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Climate Action Grows Across U.S.

But coal industry spends heavily to slow Washington’s response

November 18, 2009 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  A rally in the rain in Traverse City was one of 4,000 gatherings sponsored by the citizen group 350.org that occured worldwide on Oct. 24, all aimed at urging government leaders to aggressively attack climate change.
WASHINGTON—As Capitol Hill scandals go, Brian McNeill’s story last summer in the Charlottesville 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 news article 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 July 31 article 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, Va., 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, which 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.”

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.

From Top to Bottom
In New York and in Pittsburgh a few months ago, the full measure of that public support was on display. On September 22 at the United Nations, in New York City, President Barack 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.

Then, three days later, 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 warming the planet—and how to heat up global economies with climate-cooling industries. 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.

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 to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, environmental and public interest organizations have won many important battles in Washington and the states pitting clean energy and climate action against fossil fuel development.

That includes Barack Obama’s election victory. Then-Senator Obama promised to act on the climate and spur a clean-energy transition.

The fossil fuel industry is not happy and has has dug into its considerable financial reserves to launch new counterattacks. The industry now directs its financial might toward the councils where it still has influence: Washington, right-wing activist organizations, Fox News, and its AM talk radio allies.

Big Industry Backlash
The fossil industry organized “town hall” events around the country attended by its own employees that tried to generate the raw emotion and agitation that attracts television cameras, especially from Fox, which it supports with considerable advertising.

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 industry-supported activist organizations is Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax group that pushed the Tea Party movement and has close ties to Koch Industries, a Wichita-based, private energy conglomerate.

The group 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” connected to “study groups in the Marxist and Lenin teachings.”

Energy companies are advertising in 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 at its 1,000 company-owned stations and the 4,800 others that carry its brand. The ads urge consumers to stop Congress from passing the climate bill.

Posters featuring Uncle Sam warn that the bill could push gasoline prices up 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, reduce demand for gasoline, and help control gas prices.

And the energy industry alliances in Washington displayed their muscle 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 Mr. Jones resigned his White House post. And Tea Party groups convinced thousands of conservatives to attend a Capitol Hill demonstration on September 12 in opposition to health care, 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
Environmental and public interest leaders say they are determined to prevent that, and they have considerable momentum working in their favor.

“Our opponents certainly are trying to reinforce fears that some [Congressional] 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. “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 leaders made that case earlier this year, 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 emails generated by conservative groups, the U.S. House approved the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The proposal would require large utilities in each state to produce more renewable energy, foster innovation and conservation by cutting carbon 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.”

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 regulating carbon dioxide as a dangerous pollutant. Nine days later, the EPA promised closer scrutiny of applications for coal mining permits involving mountaintop removal.  

In mid-September the administration announced plans to raise vehicle mileage standards to 35 miles per gallon. Earlier this month the EPA proposed a rule requiring industrial facilities emitting greater than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually to use the best available control technologies and energy efficiency measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

And, last month, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved its own version of the House climate bill in an 11 to 1 vote, which was marked by an extraordinarily boycott of the proceedings by all Republicans on the commitee. The Senate version, known as the Kerry-Boxer bill, is now being reworked by Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham into a compromise that can gain wider support.

Nowhere to Run
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 new coal plant proposals, according to the Sierra Club.

Ratepayers are protesting dramatic rate-increase requests in the handful of states where new, coal-fired plants are now online. 

There is more: California approved a law to reduce climate change emissions in 2006 and, since then, more than 30 states in every region of the nation have taken various steps to spur clean-energy industrial development, improve efficiency, and reduce climate emissions.

Almost 1,000 cities have embraced the greenhouse gas-limiting measures in the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement; many have approved new ordinances to expand public transit, install green roofs, prompt energy-efficient building and home construction, and reduce car commuting.

In just the last 12 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 supposed to tie the Wyoming strip- mine coalfields to Mississippi River barges.

Apple Inc. and other major companies quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, rebuking the organization's fierce opposition to legislation capping climate-changing emissions and spurring 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, a director of the Coastal Conservation Council, and one of the leaders of the opposition campaign. “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.”

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 trying to halt this momentum. In the collision between the hope for clean, environmentally safe energy 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 prevail.

The US Climate Action Network originally published this article. Veteran journalist Keith Schneider, who founded the Michigan Land Use Institute, now directs media and communications at US CAN. Reach him at kschneider@climatenetwork.org.

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