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The Sector Where the Energy Is

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

You're nobody in Washington these days unless you're part of a coalition that's lobbying on energy prices.

The airlines and the gas station owners each have coalitions. Both are designed to stop "speculators" from driving up the cost of oil.

The "speculators" -- meaning banks and other financial interests -- yesterday bolstered their own coalition to push back. They decided to mount a PR counterattack, with ads and a Web site. The group is so new, however, that it doesn't even have a name. (Any good suggestions? Send them my way.)

Then there are the anti-drillers, such as the Sierra Club and Environment America, which have a loose coalition called the National Outer Continental Shelf Coalition. "It's not our best title," admitted Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club, "but it's been effective."

Feeling left out? Want to climb aboard? Not to worry. Just about everyone else in town -- at least on the corporate side -- will soon have the chance to join a coalition and feel part of the action.

In a letter sent last week to business associations, some of the biggest names in the corporate world said they are putting together something called the Coalition for Affordable American Energy.

The group is billed as a federation of energy users -- and who doesn't fit that description? The group "will add a voice not heard in any concerted way before in the energy debate -- that of the thousands of businesses, large and small, which depend upon affordable energy supplies to operate," according to the letter.

The group's goal: to bring down the price of energy in any way possible.

"The coalition will support initiatives which encourage conservation and the development of renewable and alternative energy sources," the letter states. But it adds: "Our focus will be on increasing domestic oil and gas production since alternative sources will not be able to meet U.S. demand for the next 25 years or more."

Backers of the group represent a broad swath of American business. They include the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, which is the primary small-business lobby.

The organization will not be pressing for minute, specific changes in law. Rather, it will seek action that can save businesses money on the energy front in any way.

"It is not our intention to enter the debate on specific policies at the 'micro' level in great detail," the letter states. "Instead, CAAE will focus on bringing the collective weight of business users to bear until such time as a national domestic energy policy is adopted which will accomplish our goal."

The coalition emerged from a letter signed last month by 76 trade associations, including the National Association of Wholesaler- Distributors, the National Retail Federation, the Association for Hose and Accessories Distribution, and the Wholesale Florist & Florist Supplier Association.

Members of the groups' steering committee have to pay $5,000. General members can join free. What a deal!

Good Bad Luck?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored but stockholder-owned funders of home mortgages, have had a rough week. Their stock prices have been pummeled for weeks, and over the weekend government officials had to offer to help them out if things get much worse.

But the bad news could turn out to be good news for the two mortgage giants on the legislative front. At least that's what they privately hope.

Congressional sources say Fannie and Freddie have been using their tough times to lobby for provisions in pending housing legislation that are more to their liking.

In particular, the companies have been using the craziness in the market, in effect, to press for the House-passed version of a provision in the bill that regulates the types of assets they can buy for their own portfolios, officials said.

The companies complain that the Senate version would give the new regulator too much latitude to decide what the firms can and cannot hold for themselves.

The House version, in contrast, would lay out clearly what the regulator must consider and specifically reiterates that buying mortgages for their portfolios, as well as securitizing them, can be seen as advancing the companies' central mission of helping Americans buy homes.

Not everyone thinks Congress will show sympathy for Fannie and Freddie just because they're having a rough time. "Ridiculous," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. "That's not what's happening."

Oh, well -- it was a thought.

Rob Walker Speaks

"I don't think that I could have found a better home."

Those words may not sound like much, but they are in fact extraordinary. The reason: They were uttered by a person whom official Washington has been waiting to hear from for more than a decade.

Robert Walker has held two of the most sensitive and potentially explosive jobs in Washington. He was the top staffer for the House ethics committee and then, for the past five years, for the Senate's ethics committee. In all that time, he has been forbidden to speak publicly -- even though what he knows is of tremendous interest.

But now, as the newest partner at the law firm Wiley Rein, Walker 53, can actually talk on the record. Unfortunately, he's not dishing any dirt. His new job is to keep clients out of trouble with the kind of staffer he used to be, and that's keeping him plenty busy.

Hire of the Week

The American Chemistry Council is fast becoming the farm team for the rest of K Street.

Just recently, the president of the chemical manufacturers' trade association, Jack N. Gerard, was chosen as the new president of the American Petroleum Institute, the main lobby for the oil and gas industry.

Yesterday, Thomas J. Gibson, senior vice president of the American Chemistry Council, was selected to be the new president of the American Iron and Steel Institute. Gibson, 51, will replace Andy Sharkey, who is retiring. The institute is the main lobby for North America's steel industry.

Gibson is a former chief of staff at the Environmental Protection Agency to Administrators Christine Todd Whitman and Michael Leavitt, and he was the deputy staff director at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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