Missouri Energy Initiative is New Think Tank on Energy

Two years ago, environmental and consumer lobbyists clashed with utility advocates over state legislation that would have furthered Ameren Missouri’s plans to develop a second nuclear plant in Callaway County.

The bill ultimately died. And the St. Louis utility suspended efforts to get a permit for a second nuclear reactor. But the months of television ads, harsh rhetoric and political jockeying that characterized the debate did make a mark, providing the impetus for the Missouri Energy Initiative, a new statewide think tank for energy issues.

Roger Walker — a part-time attorney for Clayton’s Armstrong Teasdale and executive director of Regform, a statewide business association focused on environmental policy — became frustrated with the tenor of the nuclear debate. The squabbling “became a catalyst for wanting to have an honest debate on energy issues,” he said.

The group emerges as Missouri faces thorny questions regarding its energy future. The Legislature will again debate legislation that would further development of a second Callaway nuclear plant. The state will also grapple with how to increase energy efficient and renewable energy, while reducing dependence on fossil fuels and maintaining relatively low electricity rates, a competitive advantage for businesses.

Walker and co-founder Gary Stacy, a University of Missouri plant sciences professor, have worked deliberately to sketch out MEI’s goals, recruit board members and raise funds. (Stacy had been organizing a separate organization focused on Missouri energy research and education when he and Walker decided to combine their efforts.)

“We’ve been moving slowly on purpose,” Walker said. “These issues are going to be here for a long time.”

The group’s 14 current board members include former Gov. Bob Holden; Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton; Ron Wood, the retired chief executive of Kansas City-based energy consultancy Black & Veatch; former Congressman Kenny Hulshof; and Stanley R. Bull of the Midwest Research Institute.

Another board member, James R. Fischer of Columbia, Mo., a former university researcher, professor and dean who now runs an energy consulting firm, sees MEI as an opportunity to attract jobs and investment to Missouri by playing a part in helping shape the state’s energy future.

“People won’t invest in a state unless they understand the energy scenario,” he said.

The group plans to issue its first white paper later this spring, an outgrowth of a Nov. 2 roundtable discussion that focused on a wide range of topics. The invitation-only gathering included representatives from energy producers and users, academia, government and labor, consumer and environmental groups.

Walker, MEI’s current chairman, intends the group to be visible on key issues. The group’s primary mission will be fact finding, educating the public, promoting dialogue and searching for ways to leverage energy research at Missouri institutions to benefit the state, he said.

But don’t look for the organization to take a stand on controversial issues or lobby. MEI will be more than nonpartisan; it will be apolitical.

“We’re not going to walk the halls” of the Capitol, Walker said. “We don’t want to be seen as a special interest group for anyone.”

Most operating funds will come from dues, and the group will probably seek out state and federal grants and perhaps funding from private foundations. So far, it has cash and financial commitments totaling $150,000 — enough to hire a full-time executive director for the group’s office in Jefferson City, Walker said.

MEI will interact with the public by issuing white papers, host meetings and discuss key issues and be a sounding board for state leaders on energy issues, he said. Eventually, he hopes that MEI is known well enough that state leaders will seek out its advice.

The group won’t stake out positions on controversial issues, but it also won’t hesitate to promote frank discussion and call out misinformation — no matter the source, Walker said.

“Someone’s got to shave off the extreme positions and establish what’s real and what’s factual.”

Reposted from STLtoday.com