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Electric Utilities Power Up Push for ‘Clear Skies’ Bill

As Congress prepares to take up legislation to reduce dirty emissions from power plants, the nation’s largest electric utilities are powering up a grassroots lobbying campaign to boost support for a Bush administration plan — and short-circuit a bill backed by Congressional Democrats and environmentalists.

In a memo sent last month to heads of electric utilities, the chief of the Washington-based Edison Electric Institute outlined a multipronged lobbying effort that couples a Web-based grassroots campaign with a call to industry executives to travel to Capitol Hill in support of the White House’s “Clear Skies” plan.

“Clear Skies is an exciting opportunity for our industry to advance environmental protection, promote innovative technologies, and grow our companies,” wrote Thomas Kuhn, the president of the industry association, in an internal e-mail obtained by Roll Call.

The industry’s lobbying effort comes as the White House and energy giants work to make sure that Republicans in Congress pull the plug on legislation advocated by Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, that is considered more stringent than Clear Skies. The Senate committee plans to mark up its version of the legislation after the August recess.

On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) chaired a hearing on the topic Tuesday in the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and air quality, which he chairs.

At the center of EEI’s new lobbying effort is a Web site (www.cleanerair4u.org/eei), which features “a general advocacy page, talking points that members of each group can use to write their Congressional representatives, and letters for members of each group to send to Congress,” according to the memo.

The memo also notes that use of the Web site and its materials is free but calls on member companies to launch a “company-branded ‘gateway’ site” for $1,500. The site would allow companies to create an original introduction to the issue, use its own logo and track stakeholders’ participation.

The memo says that EEI has also made the Web site available to allies in the co-op, mining, rail and other industries. Executives in the industry are asked to come to Washington two weeks from Thursday to press Members of Congress for action on the Bush administration plan.

EEI officials plan a second trip to Washington in September.

“We believe it will be necessary in coming months for small teams of company executives to meet repeatedly with Senate and House leaders, with the Chairs and members of key committees and subcommittees of jurisdiction, and, as needed, with Administration officials,” the memo states, adding that “EEI and member company Washington representatives continue to work diligently to shape all relevant hearings and the content of any Senate markup vehicles.”

Kuhn also urged members of the association to participate in the “industry outreach effort to mobilize employees, retirees and shareholders,” which he described as “a major undertaking.”

One of several bills proposed to revamp the Clean Air Act, the Clear Skies bill has recently faced a slew of controversy because of provisions that would roll back deadlines for meeting public health standards and leave carbon dioxide emissions unregulated.

Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, charged that the lobbying blitz reveals that “the Bush bill is really the EEI bill and their goal is to weaken the Clean Air Act.”

He added that the industry’s effort to jump-start action on lagging legislation is also a way to try to overwhelm the opposition.

But EEI spokesman Jim Owen maintains that it is “a distortion to suggest that the EEI is working behind closed doors to weaken the Clean Air Act.”

He added that EEI’s intense push for Clear Skies is not out of the ordinary and that his organization strives to “get a good public policy that we’re convinced will help keep electric power rates low and also improve air quality.”

Pat Hemlepp, a spokesman for American Electric Power, an EEI member, said his industry supports the Bush administration’s legislation because it “does accomplish what environmentalists want to accomplish” but also makes “business sense.”

Bill Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, who characterized his feelings about the bill in the word “ugh,” stressed that the deadlines in the Clear Skies legislation are too retracted, the emissions caps too weak and the bill rescinds “important” features of the Clean Air Act.

He said the EEI e-mail and other company memos “make it very clear” that electric utilities are “very pleased” with the Bush administration’s initiative and will “go to bat” to help it pass.

But Becker said that regardless of motivation, it is “disappointing that the supporters of this Clear Skies legislation are utility officials and not state and local governments.”

The Clear Skies bill would give utilities up to 10 years longer than states to comply with public safety standards.

O’Donnell said that with few outspoken supporters in Congress, the bill may not see the light of day this session.

“Frankly, it’s an issue that’s not on most of our members’ radar screens right now,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “It’s not on our must-do list this year. It’s on our ‘like to do’ list, but not our ‘must do’ list.”

But Owen and Hemlepp said they remain optimistic about their chances of moving the legislation through Congress.

“We think support is building,” Owen said. “We are guardedly optimistic. It’s far too early to begin preparing an obituary.”

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