defeat candidates who oppose clean energy and conservation legislation ousted some longtime opponents.
"We're incredibly enthused about the results," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters. "The candidates who stood by clean energy were overwhelmingly elected or re-elected. ... A lot of the worst of the worst, the people who said the most egregious things and were the biggest allies of oil, lost.
"These elections showed that being a climate change denier isn't just bad policy, but now it's bad politics."
Karen Bagdes-Canning felt a sense of déjà vu when she marched past the White House on Sunday holding a sign with the words "Oil Sands" crossed out. A year earlier she had joined a crowd of about 10,000 that ringed the White House in hopes of persuading President Obama to veto the Keystone XL pipeline, which at the time appeared headed for approval.
Now she was back with the same message.
"I had to come down again. I'm worried about climate change and rejecting this pipeline is one of the biggest things President Obama can do," said Bagdes-Canning, who traveled from the town of Cherry Valley, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, for the protest.
Environmentalists consider the 2011 march a major success, because just days later President Obama delayed a decision on the controversial pipeline—and months later, in January 2012, he rejected the permit for the project altogether.
TransCanada, the pipeline's builder, filed a new application with the State Department this spring, restarting the clock on the federal review process.
Now that the election is over and the administration's new assessment is well underway, the Keystone XL is again at the top of agenda for many environmental groups. And once again they find themselves fighting the odds, with news stories and pundits already predicting that Obama will approve the pipeline, especially now that he no longer needs environmentalists' support for his election campaign.
An oil company's track record on spills—and whether it is prepared for future accidents—has become increasingly important to investors now that oil exploration and extraction is moving offshore and into risky areas like the Arctic or South America.
That's the message of an analysis released this week by MSCI Inc., a New York-based investment research firm. It rated 30 of the world's largest oil and gas companies on their investment attractiveness based on their history of spills and environmental management, as well as the riskiness of the areas they are exploring. BP and Chevron were singled out as companies that are poorly positioned in this area. The Norwegian company Statoil and Britain's BG were found to be the best positioned for a riskier era of drilling.
How can the United States turn its clean energy economy into one as robust as Germany's, where 26 percent of electrical power currently comes from renewable sources?
The answer, said author Osha Gray Davidson, is that the government should listen to the people.
"The critical part is that the German people decided to do this, then [the government] worked out the policy," said Davidson, author of the new book "Clean Break" about Germany's renewable energy transformation or Energiewende.
"To people who say it can't be done here, it worked in Germany. If they can do it there, we can do it here."
Davidson spoke at a panel discussion in Washington D.C. Tuesday sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and InsideClimate News, which is publishing "Clean Break" as a six-part series. Other panelists included Eric Roston, sustainability editor for Bloomberg.com, Anya Schoolman, executive director of the D.C.-based Community Power Network and Arne Jungjohann, director of the Böll Foundation's environmental and global dialogue program.
Even before President Obama took the stage for his victory speech last night, environmentalists were laying out their expectations for his second term: act on climate change, whether it's through sweeping legislative action, regulatory rules or decisions like blocking the Keystone XL pipeline.
Just minutes after the race was called Tuesday night, the group 350.org announced a Keystone XL protest on Nov. 18. Young climate activists who joined the celebration outside the White House held up a sign saying "Sandy Demands Climate Action Now," a reference to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.
One line in Obama's victory speech gave the green groups hope that he might act.
"We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet," the president said.
But taking action to achieve those goals isn't going to be easy. While more than a dozen legislators targeted by environmental groups for their votes on clean energy and climate change bills were defeated Tuesday, neither chamber switched parties. With the status quo likely to continue in Congress, environmental groups say they'll pressure the White House to continue, or amplify, its work of the last four years.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's last-minute endorsement of President Obama last week—released in an editorial titled "A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change"—wasn't simply a big political event. It also raised the issue of climate change to a level that hadn't been seen in the long presidential campaign.
Groups that have been monitoring the candidates' positions on climate change say it's unclear what impact Bloomberg's statement—which said the devastation from superstorm Sandy "should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action"—will have on today's election.
But it has drawn new attention to the differences between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
"The president would continue to work on investing in clean energy, continue initiatives to reduce carbon pollution and pushing to end tax breaks of big oil," said Jeff Gohringer, national press secretary for the League of Conservation Voters, a political advocacy organization dedicated to supporting pro-environment candidates. "If Mitt Romney becomes president he will be the first president ever to reject the scientific consensus surrounding climate change.
"So you can see the clear contrasts and what those respective politics hold for the country."