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.

Fossil Fuel Interests Continue Attacks on Clean Energy Policies

This response was originally posted at National Journal’s Energy Insiders blog, which asked energy experts this week, “How Bright Is Renewable Energy’s Future?”

The outlook for clean energy remains strong because smart investments like state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) are combining with technological innovation to produce tremendous growth for the industry and tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs. These policies have successfully stood up to forceful attacks from entrenched fossil fuel interests in more than a dozen states in the past year. Washington should take note that the public supports and wants more energy from renewable sources.

At the state level, fossil fuel interests have worked through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to weaken or eliminate RPS, because the clean energy industry poses a competitive threat to their market share. State renewable energy standards are projected to add enough new renewable power capacity by 2025 to power 47 million homes.

So, it’s no surprise that fossil fuel interests like American Electric Power, Peabody Coal, ExxonMobil and others are working to rollback renewable energy laws. These corporations that sell electricity produced from coal and natural gas are in direct competition with electricity generated from clean energy sources. This year, ALEC members and fossil fuel-funded front groups worked to rollback RPS laws in at least 13 states. But, a bipartisan coalition of business leaders, farmers and clean energy advocates stopped them in their tracks. Of all the bills proposed by ALEC members to weaken or eliminate RPS, 0 out of 13 passed, including in key target states like Kansas, Missouri and North Carolina.

Despite failing completely in 2013, ALEC’s energy task force met last week to propose new model bills that would effectively gut RPS laws by allowing large, existing hydro and landfill gas and other electricity sources from out-of-state to count towards the Renewable Portfolio Standards. The Market-Power Renewables Act and the Renewable Energy Credit Act would let utilities meet the clean energy standards by purchasing credits from out-of-state companies instead of generating or buying their own clean energy. In effect, the new model bills would eliminate incentives for in-state clean energy investment that are creating jobs and economic opportunities. Since their inception 10 years ago, RPS laws have leveraged over $100 billion in private sector investment in clean energy in 29 states.

ALEC and fossil fuel-front groups are lobbying our state representatives and spreading disinformation behind closed doors to attack pro-clean energy laws. With energy policy mostly stalled at the federal level, fossil fuel-funded attacks on the state level will continue and likely ramp up in the future, posing a major threat to the clean energy industry and the policies that support its growth.

Hickenlooper’s Fifth Misdeed: Recording a misleading radio ad for oil & gas lobbyists

In 2012, Gov. John Hickenlooper recorded a misleading radio ad paid for by the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. In the ad, the governor parses his words to make the claim that Colorado has not had a single instance of drilling and fracking contaminating groundwater, since 2008.

“In 2008, Colorado passed tough oil and gas rules. Since then, we have not had once instance of groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing.” – Gov. John Hickenlooper

The records show that Gov. Hickenlooper’s claim is a nice, industry-friendly talking point. But, it’s entirely misleading when it comes to the facts about spills in the Centennial State.

A review of the Colorado Oil and Gas Information System shows that approximately 20 percent of all spills in 2012 resulted in water contamination; 22 of those spills impacted surface water, while 63 impacted groundwater. Fifty-seven percent of spills during the year occurred within 1,500 feet of surface water, and 28 percent of the spills occurred within 500 feet of surface water. Thirty-seven percent of spills – 147 of 402 – occurred less than 50 feet from the shallowest ground water, eight percent occurred between 50 and 100 feet from groundwater, and 9 percent occurred more than 100 feet from groundwater.

In June of this year, Bruce Finley at the Denver Post reported that, according to Colorado Oil and Gas Commission records, 179 oil and gas industry spills occurred in the state, just during the first half of 2013. In 26 of those spills, groundwater was contaminated, and 15 of them directly polluted ponds and creeks.

In one of the highest profile spills, people living near Parachute Creek learned in March that an ongoing hydrocarbon spill near Williams Midstream’s Parachute Gas Plant dumped more than 10,000 gallons of hydrocarbons into the ground.

Today, the Parachute Creek spill has been ongoing for more than six months, and testing in July shows that levels of benzene – a carcinogen – are elevated, again. Parachute Creek is a tributary to the Colorado River, a main water source for the region, and the benzene levels in the creek exceed state water quality standards.

In a second well-known spill that occurred in June, WPX Energy reported the release of 2,100 gallons of water that had been polluted by the drilling and fracking process. The spill occurred two miles south of the Colorado River, and most of the contaminated water was absorbed into the soil.

When Gov. Hickenlooper plays word games, like he did in COGA’s radio ad, he’s following industry’s lead. They like to parse the term fracking and then claim it’s never hurt water supplies. This is the sort of wordplay usually heard from teenagers explaining why they didn’t actually break curfew. The entire drilling and fracking process contaminates water – groundwater and otherwise – removing millions of gallons from the water cycle, in addition to what it pollutes on the surface.

Gov. Hickenlooper is being dangerously dishonest with Coloradoans when he says that fracking has never contaminated groundwater. He needs to stop prioritizing oil and gas companies over the safety of the people who elected him.

This is the fifth installment in our blog series “Hickenlooper’s Misdeeds” which shines a spotlight on how Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has put the interests of oil and gas companies ahead of the health of Colorado families and local communities.

Industry front group pivots to “If you can’t be right, be loud” strategy

It appears that Colorado oil and gas lobbyists are back to playing their old games of lies and misinformation.

Monday, the industry-sponsored, blatantly anti-science group Energy in Depth (EID) put out new propaganda in an attempt to distract from the truth of how damaging oil and gas operations are to western air quality. In an interesting twist, EID’s Simon Lomax chose to attack Denver Post environmental reporter Bruce Finley as a means of casting doubt on the studies and data Finley references in his stories. Lomox spent a great deal of time and a lot of column inches cherrypicking to try and refute the negative effects of oil and gas drilling pollution on air quality. Our favorite line here at C&BP is when Lomax blames trees for smog.

“…and, not for nothing, those percentages don’t even include the biggest source of smog-forming emissions, which is the “biogenic” category – meaning trees and other vegetation.”
— Simon Lomax, “What Bruce Finley Failed to Mention About Air Quality,” Jan. 29, 2013

EID is a front group that was launched in 2009 by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) – a.k.a the natural gas lobby. It has a team that works in various energy producing states where citizens are rightly concerned about the impacts of oil and gas to clean air, clean water, and property values.

coga_eid_tweet
It was disappointing to see that Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) CEO Tisha Schuller decided to insert her group into the theatrics. It was just over a month ago that Schuller began her “charm offensive,” announcing that she would tour Colorado in an attempt to depolarize the debate around drilling and fracking near communities. One way for her to do that would be to publicly distance herself and her organization from disinformation producers like EID. Instead, COGA retweeted EID’s claims.

Speaking of claims, here are a few other facts regarding fracking and air quality that EID would much rather the public wasn’t aware of.

  • According to the EPA, “Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas…oil and natural gas production and processing accounts for nearly 40% of all U.S. methane emissions, making the industry the nation’s single largest methane source.”
  • According to the EPA, “Some of the largest air emissions in the natural gas industry occur as natural gas wells that have been fractured are being prepared for production.”
  • CU’s Colorado School of Public Health determined that residents living within one half mile of natural gas wells are at greater risk for potential health problems.
  • The EPA has found emissions from drilling, including fracking, and leaks from transmission pipes, totaled 225 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents during 2011, second only to power plants.

Front groups like EID detract from the real conversation around fracking and drilling in the west. Unfortunately, it seems as if industry is turning to them out of fear, as more western communities move to install common sense protections for their residents. If people like COGA’s Tisha Schuller really want to have a depolarized conversation, they need to publicly distance themselves from groups like EID.

Instead, Schuller is doing what every other mouthpiece for Big Oil does, spreading lies and misinformation so that the oil and gas companies she represents can continue to pollute.

INFOGRAPHIC: The Koch Bros, Getting Richer While the World Burns

Authored by David Halperin of Republic Report & designed by Wake Coulter

Koch-Bros-Climate

Conflict of interest: State Department contractor on Keystone XL study lied about ties to TransCanada & oil industry

ERM employee tried to cover up deceit online

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The company hired by the State Department to review the environmental impact of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline lied on its conflict of interest disclosure form about its work for pipeline builder TransCanada and other oil companies, according to research released today by Friends of the Earth and The Checks & Balances Project.

Friends of the Earth’s investigation of the business connections of Environmental Resources  Management — the London-based international consulting firm that conducted a study for the State Department claiming the pipeline will not cause significant environmental harm — uncovered an extensive dossier of publicly available documents that show:

  • On its conflict of interest disclosure forms, ERM lied to the State Department about not working with TransCanada. In fact, ERM and TransCanada have worked together at least since 2011 on another pipeline project in Alaska.
  • ERM lied again when it said it had no relationship with any business that would be affected by construction of the Keystone XL, which would carry tar sands oil from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. In fact, ERM’s own publicly available documents show that the firm has business with over a dozen companies with operating stakes in the Alberta tar sands.
  • In recent weeks, as calls grew louder for an investigation of the numerous conflicts of interest tainting the State Department’s handling of the Keystone proposal, an ERM employee tried to cover up his work for the Alaska Pipeline Project, a partnership between ExxonMobil and TransCanada.

“From the beginning, the State Department’s review of Keystone has been plagued by influence peddling and conflicts of interest,” said Ross Hammond, senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “This is more serious: If ERM lied about its relationship with TransCanada, how can Secretary Kerry, President Obama or the American people believe anything the company says about the pipeline’s environmental impact?”

Hammond said ERM’s lies call into question the entire Keystone XL environmental review process. Friends of the Earth and The Checks & Balances Project have called for an investigation by the State Department’s Inspector General into how ERM was hired given these conflicts of interest. In the wake of the new evidence that ERM lied on State Department disclosure forms, the groups are asking Secretary of State John Kerry to throw out the ERM study and not allow it to determine the Obama Administration’s decision on whether to issue a pipeline permit.

In papers filed with the State Department in June 2012, ERM certified that it had “no existing contract or working relationship with TransCanada” for at least three years. But public records show that TransCanada, ERM and an ERM subsidiary, Oasis Environmental, have worked together at least since 2011 on the Alaska pipeline project.

On its conflict of interest form, ERM also certified that it had no “direct or indirect relationship … with any business entity that could be affected in any way by the proposed work.” But ERM’s own publicly available documents show that in the period 2009-2012 the firm was working for over a dozen of the largest energy companies involved in the Canadian tar sands which stand to benefit if Keystone is built, including Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Total and Syncrude.

More recently, on May 14 the LinkedIn profile for Mark Jennings listed him as Socioeconomic Advisor for ERM. Among his roles for the company were since 2011, “Consultant to ExxonMobil Development Company for the Alaska Pipeline Project,” for which Exxon and TransCanada are partners. But less than a month later, his LinkedIn profile made no mention of his work for ERM.

The State Department’s review of Keystone XL has been sharply criticized by the EPA and the scientific community for failing to consider the climate and other impacts of the pipeline. The Checks and Balances Project and Friends of the Earth said it is impossible for the State Department to fairly evaluate whether the pipeline is in the national interest when its environmental review was conducted by a company with deep ties to the oil industry.

“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,” said Gabe Elsner, director of the Checks and Balances Project. “In addition, the State Department Inspector General should pursue a full investigation into how a contractor with clear conflicts of interest was allowed to write the U.S. government’s assessment of Keystone XL and why the State Department failed to bring those conflicts of interest to light. Finally, the State Department should determine appropriate disciplinary actions for ERM to discourage contractors from lying to the federal government in the future.”

For House Republicans, the season of oil and gas giveaways has begun

As reported by Politico’s Andrew Restuccia, Tuesday, House Republicans will spend the summer trying to breathe new life into tired ideas filled with industry giveaways. It’s no wonder given these politicians receive huge contributions from the oil and gas industry. Ironically, these “conservatives” want more mandates and quotas for oil companies while also cutting common sense protections for our air and water.

What Congress should focus its energy on – and what people in the West support – is balance between conservation and energy development. Instead of handouts to oil companies, our leaders in Washington should promote a diverse and thriving economy that supports main street businesses, farming and ranching, tourism, and outdoor recreation.

GOP House leadership has already said it will move the same failed giveaways it tried to push through last year, and the year before that. The problem they’re already running into is that they’ve already tried – and failed – to dupe Americans into thinking these handouts are anything else. Even a Republican energy adviser quoted in Restuccia’s story said, “It’s probably going to look a lot like it’s looked in the last four or five years.”

Westerners want more out of their elected officials than repeated political plays and messaging bills for the oil and gas industry. They want a real balance between protecting the public lands that support and attract high-wage businesses and using them to produce American-made energy.

Here’s a quick preview of the rhetoric we can expect to hear from House Republicans this summer, and the facts they will ignore:

The economy

numbers_graphicShot: Failure to open more federal lands to drilling will hurt job creation and economic growth in Western communities.

Chaser: Western states have grown out of the boom and bust cycle that comes with relying solely on energy development. Protecting as much public land as we lease will further build out the outdoor recreation industry, which already accounts for $64 billion in annual spending, 6 million jobs and nearly $80 billion in local, state and federal taxes.

Price at the pump

Shot: These bills are an important step toward bringing down gasoline prices.

Chaser: In 2012, an Associated Press study showed that oil production has no effect on gas prices. Meanwhile, a Goldman Sachs analysis found that Wall Street speculation was adding more than $23 to the price of crude, or as much as $0.56 per gallon at the pump.

Drilling on private lands

Shot: Increased pressure to develop on private lands is just one result of the slowdown of public lands energy development by this administration .

Chaser: The latest oil boom in the lower 48 states is due largely to an unconventional resource known as “shale oil,” (oil trapped within shale rock). The vast majority of both “shale oil” and “shale gas” (natural gas trapped within shale rock) is found under private, not public, lands. The location of these resources – not safeguards to protect air quality and water supplies – explain the shift in drilling from public to private lands.
shale_locationAdam Sieminski, U.S. House, Subcommittee on Energy and Power Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2 August 2012

Permitting delays

Shot: Regulatory hurdles, long delays, and policies that keep federal lands under lock-and-key have become all too common.

Chaser: Industry is responsible for the majority of permitting delays. Last year, BLM announced it is moving to an online permitting system that will hopefully help companies cut down the time it takes them to properly file permit applications.
permit_timingBLM Table of Average Application for Permit to Drill (APD) Approval Timeframes: FY2005 – FY2012

Permits

Shot: The Obama administration is playing fast and loose with drilling permit pledges.

Chaser: Industry does not use the drilling permits that have already been issued for oil and gas development. In fact, there are nearly 7,000 unused drilling permits that industry could develop on federal public lands.
unused_permitsBLM Approve Permits – Not Drilled table

Idle lands

Shot: President Obama and his Administration have actively blocked, hindered and delayed American energy production.

Chaser: According to the Department of Interior’s Oil and Gas Lease Utilization, Onshore and Offshore report, issued May 2012, “As of March 31, 2012, approximately 56 percent (20.8 million acres) of total onshore acres under lease on public lands in the Lower 48 States were conducting neither production nor exploration activities.
leased_productionDOI Oil and Gas Lease Utilization Report

The facts are not on House Republicans’ side, and neither is public opinion. A recent poll shows 9 out of 10 Westerners agree that national parks, forests, monuments and wildlife areas are an essential part of the economy. Seventy-four percent believe they help attract high quality employers and good jobs to western states.

It’s time we put conserving our treasured public lands back on equal ground with leasing them for oil and gas drilling. If oil- and gas-funded politicians continue to try and resurrect these industry giveaways, they’re just showing where their priorities lie – with the companies that fund them rather than the people they represent.

State Department Inspector General Probing Keystone XL Contractor’s Conflicts of Interest

In yet another investigation into the Obama Administration’s activities, the State Department Inspector General is probing the conflicts of interest surrounding the contractor that performed the Keystone XL review,.

ERMProposalThe American public was supposed to get an honest look at the impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline. Instead, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a fossil fuel contractor, hid its ties from the State Department so they could green light the project on behalf of its oil company clients.

Hiring an oil company contractor to review an oil pipeline that its clients have a financial interest in should be illegal – and it is. The Federal Government has strict laws to avoid conflicts of interest and prevent the hiring of contractors who cannot provide unbiased services.

Unredacted documents from the contractor’s proposal (revealed by Mother Jones) show that the company had worked for TransCanada, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies that have a stake in the Canadian Tar Sands.

But, ERM misled the State Department at least twice in its proposal (see C&BP’s original post on ERM’s conflicts of interest)– which may have led to its selection by the State Department to review the Keystone XL pipeline.

OCI Question 6

First, ERM answered “No” to the question “Within the past three years, have you (or your organization) had a direct or indirect relationship (financial, organizational, contractual or otherwise) with any business entity that could be affected in any way by the proposed work?“ ERM appears to have added to the Yes/No questionnaire that, “ERM has no existing contract or working relationship with TransCanada.” Regardless of the addendum, the oil company contractor misled the State Department by checking “No” to the specific question above. Despite the fact that unredacted documents show that ERM worked for TransCanada and other fossil fuel companies with a stake in Keystone XL pipeline in the three years prior to its proposal.

Second, ERM claimed it was not an energy interest. The State Department question defines an energy interest in part as any company or person engaged in research related to energy development. Yet, ERM has worked for all of the top five oil companies and dozens of other fossil fuel companies. In other words, ERM is clearly an energy interest.

How can we trust ERM to perform an honest review of the Keystone XL pipeline, if it can’t answer a yes/no question honestly?

These misleading statements should have been flagged by the State Department and the contractor should not have been able to perform the review because of these seeming conflicts of interest.

ERMLetterBecause of the issues above, Checks & Balances Project (C&BP) and 11 environmental, faith-based and public interest organizations sent a letter  [.PDF] on April 8, 2013, calling on Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel to investigate two things: first, whether ERM hid conflicts of interest which might have excluded it from performing the Keystone XL environmental assessment and second, how State Department officials failed to flag inconsistencies in ERM’s proposal.

A few weeks later, C&BP received a voicemail from a Special Agent at the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG):

Hello Mr. Elsner, my name is Special Agent Pedro Colon from the State Department’s Office of Inspector General.  I’m calling to inform you that we have received your request and are reviewing the matter.  If you have any questions please contact me at 703-284-2688.

On May 7, 2013, I called Special Agent Colon but he was unable to speak at the time. I followed up the next day and spoke with the Special Agent via phone regarding the request for an investigation. I asked a few basic questions about the status of the complaint and asked specifically if C&BP would be informed should the complaint be fully investigated by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). Special Agent Colon informed me that he could not speak to any of the questions and referred us to other staff in the OIG.

On May 9, 2013, I received an email from the OIG General Counsel saying, “that the complaint was being processed per the OIG hotline procedures and is under review.” (See the entire email correspondence here [.PDF])

I then asked the OIG General Counsel the same question he asked Mr. Colon:

If the hotline is moved out of the review process and onto the next step (an investigation?), will I be notified?

The OIG  replied via email saying that the OIG Office of Investigations will not comment if it is engaged in an investigation.

The correspondence between C&BP and the OIG indicates that there is a probe into the Keystone XL review 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.

The American Public needs a full investigation into the conflicts of interest and misleading statements of the Keystone XL review contractor, Environmental Resources Management.

Secretary Kerry needs to stop the Keystone XL process until the Inspector General completes a full investigation of these conflicts of interest and the State Department has an unbiased review of Keystone XL’s impact.

ALEC’s Most Wanted: Exposing a front group for fossil fuel interests (and other corporations)

ALEC Most WantedThe Center for Media and Democracy’s (CMD) Brendan Fischer and Nick Surgey uncovered an internal document from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) at the controversial organization’s meeting last week in Oklahoma City. The document entitled “OKC anti-ALEC photos” featured the headshots of eight reporters and public interest advocates that have written about ALEC or been critical of ALEC’s activities (as a front group working on behalf of its corporate membership).

CMD’s Surgey attempted to attend the keynote address by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, which was billed as open to the press. After registering for press credentials at the ALEC registration desk, Mr. Surgey ascended the escalator towards the keynote speech, but was confronted by ALEC staff members and then approached by a uniformed Oklahoma City police officer.

Mr. Fischer and Surgey recount the exchange in which Surgey had his credentials revoked and was ejected from the ALEC meeting.  From PR Watch:

“I need those credentials,” the officer said.

“I registered,” Surgey replied.

“No, you didn’t,” said a female ALEC staffer, who was accompanying the officer.

“I did, downstairs,” he said.

“It was… you shouldn’t have been able to.”

The reason Surgey shouldn’t have been allowed to register, according to the ALEC staffer: “Because we know who you are.

Surgey asked the ALEC staffer for her name as she asserted that he had to leave:

Can I ask your name?” Surgey asked the ALEC staffer who challenged his press credentials.

“Erm, why?” she replied.

“Is there any reason you wouldn’t want to tell me your name?”

“Yeah, because I know who you are,” she said.

The staffer — whose organization had developed talking points claiming to support the First Amendment, which protects a free and vibrant press — added: “Because you’re going to write an article about it.”

Less than 10 minutes after registering as press, Surgey had his credentials revoked and was ejected from the ALEC meeting by a police officer. As he was escorted away, the ALEC staffer repeated: “We know exactly who you are.”

As Director of the Checks & Balances Project, I was one of the eight people featured on the “ALEC Most Wanted” document alongside other reporters and public interest advocates who have criticized ALEC’s efforts to influence state legislators on behalf of special interests.  Fischer and Surgey write:

The page featured pictures and names of eight people, four of whom work with CMD, including Surgey, CMD’s general counsel Brendan Fischer and its Executive Director Lisa Graves, as well as CMD contributor Beau Hodai.

It is not known whether the photo array of people who have reported on or criticized ALEC was distributed to ALEC members or shared with Oklahoma City law enforcement.

Other targets on the document included The Nation‘s Lee Fang, who has written articles critical of ALEC, and Sabrina Stevens, an education activist who spoke out in an ALEC task force meeting last November. Also featured were Calvin Sloan of People for the American Way and Gabe Elsner of Checks and Balances Project, both of whom are ALEC detractors.

The name of ALEC Events Director Sarah McManamon was in the top corner, indicating the document was printed from her Google account.

ALEC's_Most_Wanted OriginalAs Fischer and Surgey point out, ALEC claims to support the freedom of the press. But in practice, the organization seems reluctant to provide transparency and access required for a free press to be functional.   Instead, “ALEC assembled a dossier of disfavored reporters and activists,” and “kicked reporters out of its conference who might write unfavorable stories…”

ALEC’s sensitivity to transparency shows that the accountability work by C&BP, CMD, People for the American Way and others is working. A free society can’t work unless there is some check on the concentration of power. Now, more than ever, society needs more of the most powerful check on concentrations of power – public scrutiny. Most recently, C&BP has worked to expose ALEC’s efforts to eliminate clean energy laws in states across the country and bring to light that these attacks are being driven by powerful special interests.

ALEC exemplifies how fossil fuel corporations and other special interests have an oversized influence in our public process. And, C&BP is proud to be part of the effort to expose ALEC, fossil fuel-funded front groups and other fossil fuel interests using their power and resources to attack clean energy policies — even if it lands us on ALEC’s Most Wanted list.

Oil & gas public lands management 101: How to put our farms, water, and national parks at risk

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Colorado State Director Helen Hankins has developed a pattern of offering controversial drilling plans, which when met with widespread public outcry are temporarily halted, only to be re-offered after the furor has died down.

Colorado BLM Drilling 101

In 2011 Dir. Hankins proposed oil and gas leasing in Park County at South Park, home to several large reservoirs for metro Denver, Colorado’s drinking water, serving over two million people.

When the City of Aurora raised serious concerns about the sale, including a lease parcel located within ¼ mile of the high water mark of a city reservoir, Hankins temporarily halted the lease plan. Unfortunately, in 2012, Hankins revived plans to lease South Park for oil and gas drilling. True to form, Hankins temporarily halted the oil and gas lease plans again after local elected officials, sportsmen and others raised significant concerns about the plans, including impacts to water quality, wildlife habitat and tourism.

In early 2012, Colorado BLM proposed drilling next to vineyards, orchards, organic farms and a dairy in the North Fork Valley. When local farmers, ranchers, businesses and residents overwhelmingly opposed the plan, Hankins, again, temporarily halted BLM’s plans to lease the area for oil and gas drilling.

Fast forward to the end of 2012, and Hankins – predictably – offered a similar plan that still threatened the Valley’s local economy and water supplies, and even included leasing land for oil and gas drilling near a public school. Residents, local business owners and others once again opposed the controversial plan, and widely criticized Hankins for basing her plan on outdated analysis and failing to pursue a balanced approach to energy development.  In early February 2013, Hankins again temporarily halted drilling plans in North Fork Valley.

Name this tune: In late 2012, Colorado BLM announced plans to lease land for oil and gas drilling next to Dinosaur National Monument’s visitor center and along its southern entrance, as well as near Mesa Verde National Park. BLM’s proposal would mean that visitors could see drill rigs along with 149 million year old fossils, and create more air quality problems for Mesa Verde National Park – which is already beset with pollution problems. This time, the former Superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument, National Parks Service, and La Plata County joined the chorus of locals who raised serious concerns the drilling proposals. And, once again, Hankins halted the lease plans.

Unfortunately, since then, statements from Dir. Hankins’ staff indicate that this stoppage is temporary. In March, the local Colorado BLM assistant field manager said that the drilling leases near Mesa Verde National Park could be back on the auction block as early as this summer.

Dir. Hankins needs to end this contentious cycle of offering controversial oil and gas drilling leases, deferring them when locals rise up, and then trying to drive them back through later when protests have died down.

Dir. Hankins needs to adopt a new curriculum. She needs a smart-from-the-start approach that addresses the concerns of local residents, business owners, and the many industries that drive Colorado’s economy. She needs to adopt a balanced approach that protects the state’s drinking water, farms and national parks.

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