Who is winning the energy and environmental debate? The answer really depends on how the discussion is framed and whether the focus is on the economy and energy prices or the ecology and human health.

Industrial and environmental organizations are all flooding the halls of Congress while trying to woo the American electorate at the same time. Republicans and Democrats can claim victories on behalf of their constituencies, although the corporate lobbyists won’t draft their long-term tactics until they see which party ultimately controls Washington.

If President Obama wins in November, energy and utility companies will join the discussions. But if the presumed Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, prevails and then decides that environmental issues will be back burned, those same entities would have much less incentive to participate in the dialogue. Energy companies were coming to the table after the Democratic sweep in 2008. But when Congress split in 2010, they saw their chance to steer the talks their way.

“Because of the state of the economy and how the debate is being framed -- jobs and the economy -- the climate change debate is not getting much attention anymore,” says Alex Bronstein-Moffly, an analyst with First Street Research Group, the non-partisan political intelligence unit of CQ Press. “The lobbying industry knows this. But it can all change pretty quickly after the election.”

First Street Research Group released an analysis of the bills introduced just after Obama’s team arrived in Washington in 2008 compared to when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010. The current congress has introduced less than half the number of climate change-related bills as the one before that when the Democrats controlled both chambers.

Nevertheless, the group says that there has been no lack of legislation on issues impacting the environment. First Street reviewed 64 such measures and found that energy companies were the most actively involved, which implies they simply wanted to construct the terms by which everyone could live. Among the largest: Duke Energy, MidAmerican Energy and Exelon Corp., which have very different goals as to what America’s energy picture should look like. 

National Election

Consider the recent vote in the U.S. Senate that would have blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards: There, the most active utilities were those that rely heavily on coal: American Electric Power, Southern Co., Ameren, FirstEnergy Corp., DTE Energy, Energy Future Holdings, GenOn Energy and PPL. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity as well as the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council also spent heavily.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, they contributed a combined $67 million lobbying Congress between 2010 and the first quarter of 2012.

As to their mercury effort, it was defeated in the U.S. Senate. That caused some supporters of the coal industry to advise those entities to be a part of the solution and not to always be seen as obstructing environmental progress. They cautioned those utilities and coal lobbyists that their stature on Capitol Hill is waning and that any further losses would reduce their political powers even further.

“Energy companies are emphasizing energy prices and feel they can win supporters among the general electorate this way,” says Bronstein-Moffly. “The verdict, however, is still out: Industry is winning on the legislative front while the Obama administration and the Democrats are winning on the regulatory front.”

What political strategy is in the offing for the energy industry? If the preponderance of members from coal-producing states were to line up behind the president and the EPA, then the coal companies and their utility clients would come to the table as a way to affect the outcome of any bills or regs, adds Bronstein-Moffly. Until that would happen, though, those entities won’t have the incentive to do so, especially with a national election around the corner.

President Obama has made it clear that he supports tougher environmental rules and if he were to get re-elected, the energy community would likely become more conciliatory, says Bronstein-Moffly. If Romney wins, however, the analyst adds that any potential green legislation and regulation would get sidelined, noting that it would still be difficult to repeal anything that has already passed.

“It is never just about money and political lobbying,” says Bronstein-Moffly. “Time and again, when journalists and citizens line up behind an issue, it can shift the debate. Because we are in a state of limbo, there is not going to be any movement either way until the election is over.”

The political jockeying is well underway. The White House is coming off some key environmental victories that it believes the public-at-large supports. That position, though, is getting fiercely rebutted by those in industry and on Capitol Hill who feel the electorate is more concerned about economic health and energy prices.

EnergyBiz Insider is named a 2012 Finalist for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein