Everywhere But Washington: Support for Clean Energy, Climate Action Potent and Growing Across US
WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 — As Capitol Hill scandals go, Brian McNeill’s story last summer in the Charlottesville (VA) Daily Progress generated none of the lasting scrutiny that followed, for instance, Wilbur Mills’ 1974 Tidal Basin romp with Argentine stripper Fanne Fox. But for advocates of federal action on climate change and clean energy, the events described in McNeill’s piece revealed a new measure of aggression and desperation in the American fossil fuel industry’s campaign to gain command of the fast-changing policy landscape that confronts them.
McNeill’s article on July 31 reported that in mid-June, as the House of Representatives debated a bill intended to chart a new course for national climate and energy policy, freshman Democratic Representative Tom Perriello, who represents Charlottesville and supports clean energy and climate action, received five letters of opposition that were written on the letterheads of local progressive organizations, including the NAACP. All were forgeries, said the leaders of those groups.
The authors of the letters turned out to be a Washington-based consulting firm, Bonner and Associates, that was working on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. ACCCE is a lobbying association with a $45 million budget, according to the Center for Public Integrity, and represents the $25 billion-a-year American industry dedicated to rebranding its carbon-saturated, mercury-laden, mountaintop-removing, air- and water-polluting, climate-altering product as “clean coal.”
Making the Case in New York and Pittsburgh
There is good reason for the titans of the American energy industry to be this concerned. In the political war to clear the air of climate changing emissions and pursue clean energy development, environmental and public interest organizations are more than holding their own in and outside of Washington.
Last month in New York and in Pittsburgh the full measure of that public support was on display. On September 22 at the United Nations, President Obama delivered a strong message of allegiance to world leaders about the urgency of taking action on climate change and in investing in clean energy development. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon invited over 100 world leaders to hear the president and to discuss action to cool the warming climate.
On September 25, the president and 19 other world leaders gathered in Pittsburgh at the G-20 Summit where their finance ministers, for the first time, began talking about how to fund the work to limit the emissions that are warming the planet and to heat up global economies. The meetings were intended to set the stage for a new global climate treaty to be negotiated in Copenhagen in December.
In both cities climate action activists staged high profile public events to make the case that the world supports global leaders who are charting a new course to a clean, green, energy efficient era of new prosperity.
Americans Support Action
Clearly that is where most Americans want to go, according to public opinion polls. Since May 13, 2008, when the U.S. Senate soundly rejected a proposal that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, environmental and public interest organizations have won many of the important battles in Washington and the states that pitted clean energy and climate action against fossil fuel development. That includes the November election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Obama campaigned on a promise to act on the climate and spur a clean energy transition.
The fossil fuel industry is not happy. With each setback, the energy industry has dug into its considerable financial reserves to launch new attacks. Of late, the industry has directed its financial might to win in the councils where it still has influence: Washington, right-wing activist organizations, and Fox News and its AM talk radio allies.
The energy industry organized town-hall style events around the country attended by its own employees and designed to generate the sort of raw emotion and agitation that attracts attention on television, especially from Fox News, which it supports with considerable advertising.
Tea Party Backlash
The industry spent $151.9 million to lobby Congress in the first half of 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than all but two other industrial sectors. One of the industry-supported activist organization is Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax group which helped organize the Tea Party movement and has close ties to Koch Industries, a Wichita-based private energy conglomerate. Americans for Prosperity took credit in September for providing much of the background information that Fox News host Glenn Beck used to go after Van Jones, the White House green jobs leader. Beck accused Jones of being a “self-proclaimed communist,” a “full-fledged radical” connected to “study groups in the Marxist and Lenin teachings.”
And energy companies are advertising in other venues, including their own gas stations. In September, Valero Energy Corp., the largest gasoline refiner in the country, posted ads in opposition to the climate and energy bill its 1,000 company-owned filling stations, and the 4,800 independent stations that carry its brand, that urge consumers to stop Congress from passing the climate bill. Posters featuring an Uncle Sam illustration warn that the bill could cause gasoline prices to increase by 77 cents a gallon, a figure disputed by environmental economists who assert that the bill would encourage alternative fuel sources and clean transportation technology, reducing demand for gasoline, thus helping to keep gas prices in control.
The power of the energy industry alliances in Washington was on full display in August when Senate Democrats announced they were postponing the introduction of their version of the climate and energy bill. The Kerry-Boxer climate and energy bill was introduced in late September.
Over the Labor Day weekend Jones resigned his White House post. And online organizing by Tea Party groups convinced thousands of conservatives to attend a Capitol Hill demonstration on September 12 in opposition to the health care and climate and energy bills. “The Van Jones affair is, as President Obama likes to say, a ‘teachable moment,’” wrote Phil Kerpen, the policy director of Americans for Prosperity in an article on FoxNews.com. “We need to put not just him but the whole corrupt “green jobs” concept outside the bounds of the political mainstream.”
Climate Activists Respond
Leaders of environmental and public interest organizations say they are determined to prevent that from occurring, and they have considerable momentum working in their favor.
“Our opponents certainly are trying to reinforce fears that some members have already about jobs, energy bills, gas electricity rates,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. “It’s not clear how effective they are with different members. I have a sense, for example, that where steel companies and steel workers stand is more important to members in Ohio and Pennsylvania than where the right wingers are. “
“Our challenge is to really ramp up the case for a new kind of economic growth agenda that is based on clean energy, and energy efficiency,” added Kate Gordon, vice president of energy policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The case we make that investments in clean energy and efficiency will actually lower consumer costs hits people where they live, and is not abstract.”.
Meyer, Gordon and other public interest leaders made that case earlier this year in Congress and succeeded in convincing lawmakers to approve the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which committed over $100 billion over the next two years to clean energy investments, public transit, energy efficiency, conservation, and new technology.
Four months later, despite the forged letters and in the face of a barrage of phone calls and email messages generated by conservative organizing online, the U.S. House approved the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The proposal would require large utilities in each state to produce an increasing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, foster innovation and conservation by cutting climate changing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and invest almost $200 billion over the next 15 years on clean energy technology and energy efficiency measures. Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund called the proposal, “the most important environmental and energy legislation in the history of our country.”
Obama Administration and State Action
The Obama administration is supporting the values and principles in the bill with aggressive regulatory actions. On September 2, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that the agency was close to a decision to regulate carbon dioxide as a dangerous pollutant. Nine days later, the EPA took action to much more closely scrutinize applications for coal mining permits that involved removing mountaintops. In mid-September the administration announced its intent to raise fuel mileage standards to 35 miles per gallon. Earlier this month the EPA announced a proposed rule that would require industrial facilities emitting greater than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year to demonstrate the use of best available control technologies and energy efficiency measures to limit the emission of greenhouse gases.
The fossil fuel industry also is taking a similar pounding in the states and cities. In the last three years public opposition, court orders, gubernatorial executive orders, and nervous warnings from Wall Street investment advisers have prompted utilities to cancel 101 proposals to build new coal-fired power plants, according the Sierra Club. Ratepayers, moreover, are protesting proposals to dramatically increase electricity prices in the handful of states where new coal-fired plants have been brought online.
California approved a law to reduce climate change emissions in 2006 and more than 30 states in every region of the nation have taken various other steps to spur clean energy industrial development, improve efficiency, and reduce climate emissions. Almost 1,000 cities have embraced the greenhouse gas limiting measures contained in the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, and many have approved new ordinances to expand public transit, install green roofs, promp energy efficient building and home construction, and reduce commuting in cars.
In just the last eight weeks, the Dakota Minnesota and Eastern Railroad Company announced it was ending legal efforts to condemn 1,200 acres of land for a new rail line in Wyoming. The $6 billion, 278-mile proposal was intended by the company to tie the Wyoming strip mine coalfields to the Mississippi River.
Apple and a host of other major companies ended their membership and rebuked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for that organization’s fierce opposition to legislation that would cap climate changing emissions and spur clean energy investment.
And as a result of three years of persistent citizen opposition to fossil fuels, Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility in South Carolina, announced in August that it was suspending plans to build a $1.2 billion coal-fired power plant in the state’s Pee Dee region.
“The basic point we made was that there was no demonstrated need for this plant,” said Nancy Cave, the director of the Coastal Conservation Council’s North Coast office, and one of the leaders of the opposition campaign. “The environmental and economic costs of this idea vastly outweighed the advantages. It was dirty, old technology electric power at a time when efficiency and new cleaner technologies were available. We just made that case and stayed on message at every opportunity we had.”
Indeed, earlier this year the World Resources Institute published a study that found every $1 billion invested in clean energy development generates 30,000 jobs and saves $450 million annually in energy costs.
The titans of the American energy industry are driven to halt this momentum. In the collision between the hope for clean energy and environmental safety and the grievance over change sowed by the energy industry, the American president and the environmental community have chances in Congress and in Copenhagen to prove that they will prevail.
Keith Schneider, a journalist and communications strategist, is director of media and communications at the US Climate Action Network. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.