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.

After Fossil Fuel Front Group Attacks on Clean Energy Fail, New Model Bill Emerges to Weaken RPS Laws

ALECFossilFuelFundersMembers of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), including fossil fuel corporations and front groups, will meet in Chicago this week to discuss their next round of attacks on clean energy policies. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), The Checks & Balances Project (C&BP) and Greenpeace released ALEC’s confidential model bills and agenda ahead of their Annual Meeting taking place in Chicago, that include a new anti-clean energy model bill, “The Market-Power Renewables Act.”

 “A little sunlight is a powerful force for good. ALEC is trying every trick in the book to keep the agenda of their upcoming meetings secret,” said Nick Surgey of The Center for Media and Democracy. “They are even claiming every state’s public record laws don’t apply to them. This is preposterous. The ALEC documents that CMD obtained show that ALEC is continuing to scheme on behalf of fossil fuel corporations, working together to undermine state’s efforts to promote renewable energy production.”

 “The Market-Power Renewables Act” will likely serve as the model for another round of attacks on state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) in 2014 following ALEC’s failure to weaken or eliminate clean energy policies this year. The new bill would significantly weaken state clean energy laws by broadening the eligible electricity sources to include existing, large hydroelectric power plants, biomass, biogas and other sources of electricity.

 “Fossil fuel-backed efforts to rollback clean energy laws in states across the country have failed, including in at least three critical battleground states,” said Gabe Elsner, Director of C&BP. “It’s no surprise that ALEC is pushing a new model bill that would eliminate incentives for in-state investments in clean energy. These policies are boosting investment in the clean energy industry and creating jobs, which poses a major threat to fossil fuel interests.”

Despite a robust lobbying effort from fossil fuel corporations and fossil fuel-funded front groups, ALEC and its allies lost in the critical battleground states of Kansas, North Carolina and Missouri. Bipartisan majorities defeated ALEC’s model legislation this year, after ALEC legislators in at least 13 states sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to weaken or eliminate RPS laws.

But despite complete failure in 2013, ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force Director Todd Wynn indicated that attacks on clean energy laws would resume in 2014.

 “Fossil fuel-funded front groups connected to the Koch-funded State Policy Network and ALEC advocated to repeal or weaken RPS laws in at least 14 states,” said Connor Gibson of Greenpeace. “Many of these front groups published flawed economicreports written by the fossil fuel-funded Beacon Hill Institute to inflate the cost of RPS and ignore the economic benefits of the pro-clean energy laws.”

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

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

Koch-Bros-Climate

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.

The Maine Players Attacking Renewable Energy: The Koch Brothers

In a new report, the Maine Conservation Alliance asks: are we debating renewable energy, or the Koch brothers’ profits?”

Maine RPS StudyMaine’s renewable energy standards have been the prime target of the Koch Machine – front groups, think tanks, and legislators with financial ties to Koch Industries and its two billionaire owners: the Koch brothers.

The Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires utilities to provide 30% of their energy through renewable sources, has led to $2 billion in investment and over 2500 local jobs. It has proven to be great for Maine’s economy – but it threatens the profit margins of fossil fuel companies like Koch Industries, which pumps 300 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

To dismantle the RPS, the Koch brothers have been extending influence through a legislative front group – the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC). ALEC has contributed over $750,000 to political action committees, candidates, and parties in Maine. Senator Mike Thibodeau, one of the anti-RPS bill’s co-sponsors, has received over $15,000 from ALEC-affiliated organizations.

It is the civic duty of Mainers to decide for themselves what is best for the state’s environment and economy, not an out-of-state corporate interest. The Maine Conservation Alliance affirms that the economy is not for sale.

C&BP Calls for State Dept. Investigation into Keystone XL Consultant’s Conflicts of Interest

ERMLetter

Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and State Dept. Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel

Yesterday, Checks & Balances Project and 11 environmental, faith-based and public interest organizations called on Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel to investigate whether Environmental Resources Management (ERM) hid conflicts of interest which might have excluded it from performing the Keystone XL environmental assessment and how State Department officials failed to flag inconsistencies in ERM’s proposal. Tom Zeller, Senior Writer at The Huffington Post, wrote an article highlighting the letter callings for an investigation.

Early last month, the State Department released a 2,000 page environmental impact study for the Keystone XL pipeline claiming that the pipeline would not have major impact on the environment. But, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the consulting firm hired to perform the “draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS),” has ties to fossil fuel companies with major stakes in the Alberta Tar Sands. This conflict of interest was not accurately disclosed  in ERM’s answers on a State Department questionnaire. Checks & Balances Project considers ERM’s responses in its proposal to be intentionally misleading statements.

Unredacted Documents Uncover Conflicts of Interest
Last week, Mother Jones released unredacted versions of the ERM proposal, showing that three experts “had done consulting work for TransCanada and other oil companies with a stake in the Keystone’s approval.”

The unredacted biographies show that ERM’s employees have an existing relationship with ExxonMobil and worked for TransCanada within the last three years among other companies involved in the Canadian tar sands.

Here’s more from Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll:

“ERM’s second-in-command on the Keystone report, Andrew Bielakowski, had worked on three previous pipeline projects for TransCanada over seven years as an outside consultant. He also consulted on projects for ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips, three of the Big Five oil companies that could benefit from the Keystone XL project and increased extraction of heavy crude oil taken from the Canadian tar sands.

Another ERM employee who contributed to State’s Keystone report — and whose prior work history was also redacted — previously worked for Shell Oil; a third worked as a consultant for Koch Gateway Pipeline Company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. Shell and Koch have a significant financial interest in the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. ERM itself has worked for Chevron, which has invested in Canadian tar-sands extraction, according to its website.”

When asked about who at the State Department decided to redact ERM’s biographies, a State Department spokesperson said “ERM proposed redactions of some information in the administrative documents that they considered business confidential.” Disclosing past clients may be business confidential information, but from what the biographies show, ERM may have recommended the redactions to hide conflicts of interest from public disclosure.

Problem with ERM Answers on Conflict of Interest Questionnaire 

ERMProposal

ERM’s Proposal to the State Department

The biographies on ERM’s proposal show that the company has had direct relationships with multiple business entities that could be affected by the proposed work in the past three years.

In the “Organizational Conflict of Interest Questionnaire,” the State Department asks (page 42), “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’s Project Manager, Steve Koster, checked “No” but appears to have added to the Yes/No questionnaire that, “ERM has no existing contract or working relationship with TransCanada.”

Regardless of the addendum Koster added, he still submitted an incomplete statement when checking “No” to the specific question above. Simply put, the information provided by Mr. Koster was an incomplete statement if one simply reviews the biographies of ERM’s employees for the project.

The State Department Contracting Officer should have flagged this inconsistency when reviewing the staff biographies.  ERM’s answers did not properly reveal in the Yes/No questionnaire that ERM did have a current “direct relationship” with a business enetity that could be affected by the proposed work and a relationship in the past three years with TransCanada, the company building the pipeline.

Koster’s incomplete statement on direct business relationships is not the only odd statement in ERM’s proposal. ERM also answered “No” to the question, “Are you (or your organization) an ‘energy concern?’” which the State Department defines (in part) as: “Any person — (1) significantly engaged in the business of conducting research…related to an activity described in paragraphs (i) through (v).” Paragraph (i) states: “Any person significantly engaged in the business of developing, extracting, producing, refining, transporting by pipeline, converting into synthetic fuel, distributing, or selling minerals for use as an energy source…” ERM as a research firm working for fossil fuel companies is, unequivocally, an energy interest.

So the question must be asked: If ERM is unable to accurately fill out a simple questionnaire regarding conflicts of interest, how can we trust the company to perform an unbiased environmental assessment of a 1,179 mile-long pipeline cutting through the American heartland? And, why did the State Department’s Contracting Officer not flag the inconsistencies in ERM’s Conflict of Interest Questionnaire when reviewing the proposals?

Intentions of State Department and ERM in Question

The Federal Government has strict ethics rules to prevent Organizational Conflicts of Interest (OCIs) from impacting the impartiality of government contracts and to prevent hiring contractors who cannot provide independent and unbiased services to the government.

According to a white paper from the Congressional Research Service, before the State Department could choose ERM as the contractor, the “Contracting Officer” had to make an “affirmative determination of responsibility.” All government contractors (including ERM) must be deemed responsible, in part by meeting strict ethics guidelines, known as “collateral requirements.”

According to current collateral requirements, contractors must be found “nonresponsible” when there are unavoidable and unmitigated OCIs. Checks & Balances Project believes that the Contracting Officer should have deemed ERM “nonresponsible” because the company serves as a contractor for major fossil fuel companies that have a stake in the Keystone XL pipeline. If ERM were “nonresponsible”, the company would have been ineligible to perform the environmental impact review of the Keystone XL pipeline.

These potential material incomplete statements on a Federal Government proposal calls into question the integrity of ERM and threatens millions in government contracts.

If ERM were determined to be “nonresponsible” or “excluded” because of these incomplete statements, it could jeopardize ERM’s ability to perform any work for the Federal Government. Again, according to the Congressional Research Service:

“Decisions to exclude are made by agency heads or their designees (above the contracting officer’s level) based upon evidence that contractors have committed certain integrity offenses, including any “offenses indicating a lack of business integrity or honesty that seriously affect the present responsibility of a contractor.””

Certainly these incomplete statements call into question both the independence of ERM and the judgement of the Contracting Officer in making the “affirmative determination of responsibility.” This proposal process should be investigated by the State Department Inspector General to determine if ERM’s statements are cause for exclusion.

Groups Calling for Inspector General Investigation

We believe ERM used multiple material incomplete statements and had clear conflicts of interest as shown in the unredacted documents. So, why was ERM hired by the State Department?

Checks & Balances Project asked a State Department spokesperson about the conflicts of interest and the spokesperson said: “Based on a thorough consideration of all of the information presented, including the work histories of team members, the Department concluded that ERM has no financial or other interest in the outcome of the project that would constitute a conflict of interest.” Perhaps the State Department’s Contracting Offier made the decision to hire ERM because of the company’s incomplete statements on the conflict of interest questionnaire.

Harold Geisel, Deputy Inspector General, U.S. State Department

Checks & Balances Project along with 11 other groups (Better Future Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, DeSmogBlog, Forecast the Facts, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, NC WARN, Oil Change International, Public Citizen’s Energy Program and Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth) sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel calling for an investigation into the matter. These incomplete statements and the determination by the Contracting Officer that ERM did not have any conflicts of interest, despite clear evidence to the contrary, are grounds for further investigation.

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