10 Senators to Watch as Electric Utilities Up the Ante

Aug 5, 2009

As the Senate prepares to take up climate change legislation, members are hearing from the electric utilities industry, which may have more at stake in this bill than any other sector.

The Edison Electric Institute, representing investor-owned utilities, has been vocal throughout the process, calling for even more free emissions permits than the House gave away in its American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry front group with a budget topping $20 million and ties to the phony letters scandal, is launching a campaign over Congress's August recess to push farm- and industrial-state senators to make the climate bill friendlier to coal.

This week, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), whose members represent more than 90% of the electricity generated and delivered in the United States, also weighed in with its own proposal for an all-of-the-above approach to energy, which it promises would cut emissions, too — with 50 new nuclear plants and plenty of coal.

"There is no silver bullet" for keeping up with electricity demand while cutting emissions, EPRI CEO Steve Specker said. "We need everything."

He listed efficiency and renewable energy in that all-of-the-above approach, but EPRI's emphasis — and the emphasis of most of the electric utility sector — is still on coal, including one area where EPRI stands to gain from the ACES bill: carbon capture and storage.

A measure that was slipped into the ACES bill amid House negotiations with Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the No. 3 House recipient of electric utilities campaign cash over the past 20 years, would put EPRI in charge of a new Carbon Storage Research Corporation. It would be responsible for collecting and spending $1 billion in ratepayers' money each year for 10 years "to accelerate the commercial availability of carbon dioxide capture and storage technologies and methods." Five percent of that money, $50 million, is authorized for "administrative expenses" that the EPRI affiliate could spend as it chooses.

"The target we have set at EPRI is to be able to do [carbon capture] on a large scale by 2020 so that a new coal plant beginning operation in 2020 could capture and sequester 90 percent of its emissions," Specker said

"Frankly, we are probably behind on a time line that can get us there by 2020. We think its still doable, but we have to really get on with our job."

In the interim, EPRI stresses a need for more "advanced" coal-fired operations. Its proposal for renewable energy? Not much more than the Energy Information Agency forecasts will develop anyway.

The electric utility industry has been one of Congress' top campaign contributers for years. Already in the still young 2009-2010 election cycle, it has contributed $2.4 million to congressional campaigns. During the 2007-2008 election cycle, when the Senate rejected the Lieberman-Warner climate bill, the industry gave $20.6 million.

As the Senate debate ramps up, here's a list to watch of the top 10 Senate recipients of electric utility contributions so far this cycle, along with the campaign cash they have received this cycle from the industry:

Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.): $70,200

Dorgan, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is the top recipient of campaign cash connected to electric utilities so far in the 2010 election cycle. He's leery of the cap-and-trade approach, and he sees a future still powered by fossil fuels. His home state happens to have vast coal reserves. Dorgan wrote in a recent opinion article in the Bismarck Tribune that to protect the environment and make the nation less dependent on foreign oil, the U.S. should:

"Establish caps on carbon that are accompanied by both adequate research and development funding and reasonable time lines for implementation to develop and commercialize technologies that will greatly reduce the CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels."

Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska): $60,000

Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She criticized ACES for not promoting nuclear and oil and gas development. When her committee took up its own energy bill earlier this year, she pushed for a lower renewable energy standard of 15 percent by 2021, opening the Florida coast to oil drilling, creating a green bank that could heavily benefit nuclear development, and providing ample funding to Alaska's natural gas pipeline project. 

Richard Burr (D-N.C.): $55,449

Burr, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, believes in an "all options on the table" approach. He supports energy efficiency and renewable energy development, as well as continued oil exploration. He also believes nuclear "can and must be part of the energy solution if our country wants to achieve meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions."

Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): $42,550

Bayh is also a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Indiana is a manufacturing state that relies almost entirely on coal for electricity. Bayh opposed even a low 15 percent Renewable Electricity Standard, and he opposed cap-and-trade last year saying he wanted to protect consumers.

Charles Grassley (R-Iowa): $25,000

Grassley is a member of the Senate Finance Committee that will work out the details of emissions allocations. He says he would have voted against the House version of ACES. Grassley's state is No. 2 in wind power, but he worries about higher energy prices for farmers, and he is skeptical of the trade part of a cap-and-trade program being gamed by Wall Street. He also worries about international competition: "It's going to be very detrimental to the economy of the United States if we pass a bill an the other counties of the world don't follow along – and I have my doubts if they will follow along."

Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.): $22,850

Lincoln is a member of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as its Agriculture and Finance committees. She supports offshore drilling, has pushed to reduce any national renewable energy standard, and has called the House version of the energy bill "a complete non-starter".

Arlen Specter (D-Pa.): $22,499

Specter, who recently switched his party affiliation, is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and comes from a coal-producing state. In the second sentence of his home page's energy discussion he writes: "Pennsylvania's strong agricultural, manufacturing and other industrial sectors rely heavily on energy production, and Pennsylvania consumers deserve reliable, affordable energy." However, he also has supported up to a 20 percent renewable energy standard.

Richard Shelby (R-Ala.): $20,650

Shelby summed up his opinion of the cap-and-trade policy this way: "That would be the biggest tax you have ever seen." To cut U.S. reliance on foreign oil, he stands behind the GOP's all-of-the-above policy, including more drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

David Vitter (R-La.): $19,499

Vitter, a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee that is spearheading the climate bill in the Senate, is vehemently against putting a price on carbon emissions. He argues that it would "have a profoundly negative impact on Louisiana's economy in particular, bringing about significant job loss and increased energy prices – neither of which we need in these trying economic times." Vitter was tied for dead last on the Republicans for Environmental Protection's 2008 Senate Scorecard.

Robert Bennett (R-Utah): $18,500

Bennett, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, believes global warming is a serious issue, but says he worries about the cost of regulation to his constituents.

The Top 10 Senate recipients of electric utilities-related campaign cash since 1990 who are still in the chamber are:

  1. John McCain (R-Ariz.) $709,391
  2. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), $570,726
  3. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), $525,590
  4. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), $515,177
  5. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), $494,594
  6. Max Baucus (D-Mont., Finance Committee Chairman), $473,143
  7. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M., Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman) $464,909
  8. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), $452,996
  9. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) $435,967
  10. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), $365,000.
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