The walk-walkers: 10 who make it happen for renewables, bioenergy in DC

April 21, 2010 |

capitolIn Washington, a group of Midwestern senators, headlined by Charles Grassley of Iowa and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, have just introduced a Senate bill supporting the extension of the ethanol blender tax credit, as well as the ethanol tariff.

It raises the question, who are walk-walkers in the US government – who “walk the walk, not just talk the talk” on renewables and bioenergy. A cursory survey of 435 congressional and 100 Senatorial websites will find support for energy independence is virtually universal, but out of the 535 talk-talkers in Congress (and a lot more in the executive branch), here are some walk-walkers of note.

1. President Barack Obama. Despite pressure from environmentalists to dump (and dump on) biofuels, the President has remained steady in his support for a wide portfolio of renewable energy options, and — be in no doubt — when biofuels received a huge expansion of R&D and commercialization support via the Recovery Act despite the “food vs fuel” theatrics of 2008/09, “No drama Obama” was driving policy.

2. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Though Digest readers voted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu ahead of the Agriculture Secretary, Vilsack has been quietly assuming the lead on bioenergy development as part of the USDA’s mission to promote rural economic development, as well as develop new markets for US farm products, The USDA has assumed the responsibility for moving the biofuels industry from the R&D stage to commercialization, and three new programs announced by the Secretary this week are proof positive that the USDA is on the move.

3. US energy policy czar Carol Browner. The former EPA director, now working in the West Wing, has received far less public attention that EPA Administrator Jackson or Energy Secretary Chu, but the White House is leading a coordinated policy on renewables, and Browner’s team is in charge of advising the President on the best structures for reaching his policy goals on transformation to an enhanced renewables-based energy portfolio. When the White House articulated a policy placing DOE in the lead on R&D and USDA in the lead on commercialization, it was a striking example of how energy policy is being driven out of the West Wing under this president.

4. Energy Secretary Steve Chu. Though rumors are floating that the Secretary is tiring of the Washington bureaucracy, and critics snipe that DOE is not moving fast enough on deploying Recovery Act funding, Chu remains the architect of the largest expansion of energy funding in the nation’s history, and his cherished project, ARPA-E, is a striking attempt to change the nature, speed and audacity of energy research.

5. Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. His staff is considered the sharpest in Washington on energy policy, and the Harvard-educated chairman of the Senate’s energy committee is noted an an astute student of energy policy. With the daunting number of subjects that Congress must master — specialization is inevitable, and Senators generally look to Bingaman as a lead on what works, and what does not, in terms of renewable energy policy.

6.  Congressman Jay Inslee of Washington. If Bingaman is a leader in the Senate, Inslee is considered among the most well-versed of House Democrats on energy policy. Though noted more for his support of solar feed-in tariffs than bioenergy, he remains a “go-to” congressman on renewable energy policy, and was a key co-sponsor of H.R. 4168 with Bilbray and Teague  – a bill to expand the definition of cellulosic biofuel to include algae-based biofuel

7. Senator John Thune of South Dakota and Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Rumored to be exploring his options for the White House in 2012 or 2016, Thune surpassed many by defeating former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle a few years back, but has continued Daschle’s unwavering support of bioenergy, and is a reliable sponsor or co-sponsor for almost every noted piece of bioenergy legislation, including this week’s extension of the tax credit. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, has been less visible on bioenergy than his colleague Byron Dorgan, but has been a consistent supporter and co-sponsored the ethanol tax credit and tariff legislation this week with Senator Grassley.

8. Congressmen Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Brian Bilbray of California, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Harry Teague of New Mexico, and Aaron Schock of Illinois. Think algae? Think Bilbray and Teague — Bilbray’s district includes the San Diego biotech corridor and Teague has been instrumental in developing New Mexico as a potential haven for algae and solar power. Aaron Schock of Illinois is the congressman who uncovered, in grilling the EPA’s Margo Oge, that the EPA’s czar on the RFS rule-making and indirect land use change, had not ever visited a US farm — an oversight which the director, at Charles Grassley’s invitation, swiftly corrected, Jerry Moran, who is running for the Senate, recently was spotted in the middle rows of a conference on bioenergy — doing something that Congressman aren’t generally known for — listening, studying, and making notes.

Meanwhile, Collin Peterson, the House Agriculture committee chair, has been a die-hard bioenergy supporter and ran a strong defense against the EPA’s proposed application of train-wrecking indirect land use change penalties in the Renewable Fuel Standard.

9. Senator Max Baucus and Charles Grassley. The Montana Democrat and Iowa Republican, who are the ranking members of the Senate Finance Committee, have been noted for their unflagging support of biodiesel tax credits this year, and if biodiesel gets a break before Memorial Day, the industry might take a moment to remember and reflect on the support received from the tax writers, who managed to keep biodiesel from becoming completely derailed by the health care bill and its aftermath.

10. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. This trio are expected to bring forward the innovative Senate carbon bill in the next few weeks. It’s ambitious goal? The establishment of a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. It’s innovative structure? A sensitive, industry-by-industry rollout which will focus initially on the utility industry and transportation fuels, leaving more breathing space for heavy industry than in previous attempts at establishing cap-and-trade. With 29 states already setting renewable energy portfolio standards — the establishment of a national scheme for renewable energy policy offers stability and clarity to the utility industry, and the prospect of a price on carbon closer to reality than ever before.

Honorable mentions.

In the House: John Shimkus, Illinois Republican, and Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat – sponsored the ethanol tax credit legislation on the Hill earlier this spring.

In the Senate: Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) all were co-sponsors of the ethanol tax credit and tarriff legilsation introduced this week.

At DOE: Valri Lightner has been receiving praise for her work on the Biomass program.

Digest readers have nominated Congressman Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Congressman Phil Hare (D-IL), and Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill) for meritorious service.

Did we miss your favorite Washington all-star? Picking just a few out of many is bound to leave a few gems uncovered. Email me here if you have one worth a special mention – Jim Lane.

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