Energy policy: Follow the money

Energy columnist Chris Nelder follows the money, and finds out the real reason why our energy policy is severely tilted toward the fossil fuel industry.
Written by Chris Nelder, Contributor

If you want to know why our energy policy is what it is, and why the transition to renewables is so slow, there's an easy way to find out: Follow the money.

In energy -- as in so many other things -- we have the best government money can buy. Our Congress is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers, not scientists, and we form our energy policy around who lines their pockets, not around a scientific or rational grasp of our energy reality. This is why technocratic nations like China and Germany are kicking our asses in resource planning, energy transition, transportation planning, infrastructure investment, and so on.


I began my inquiry into this subject by plundering the OpenSecrets.org database, an independent, nonpartisan and free website produced by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the influence of money on U.S. politics.

The results were not surprising.

The oil and gas industry utterly dominates the Energy and Natural Resources category, spending $149 million on lobbying in 2011. The entire complex of renewables falls under the "Misc Energy" category. On this basis, the oil and gas sector outspends Misc Energy by about three to one. But that leaves a lot out of the equation, because the utility sector is over two-thirds powered by coal and natural gas, and coal lobbying is partly represented by the Mining category. The oil and gas industry plus the utility sector outspends Misc Energy by more than five to one.

So let's look at the primary energy industry alone.

The oil and gas industry plus the coal mining industry spent $168 million on lobbying in 2011, or about three times that of Misc Energy. The American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry's main lobbying group, spent more than two-and-a-half times what the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) did, combined.

But even that doesn't really tell the whole story.

The largest sub-industry within the Misc Energy category is oriented to ethanol, algae and biodiesel biofuels, which ultimately aims to maintain our existing regime of liquid-fuel burning cars and trucks. Lobbying over water is another large component of the category, as is lobbying on behalf of natural gas vehicles. When I classified the top 23 client agencies -- those within the Misc Energy category who spent more than $500,000 on lobbying in 2011 -- by industry, I found that wind, solar, and geothermal entities only contributed about 10 percent of the category total.

Further, most of the lobbying groups within the Misc Energy category are small players. The biggest client within the sector is the National Rural Water Association, which spent $2.2 million, followed by SEIA, which spent $1.9 million. By comparison, the smallest spender of the top 10 oil and gas companies, Anadarko Petroleum, laid out $3.7 million.

The OpenSecrets database does not offer an easy way to classify all the clients within the Misc Energy sector, but for a final point of perspective consider this: Of the top 23 agencies I classified manually, the wind, solar, and geothermal agencies spent $6 million combined. The oil and gas, coal, and utility lobbies spent $313 million -- more than 50 times as much.

It's not hard to understand why renewables are making slow progress against the vested interests of the energy industry. In fact, it's rather remarkable that they're making any progress at all. It's probably fair to say that they wouldn't be if it were not for the weak and indirect policy lever of air quality control, which explains the fossil fuel industry's vigorous campaign to bash the EPA in any way they can. (It's also why fossil fuel industry agents have recently mocked the EPA for trying to enforce its Congressional mandates to include more ethanol in the national liquid fuel mix than is commercially available, despite the fact that it is just following Congressional orders, and that those orders were developed in bipartisan fashion and passed into law under President Bush. That's all gone down the memory hole in this extremely contentious election year.)

Transportation transition faces a similar, though less lopsided battle. The automotive, airline, and trucking lobbies together outspend rail by about two to one.

Disinformation and legislative capture

That's just the money being spent directly lobbying Congress, and publicly reported. Even more is being spent on disinformation, slander, and outright lies through a complex web of think tanks, fake advocacy groups, and other agencies. Groups like the Heartland Institute, which famously erected a billboard in suburban Chicago in May with a photo of Ted Kaczynski (the "Unabomber"), along with the caption "I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?"

A report issued earlier this month by the Sierra Club (Clean Energy Under Siege – Following the Money Trail Behind the Attack on Renewable Energy) outlines some of this spending, with particular focus on ExxonMobil, coal giant Peabody Energy, and the billionaire Koch brothers, who preside over an empire of oil, gas, coal, and manufacturing interests.

A few highlights from the report:

  • Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), in whose district Koch Industries is headquartered, has had his campaigns backed largely by oil and gas companies since 1989, and has collected over $400,000 from them in lifetime donations. Koch Industries is his largest donor, at $111,500. Pompeo has championed H.R. 3308, which he claims would equal the playing field in energy. "My energy legislation gets rid of every single tax credit in the entire federal Internal Revenue code," he is quoted as saying. "It doesn't favor solar, it doesn't favor oil and gas, it doesn't favor wind. It is energy neutral." Except, that is, for a handful of tax allowances and credits that would amount to $35 billion in benefits to oil and gas companies between 2011 and 2020, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
  • A 2010 report by Greenpeace found that the Koch brothers have funneled $61 million to "climate-denial front groups."
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which bills itself as a nonprofit, "free-market," libertarian advocacy group, has become a powerful agent, seeking to overturn the state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that have driven most of the progress of renewables in America, buying their way into opportunities to help write state energy legislation, and plotting a national public relations campaign of "subversion" to destroy the wind industry. Funded by members of the oil, gas, and coal industries, ALEC is now working hard to ensure that the Production Tax Credit, which has been responsible for the growth of wind energy in the U.S., expires at the end of this year. (If the PTC expires, another destructive bust cycle in the long boom-and-bust history of renewable energy will ensue. In contrast, the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed roughly 100 years of constant federal subsidies, yet somehow successfully argues that they still need and deserve public support but renewable energy should be able to compete without subsidies in a "free market.")
  • The oil and gas industries contributed to 88 percent of all members of the House in the 2010 election, and 89 percent of senators. Republicans garnered 86 percent of all oil and gas donations in both chambers of Congress.
  • Koch family entities are two of the top three campaign spenders in 2011-2012.
  • The seemingly endless use of the Solyndra scandal as a whipping boy for the entire concept of public support for renewable energy is a deliberate strategy of these front groups, including Karl Rove's Super PAC, Crossroads GPS, and Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded group that has spent millions in battleground states in this election.

Dirty deeds

The fossil fuel industry has spent additional millions to vigorously attack and harass the climate scientists. An excellent feature in the June Popular Science (The Battle Over Climate Science) details the dirty deeds they have sponsored: Death threats. Hate mail. Harassment via spurious and expensive lawsuits. Threatening emails. Political attacks.

The way these scientists, trying to do good honest work in the public interest, are being harassed by paid jackals is horrifying, and reminds one of the McCarthy era. Likewise, the way the industry is paying these various front groups to mislead the public and create the illusion of a debate is straight out of the pages of the tobacco lobby. Indeed, many of the same characters who shilled for Big Tobacco are now doing the same for Big Oil, Gas and Coal.

Don't let the media idiots who feel compelled to create false balance in their work fool you. The science is clear on climate change, and the data is clear on the future of fossil fuels. In both cases, we have a serious problem on our hands. A long list of internal documents from companies like ExxonMobil and various coal companies, recently revealed, show that these industries know that climate change is real and that burning fossil fuels has everything to do with it, and that they have been engaged in a decades-long campaign to deliberately confuse the public about the facts. The "debate" about global warming, and the debate about peak oil, are nothing but a war by vested interests who want to keep making money at the expense of the public health and ultimately, the fate of the planet.

A bipartisan majority of the public supports transition to renewables, but our so-called representatives in government are representing nobody but industry. Meanwhile, the renewable energy industries are vastly outgunned, outmaneuvered, and under attack. A complete tally of the money war remains to be seen, but the complex of the fossil fuel, utility, automobile, trucking, road-building, and airline industries probably outspend the sustainable industries by 100 to one. So the next time you hear some right-wing television show trash talking about the EPA, or read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal about how "green groups" are somehow responsible for a power outage caused by storm wreaking havoc on our decrepit grid, remember who they're working for.

Photo: Billboard erected in support of the Pickens Plan in Williamsport, PA by the Genetti Hotel, courtesy adamaecompton

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards