Desperate Fossil Fuel Interests Seek to Undermine Clean Energy Choices in Communities of Color

By Joel A. Francis

Too often, African American voices are excluded from discussions about the critical issues facing our country. Energy is no exception. That is why I was pleased to recently attend a conference of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE). While in attendance, however, I developed concerns that workshops did not address issues facing African American families that are directly attributable to our nation’s reliance on fossil fuel energy sources.

Desperate Fossil Fuel Interests Seeking to Undermine Clean Energy  Choices in Communities of ColorThe NAACP developed a report that shows how fossil fuels play a significantly harmful role in the health of African American and other communities of color. Segregation and economic deprivation has forced generations of African American families to live in some of the least desirable areas. More than two-thirds of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant. This puts our community at a much greater risk for the health problems associated with exposure to the toxic chemicals these plants spew. African American children are three times as likely to be admitted to the hospital for, and twice as likely to die from, asthma as compared to white children.

Regrettably, a discussion of the harmful impact of fossil fuel pollution on communities of color was noticeably absent from the conference’s proceedings. What is worse is that many speakers denigrated one of the best solutions to the pollution problems plaguing African American communities: renewable energy sources such as solar.

The conference was an opportunity to educate attendees about the costs and benefits of ALL energy sources. Unfortunately, attendees may have left with a skewed perception. Although numerous independent studies have shown that solar energy provides benefits to all electricity consumers on the grid, fossil fuel utilities were pushing a deceptive argument that misrepresents the benefits of solar energy to communities of color. The utility companies’ thinly veiled attempts to present clean energy sources as a racial issue was shameful. It became clear that their real motivation was shaping a discourse that protects energy monopolies.

Fortunately, people like Reverend Nelson Johnson of Faith Community Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, see through and are calling out the inaccuracies propagated by utilities. Reverend Johnson recently co-authored an open letter to the CEO of Duke Energy to “Stop Targeting African Americans with Your Anti-Solar Campaign.” He talked about having been visited three times by people pushing propaganda that “solar hurts the poor.” The Reverend questioned the motives behind Duke Energy’s attacks on solar and called on the utility to stop “this duplicitous corporate behavior.”

Apparently, establishment of a cleaner alternative is a threat to the status quo and a threat to the utility companies’ domination of the energy market. While these fossil fuel companies continue to pollute the air above and the land surrounding our communities, they are intent on sustaining our dependence on them through placing misleading campaigns to slow the growth of a viable and pollution-free alternative.

 

Joel A. Francis is a senior fellow at the Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public.

Nevada’s Surging Rooftop Solar Growth Threatened by Warren Buffett’s Investments in Nevada Utility

NV Energy parent bluntly admits that rooftop solar programs cut into utility profits

by Scott Peterson

Nevada has more solar jobs per capita than any other state and with 300+ days of sunshine per year, the sky could be the limit for carbon-free energy production from rooftop solar.  Then why is NV Energy, Nevada’s largest utility, lobbying to limit its growth?

Nevada’s Surging Rooftop Solar Growth Threatened by Warren Buffett’s Investments in Nevada Utility

Photo by Peter Yang

A recent article in the Las Vegas Sun, Solar industry squares off with Warren Buffett and NV Energy, explains how it comes down to protecting monopoly-utility profits.

In his article, Reporter Kyle Roerink writes how a senior vice president of NV Energy’s Iowa-based parent company, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, bluntly admitted at an energy conference last year that rooftop solar programs cut into utility profits.

3% Participation Limit 

In Nevada, there is a limit to how many residential customers can participate in solar net metering programs. That limit is 3% of all utility customers consuming energy during periods of peak demand. The solar industry says that limit could be reached by the end of the year. NV Energy, which was purchased by Berkshire Hathaway Energy in 2013, is lobbying Nevada government officials hard to ensure that the limit is not increased. Currently, there is no bill in the Nevada legislature to increase the 3% limit and the 2015 session ends soon.

Like other electric utilities, NV Energy owes its profits to its government-protected monopoly position and it is doing whatever it can to maintain that privileged position. That includes standing in the way of competition and choice for Nevada’s power-consuming public, in part by pushing to maintain the cap on the number of Nevadans who can get paid a fair market price for the rooftop solar power they generate.

Utility-Scale Solar

NV Energy fully understands the benefits of utility-scale solar power, with the company’s website touting utility-scale solar projects like Crescent Dunes (110 megawatts) and Nevada Solar One (69 megawatts). In other words, NV Energy’s high-paid corporate executives are perfectly happy to benefit from the extra profits they make due from the return on investments from new utility-scale solar power projects. But residential rooftop solar – well, that’s another matter.

According to a study by Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission, solar power net metering has not cost Nevada ratepayers a penny, but has actually saved them millions of dollars.

In 2014, Nevada’s solar industry saw a stunning 146% growth in jobs. Yet if NV Energy gets its way, that future growth is threatened.  That should be completely unacceptable, and people need to tell their legislators and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval loudly and clearly right now.

 

Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.

 

Checks and Balances Project Welcomes New Senior Fellow Joel Francis

Joel A. Francis, Senior Fellow, Checks and Balances Project

Joel A. Francis, C&BP Senior Fellow

I am excited for this opportunity to continue my earlier work advocating for a healthier climate future. Much has changed since my last foray when I challenged the Koch Brothers to debate the merits of California’s landmark AB 32, the law aimed at reducing California’s carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020.

One thing remains the same: the reality that our dependence on fossil fuels is one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

The science is settled and clear and demands we take steps to secure a healthier environment. We must push back against the bought and paid for propaganda of the fossil fuel industry. Just as no one who believes that the world is flat would be taken seriously, so too should we rebuke those who claim that the jury is still out on climate change or that it would be too damaging to our economy to address now.

I look forward to working with the Checks and Balances Project to further expose these modern-day flat-earthers and the significant impact they and their financial largesse have on our nation’s policy discussions around climate change.

Joel A. Francis

Senior Fellow, Checks and Balances Project

Checks and Balances Project Launches Captured Regulators Initiative

Checks and Balances Project Launches Captured Regulators InitiativeInfluence pedaling in America is a $9 billion a year industry. It’s as big as Major League Baseball or NASA’s Mars spacecraft program, changing from direct meetings with lawmakers to a vertically integrated set of businesses that work every stage of government decision making – including the shaping of public opinion.

Many have charted the size, scope, and growth of the influence peddling industry. There’s the definitive, 25-part Washington Post series on the emergence of modern mega-lobbying firms. Ross and Amter’s definitive history of the chemical lobby The Polluters. Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway, that laid bare the growth of the lobbyist-funded think tank industry. There are also definitive books by then-reporter Jeff Birnbaum’s, including The Money Men: The Real Story of Fund-raising’s Influence on Political Power in America – though Birnbaum later joined the influence business himself.

The point is that as a growth industry, influence peddling needs to find new ways to grow to accChecks and Balances Project Launches Captured Regulators Initiativeommodate the ever-expanding ranks for former staff and public officials who want to make big money after their public “service.”

So it was only a matter of time before previously sleepy public offices, such state assembly offices, state public utility commissions, and writers of obscure cost-benefit analyses became part of the influence peddling playbook. That’s particularly true now that the big shifts in the energy industry are under way. Rooftop solar on people’s homes has been declared a “mortal threat” by the lobbying arm of the utility industry, which has launched a very concerted effort to penalize their customers for buying less of their product.

Regulatory Capture in State Agencies

In many states, commissioners have been lured to ally themselves with the industries they are charged with regulating. There is a term for this, created by Nobel Prize winner Economist George J. Stigler over 50 years ago: “Regulatory capture.”

The financial crisis of 2007-2009 can be explained partly as a problem of regulatory capture. Regulators were so enamored by Wall Street’s risk prevention mechanisms and their way of life that they failed to recognize the enormous risks that were being taken right under their noses until it was too late.

In Virginia, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) is charged with regulating Dominion Resources, a monopoly utility and the Commonwealth’s most powerful corporation. Yet last October, two senior staff members of the SCC wrote a comment letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP is intended to reduce carbon pollution. Although it gives states wide latitude in cutting the pollution and independent studies show it will save money and create clean energy jobs, the staffers attacked the CPP as “arbitrary, capricious, unsupported, and unlawful.” They are thought to have taken Dominion’s 2013 Resource Plan as the basis for their frontal assault.

Death Spiral                                                                              

Utilities nationwide have captured Public Utility Commissions, in whole or in part, just like Dominion has enveloped its own in Virginia. This effort is seems to be encouraged by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the utility industry trade group based in Washington, DC.

In January, 2013, EEI released a man-the-battle-stations white paper that said solar panels on residential or commercial roofs that are not utility-owned or utility-purchased would lead to a death spiral for the utility industry. Since then, the effort to smother the solar baby in its cradle has been stepped up.

Checks and Balances Project Launches Captured Regulators InitiativeNew Captured Regulators Initiative

With renewable portfolio standards, net metering and the CPP, the next two years will decide how many clean energy jobs and energy efficiency savings Americans will see. The stakes are high.

The Checks and Balances Project has noticed that in a number of states, utility commissioners are acting almost as consultants to the utilities they are charged with overseeing. The range of favoritism is wide – from casual remarks to open assistance to help a regulated utility shop for a favorable state judge. There seems to be an emerging trend, which is why we are launching a systemic look to see what’s going on in state public utility and state corporation commissions. Where the influence is going, so should the oversight accountability.

We’re launching our Captured Regulators initiative by asking questions about these officials:

Are there public utility commissioners, public service commissioners or state corporation commissioners in your state that you think are captured by the utility industry? Or commissioners you have questions about like Audrey Zibelman of New York or Virginia’s Mark C. Christie?

If so, tell us more. Send us an email to capturedregulator@checksandbalancesproject.org.

 

Scott Peterson

Executive Director, Checks and Balances Project

Virginia Minority Leader Saslaw Again Declares His Opposition to Ethics Reform

Virginia Democratic Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-35) is a man of strong opinions when it comes to government ethics standards – basically, that we shouldn’t have any. That was clear (again) when I spoke on Jan. 10 at the Fairfax County Delegation’s Annual Public Meeting.

Saslaw-Peterson split screen 1.10.15Senator Saslaw presided. It was an opportunity for citizens of the state’s largest county, like me, to speak to their state senators and delegates before the legislature convened in Richmond on Jan. 14. It happened one week after the historic sentencing of former Governor Bob McDonnell for two years for corruption and bribery. This sad episode showed convincingly that Virginia operates largely on the honors system when it comes to ethics and that the honors system doesn’t work anymore.

I thought it would be a great chance to raise the issue of ethics reform with the most powerful Democrat in the Virginia legislature. The results were revealing.

I was speaker number 43. Each speaker was allocated three minutes and generally received a simple “Thank you,” from Senator Saslaw. I began with a quick explanation of the founding of Checks and Balances in 2009 by people who were concerned about how investigative journalism had shrunk while a tidal wave of lobbying money from the fossil fuel industry undermined the growth of clean energy. (See the entire video here.)

I noticed I had not gotten Saslaw’s attention, as he was talking with others on the panel. But I went on, saying that I wanted to talk about the sad state of ethics in the Commonwealth.

Corruption Risk Scorecard

I pointed out that according to the State Integrity Investigation’s Corruption Risk Scorecard, Virginia ranks 47th out of the 50 states with an overall grade of F.

I seemed, by that point, to have gotten the Minority Leader’s attention. I know I had the attention of Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34), whose ethics reform bills would limit campaign contributions and gifts. Sitting near him was Delegate Marcus Simon (D-53), who was planning on introducing a bill to limit what campaign contributions could be spent on. Simon was quoted in the Fairfax Times as saying:

“If you can go and spend leftover campaign funds on whatever you want, it’s not really any different than taking a bribe.”

Other members of the legislature have ethics reform bills. The Republican leadership has proposed reforms, as has Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe.

None of those proposals went far enough, I asserted. “There’s simply too much coziness allowed with corporations. The General Assembly should pass a law that restricts members from accepting any political contributions from corporations with legislation pending before the legislature.

“Last year, North Carolina installed 13 times the solar photovoltaic capacity as Virginia has in its entire history,” I said. Yet two days before, “the Winchester Star reported that a 20-megawatt solar array—capable of powering 20,000 homes—was scuttled in Clark County. The developer blamed Dominion Virginia and other utilities for their lack of interest in buying the electricity.”

I pointed out that last year, Dominion was the largest donor to state-level politicians with over $1.3 million in campaign contributions.* “No wonder Dominion Virginia gets its way when it comes to energy in Virginia,” I stated.

I had Senator Saslaw’s attention now. In fact, he appeared to be glaring at me.

“Senator Saslaw,” I said. “Last year you were quoted as saying, ‘You can’t legislate ethics…”

“That is correct,” Saslaw interjected.

“… either you’re dishonest or not, OK?’ End quote. I hope you have reconsidered that position…”

“I have not,” the Minority Leader responded.

“…The time to get working on improving Virginia’s “F” grade is now.”

Sen. Saslaw, who said he generally did not comment after speakers, declared that in the 38 years he’d been in office, there had been six or seven episodes that had made the newspapers and “none of them involved lobbyists or a campaign contribution.”

I paused, wondering foolishly if his reform-minded colleagues might come to my aide. “May I respond to that?”

“Nope,” he declared.

Not certain I had heard him correctly, I asked, “No? Or Yes?” The Minority Leader repeated that he would not give me permission to respond.

Missing the Point

Sen. Saslaw clearly missed the point. When it came to “effective monitoring of lobbying disclosure requirements,” “ethics enforcement,” or “legislative accountability,” Virginia got straight F grades. No wonder there have been no scandals involving lobbyists or campaign contributions that had made the papers.

I returned to my seat, but before I could sit down, Senator Saslaw bounded up the aisle toward me. He walked up and leaned in within inches of my face. He told me that he had been interviewed by the FBI who told him that the way he handled campaign contributions was not corrupt.

“Senator, from everything I have learned, you are one of Dominion’s biggest apologists,” I said.

He seemed not to understand, so I repeated the word “apologist.” He then explained how he had gotten Virginia Dominion President Robert Blue and a solar chieftain together to try and work out their differences. I countered with the fact that the Sierra Club’s climate and energy scorecard had given Senator Saslaw an overall grade of D, while three Republican delegates received B’s.

“Well,” Senator Saslaw huffed. “Everyone knows they’re crazy!” He invited me to visit him in Richmond, then walked off.

Who is That Guy?

Later, a teenager sat down next to me who was also attending the meeting. He told me he was a Boy Scout, working on his Eagle Scout rank.

“I thought that was really rude how that guy cut you off,” he said. “Who is he?” I explained that he was the Democratic leader in the Virginia state senate. He looked incredulous, shook his head, and walked away.

 

Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.

(* Note:  I should have said “largest corporate donor in 2013.” A report of Dominion’s contributions to state politicians in the second half of 2014 was submitted to the State Board of Elections on January 15. Totals for 2014 are not yet available on the VPAP website. )

Will the American Energy Scorecard Ask Lawmakers to Reject All Subsidies?

The American Energy Alliance announced on Jan. 8 “the nation’s first and only free-market congressional energy accountability scorecard.” But how much of their new scorecard will be devoted to getting mature, highly profitable fossil fuel industries off corporate welfare?

ScorecardIn AEA’s announcement, it declares the new Scorecard will “educate lawmakers” and “empower the American people,” while holding our representatives accountable for their votes on important energy issues. The first issue that it demands lawmakers vote for is the Keystone XL pipeline.

Would an organization that believes so strongly in free markets and stands so firmly against subsidies for the wind industry also declare itself uniformly against subsidies for the oil, gas, and coal industries?

After all, that seems to be the principle of free markets as AEA defines them. If wind energy producers must “stand on their own two feet,” then shouldn’t fossil fuel producers, as well?

$18.5 Billion for Fossil Fuel Subsidies

According to an analysis by Oil Change International, the federal government’s subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and production have increased by 45% since 2009 to $18.5 billion per year.

tom_pyleAEA’s President Thomas Pyle declared in a statement published on its website on Dec. 17 that subsidies like the wind production tax credit (PTC) are like “taking money out of the pockets of hardworking Americans to stuff the stockings of foreign corporations and wealthy investors.” Pyle said we must “unwind this culture of cronyism.”

After more than a century of subsidies by the federal government to encourage the growth of oil, gas and coal, we have to wonder. Is Pyle serious about eliminating energy subsidies? Or is his demand of accountability just a bunch of wind?

I called the American Energy Alliance’s spokesperson Chris Warren and asked him if the scorecard would include lawmakers’ votes against fossil fuel subsidies.

No Straight Answer

“We’re going take these on a vote by vote basis,” said Warren. “I can’t give you a straight answer.”

I tried again. Would the AEA score votes on subsidies for the oil, gas, and coal industries?

“We’re against subsidies in general,” Warren declared. “We believe in free markets. Energy industries should be able to stand on their own two feet and compete.”

So, the American Energy Alliance is against all subsidies. Who knew? Maybe their scorecard might have some value after all.

 

Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.

 

Is Virginia Tech’s Coal Center Director Evading Questions to Shield Donors?

Is Virginia Tech’s Coal Center Director Evading Questions to Shield Donors?

(Photo credit: Kingsport Times News)

Professor Michael Karmis is evading basic questions about whether clean energy experts were consulted in his critical cost-benefit analysis of how Virginia can meet its federal Clean Power Plan (CPP) goals.  This raises the possibility that Dr. Karmis, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, is shielding donors from legitimate public scrutiny.

The cost-benefit analysis was mandated by the legislature, is relied upon by the Governor, and is included in the Virginia Energy Plan. As we’ve reported before, Karmis is a curious choice to author this foundational document. The Clean Power Plan gives states wide flexibility on how to meet standards. Logically, such an analysis should consider a variety of solutions to cut power plant pollution, including fast-growing renewable energy sources that have created 290,000 jobs in neighboring mid-Atlantic states in recent years.

Is Virginia Tech’s Coal Center Director Evading Questions to Shield Donors?Yet, Karmis’s Coal Center is heavily oriented to only one, highly-polluting energy source – coal. The Center’s website lists a number of significant players in the coal industry as Sponsors that provide “generous financial contributions.” High ranking members of those same companies serve on the Center’s Advisory Board. Of its eight in-house “experts,” seven have strong financial ties to the coal industry – but none to clean energy sources.

State law mandated that Karmis’s Center be consulted, but not be the lead author of the analysis – a big difference in the level of power a coal-centric perspective would have in driving the process.

Evasion of Basic Questions

On Oct. 9, Karmis told me by phone in my only conversation with him, just as he was about to leave for a “site visit” to a West Virginia coal mine, that he had consulted renewable energy experts, but was unable to say who they were due to a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) signed with Virginia’s Dept. of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME). Professor Karmis said that if DMME’s Energy Director Al Christopher, who “coordinated” the study, gave him permission to tell me who he consulted with, then he would be “glad to tell you.” Unfortunately, several subsequent attempts to obtain that permission from Mr. Christopher went unanswered. Here’s an example:

email Scott re permission

The Plot Thickens

A Freedom of Information Act request sent to DMME on Sept. 29, 2014, produced records showing that an unusual non-disclosure agreement was the result of a request from a Mr. Hayes Fromme to Mr. Christopher. Fromme is an advisor to the Secretary of Commerce and Trade, and the McAuliffe Administration’s point person in creating the Energy Plan. The purpose was to prevent “outside people seeing the study prior to release.”

email Hayes requests NDA

Professor Karmis, on the other hand, could see reasons of his own for a non-disclosure agreement. In the following Sept. 15 email, Karmis’s top aide John Craynon explains Professor Karmis had “already had a contact” about the cost-benefit analysis his Coal Center and hand-picked consultants were producing and wanted an NDA to “minimize what we need to say.”

email re Karmis wants NDA

In response to a FOIA I sent to Virginia Tech on Oct. 3, the justification for not providing me with the information I requested was the non-disclosure agreement.

email VT Norris re NDA

Major Questions Remain

Is Professor Karmis shielding his Center’s coal industry donors from scrutiny about their involvement with the analysis of how Virginia can meet its Federal Clean Power Plan goals? If so, this is a highly inappropriate action.

It raises important questions about who hired Dr. Karmis to author the document, if others were allowed to bid, and how much Professor Karmis’s Coal Center was paid?  More on that soon.

Scott Peterson

Executive Director

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