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Don’t think that the “clean coal” blitz faded in the first months of the Obama administration just because newly filed disclosure forms show an 85 percent drop-off in lobbying by the companies participating in the effort.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity reported $360,000 in lobbying on climate change legislation in the first quarter of 2009 — a huge fall from $2.1 million the group averaged in spending per quarter in 2008. But that doesn’t reflect any actual rollback in the group’s aggressive effort to influence legislation, which were recently detailed by the Center.

Instead, the new numbers reflect a decision by the group to change the accounting method it uses to report the expenses — perfectly permissible under the arcane rules of lobbying disclosure.

Ever since the lobbying reforms of 1995, corporations and interest groups have had a few options to choose from when answering that enduring question: “What, exactly, is lobbying?” The Lobbying Disclosure Act answers the question one way. The Internal Revenue Service, which cares about making sure businesses do not deduct lobbying expenses against taxable income, defines lobbying in a different way entirely. Rather than settle on a single definition, Congress decided to make the whole thing multiple choice.

Last year ACCCE opted to use the IRS definition — in many ways, the more expansive view. That approach encompasses, for instance, a lobbying organization’s efforts to organize “grassroots” campaigns on its behalf. That’s something ACCCE does avidly, with a “citizens’ army” that it says now numbers 200,000 people. State lobbying also must be included under the IRS method, and there, too, ACCCE was hard at work. For example, the Kansas Ethics Commission reports the clean coal group and its predecessor organization, the Center for Energy and Economic Development, spent $88,595 lobbying Topeka in 2008. It was part of a surge of lobbying stemming from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ administration’s denial of permits for two coal-fired power plants proposed for southwest Kansas, and the state legislature’s failed effort to overturn the decisions.

In any case, by using the IRS method, ACCCE’s lobbying totaled $9.95 million in 2008, which, as the Center reported, was more than any other group focused on global warming legislation. But ACCCE Vice President Joe Lucas said the group decided to reevaluate after noting that most of the other groups appeared to use the Lobbying Disclosure Act definition, which only covers direct lobbying. Lucas said ACCCE’s direct lobbying expenses for 2008 would have been “significantly less than $1 million.”

“We… generally take the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach, and choose to report the most info (as opposed to less) if it is a choice of one or the other,” Lucas wrote in an email. But after media accounts — including the Center’s — compared its spending to that of other groups, without delving into the niceties of the varied accounting methods, he said the group decided to switch methods to provide “a more accurate comparison.”

For the record, a quick look through the climate change lobbyists’ activities in the fourth quarter of 2008 shows that about 30 percent of filers used the IRS method. It’s popular among trade associations — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and others — because it simplifies bookkeeping. And there’s another advantage: contacts with most executive branch officials are not considered lobbying under the IRS accounting method. So companies or organizations that have a lot of contacts with the administration (defense contractors are an example) often choose the IRS method, so that lobbying doesn’t have to be disclosed.

No matter the accounting method, in other words, there’s a lot that’s not being captured in those disclosure forms. And lobby watchers have to keep an eye on what the interest groups are doing, not just what they’re saying. Otherwise, given ACCCE’s prominence in the climate change debate, it could well look like lobbying is cooling down, just as action on global warming policy is heating up.

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