Experts Only Podcast #106 with Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Expert Rob Diamond

[ Partner, Capitol Counsel LLC ]

Listen now:

Transcript

Jon Powers:

Welcome Back to Experts Only, I’m your host Jon Powers. I’m the co-founder of CleanCapital and served as president Obama’s Chief Sustainability Officer. On this podcast, we explore solutions to climate change by talking to industry leaders about the intersection of energy, innovation, and finance. You can get more episodes at cleancapital.com.

Jon Powers:

Welcome back to Experts Only. I’m your host Jon Powers. Today we take a deep dive on the infrastructure bill that came out from Congress, was signed into law in the last year. That’s 1.2 trillion dollars coming out to infrastructure, and we talked to Rob Diamond who’s a partner at Capitol Counsel and leads their infrastructure practice on the opportunities there are for companies in clean energy and climate to access those dollars and understand how to navigate the bureaucracy to really take part in this once in a generational investment. As always, you can get more episodes at cleancapital.com and I hope you enjoy the conversation. Rob, thanks for joining us at Experts Only.

Rob Diamond:

Thanks, Jon. Great to be with you today.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, it’s awesome to have you on. And for the audience, Rob Diamond and I go way back. Not only are we friends, but we’ve known each other through campaigns like the President Obama’s campaign for president, as well as President Biden’s and worked together in government but Rob grew up in New York where he went to the second best military academy in the country, the Naval Academy. Rob how’d you decide to join the Navy?

Rob Diamond:

I was somehow lucky to get accepted to Naval Academy and it was a guaranteed job and I was the fourth of five kids and it was free. And so yeah, it was the right thing I wanted to do at that point in my life and did about 11 years active duty, all in as a service warfare officer and loved every minute of it.

Jon Powers:

Like many vets, you came back with sort of a mission to continue serving. You transitioned into the political and national security arena. Before later on, you went and served both for governor Cuomo here in New York, but then in very senior roles at the Obama administration. Can you talk about sort of your role at the white house under President Obama and specifically some of the really amazing things you did around the Paris negotiations?

Rob Diamond:

Yeah, absolutely. I was lucky enough to serve in the second term of the Obama administration as a special assistant to the president and director of private sector engagement. I was the day to day business community liaison there in the west wing and in the office of public engagement. I called it the traffic director of a two way street between what industry broadly had coming in to talk to the administration about across nearly every policy issue, short of pure national security stuff. But then also was the outgoing making sure we were partnering with businesses of all sizes this across the country on all the administration’s initiatives. One of the key ones that you well know and you were part and everybody listened to this was the Paris climate record.

Rob Diamond:

We put a major private sector initiative together called the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, which provided a vehicle for companies to formally step up and partner with the white house and the US government as a whole, as it went into Paris to negotiate that treaty and really demonstrate that it was a whole of nation effort. You had the great work that Mike Bloomberg and the mayors were doing, and the cities were doing. You had the great work that all the NGOs and the environmentalists were doing. Obviously you had the bilateral negotiations that the white house and state department were doing, and then you had the business community and it was a privilege to work on that and help bring that powerful voice to bear.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. I think it’s important for folks that don’t really understand that having sort of, as Rob called it a traffic cop, but really helping to navigate all the moving pieces within government. A lot of folks that are maybe in small business will rely on their industry groups, but when you really want to have impact in understanding the opportunities there knowing the traffic cops or the folks that used to be the traffic cops is really important because it is a many people. It’s a black box in how it operates but if you’ve been inside that box, you can really help people navigate it.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. Like once again, under the Biden administration, a robust office of public engagement led by Cedric Richmond and they’re there to facilitate dialogue with the white house and steer you through and bring the right agency people to bear, so it doesn’t have to be a black box.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, no, absolutely. Absolutely. So you went on to join Capitol Counsel and for folks that aren’t aware, Capitol Counsel is a full service bipartisan and bicameral advocacy organization, a lobbying firm to help companies get their issues heard, but also understand how to access what’s going on in Washington. Can you talk a little bit about Capitol Counsel and sort of why you chose that firm?

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. I joined just not quite a year and a half ago, right after the Biden Harris election and took a role as a partner Capitol Counsel, as you mentioned, which is a bipartisan lobbying firm based out of Washington, DC. We’ve been around for 15 years, just last month covers again, Senate house Rs and Ds and I lead our executive branch work. So I do the outreach to the white house and the executive agency side.

Rob Diamond:

It’s a real opportunity to work on a range of issues that were near and dear to me, for a world class set of clients across a whole range of industries. We do energy, tax, financial services, trade, big healthcare practice, we do a lot of progressive causes and engage directly with a lot of colleagues, both from the campaign and from the white house who are going back into government and moving this administration’s priorities forward. So it’s been a great terrific platform to work on and I have enjoyed it immensely so far.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. We are clean energy specifically and especially things like climate, tech are really a growing industry and maturing industry. And a lot of folks that are in it either come from the technology side or maybe the finance side, and just don’t have the history of Washington or the impact that working with a lobbying firm can do for your company or for your issues. Can you talk a little bit about why folks are engaging you, specifically folks that may have a clean energy angle to their company because you’ve got some pretty big clients and you probably can’t talk about them but some pretty big clients.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. No. I think our founding partners like to use the three Ps as to why what we do in the lobbying and advocacy world more broadly. One is the policy to help shape the right policy and access policy makers, and have that dialogue with the policy makers, but you can have the best policy in the world, and if you don’t understand the politics, the second fee, the politics, it doesn’t matter because frankly it’s some regards, it’s all politics. These are all elected officials at every level and it all has to work on a political level as well. And so most of us come from campaign backgrounds and political backgrounds, as well as policy backgrounds having worked in and out of government.

Rob Diamond:

And then the last part is really the process. You just have to understand that there is a process to this, that being the third P about how legislation moves, about how the interagency works at the white house level and how the white house policy process works and where the executive branch and the legislative branch bring that process together. So when you put that set of stuff, it makes any issue infinitely more complicated to understand all those moving parts and that’s our day job to help folks understand again, the policy, the politics and the process to get something across the finish line.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. So using your three Ps, I’m going to come back to the infrastructure, the legislation that did pass, but for folks that don’t understand, there were two major efforts moving this fall, and really a monumental effort by the administration doing something that maybe had never been done before, which is almost two significant sister pieces of legislation were really trillions of dollars in action. But I think people often confuse the bipartisan infrastructure bill to pass with what’s in build back better putting on your climate and clean energy cap, could you sort of break down which was which, and then we’ll tie deeper into the infrastructure bill?

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. Absolutely. And frankly, I had actually had a third because you had an American rescue plan that the administration led with that was entirely essentially a COVID emergency supplemental, which was 1.9 trillion dollars.

Jon Powers:

Yeah.

Rob Diamond:

So that’s it. So they got that essentially immediately done and then pivoted to what was originally a very broadly defined effort around infrastructure. And as folks remember, it was initially defined both by traditional heart infrastructure, roads, bridges, ports, rails, that type of stuff, but also human infrastructure as they’ve defined it really more of the social infrastructure.

Rob Diamond:

And as the process last year took root, those sort of split into two paths and you had a bipartisan negotiation around the traditional definition of infrastructure, again, roads and bridges and ports and rail, which led to a bipartisan infrastructure agreement. And then you had the administration basically separate out. The rest of it’s kind of social infrastructure policies into the build back better framework.

Rob Diamond:

And so the bipartisan infrastructure framework moved forward. We had had a bipartisan vote in the Senate and 13 house Republicans step stepped forward and voted for it and the president in November signed that into law. And as you mentioned, it’s a historic 1.2 trillion dollar investment, really the largest in generations into our roads, our bridges, our airports, but also significantly for this community into electric vehicle charging, into grid modernization, into broadband expansion and money for replacing every lead pipe in the country.

Rob Diamond:

So there’s a significant amount of energy and renewable stuff in this infrastructure. People do think as of the build back better plan as the climate build and it has a lot in there. A lot of that really around the incentives and the tax code in particular are the major moving chunks of that. But to build the kind of energy infrastructure of the future, a lot of that money is in this bill and has been passed and is being funded. DOE itself has got probably, I think it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 62 billion dollars of this, just go to the department of energy.

Jon Powers:

They’re hiring a thousand people right now, just to figure out how to

Rob Diamond:

Hire a thousand people and they are with a mission to really redesign and figure out how to deliver clean, renewable energy to Americans. And that’s all funded in this bill.

Jon Powers:

But still on the table, are things like this energy storage, investment tax credit, the extension of the ITC for solar, things like direct pay. But a lot of the true infrastructure meet is in this current bill. And what I want to talk, Rob, about is how to begin to get access to that, right?

Rob Diamond:

Yeah.

Jon Powers:

How should companies think about tapping into that? Because it’s not the doors, it’s not like there’s going to make one dump truck that pours it all out tomorrow. It’s going to be a process and people need to understand that process and access it. So can you talk about sort of the big areas in investment of the infrastructure bill first? I think you hit on some of these, but then we’ll sort of break it down into the clean energy buckets.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah, absolutely. Again this is 1.2 trillion dollars, essentially over five years that the government is going to spend across probably nine or 10 different federal agencies. So as you mentioned, it’s quite an undertaking. The white house itself has stood up an infrastructure office led by Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans, to coordinate across the interagency, so this is really a whole, in some respects, of government effort to-

Jon Powers:

And people were not aware, just because it passed, like now they’re figuring out how to do it, right?

Rob Diamond:

Right. Right. Phases of the law, this is all about implementation.

Jon Powers:

Yep.

Rob Diamond:

This is all about how do we get this money out of Washington, out into the states and cities and localities around the country and then so these projects. So yeah, I think there’s a couple important things to know. I mean, one, there’s really two ways that this money leaves Washington DC. One is what’s called through a formula based approach, and one is called a competitive grant approach. And one theme across both of those channels is that almost all this money goes to a public entity. This is money that’s going to states, to cities, to counties. But that’s not it, I mean also transit authorities and regional economic development. Authorities, tribal entities are an important player here, but the money does flow from Washington almost entirely under this law, to another public entity.

Rob Diamond:

The reason that’s important is because that’s where the actual for companies looking to play in the actual contracts and the actual RFPs that companies can compete for, will be at that state city county level. And so, it’s one thing to be tracking what’s coming out of Washington and understanding what the different programs are and we’ll talk more about the different priority programs, but for companies at the end of the day, you’re not getting a grant from the federal government out of this. You’ve got to be engaged at the state and local level and be tracking what they’re doing there, because that’s where those contracts and RFPs are going to come at that level.

Jon Powers:

Could you take me through a case study of maybe some of the electric vehicle money coming out of DOT or maybe something. Walk us through what one of those things look like? And then I want to get like, if you were the CEO of a medium sized company and wanted to access this, like how should they be thinking about it and engaging a partner like you?

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. So there’s a couple of approaches and that’s a great example because the electric vehicle charging money of which there’s I think all in all total, nearly 10 billion dollars to build out a national electric vehicle charging infrastructure has both a formulaic piece to it and a competitive grant piece to it. So that means that the department of transportation and the department of energy are now jointly in charge.

Rob Diamond:

They’ve stood up a brand new joint office that will lead on the design and funding of all of this electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the country have on the formulaic side are just awarding a set amount of money out to states, again, formula just based a lot of it on population and different things that goes out to states. But there’s also basically, that’s 50% of the money. The other 50% the states and other entities have to actually competitively apply to win additional funding for their programs under a competitive program.

Rob Diamond:

So there’s money coming, there’s a certain amount of money that’s coming automatically to states. And then there’s a whole other bucket that people can compete for and those are very different things. And so you’ve got to work with the states and the localities to understand what their program priorities are, how they’re viewing the implementation of EV charging to access a lot of that formulaic money, because that’s just money they’ve already got, and that’s in hand and they get to design what they want to do with it.

Rob Diamond:

The other avenue on the competitive side is essentially was project specific where that’s an opportunity for industry to partner with localities, with counties, with state government to say, hey, here’s what we could do together and almost do almost like a P2 P3 structure and approach the departments with ideas and with competitive grant proposals to win that additional funding. So you sort of got to play both sides and be aware of what’s going on at the agency level, but be very engaged state locally, as well, to understand what their priorities are. So it’s a lot.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, totally. It’s a lot. And if you’re trying to run a business, it’s scary to even think about. So how would you guys work with a company, I’m going to not use CleanCapital as example, but maybe a company that’s got a great technology to approach that multiple layers because you’ve got to understand how it’s flowing, you got to understand how to access it. And then you’re talking about almost 50 different fiefdoms to figure out where to tap it in Colorado or Texas or Atlanta or whatever, to get some of that capital.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. And I would say if you’re looking at the formulaic side, I would tell you bluntly, don’t hire me. You don’t hire us. That you’re going to want to be engaged, lower down the food chain at the state local level and there are lobbyists and advocates who specialize in that level and those are the folks in the markets that you’re focused on. You want to have those, but when you talk about the competitive brand stuff-

Jon Powers:

I think it’s important to know because most people don’t think about it. You sort of want to market specific person, so if you’re working in Massachusetts, you want to find someone in Boston that’s doing infrastructure stuff or someone in New York’s and Albany, whatever.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. You’ve got an ecosystem of lobbyists in each state capital, in each major city and I know people’s reactions tend be like, well, how many lobby store need, but it does matter at those local levels, because the relationships are different, the principles are different and then you’re tracking different agencies.

Rob Diamond:

You go from the US department of transportation to a state department of transportation, to a city and or regional transportation authority and you’ve got to follow the money through every step of that process. Yeah. It is time consuming. Where we play specifically is on the competitive grant side, because it’s not enough to put an application together and hit submit and think that that’s the end of the process.

Rob Diamond:

That’s really just the beginning of a process where you need to put together a pretty holistic advocacy campaign that includes building support amongst the federal delegation, your members of Congress, the senators, these are all folks who voted for this money, so they’re going to want to have a say and an understanding of what the projects, where the money’s going on the competitive side. You got to engage with the program offices at each of these departments. There are literally dozens and dozens and dozens of programs. And even within an agency, there’s a number of different program offices that make these grant decisions.

Rob Diamond:

So you’ve got to navigate all those program offices, at the same time you’ve got to keep the political leadership of the department, aware of the projects and make sure that they understand what it is and why it’s important and build support there. There’s an outside. This is competitive, so you’re competing against an unlimited set of other actors around the country also trying to seek this funding, so who else have you built support amongst organized labor, have you built support amongst the environmental community?

Rob Diamond:

The administration is very focused on making sure that this money goes to underserved communities and traditionally haven’t been funded. So have you thought about the economic impacts of the project and who are the beneficiaries of this at the end. And so there’s just a whole holistic advocacy campaign that goes into winning this competitive money. Even though there is a ton of it and it’s out for the taking, you got to be strategic about it and make sure you’re doing it the right way.

Jon Powers:

Is there a certain scale that a company should be thinking about, like I’m going to go after 10 million dollars, or I’m going to go after a hundred million dollars to build this type of campaign?

Rob Diamond:

It’s project and program specific. Most of these programs have very detailed guidance. Take a step back last week, the white house put out a 465 page guidebook.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. I saw that.

Rob Diamond:

To the implementation of this infrastructure law. And while that sounds overwhelming, it’s actually terrific because it has all the detail for every program in one place, and it’s going to be a living, breathing document that’ll continue to open up. And it tells you-

Jon Powers:

It’s like their playbook. Like, what do you need to do to get after grid money or EV money?

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. It’s a one stop shop that tells you what the program is, where the program office is, how much money’s available, what the caps are near, almost all of these programs have caps that they won’t give no more than 25 million dollars to a certain project, or some of them are no more than 25 million dollars to a certain state. So you got to get into weeds with each of these programs. There’s something that’s called a NOFO, a notice funding opportunity. That’s the formal public notification that the program is open for applications. Those NOFOs are critical documents.

Rob Diamond:

They spell out all the requirements of what the agency is looking for to fund and sort of the prerequisites on what the application needs to include, deadlines, every nitty gritty detail of how to go after this or in those NOFOs. And those are starting to now roll out. I think one of the key parts here is just being able to track all this stuff because the administration’s very focused on getting this money out the door by the end of the second quarter, I would argue. We’ve got midterms in November, so there’s a lot of motivation to make sure that this is getting out there.

Jon Powers:

Can I ask a question?

Rob Diamond:

Yeah.

Jon Powers:

So when these NOFOs come out, I think a lot of anxiety with companies say, I’m going to put the resources in and I may not have the expertise to work in the federal space yet. And I know if I miss doting an I or crossing a T, I’m going to miss the potential because of my application’s going to toss the wayside. Do you guys work with firms on those NOFOs and so their responses, or is it larger advocacy or are you able to sort of help handhold the company’s response?

Rob Diamond:

It’s both. We do both. Yeah, you want to make sure the application is right and I don’t mean that it’s on the right size, stock of paper and it’s the right font.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. Fits the intent.

Rob Diamond:

Fits the intent. Exactly. There are themes they want to see, and you’re just not reusing the same application across 16 different programs, that doesn’t fly.

Jon Powers:

Yeah.

Rob Diamond:

So from a narrative perspective, from an intent perspective, that’s absolutely part of it as the critical first step in building the broader advocacy campaign, is you got to have a good application.

Jon Powers:

Right. Right.

Rob Diamond:

But to the point about the NOFOs, they’re going to start coming fast and furious here. The first one really came out just the other day from the department of transportation, what’s called their Raise program. It’s a traditional kind of roads, bridges, ports, about seven and a half billion under the Raise program. That’s competitive that you can come back and ask for funding and that’s really the first one to hit the street and they’re going to start coming fast and furious here in the next couple of weeks.

Jon Powers:

Well, excellent. Well, look, I could ask you questions all day about how this is going to work, but looking forward, there’s going to be a big push here in the next sort of 60 days to get up to the end of Q2, but the money’s not all drying up in 2022, right?

Rob Diamond:

Yep.

Jon Powers:

As you said, this is five years. So there’s going to be multiple opportunities for folks to come to the table. And I think it’s really important to understand as those opportunities are coming and so you don’t miss the critical timelines that Rob said, it’s not the whole federal infrastructures, the federal government’s bureaucracies coordinating around the infrastructure now in a way that I think most people wouldn’t understand, but working with someone like Rob that understand it and figure out where the opportunities could be critical. You might learn that you might not have any opportunities, but you might learn that you’re missing the boat on some really efficient capital for your projects or your assets.

Rob Diamond:

I can make a strong argument that maybe year one isn’t the right year to apply and there’s actually a lot of planning money available under the infrastructure bill;

Jon Powers:

Right.

Rob Diamond:

And first, I want to take a step back and figure out, under a hypothetical, how do you bring stakeholder together in some regional setting and think about some big projects-

Jon Powers:

Transmission projects actually. Yeah.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. Big transmission projects and mitigation, et cetera, and come back in year two. And in year one asked for the planning money and the planning assistance and the technical assistance that the government is there to provide, really work through that and frankly come back in year two with the application.

Rob Diamond:

I can make a strong argument for some of that if particular’s bigger goals, there’s a lot of money. I mean, everybody’s going to have some kind of off the shelf shovel ready type stuff that could probably get funded. But I would argue, there’s lots of reasons why to take a step back, take some time, think hard about, think big and think long term and come back in the next fiscal year and with the application because again, as you said, this is a five year spend.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. So let me ask you, and I always ask a final question to my guest around career advice. I’m going to switch it up a little bit and say if we flash forward five years and you and I are going to get a beer in New York, which is likely going to happen, looking back, what should you have said to me today to help a company executive, whoever think about this legislation just sort of looking forward. Is it act now? What piece of advice would you give to a company right now looking at this overwhelming 1.2 trillion dollar piece of legislation?

Rob Diamond:

I’d say recognize it’s overwhelming for everybody because it’s so historic in nature. I don’t mean to sound in a pejorative way, but second tier cities that are smaller ones by population and you go down the food chain, these governments have limited bandwidth and limited expertise.

Rob Diamond:

And so I think anything that the states and the cities and the counties can be doing to engage with industry, to learn about what the best technologies are that are out there, what should they be implementing from a forward looking basis to make sure we’re not building the infrastructure of the 1990s, but we’re building the infrastructure of the 2050s.

Rob Diamond:

And industry, I think, leans in and tries to provide that technical assistance and recognize that again, this is a massive undertaking. The public entities are equally as overwhelmed and so the more we can do to build connectivity between every level of government, but then also between the public and private sectors at every level of government, is only going to make this a better and more efficient spend of massive public dollars.

Jon Powers:

Right.

Rob Diamond:

This is the place where we all agree we should be spending money. This is a good use of our taxpayer dollars, but we want to do it. You were sitting here another 50 years from now saying we did it right and we built for the future, but I think that takes a recognition of all parties that like you got to get together. You can’t just sort of sit on the sidelines and there everybody’s little fiefdoms. We got to put everybody together. I use the example of like, you think about electric vehicle charging, broadband and water pipes. That means we’re digging one big trench somewhere to put all that down. We should be doing that one time. How do we dig one time and put all that in? That takes a ton of collaboration between multiple layers of government and multiple companies and different sectors that when you dig this trench down, the New York state throughway, you’re laying EV charging, broadband and water pipes all at the same time.

Jon Powers:

Yeah.

Rob Diamond:

That would be the idea. Can we pull that off? I don’t know.

Jon Powers:

Well, I think it’s a good example though because there’s this unreal expectation from folks that the solutions are already even thought, it most likely hasn’t so go have that conversation with the bureaucrats and help them understand how to think through this strategically, because they want and they want put that money to work efficiently and not just throw money at the problem. Awesome. So Rob, where could people learn more about Capitol Counsel? What’s your website? I should know this.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. www.capitolcounsel.com. That’s capitol with an O and counsel with an O-U-N-S-E-L, I should say. Yeah.

Jon Powers:

We’ll link to it too from our website.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. And certainly, we’re always available to talk even just conceptually and do people a sense of how we can help and a massive undertaking here, but an important one and a really important one for the country.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. Well, thanks for making this less overwhelming. So if we begin to understand it and figure out how they can begin to access this really once in a generational investment.

Rob Diamond:

Yeah. Well thank you Jon, for all you continue to do. Appreciate it.

Jon Powers:

Absolutely. Thanks for the team at Capitol Counsel and of course at CleanCapital for helping to put this together. You can get more episodes at cleancapital.com and as always, I look forward to continuing the conversation.