If there's one issue that will be front and center in the political agenda of the U.S. plastics industry and manufacturing in 2006, it's energy prices.
Getting more supplies of natural gas, primarily by increasing drilling in places like the Outer Continental Shelf, is ``far and away our No. 1 priority,'' said Peter Jones, president of Wexco Inc. in Lynchburg, Va., and head of the public policy task force of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Natural gas is the chief feedstock for plastic resin in North America, and soaring prices have hurt the industry's international competitiveness. The industry generally finds itself at a disadvantage in world markets when prices top $5 per million Btu, Jones said, while prices during the past year have ranged from $6 to more than $14 in mid-December.
Natural gas has been a top issue for the industry for several years, and plastics lobbyists got some of what they wanted in a major energy-bill rewrite in mid-2005. But environmental concerns and record profits for oil companies have limited most efforts to open more drilling.
Jones said this winter's high heating bills could raise public awareness and provide a spark to help push drilling legislation in areas off the U.S. coast, some of which could be producing gas in a year or two. But that's tempered by the 2006 elections, which will make it more difficult to move legislation, he said.
``It will continue to be difficult, [but] we're not going to give up,'' said Hank Cox, spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. ``Energy is our main thrust going into the new year.''
As well, industry lobbyists in Washington said they will be working on issues like health-care costs, worker training, tort reform, federal environmental and safety legislation, and international trade.
Jones said the industry plans to repeat its efforts at stepped up grass-roots lobbying that it put into place for the 2004 elections, including encouraging companies to schedule plant visits with lawmakers and educate employees on key issues.
Outside of Washington, California will likely continue to lead the states on recycling and environmental health issues.
California state and local governments have been active on plastic recycling issues, with several of them considering restrictions on polystyrene food packaging, for example, and others, like the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, are working with industry to reduce plastic bag use. The cities are driven by expensive federal mandates to clean up pollution and litter in their waterways.
Mike Lynch, vice president of government affairs at Illinois Tool Works Inc. in Glenview, Ill., said the combination of high plastic prices and environmental interest in the state has pushed industry and environmental groups into some sophisticated discussions about crafting ways to boost supplies of recycled material. One topic getting a look: some type of credit system under state law for using recycled materials.
While the efforts are in their infancy, Lynch said that if they work and prove economically sustainable, it could provide a template that could be quickly adopted around the country.
``We both have similar interests from opposite sides,'' Lynch said. ``It's a maturation on both of our parts.''
California also will be considering legislation that would restrict phthalates and bisphenol A, two additives used to make vinyl and polycarbonate, respectively.
And the state will be studying a long-awaited report from the University of California on changing chemical regulations, said Tim Shestek, director of the American Chemistry Council's office in Sacramento. The report could lead to calls in the state for European Union-style chemical control laws, but it's tough to predict politically how the issue will play out, he said.
``Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a bio-monitoring bill but he also signed a cosmetics reporting requirement bill,'' Shestek said. ``I don't think anyone knows where he will come down.''
While the industry faces challenges, some observers say there is also uncertainty in its lobbying profile.
Washington-based SPI, which brought in a new president in 2005, hired two different lobbyists to head its government affairs office in the last year, only to see each of them leave within a few months.
As well, the American Chemistry Council, based in Arlington, Va., is restructuring, including revamping its American Plastics Council unit, but ACC officials contend it will boost their effectiveness.
Lynch, who is a member of SPI's public policy task force, said SPI has built its profile in Washington on issues like safety and natural gas.
But still it needs to focus on rebuilding its lobbying efforts, Lynch said: ``The organization has a long way to go, not the least of which is putting in place a long-term team that is credible.''