What Oil Lobbyists Know That You Don’t

Dollar for dollar, an industry can get more bang for its buck lobbying Washington and buying politicians than it can doing anything else.

Dirty energy advocates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maine Governor Paul LePage, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker can act with impunity, knowing the oil lobby has their back.

It’s true that solar, wind, and biomass advocates can’t out-gun Houston, dollar for dollar, but we do have something they don’t — popular opinion.  People want alternatives to oil and gas. They don’t want to be dependent on Saudi Arabia or even Texas.

The question is, how do we make people like Christie, LePage, Walker, and anyone else supporting caveman energy over energy harvesting pay a political price?

For years, fossil fuel advocates have been able to call us “environmentalists,” deny the reality of global warming, claim aid equal to that of a “tax subsidy” and get away with it.

But two things have changed. Prices have skyrocketed. And (more important) the renewable energy industries have become real economic actors.

As the OpenSecrets blog noted last year, business advocates for renewable energy industries are becoming Washington power players, spending $30 million on lobbying. Still well behind the $175 million of the American Petroleum Institute, but no longer chump change.

Trouble is, a winning team combines a good inside game with a good outside game. In political terms, lobbying is the inside game, advertising and political advocacy the outside game.

And there, we’re getting hammered because we’re not united. The Solar Energy Industries Association focuses on solar power. The American Wind Energy Association focuses on wind power. Etc. etc. etc.

The Clean Economy Network is trying to change that. Their blog focuses on the need to create a united political front, on behalf of industry, and to invest in politics in a more businesslike manner. That is, consistently and strategically going from strength to strength rather than cause to cause.

The appointment of Brightsource Energy chairman John Bryson as Commerce Secretary could be a turning point. In either direction.

Oil industry advocates know this, which is why they’re mounting a furious opposition to him in the Senate.

What our money has to do is follow him. Bryson is not a starry-eyed idealist, he’s a former utility executive. If this moderate can’t get into Washington, under a Democratic President, then the oil industry veto over policy will remain secure. If John Bryson can’t be heard in Washington, then who can?

We know the names in public opposition to the nomination. James Inhofe. John Barrasso. Darrell Issa. No one is going to become a friend to the industry, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make them feel some heat back home.

Letters to newspapers and TV stations in their home states, focusing on the local jobs they are putting at risk, need to be a priority. Public demonstrations are hard to generate (especially on behalf of moderates), but some direct action is necessary if voters are going to pay attention. Investment in races within those states – even on a local or state legislative level – can deliver a message.

The renewables industry is growing up before our eyes, and it’s time that it do so politically as well as financially. We need an outside game that can add public demands that our case be heard, and the Bryson nomination is a good cause through which to do it.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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