How will Obama, Democratic majority impact propane industry?

January 1, 2009 By    

We’ve ushered in a new year and entered a new era. A new president is moving into the White House. New political leaders and policymakers are settling into roles on Capitol Hill. And the dominating issues of energy, economy and environment continue to evolve in Washington.

Just where does propane fit into this changing landscape?

Some will welcome 2009 and the coming years with skepticism, as a Democratic president and Congress assume total control for the first time since 1993. Possible overregulation of the propane industry may cause concern.

Others will view the shift in a more positive way. They will recognize incoming President Barack Obama’s focus on energy and environment and realize that propane can play a major role in that agenda.

Positive outlook

Joe Colaneri, the former executive director of the Propane Vehicle Council, is an optimist. He has been around energy issues for about 30 years, lobbying and working on Capitol Hill. He likes how propane is positioned for the future, but he says the industry must act now.

“This is an opportunity the industry hasn’t had in 25 years, and this opportunity won’t come along again for another 25 years,” says Colaneri, now the public affairs director for national law firm Foley & Lardner LLP in Washington, D.C. “Obama views energy as a way to grow us out of the recession we’re in.”

Obama’s agenda lies directly in the “wheelhouse” of what propane offers, Colaneri says. The new president wants to add 5 million new green jobs, invest in clean-energy infrastructure and cut the country’s reliance on foreign oil. Propane is versatile, portable and clean, and it fits nicely with new technologies, Colaneri stresses.

“The propane industry needs to communicate with Obama and the new Congress on what propane’s role will be and how policy can be shaped to make that happen,” Colaneri says. “The administration will need to be educated on what propane can do, but I think they’ll be open to it. If you go in with a compelling argument, he and his people will listen.”

“We have a lot of educating to do,” agrees Roy Willis, president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). “For an organization that has ‘education’ in its name, we have that responsibility. The focus is on providing educational resources that address those key drivers in the discussion that’s going on.”

Fitting in

The National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) and PERC will make many of those key arguments on propane’s behalf. Willis has been involved in energy issues for more than 30 years. He classifies these changing times as a “rare situation,” driven by calls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy independence and target energy security.

“The greatest advantage we have as a fuel source is we’re domestically produced; we have a nationwide infrastructure that makes propane a national strategic asset; and we have performance characteristics that enable propane to do something immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy efficiency,” Willis says.

“Propane is a practical solution available now, and that should give it some near-term advantage if the new administration is truly interested in doing things now that address those issues,” he adds. “Propane does have a valuable and essential role to play.”

In a presentation at PERC’s December meeting in Houston, NPGA President and CEO Rick Roldan said the energy debate taking shape in Washington is the most significant development in energy policy in 20 years.

For propane to solidify its status on the energy playing field, industry leaders must nurture established relationships in Washington and seek new bonds. The industry is already served by a team of lobbyists, who are active on Capitol Hill, in various agencies and with codes and standards.

“This is the most important time for the industry, with so much potential for regulation,” says Michael Hedge Jr., director of PropanePAC, the industry’s political action committee. “We need to continue reaching out and strengthening the relationships we have and reach out to people we haven’t had a lot of contact with in the past.

“If we don’t raise our voice,” Hedge stresses, “someone else will do it.”

Pressing issues

Climate change, homeland security and tax credits are the most pressing legislative issues facing the propane industry entering 2009, says Philip Squair, senior vice president of public and governmental affairs for NPGA. The industry must keep a close eye on the federal government’s proposed regulations and decisions in these areas, pertaining to emissions, chemical facilities and tax-credit extensions, respectively.

“We’re meeting people, trying to bring our industry along, and making them realize these are serious proposals,” Squair says. “We need to be involved at the table advocating policies that benefit markets and provide advantages for propane. We don’t want Congress to say ‘alternative fuels like propane are old-fashioned and all we care about are renewables.’”

Worth watching are key Obama appointments in Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson, who both have sought to address climate change. As director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, Chu reportedly promoted research on advanced biofuels, solar power and energy efficiency. As New Jersey’s chief environmental regulator, Jackson made curbing greenhouse gas emissions a top priority. Her state’s new energy plan called for large expansions of wind and solar power to help meet emissions targets.

Also of note to the industry is the change in the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s chairmanship, as Henry Waxman ousted John Dingell in a Democratic duel. The powerful committee deals with many issues affecting the propane industry, Squair says, and Waxman reportedly would pursue a more aggressive path on climate-change legislation than Dingell.

In addition, the Democratic stronghold in Congress increases the likelihood that global-warming proposals or other environmental regulations would be passed – potentially damaging propane’s plight.

Competition intensifies

Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens’ plan to reduce dependence on foreign oil has drawn attention. It is based on building wind-generation facilities to produce electricity and using natural gas as a transportation fuel. Obama’s energy plan also stresses renewable energy sources. As the nation seeks new ways to power itself, propane must rise above the competition.

“Our job is to make sure propane doesn’t get lost in the mix, and people realize we have thousands of companies serving millions of customers out there,” Squair says.

Colaneri urges propane marketers to be cautious about regulatory challenges but welcome the opportunity Obama presents. And he advises marketers to push public policy, through industry dialogue, in ways that will grow their businesses.

The needle has moved in propane’s direction, Colaneri says, but the opportunity won’t last long. The time to act is now.

“Obama views his presidency as reforming and transformational,” Colaneri says. “And it’s a pretty good situation to be in – if you’re a clean fuel like propane and you have a president who talks about green infrastructure and green jobs.”


About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at or 216-706-3748.

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