Green firms uniting to flex political muscle

Press senators on climate bill

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / July 11, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Stonyfield Farm is slapping its familiar cow logo on more than just containers of yogurt these days. The New Hampshire-based organic food maker is one of more than 50 local companies to lend its corporate name to a political lobbying campaign aimed at persuading Congress to support climate and energy legislation on Capitol Hill.

The green-friendly businesses — including many young tech companies not yet household names — are the regional face of a multimillion dollar lobbying effort aimed at key senators across the country. Their effort is backed by some of the world’s most recognizable consumer brands and Fortune 500 companies, and guided by experienced political hands with deep connections to the Obama and Clinton administrations.

The TV, radio, and print campaign, bolstered by in-person jawboning of legislators, demonstrates the political reach of green-technology and alternative energy companies, which have progressed from the cluttered basements of inventors and entrepreneurs into an emerging political force seeking to apply pressure at the highest levels of government.

“We’re among those businesses saying let’s get on with it’’ and pass climate and energy legislation, said Ken Colburn, environmental policy director for Stonyfield Farm, where efficiency efforts the past three years have cut carbon outputs while saving $7.8 million. “What will it take for Congress to get that message? Gosh, I really don’t know.’’

Solar companies, wind-energy developers, battery manufacturers, and others want the federal government to establish a system of raising money from emitters of greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change — either through a direct carbon tax or vouchers purchased by polluters — and steer some of that money into the development of clean energy technologies.

The businesses are backing proposed climate and energy legislation sponsored by Senators John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent. The Kerry-Lieberman proposal calls for an auction of carbon-emission permits and would use the money generated to provide billions in incentives to reduce greenhouse gasses.

“Green groups and alternative energy companies view this as a cash cow,’’ said Ron Bonjean, a Washington political consultant and former top Republican adviser on Capitol Hill. “And with that they want to take the power in their own hands and start engaging, with either new lobbying or more intense lobbying.’’

But in the political arena, alternative energy groups are up against some of the most powerful lobbies in American politics — coal miners, oil producers, and electric utilities.

“The small green groups are definitely overshadowed,’’ said Bonjean. “It’s hard for them to make a dent in the process.’’

“It is profoundly difficult,’’ acknowledged Anne Kelly, who directs the Boston-based networking group Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy, which is helping to organize the lobbying campaign. “But the opposition will not stop, and neither can we.’’

Interests with deep pockets are spending heavily to shape the debate. The American Petroleum Institute, representing oil interests, spent about $1.5 million on lobbying in the first quarter this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The National Mining Association, representing coal companies and other miners, spent $716,000. And the petroleum giant Exxon Mobil: $3.4 million.

Last week, a group opposing climate change legislation called “CO2 is Green,’’ launched a $600,000, two-week TV and newspaper campaign against the Kerry-Lieberman bill, paid for in part with donations from fossil fuel interests, said Leighton Steward, the group’s founder, a former executive with Shell Oil and other petroleum companies.

Steward says the legislation would kill American jobs and raise the cost of electricity, gas, and food. He hopes to stop the bill and spark a new round of scientific debate about the effects of greenhouse gases. “I’d be happy to debate anyone,’’ said Steward, who insists that carbon is not harming the environment.

By contrast, the Clean Economy Network, a national advocacy group based in Washington that is helping to organize a lobbying effort targeting Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, spent $456,000 on lobbying in the first quarter.

As a Republican who has shown willingness to compromise with Democrats on economic legislation, Brown is considered by environmental advocates a potential key vote in overcoming a likely Republican filibuster against climate and energy legislation. But the freshman senator, who opposes establishing a price tag on carbon emissions, may be a difficult vote to get.

“Senator Brown believes new energy legislation should take a total approach to include strong incentives for clean energy sources, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and include energy efficiency and conservation — but not include a national energy tax or carbon pricing,’’ said his spokeswoman, Gail Gitcho, in a statement.

The lobbying campaign, through recent TV and newspapers ads, has urged Brown to be “bipartisan’’ and support climate and energy legislation with a price on carbon. A Boston TV ad, which ran the week of June 27, featured Tim Healy, chairman and chief executive of EnerNOC, a Boston energy efficiency consultant and software maker, who made a case that “Congress can no longer punt on energy and climate reform.’’ Though Brown is mentioned by name in the print ad, Healy does not name him on TV.

Healy, in an interview, said he agreed to do the ad in part because passing climate and energy legislation would improve his company’s bottom line.

“We believe the overall clean energy industry is going to gain significantly if we put a price on carbon,’’ he said.

The upstart lobbying effort is driven in part by company chief executives, technology professionals, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. Their networking group evolved in early 2009 out of a constituency of green businesses that worked to elect President Obama, according to Tim Greeff, political director for the Clean Economy Network.

Historically, Greeff said, political representation for clean technology companies was limited and too narrowly focused.

“So you’d have the wind association or the solar association, and they were all fighting for their specific piece of the pie, but it was a very small pie they were trying to carve up,’’ he said.

The companies expect to be much more influential now, as a big tent group, he said. “We’re pushing for the types of policies that will make all clean economy boats rise,’’ Greeff said. They have deliberately kept their policy goals extremely broad and general, to make the platform palatable to the largest possible collection of voices. “So we have Fortune 500s, consumer brands, clean tech companies, utilities, venture capitalists, institutional investors, and serious entrepreneurs.’’

The group maintains it is nonpartisan, though its director, Jeff Anderson, was the California cochairman of the 2008 presidential campaign of John Edwards. He also helped organize businesses to support Obama, and advised the campaign on media strategies, according to the group.

Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy was established in late 2008 by corporate members that include Levi Strauss & Co., Nike, Starbucks, and Timberland, the New Hampshire-based outdoor shoe and clothing maker.

The group is coordinated by the Boston-based nonprofit organization Ceres, a network of investors and environmental advocates, led by Mindy Lubber.

Lubber is a former director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, was a senior adviser to Michael Dukakis, and was appointed during the Clinton administration as the New England regional administration for the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The retail companies pushing for climate and energy legislation have business reasons for wanting carbon regulated to counter climate change, said Kelly. For some, participation may stem from a dependence on resources susceptible to extreme weather: Starbucks, for example, gets coffee beans from all over the globe, and Nike needs huge supplies of cotton.

“These folks have global supply chains,’’ said Kelly. “They’ve done a good job educating Congress on the global implications of climate change in terms of their businesses.’’

Betsy Blaisdell, senior manager of environmental stewardship at Timberland, said the company sees climate change as a direct threat to profitability.

“We make products for consumers to enjoy in the outdoors,’’ she said. “Climate change threatens this.’’ And with factories all over the world, Timberland is also trying to protect assets in low-lying areas that could be threatened by rising sea levels.

“When you look at places like Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Thailand — these are clearly areas on the radar for devastating effects from climate change,’’ she said.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at