Yesterday we wrote about the influence of industry-slanted advisory panels to federal agencies, as detailed by the Center for Public Integrity in their recent Shadow Government series. 

The National Coal Council, highlighted in the Center's tutorial on how to use the federal database that tracks these committees, seemed particularly interesting to us because only one of its 101 members represents an environmental organization, yet 80% of its recommendations were implemented by the Department of Energy. Looking through the council's site, we found a study requested by DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman in which the council suggested that the United States should be "doubling its coal consumption" by 2025.

Bodman has expressed confidence in the council, stating in a letter to the panel: "I believe that your membership represents a broad spectrum of senior level industry, state, and public interest organizations and is well positioned to carry out this request."

But not everyone is sanguine about the panel's recommendations or its makeup. Alarmed by the ratio of industry representatives to environmentalists, Sen. Joseph Lieberman called upon the DOE's inspector general to investigate the NCC:

Of the nearly 100 NCC members currently listed on the organization’s website, all but a handful are associated with coal-related industries. Only four listed members represent state governments. All of them are from energy-related offices without any environmental or public health agency representation. Only one member is from an environmental group, and he represents a single state chapter of a larger national organization. None of the members appear to represent consumer-interest groups.

Lieberman raised concerns about the funding behind the committee:

The organization is dependent upon voluntary membership dues that are calculated according to an ability-to-pay formula. Consequently, the largest and wealthiest members, which are those whose economic interests depend most upon coal production, consumption or transportation, appear to be responsible for the largest shares of the NCC’s funding.

Lieberman also raised several objections to the coal council's recommendations: "The report ignores Secretary Bodman’s April 7, 2005 request for a comprehensive evaluation of environmentally protective technologies such as low-impact coal mining. [It also] fails to acknowledge and explore the technologies that power companies can and should use to prevent coal use from exacerbating global warming."

In its response to Lieberman's request, the DOE's Office of Inspector General said that the "vast majority of members were involved in coal production, mining, transport, or energy service." But it also concluded that while the law says that committee membership should be "fairly balanced in terms of points of view represented and the functions to be performed," the rules do not define what "fairly balanced" requires.   "As a result," wrote the OIG, "there was no precise standard against which to judge whether the composition of the National Coal Council met the Federal Advisory Committee Act's requirements."

We are still working on obtaining the NCC's meeting minutes and some more of its recommendations to the agency.

We are also going to dig up some lobbying disclosure forms submitted by members of the council in the Senate Office of Public Records.