Robbie Diamond has the name of a used-car salesman—and with his slick, shiny coif, ever-present white-toothed smile, and knack for self-promotion—he might even pass for one.
In fact, Diamond heads up a small, relatively obscure, single-issue Washington think tank that lately has been wielding the kind of influence in Washington that would make even the most persuasive auto dealer green with envy.
The 38-year-old’s group, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), which aims to reduce oil consumption by radically changing the cars and trucks we drive, is the unlikely driving force behind President Obama’s newest energy proposal.
The idea, unveiled by Obama in last month’s State of the Union address, is to establish an Energy Security Trust Fund that would channel federal royalties from offshore oil drilling into research on alternative vehicle technology, such as electric and biofuel-powered cars.
Hardly anyone outside of Washington has heard of Diamond, and plenty of people inside Washington don’t know who he is either. But serious policy players are starting to pay attention to him.
The praise comes both from the left and the right, ranging from influential Democrats like former Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota to John Hannah, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser. Diamond developed a plan to tighten fuel-economy standards that President Bush signed into law in 2007.
“It’s a huge deal for anybody who works in Washington—getting your ideas inserted into a major presidential initiative,” Hannah said. “Doing it once is hitting the jackpot. Doing it twice is a huge deal. It’s an extraordinary achievement.”
Dorgan, a former member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who now works on energy issues at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said Diamond “has been central to most of the policy choices that have been made by Congress regarding transportation.”
Diamond isn’t bashful about his group’s clout on energy policy. “We punch above our weight,” he told National Journal Daily.
If enacted into law, Diamond’s proposals could have a significant environmental impact, since reduced use of oil in transportation could significantly lower the nation’s carbon pollution. But SAFE’s staff rarely talks about that. Diamond has recruited a star-studded roster of CEOs and retired U.S. military leaders to make the case that his energy proposals are about economic and national security.
At the top of the roster are Republican Fred Smith, CEO of Federal Express, which has the nation’s largest fleet of commercial vehicles, and retired Marine Corps Gen. Paul Kelley.
Last Dec. 3, SAFE put out a report calling for the creation of the energy trust fund. Later that day, Diamond met with Heather Zichal, Obama’s top energy adviser, and with Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
A few weeks later, Murkowski unveiled an “energy blueprint” that included a version of Diamond’s trust-fund idea. And in his State of the Union address, Obama presented the plan to the nation.
There are a few differences between Diamond’s proposal and the White House’s version. For one, SAFE’s plan would expand offshore drilling to raise money for clean-car research; the president’s would rely on revenues from existing drilling.
Last week, Obama offered more details about the plan in a speech at the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory, which researches electric-vehicle technology. The White House invited Diamond to Chicago for the president's speech, and he sat in the third row at the event. The idea got even more love in the following days, as Obama made it the centerpiece of his weekend radio address.
On Tuesday, SAFE hosted a panel at the National Press Club to discuss the idea. Zichal delivered the keynote address at the standing-room-only event. “I do know a good idea when I see one,” she said. “That’s why you’ve seen the president talk about this. You’ll continue to see the president amplify this. The devil is in the details, but the basic concept of taking revenue from oil development on public lands and using it for research—that’s an idea that has legs.”
While Obama’s energy adviser led off the SAFE event, Andy Karsner, one of President George W. Bush’s assistant Energy secretaries, also spoke on the panel. “During the Bush administration, we passed bills in 2005 and 2007—the only comprehensive energy bills we’ve done in years,” he said. “Neither of those bills would have been possible without this organization.”
Before starting SAFE in 2005, Diamond didn’t even have a background in energy policy.
He started his career at beverage-maker Seagram and in 2004 moved to politics as deputy director of community outreach for the Democratic presidential campaign of then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
After campaigning for Lieberman, who was a leader on national security and climate-change issues and also worked well with Republicans, Diamond was inspired to get involved in issues that promoted policies in both areas, with a relentlessly bipartisan bent.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story misstated John Hannah's role in a plan to tighten fuel-economy standards during the Bush administration. It also incorrectly stated that the White House flew Diamond to Chicago to attend a speech where he stood by President Obama.
This article appears in the March 20, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Obscure Think Tank Wields Outsized Clout.