On Monday, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), at the behest of Congressman Ralph Hall (R-TX) released a report on a proposed clean energy standard. The parameters for this study, as set by Congressman Hall, were so flawed that the EIA had to develop new nomenclature to distance itself from the report’s findings. Fittingly, EIA named it the “Hall Clean Energy Standard” to distinguish it from reality.

In March 2011, Representative Hall, who has received over $500,000 in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, asked the EIA to analyze a clean energy standard using policy scenarios that were so limited, the results would be little more than talking points for the dirty energy industry (See a .pdf of Rep. Hall’s request letter here).

Congresswoman Johnson (D-TX) summed up this flawed analysis by saying that the Hall Clean Energy standard “…is altogether very different from the policy envisioned by the President and Congressional leaders.”  In fact, it is so outlandish that it is nowhere near “…what would likely ever be developed or implemented.”

Thankfully, later this month, the EIA will release a report requested by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) based on sound analysis rather than speculation that benefits the fossil fuel industry. The Bingaman report includes a more thorough, scenario-based analysis with specific policy mechanisms that could mitigate the potential economic effects of the President’s plan (See a .pdf of Senator Bingaman’s letter and an update to his request).

Congressman Hall is unfortunately not the first fossil fuel-funded Member to rig a report by handcuffing the EIA with the limited parameters. For more on this pattern of report rigging, the Checks and Balances Project is releasing a set of emails from the EIA, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, that shows this disturbing pattern.

EIA official: House members pushed agency to repeat discredited 2007 report

 An EIA official, in an email last April 2011 acknowledged that another report, requested by three members of Congress handcuffed the agency into repeating a previous, discredited report that defended large government subsidies to fossil fuels.

The Direct Financial Intervention and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Year 2010 study was ordered by three members of the U.S. House – Reps Jason Chaffetz (UT-3), Marsha Blackburn (TN-7) and Roscoe Bartlett (MD-6), who have collectively received more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry.

According to EIA Senior Advisor Erik Rasmussen:

The nature of what the requestors have asked us to do in their letter, and the 4-6 month timeframe that they sought, limit the extent to which we can craft a substantially different product.

The result was an August 2011 report that mimics the widely known errors of a 2007 report that ignores the tens of billions of dollars a year taxpayers provided to highly profitable, mature oil, gas and coal corporations. Both reports also wholly ignore the damage that these industries do to public property and health.

According to documents obtained by the Checks and Balances Project, the report required the EIA to spend hundreds of hours to update a flawed report defending welfare for fossil fuel industries.  The original report was done at the request of Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who also has significant financial ties to oil and gas industry, receiving nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions throughout his career.

The report update requested by Chaffetz, Blackburn and Bartlett ran into trouble in July, just before its release. According to knowledgeable sources, current EIA Director Howard Gruenspecht “hit the roof” when he learned of the skewed way in which the three House members had instructed the EIA study to be conducted.  According to Climate Progress, Acting Administrator Gruenspecht delayed the release of the report during a meeting because of “quality assurance” concerns and to ensure the report gave a “full picture” of energy subsidies.

If it’s true that Acting Administrator Gruenspecht called this report a “piece of garbage,” he was right. The energy subsidy report was little more than a propaganda exercise requested by Members of Congress, because it deliberately leaves out several other ways in which coal, oil and natural gas get government handouts: pollution clean-up, low-cost insurance, tax breaks, low-interest loans, access to federal loans, and government agencies dedicated to fossil fuels.

Email Had Been Sought by Public Interest Organizations

 In August, three organizations – the Checks and Balances Project, Greenpeace, and Oil Change International – filed a Freedom of Informational Act request for communications regarding this update of the discredited 2007 report.

The EIA responded by providing a large number of records, including emails between the agency and the Natural Resources Committee’s Minority Office.

One email string makes clear that the agency understood the flaws in the methodology of the 2007 report, but felt pressured to basically repeat it nonetheless. In it, Jonathan Phillips, a Senior Policy Advisor for the House Natural Resources Committee’s Minority Office, wrote to the EIA on April 19, 2011 expressing concerns about the report (emphasis added):

I do not understand why the agency is deciding to do such an extensive and time-consuming study using any methodology beyond what the agency believes internally is the most accurate and fullest reflection of all the subsidies in the market…

EIA could easily have adopted a broader approach which contained within it a one page comparison of the specific narrow mandate of this request within the results from a broader review.  That approach would actually be interesting, since it would show how much the overall subsidy magnitude and their distribution across fuels is influenced by how the research mandate was set.  Yet, if what I fear is going on here is accurate, EIA is doing the opposite: providing hard numbers based on a narrow and fairly arbitrary tasking set up by three members of Congress, with only anecdotal mentions of what you are leaving out…

EIA’s Senior Advisor Erik Rasmussen responded, echoing concerns about the report parameters:

The nature of what the requestors have asked us to do in their letter, and the 4-6 month timeframe that they sought, limit the extent to which we can craft a substantially different product.

Rather than develop a real report, EIA was forced to repeat an inherently flawed report. It’s unfortunate that a time when our country has serious problems to solve, Members of Congress find it prudent to request flawed reports that, rigged from the start, reinforce fossil fuel industry talking points.  Instead of utilizing the EIA to produce impartial information on the energy sector, these Members of Congress are distorting the debate on energy in the United States and refusing to ask the right questions for which the American public needs answers.

Fortunately, there are already independent reports analyzing the actual cost of fossil fuel subsidies and detailing how the federal government supported for emerging energy technology in the past.

For a full cost accounting of fossil fuel subsidies, see Doug Koplow’s report showing the American public spends over $50 billion per year on the mature fossil fuel industry.

For some perspective on America’s transition to a 21st century energy economy see Nancy Pfund and Ben Healy’s report detailing federal government support for energy innovation – showing that current levels are the lowest in U.S. history.