An Open Letter to FirstEnergy

Ohio utility FirstEnergy was a major supporter of freezing the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. The company has made more than $600,000 in campaign donations in the past two years to Ohio elected officials. The Checks and Balances Project is concerned that this money is coming from FirstEnergy customers. We want to ensure that ratepayer money isn’t being used by this monopoly to raise FirstEnergy customers’ monthly bills. Below is a copy of a letter sent by the Checks and Balances Project to the FirstEnergy board of directors on behalf of FirstEnergy customers:

FirstEnergy Board of Directors
c/o Vice President and Corporate Secretary
FirstEnergy Corp.
76 South Main Street
Akron, OH 44308-1890

To the FirstEnergy Board of Directors,

I am writing on behalf of your customers regarding concerns that you are using their money to lobby for legislation that will increase customer electricity bills. Specifically, I am referring to your company’s support of recently passed Senate Bill 310. As you know, this legislation freezes the state’s successful and popular renewable energy and energy efficiency standards.

You should also know that last year, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio found that cutting renewable energy and energy efficiency standards could cost Ohio consumers more than $1.1 billion dollars. Furthermore, the same study found that these standards have already lowered electricity bills by 1.4%.

This is no doubt why the standards have been so popular. A majority of Ohioans, major businesses and the state’s leading newspapers supported maintaining the standards in place.

Notably, your company did not. In fact,  FirstEnergy lobbied extensively against the standards. You also put your money where your mouth is to an impressive degree. Financial records show your company and its employees have donated nearly $600,000 to Ohio politicians since July of 2012.

As a regulated monopoly, you have a responsibility to ensure that you charge ratepayers a fair price for electricity because your customers have no choice but to be your customer. Certainly, you have the right to lobby for policies that are in your shareholders interests. But, it is unseemly and unfair to customers to use customer money to lobby for policies that raise their bills. Your actions are more questionable, given your recent decision to end your energy efficiency programs.

I should note as well, this is not the first example of your company potentially using customer resources against their own interests. As reported by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, your company sent a letter to customers urging them to support the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards freeze.

I urge you to ensure your customers that you are not using their monthly electricity bills to raise their energy bills.

Sincerely,

Scott Peterson, Checks and Balances Project Executive Director

Export-Import Bank Bill A Giveaway That Highlights Hypocrisy

Cross-posted from the National Journal’s Energy Insider’s Blog.

by Scott Peterson

Senator Manchin’s legislation is yet another government handout for the coal industry. It is a great example of the way the coal and other fossil fuel industries have used their financial resources to game the system to get favorable legislation. Senator Manchin is a favorite of the fossil fuel industry, having received more than $1.4 million from the sector in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

This legislation also highlights the fossil fuel industry’s double standard when it comes to federal support for energy sources. While the industry and its allies routinely claim that renewable energy should not get government support, they seem to have no problem with taking massive subsidies for themselves.

Take for example the American Coal Council’s criticism of renewable portfolio standards. It says it maintains its support of a ‘diverse energy supply’, premised on ‘free market’ principles. Or, to quote Jason Hayes, Associate Director of the American Coal Council, speaking about the wind production tax credit. “Lets get rid of the subsidies, let the production tax credit expire, and let energy resources compete on a level playing field.”

It is easy to say you want a level playing field when that field is already so tilted in your favor. A recent report by Oil Change International found that government subsidies of the fossil fuel industry totaled more than $21 billion dollars last year just for fuel exploration. When you combine that with the fact that the fossil fuel industry has received subsides for more than a century, it is hard to take the industry’s professed distaste for subsidies seriously.

Perhaps the fossil fuel industry should finally put taxpayer money where the industry’s mouth is. If the fossil fuel industry were being honest in their antipathy toward energy subsidies, they would tell Senator Manchin to support that self-stated commitment for the free market by letting the industry stand up for itself.

New Video Asks Governor Kasich to Answer the FOIA

Today the Checks and Balances Project released a new web video asking Governor John Kasich to answer a records request we made seeking information regarding his decision to freeze the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. This records request was filed two weeks ago. The only response we have received from the Kasich administration was a confirmation of receipt.

We have filed this request in light of the recent significant campaign contributions Governor Kasich has received from the fossil fuel industry, including the maximum allowable donation from David Koch of Koch Industries. Our records request seeks any and all communications Governor Kasich and his senior staff might have had with fossil fuel interests, and the state’s investor-owned utilities, in the run up to his decision to gut clean energy expansion in Ohio by signing Senate Bill 310.

Senate Bill 310 freezes Ohio’s popular renewable energy and energy-efficiency standard. His action puts at risk 25,000 clean energy jobs and more than $1 billion in savings for Ohio consumers. Watch the video below.

Checks and Balances Project Seeks Answers from Governor Kasich

Today the Checks and Balances Project filed a request for information from Ohio Governor John Kasich regarding communications he and his senior staff might have had with fossil fuel interests in the run up to his decision to gut clean energy expansion in his state. In June, the Governor signed SB 310, a bill that put a “freeze” on the state’s popular and successful renewable and energy-efficiency standard.

The Checks and Balances Project is seeking documentation of any and all written and email communication from Governor Kasich and his staff to representatives of Koch Industries, Inc. and the lobbying organizations they are known to financially support, as well as between the Governor, his staff and the state’s investor-owned utilities.

We have made this request in light of a recent $12,155 donation (the maximum allowed donation under Ohio campaign finance law) made by David Koch, of Koch Industries, Inc. to Governor Kasich’ 2014 re-election campaign. Ohioans deserve to know why Governor Kasich decided to sign SB 310, despite the fact that it could cost Ohio consumers $1.1 billion dollars (PDF), put 25,000 Ohio jobs at risk, was overwhelmingly opposed by Ohioans, major editorial pages in the state, and a significant number of major businesses.

This would not be the first time that the fossil fuel industry and the Kasich administration have been closely intertwined. In 2012, it was revealed that the Kasich’s Ohio Department of Natural Resources coordinated with fossil fuel industry players, including Halliburton and the Ohio Oil and Gas Association to promote oil and gas drilling in state parks.

Governor Kasich is frequently mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate. With this request, he has an opportunity to explain his administration’s cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry and allay concerns that he is working on his next job at the expense of Ohio jobs. You can download a PDF of our FOIA submission here.

Introducing the Checks and Balances Project’s New Executive Director

Scott Peterson, new Checks and Balances Project Executive Director

Scott Peterson, new Checks and Balances Project Executive Director

Hello, I am Scott Peterson, the new Executive Director of the Checks and Balances Project. I want to introduce myself because I know that there’s been a lull in Checks and Balances activities while the Project was between executive directors.

I want to first say that the people who have come before me in this role – Andrew Schenkel, Gabe Elsner and Matt Garrington – did amazing watchdog work. If I can be half as successful as they have been in getting to the bottom of how and why decisions are being made that affect taxpayers and consumers, I’ll be satisfied. I hope to build on their legacy in the months ahead.

I’m drawn to the Checks and Balances Project at a personal level. After years in New York as a spokesman for the financial industry, I now live and work in Virginia full-time. I’ve become increasingly concerned about the global climate crisis, and the efforts by the fossil fuel lobby to block clean energy solutions. As I’ve been more deeply involved in Virginia, I’ve been surprised by just how successful fossil fuel interests have been in blocking progress of clean energy and worse, how few people know about it. In fact, I think that the influence peddling and propaganda by polluting industries is what has contributed significantly to the loss of public faith in government institutions. The Nation says that influence is a $9B a year industry. That’s a staggering figure.

The costs of the influence business to average Americans are real. Look no further than the latest outrage, Ohio Governor John Kasich signing into law a bill “freezing” the growth of clean energy technologies. At the behest of one dirty utility – First Energy – and the Koch Brothers from Kansas, Governor Kasich has put at risk 25,000 clean energy jobs in state that is desperate for economic activity. The state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard that Governor Kasich has frozen has saved Ohioans an estimated $1 billion to date.

That’s just one example. Back in my state of Virginia, we give tens of millions of dollars a year in tax money as a subsidy to the coal industry. It’s interesting to note this is the same industry that funds front groups to yell at the solar and wind industries about being supported by popular, pro-clean energy policies. These technologies should “stand on their own feet,” the coal lobby says. I think we can start by having the coal industry take the first step of getting off subsidies. It’s only been on them for, what, the last 150 years?

Lobbyist influence and what I call the legalized corruption of lobbying money has become some “New Normal” that Americans are supposed to accept. I don’t think we should accept it, and that’s why I’ve committed to build on the Checks and Balances legacy in the months ahead.

New pro-fracking group lacks CRED-ibility

Executives at Anadarko and Noble Energy are the board members and the Western Energy Alliance’s communications manager is the spokesperson for a new natural gas group in Colorado. The Center for Western Priorities takes a look at this group and asks the obvious question – is it willing to break ranks with the oil and gas industry, or is it just another empty mouthpiece.

A new industry-backed oil and gas group has sprung up in Colorado, and it’s calling itself CRED (Coloradoans for Responsible Energy Development). According to profiles in the Denver Business Journal and Greenwire, the group was created by top executives at two of Colorado’s biggest oil and gas players. CRED says its purpose is to correct Coloradans’ misunderstandings about the oil and gas industry. But, clever acronyms aside, the group is going to have to prove its CRED-ibility as an impartial, legitimate information source, before anyone’s going to take it seriously. That means acknowledging facts and taking positions even if they conflict with industry talking points.
— (CWP blog post, 9/10/13)

Read the full post and judge this new group for yourself.

Ken Cuccinelli’s Conflict of Interest Problem: The CONSOL Energy Campaign Contributions Timeline

The unfolding controversy around Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s involvement with CONSOL Energy Inc., a Pittsburgh-based fossil fuel (oil, gas and coal) company, has focused on the widely criticized assistance his office provided the company. It also has focused on the total amount of money Cuccinelli has received from CONSOL.

When forced to respond to C&BP recently, Cuccinelli has asserted the company “gave me $100,000 after I opposed them.” A comparison of the timing of contributions and actions that favored CONSOL paint a very different picture.

Ken Cuccinelli and Consol Energy Campaign Contributions

In the first eight years of Mr. Cuccinelli’s political career (state senate), his campaigns received a total of $3,500 from CONSOL. However, once elected to Attorney General, his office began taking actions that favored CONSOL and disadvantaged southwestern Virginia landowners who hadn’t been paid by CONSOL. A comparison of the timelines of actions and money show a pattern of accelerating support as favorable actions increased, bringing a total of $140,000 to Cuccinelli after the actions favorable to CONSOL began.

In June 2010, Mr. Cuccinelli issued an advisory opinion that limited the jurisdiction of the Virginia Gas and Oil Board that forced Virginia landowners to go to court over royalty payments, a move clearly in CONSOL Energy’s favor.

Two months later, in August 2010, his office sided with CONSOL and against Virginians in a lawsuit to recover improperly withheld royalties, helping the out-of-state oil company defend against a claim by Virginia landowners.

From August 2010 through April 2012, Cuccinelli’s office (through a Senior Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pigeon) began secretly providing legal research and advice to CONSOL’s attorneys regarding the lawsuit, outside of the scope of the AG office’s official capacity. The Virginia Inspector General is now investigating to determine whether the AG’s office misused taxpayer funds.

Finally, Mr. Cuccinelli, helped CONSOL again earlier this year when he issued another advisory opinion that barred local jurisdictions from using zoning laws to establish fracking moratoriums.

Mr. Cuccinelli: Virginians Deserve an Answer

After siding with Consol Energy in a dispute regarding gas royalties for Virginia landowners, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli received over $100,000 [1] from Consol Energy and its subsidiaries. Our question for Mr. Cuccinelli is simple – given the conflicts of interest in taking money from a company involved in a lawsuit with landowners, will he give the money back?

The Checks and Balances Project (C&BP) attended a forum yesterday with Mr. Cuccinelli at George Mason University’s Arlington Campus (which is also the home to the Koch-funded Mercatus Center), and which was organized by fossil fuel front group, Consumer Energy Alliance.

After the forum, Mr. Cuccinelli took a few questions from reporters before abruptly walking off after C&BP asked about the more than $100,000 he has received from Consol.

Here’s what happened:

C&BP: “You’ve received over $100,000 from Consol Energy since you sided with them? Will you give that money back?

Mr. Cuccinelli: “I did not receive $100,000 since I sided with them. I received $100,000 in contributions since I opposed them.

Mike Stark (from FossilAgenda.com): Then why did they give you $100,000?

Cuccinelli: I’m the only candidate who’s proposed a solution to the gas. [inaudible]

C&BP: I’ve heard you say that before… but do you…

Cuccinelli: If you don’t have an actual question, thank you very much. [Ends press conference after only five reporters out of approximately 30 had asked questions.]

C&BP attempted to get an answer after the press conference before one of the two state troopers escorting Mr. Cuccinelli stopped C&BP from walking towards the Attorney General to ask the question.

Here’s the audio of C&BP trying to get an answer before being stopped by state troopers (fast forward to :27 for the question and interaction with state troopers):

The Virginia landowners who Mr. Cuccinelli has sided against have already asked him to give the money back and C&BP asked him again yesterday. He reacted by walking away from a press conference. Mr. Cuccinelli should answer the question – and clean up any potential conflicts of interest by returning campaign payments from Consol Energy and its subsidiaries, which are currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Virginia landowners.


[1] Mr. Cuccinelli accepted more than $140,000 in Consol contributions after issuing an advisory opinion as Attorney General that limited the jurisdiction of Virginia Gas and Oil Board in June 2010.  That opinion marked the first of several Consol-friendly actions Mr. Cuccinelli has taken as Virginia’s Attorney General. Two months later, in August 2010, Mr. Cuccinelli sided with Consol and against Virginians in a lawsuit to recover improperly withheld royalties. Finally, Mr. Cuccinelli, went to bat for Consol again earlier this year when he issued another advisory opinion that local jurisdictions in Virginia may not use zoning laws to establish a moratorium on fracking until they can be sure their water tables will not be polluted.

Correction: The post originally stated the the forum was hosted by the Mercatus Center. It was hosted by GMU at the Arlington Campus, which is also the home of the Mercatus Center. Regardless, the Koch’s have donated nearly $30 million to GMU and its associated institutes and centers.

C&BP Statement on State Dept. Inspector General Keystone XL Investigation

Today, the State Department Office of Inspector General announced that an investigation into Environmental Resources Management’s (ERM) conflicts of interest would not be completed until January 2014. This announcement indicates that the Keystone XL pipeline decision is facing another delay as a result of ERM lying to the State Department about its connections to TransCanada, the company hoping to build the pipeline.

The Checks & Balances Project and 10 other organizations, called on the Inspector General in April to launch an investigation into ERM’s conflicts of interest. In government documents, ERM claimed that it had no relationship with TransCanada or any other entity with a stake in the project “in the past three years” despite working for TransCanada and other oil companies with a stake in the Canadian tar sands. Unredacted documents revealed proof that ERM had worked for TransCanada during that three year period and lied to the State Department on conflict of interest disclosure forms.

In late May, after receiving a call from a Special Agent at the Office of Inspector General, The Checks & Balances Project announced that the State Department had launched a probe into conflict of interest allegations.

Gabe Elsner, Director of the Checks & Balances Project, released the following statement following news of the State Department’s inquiry and review of these conflicts of interest:

“The public was supposed to get an honest look at the impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline. Instead, ERM, an oil company contractor, misled the State Department, in what appears to be an attempt to green light the project on behalf of oil industry clients.  Secretary Kerry must halt this flawed review process and direct the State Department to conduct a full, unbiased review of the Keystone XL pipeline’s impact. The Inspector General should complete a full investigation into ERM’s misleading statements and the State Department should determine appropriate disciplinary actions for ERM to discourage contractors from lying to the federal government in the future.”

Q&A: ALEC’s new tactics to weaken renewable laws

This Q&A originally appeared in Midwest Energy News. 

By 

ALEC40Though bills meant to revoke or undercut renewable standards in numerous states failed last session, clean energy advocates say the model Market Power Renewables Act and the Renewable Energy Credit Act proposed by ALEC’s energy task force during the conference pose a fresh threat.

The Market Power Renewables Act argues for a “voluntary market” that would allow people to invest in renewable energy if they choose without instituting mandates, and it claims that such an approach could lead to more renewable energy development overall.

The Renewable Energy Credit Act would expand the types of energy that would count toward credits. It would also remove caps on the proportion of an RPS that can be met through credits – a provision now enshrined in many states’ laws. And it would also allow the renewable standard’s full term – for example through 2025 – to be met in advance by bulk purchases of credits to meet future requirements.

The ALEC conference also included presentations by the American Petroleum Institute on local hydraulic fracturing bans; offshore energy as “good sense and good cents”; nuclear energy’s role in baseload electricity production; and the U.S. EPA’s “assault on state sovereignty,” hosted by a representative of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Gabriel Elsner, director of the pro-clean energy watchdog Checks and Balances Project, was among the advocates banned from ALEC’s meeting in Oklahoma City in May. Elsner was in Chicago for the recent conference, in an effort to learn more about state legislators’ and corporate executives’ ties with ALEC. The Checks and Balances Project also collaborated with the Center for Media and Democracy and Greenpeace to publicize ALEC’s confidential agenda and proposed model bills.

Midwest Energy News spoke with Elsner during his visit.

Midwest Energy News: Given that ALEC was unable to pass its bills last year, how serious a threat do these model bills pose to RPS standards and to renewable energy development as a whole?

Elsner: ALEC completely failed in 2013 to weaken or eliminate RPS laws. We’ve seen that because there’s bipartisan support for clean energy. Businesses and communities are seeing local economic development and job creation because of these laws.

ALEC’s new model legislation is a stealth attack on RPS’s. They are framed in a way that makes them seem pro-clean energy, but would open up RPS’s to allow sources of electricity – from large hydropower to landfill gas — to be included in state laws that are supposed to incentivize clean energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal. The net effect would be reduced incentives for local, clean energy development in states that adopted this new bill.

ALEC’s proposed “Market-Power Renewables Act” doesn’t mention hydropower or landfill gas – how do you figure it would allow such energy to be counted toward RPS compliance?

This bill as written would open up the market to the different registries that regulate renewable energy credits. For example, in Kansas, your renewable energy credits are regulated by a different entity than in California. But if Kansas passes this law, they could buy RECs from hydropower plants in California or Oregon to fulfill the entire RPS.

That’s already allowed in some states, how would this law be different?

I looked at the regional registries for RECs listed in the model bill. REC registries define renewable energy differently – some include hydropower plants as large as hundreds of megawatts. Others include landfills gas and biomass projects.

ALEC’s new model bills would create a lowest common denominator that would weaken the traditional RPS’s by allowing out-of-state RECs to fulfill the entire RPS. If building a wind turbine in Kansas cost a dollar and five cents but you could go out and buy an REC for a dollar from a hydropower plant in Maine, the utilities would go out and buy a credit and not build the local clean energy project. It would eliminate the economic benefit and jobs in the state.

Palmer-House-Phillip-CantorWhat exactly is an ALEC model bill and where does it go from here?

The bills were discussed by the ALEC Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force on Friday and voted on by a combination of corporate representatives like AEP and Exxon Mobil and legislators who sit on the task force. Once it passes the task force, a bill goes to the executive board of ALEC. [If the board approves,] it becomes a model bill and is sent out to ALEC legislators across the country.

Who are ALEC legislators?

ALEC doesn’t publish a list of which legislators are members. The Center for Media and Democracy has compiled a list at ALECExposed.org. Right now, we know that about 25 percent of all state legislators are members of ALEC. Legislators who attacked RPS’s last year were in Chicago for the conference.

At the conference ALEC also discussed a model resolution supporting grid modernization. This would appear to put ALEC on the same page as clean energy groups. Is their support really a way to introduce curbs on improving the grid or promoting renewables on the grid?

It would be great if utilities were for grid modernization because it could lead to more clean energy development, smart meters, net metering. But more likely is that members of the ALEC energy task force are supporting grid modernization to maximize the benefits to the utilities at the expense of ordinary consumers.

It’s also a model resolution – not model legislation – so it lacks any details on what pieces of grid modernization they would actually support. The model resolution supports cost recovery by utilities, but would they support the increased use of smart meters and net metering?

If model bills don’t benefit the utilities and other fossil fuel interests funding ALEC, it’s probably not going to pass the task force.

ALEC calls for the possibility of buying renewable energy credits from businesses and private citizens. Might this in a sense further the goal of distributed energy and create incentives for people or businesses to generate their own renewable energy?

In theory this could lead to increased use of clean energy by opening up a voluntary market for RECs. But it’s more likely that opening the RPS to large existing hydro and other sources of electricity would water down the market and undermine in-state clean energy development.

It’s important to point out that RPS’s are already driving clean energy investment. In Kansas alone, it resulted in $3 billion of private sector investment in clean energy last year. These policies are working – if the members of ALEC really want to support clean energy they should work to increase the RPS standards.

The ALEC energy task force also passed a resolution to oppose a carbon tax. How much political significance does this have, especially given that ALEC works on the state level, and a carbon tax would be federal?

[The resolution] is a problem because it is a message to our national representatives in Congress. If state legislatures start passing resolutions against a carbon tax, it would send a strong message to people in Washington, D.C. that a carbon tax is not politically feasible.

What do groups hope to accomplish by publicizing ALEC’s agenda and model bills?

Transparency is always a good thing. ALEC for far too long has operated behind closed doors – lobbying our state legislators on behalf of their corporate members. The Checks and Balances Project is trying to bring accountability to that process by showing the public that major fossil fuel interests are working to impact our energy policy through ALEC.

Have these efforts had an impact already, such as with the failure of the bills in the past year?

I think that they have certainly mobilized people who are in favor of clean energy. ALEC’s attacks on clean energy mobilized businesses and other allies to defend these important policies. I think these attacks on something as popular as clean energy is also having an impact on ALEC itself, with many corporations deciding to leave ALEC because of the controversy surrounding the organization.

In regards to ALEC’s energy work, it’s no surprise that they are launching the next attack on clean energy policies. ALEC is a front group representing major fossil fuel interests, that see the growth of the clean energy industry as a long-term competitive threat.

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