Obama Allies Court Corporate Support for Climate Regulations

Groups hold meetings with admin officials, train executives to talk to media

John Podesta, Tom Steyer / AP
June 30, 2014

Getting the business community on board with environmental regulations that are expected to kill hundreds of thousands of jobs is a difficult task, but Democratic operatives are working publicly and behind the scenes to build private sector support.

At the forefront of the effort is billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has pledged to use his fortune to elect liberal Democrats who support additional environmental regulations.

Steyer’s recent efforts to court the business community have been spelled out in a report called Risky Business. Written in collaboration with former Clinton and George W. Bush Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Hank Paulson and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, the report warns that global warming will affect businesses’ bottom lines.

The Risky Business team—whose three full-time staffers also work for a sister organization of Steyer’s political group—is also working behind the scenes to convince businesses that climate-related red ink is just around the corner.

Staffers with the Risky Business project have met, or will be meeting, with officials at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Transportation, according to Matthew Lewis, Risky Business’ communications director and the lead coauthor of its recent report.

Lewis, who is also the top communications staffer at Next Generation, the 501(c)(3) arm of Steyer’s advocacy network, told corporate executives on Thursday that Risky Business staff had also briefed governors and mayors on the report’s findings.

Lewis made the remarks during a conference call for members of Business Forward, a Democratic-aligned trade association that has also been pushing behind the scenes to play up corporate support for regulations designed to limit U.S. carbon emissions.

However, some of the executives on the call expressed concern about the adverse effect administration regulations that restrict fossil fuel use will have on their businesses.

Ross Martin, the vice president of policy and development at the American Medical Informatics Association, expressed concern that "federal interventions" restricting what the administration calls "carbon pollution" could increase travel costs for his organization.

Lewis declined to discuss existing or future policy proposals. "We think the first step is to make businesses aware of the problem," he told Martin. Lewis reiterated in an email that he works for a policy organization, not a political group.

The Risky Business report and Business Forward’s work on the issue are all geared toward scaring the American business community about the potential impact of climate change.

Energy research firm IHS estimates that proposed EPA regulations on existing power plants "threaten to suppress average annual U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by $51 billion and lead to an average of 224,000 fewer U.S. jobs every year through 2030."

Lewis told Business Forward members that the consequences of inaction on global warming would not be realized until it is too late, and that the business community should therefore get on board with regulatory efforts even if it does not see the immediate necessity.

"Action needs to happen today, before the extreme becomes the norm, before most businesses recognize the actual impacts," Lewis said.

That could be a hard sell for many businesses that benefit from cheaper electricity generated by coal-fired power plants. Many of those plants are expected to either close as a result of the regulations, or undergo expensive retrofits that EPA critics say are not yet commercially viable.

Business Forward has worked for months to blunt the conventional wisdom that businesses will suffer under the new regulations.

Some of the group’s work has come in the form of seemingly academic policy analyses that news reports have touted as the findings of a disinterested trade association.

Liberal activist blog Media Matters dubbed Business Forward "an association of American business leaders focused on sound public policy."

Those descriptions obscure what some observers have described as Business Forward’s partisan mission.

The group was created in 2009 as a means to initiate collaboration between businesses and Obama administration policymakers. It offers members exclusive access to meetings with top officials at the White House and federal agencies.

President Barack Obama even encouraged corporations to join the group. Lobbyists immediately saw it as a means to buy access to top members of his administration and curry favor with regulators who do not generally make themselves available to Main Street businesses.

"If I am a company and if I see these folks are delivering Valerie Jarrett, I am signing up because there are few people in town who can deliver her right now," a Democratic lobbyist told the Hill.

The political connections of Business Forward’s top officers can be a draw in itself. Jim Doyle, its founder and president, worked for President Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Executive director Ami Copeland was the deputy national finance director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, and a senior finance advisor to the Democratic National Committee.

Copeland and Doyle have both visited the White House on numerous occasions during Obama’s presidency.

Business Forward members have enjoyed exclusive briefings with John Podesta, a Democratic operative and lobbyist who founded the Center for American Progress and now serves as a top White House climate policy advisor.

Podesta briefed members on the president’s Climate Action Policy. A month earlier, members got access to top Department of Energy officials working on energy efficiency measures.

In addition to the access Business Forward provides to paying members, some see its role as an effort to blunt the influence of existing business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Those groups opposed many of the key pillars of the president’s legislative agenda, including Obamacare and stringent environmental regulations.

Members of such groups insist they oppose those policies simply because they are bad for their members. "Obama’s policies are so viscerally anti-business that it makes no sense to join [Business Forward]," Jade West, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, told the Hill.

That is the narrative that Business Forward has worked to combat. In May, the group offered to train its members for media appearances on the impact of global warming on their bottom lines.

Business Forward enlisted two veteran Democratic operatives to train executives in "how to develop their story about how climate change is affecting their bottom line."

Trainees received a policy paper prior to the event that spelled out the president’s Climate Action Plan, and previewed Steyer’s Risky Business report.

Seth Pendleton, a veteran Democratic operative who has trained congressional candidates on media appearances and debates, coached Business Forward members on ways to discuss the impacts of a rising climate on their businesses.

Whether the administration’s proposed policies will address those impacts is another question.

"It’s weird that their argument is that [anthropogenic global warming] is bad for business, because EPA administrator Gina McCarthy concedes the rules won’t actually impact the climate," said William Yeatman, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who specializes in energy policy.

"So I don’t see how the rules could be good for business," Yeatman said.