Kent Garber

Bill Kovacs pulled into a Holiday Inn in Fargo, N.D. Kovacs works in Washington, D.C., about 1,300 miles away. He's the top energy lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents some of the biggest businesses in the country. And there he was, traveling around the country, stopping off at a Holiday Inn here, a Radisson there, in North Dakota, Montana, and a number of other states, holding forums or "dialogues" with community leaders and local townspeople on climate change.

In North Dakota, Kovacs came in several weeks early for a day and took a plane around with the leader of one of the community business chambers, popping into different towns. He went on local radio, where he stressed the importance of fossil fuels in the state's economy and drummed up publicity for the forum. Hoping to give the event a local flavor, he recruited partners from the Fargo area to serve on a panel. "We weren't there to proselytize," he says of the chamber's role. Nonetheless, he came prepared with "18 or 19 studies" to describe, in his view, the higher energy costs and loss of jobs that would occur if the Senate passed the climate legislation it was considering.

Hometown quarrel. Afterward, organizers praised the event as a "monumental success," in part because it generated an "enormous media push," with dozens of articles, news segments, and radio interviews from local sources. The planners were optimistic that the state's two Democratic senators, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, were watching and would reconsider their support for climate legislation. The bill died two months later, drowned out by the presidential campaign.

The chamber staged 11 such events that year, most in swing states, before the economy collapsed and before President Obama gave climate advocates hope that someone would finally take serious action on reducing greenhouse gases. The chamber's strategy, though, was in some ways prescient. Energy and climate legislation passed the House this year but is stuck in the Senate, and it's impossible for anyone to predict what will actually happen. It's now clear that Washington is only one place where this fight is playing out, and arguably not the most important place, either. The real fight, increasingly, is at the local level, in chain hotels, on radio shows, in manufacturing and agricultural districts that hold the balance of political power.

Nowhere is this clearer today than in Virginia's Fifth District, which covers southern and central parts of the state. Its current representative to Congress is Tom Perriello, a Democrat who came into office in 2008 after beating the Republican incumbent by only 727 votes. Perriello grew up near Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, and knowing both the university's energy research capacity and the district's history in agriculture and manufacturing, he has been a huge proponent of clean energy. Last June, he voted in favor of the House's now stalled energy and climate bill, which would have provided incentives for renewable technologies and put a cap on the country's carbon emissions.

Around the time the House debate started, Perriello's office began seeing attacks from opposition groups. A Washington-based lobbying firm forged letters alleging to be from minority groups in his district, urging him to vote against the bill because of its purported economic impact. "I went on every conservative radio station in my district," says Perriello. "I swung back." Since then, the Republican Party has been trying to remind voters of Perriello's vote, sensing what it sees as widespread opposition among voters to the Democratic Party's plan for regulating carbon emissions. In February, when Virginia and much of the mid-Atlantic were hit by major snowstorms, the state's Republican Party put up an ad, "12 Inches of Global Warming," mocking Perriello for his vote.

But Perriello hasn't changed his position. If anything, his reaction represents the other narrative that has formed around the issue: the response to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups that claim that capping greenhouse gases in the manner Democrats have proposed will kill jobs and hurt the economy. "This is an area that has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing and agriculture jobs over the last 20 years," he says. "So this latest recession was just that for us--the latest recession. It didn't come out of nowhere. We've been thinking about how to rebrand the Southside [of Virginia] as a future energy capital for years."

Henry County, located along the Virginia-North Carolina border in Perriello's district, has the state's highest unemployment rate. In Martinsville, a town in the county, more than 20 percent of residents were unemployed in December. This was once prime tobacco country, and then in the 20th century it morphed into a booming textile and furniture manufacturing center. By the late 1990s, however, the local economy had collapsed. Firms shuttered; jobs disappeared.

Perriello sees a pathway for revival in clean energy, and he's making it his job to sell it to his constituents. "I was talking to a dairy farmer who was really concerned," Perriello recalls. "He said, 'What should I tell my son who is 20 about the kind of energy bills he's going to be having?' I said, 'Tell him he's not going to have energy bills--he's going to be selling energy as his second crop on top of dairy.' "

Perriello is showing off what's already happening in his district. There are clean energy projects on the ground, humming away thanks to President Obama's stimulus package, and there are initiatives, such as biofuel refineries, that could be up and running if only there were a little more money to go around. One of the state's largest dairy farmers, for example, is now capturing methane from manure and making electricity from it, enough to power the entire farm. Martinsville, the town with the soaring unemployment, is using $1 million from the stimulus to capture methane from the local landfill, which could save consumers there $400,000 a year, according to estimates.

This is, in a way, a battle for hearts and minds in small-town America and swing-state America (Virginia fits both), and all sorts of polling data show who feels what about which policies. There's so much polling material, in fact, that each side can find something that bolsters its case. Meanwhile, the amount of money that is being spent to sway the elected representatives of the dairy farmers and textile workers and other rural residents is mind-boggling. There are now more than four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress, according to a study last year by the Center for Public Integrity.

Sharp opposition. But one thing that has remained remarkably consistent over time is that Americans like clean energy. Their firm instinct is to support policies that are good for renewables. And that gives advocates hope. "What we've seen is that the public is with us on renewable energy, on making polluters accountable," says Aimee Christensen, who runs a climate consulting firm in Washington. "So you don't really need to counter on a dollar-for-dollar basis. You just need enough to bolster and support their basic instincts."

Projects like the ones in Perriello's district are creating local excitement. But they've largely been glossed over by the national media. That's an oversight, some say, that opposition groups have been all too eager to exploit. "What's happened is that the financial resources have been spent to undermine the perception of that support," says Christensen. "I think there is a perception-versus-reality problem. The loudness and shrillness of the opposition have obscured the support. That makes members of Congress much more fearful about climate and energy policy than they should be."

The prospects of a climate bill passing the Senate in 2010, most would argue, are not good. The Democrats' loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat in January made a tough situation tougher. The tide of antigovernment anger sweeping the country does not bode well for proponents of government regulation. The midterm elections in November will have everybody in hyper-campaign mode. But fretting is Washington's way. For climate bill advocates, the challenge is getting politicians to see that the real action is elsewhere. And the challenge for Perriello, whose narrow victory in 2008 makes him a likely target this year, is getting the majority of his constituents to see it, too.






Environment - Front Line of the Climate War | Kent Garber