After maintaining a low profile for decades, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) received widespread exposure in recent years for backing Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, a substantial part of the national discussion following the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. ALEC eventually distanced itself from the gun lobby’s position after the backlash following Martin’s death, but not before the significant public relations blow led to the departure of many donors. With that high-profile case mostly subsided, ALEC can now return its attention to the low-profile war it’s waging for several years to keep renewable energy from gaining territory and promoting fossil fuel production across the country.
Going into their annual meeting in Dallas, Texas on Wednesday, ALEC — the secretive organization that brings together conservative politicians and major corporate interests — is looking to recalibrate their approach to repealing or obstructing a range of clean energy initiatives after a year of state-level defeats. The 40-year-old group, which has been pushing a corporate-backed, free market-driven agenda for decades, is beholden to a number of utilities and fossil fuel companies that bankroll them and they are expected to show results. At the same time, with renewable energy gaining momentum across the country and homeowners increasingly eager to get in on the rapid growth and falling prices, ALEC risks alienating itself from the public yet again.
Dale Eisman, director of communications at Common Cause, a non-profit working towards government accountability, told ThinkProgress that his organization takes specific issue with how ALEC crafts their legislation at meetings like the upcoming one.
“The secrecy of it through closed meetings, they are masquerading as a charity while operating as a lobby,” said Eisman. “Whatever the issue — labor, schools, climate, or energy — they are drafting bills to advance corporate interests that don’t necessarily coincide with the public interest.”
This past year ALEC’s influence contributed to the ongoing battles between solar customers and utilities in Arizona and a Kansas Republican lawmaker’s ostracization from the state Chamber of Commerce after he refused to support an ALEC-backed measure designed to weaken Kansas’s successful renewable energy standard. ALEC, which does not publish a full list of all dues-paying members, includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives, and lobbyists. Many of the state legislators have gone on to become members of Congress.
It is well-documented that most of ALEC’s revenue comes from corporations and corporate foundations, including those associated with petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch, rather than legislative dues. An analysis by the Energy & Policy Institute found that between 1998 and 2012 ALEC’s membership fees totaled just over $1 million while gifts, grants, and contributions were just over $78 million. ALEC received $500,000 in funding from various Koch foundations from 2005-2011 and $1.4 million from ExxonMobil this past decade.
Eisman said that at meetings where task forces ratify model legislation, public officials from legislatures and corporate representatives vote as equals. Then the lawmakers take the legislation back to their states or districts and introduce it as their own, even when oftentimes it was drafted word-for-word by corporate interests.
“Corporations provide travel and lodging for members of public bodies at private resorts,” he added. “Then they vote as equals with legislative members when drafting bills at these meetings.”
State lawmakers are often overburdened sifting through legislation, Eisman explained, and welcome ALEC’s model legislation as a way to gain a foothold in their respective legislatures. ALEC also finds other ways to curry favor with the politicians.
I ‘Kept Hearing Negative Stuff’
Standard registration for ALEC’s annual meeting this week in Dallas is $600 for legislative members, $980 for private sector members, and near impossible for non-members. ALEC’s meetings are notoriously closed-door, as documented by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who described trying to attend ALEC’s annual Washington, D.C. meeting last December as “going into the belly of the beast” from which he was quickly regurgitated after a police officer turned him away.
Chris Taylor, a Democratic representative in the Wisconsin legislature also documented her stealthy foray into ALEC’s annual meeting last year in Chicago, as well as a smaller meeting in Missouri. Inside she found a dedicated effort to preserve the fossil fuel status quo.
A part of ALEC’s battle is to preserve an old economy, where coal, oil and gas remain supreme. Their defense of these industries represents the will of corporate members. Yet their regressive approach to energy policy conflicts with their professed allegiance to Jeffersonian “free market” principles and consumer choice.
Though the renewable energy sector is growing, is popular with the public and is generating new jobs — and the solar industry now employs 140,000 more people than our nation’s coal mines — conference attendees focused on hindering this sector, especially solar.
A number of state representatives listed as former ALEC members were contacted for this story, and the several who responded said they had very little experience with the group and only attended one or so meetings or events. Ken Haar, a Nebraska state senator, told ThinkProgress that his first year in office, the legislature paid for his membership but that he “never went to any meetings and just kept hearing negative stuff about them,” so he dropped the membership.
CREDIT: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
This reporter received no response from ALEC when requesting a press pass to the upcoming conference. The ALEC Energy, Environment, and Agricultural (EEA) task force’s public chair representative, Thomas Lockhart, a Wyoming state representative, did not respond for comment and neither did private chair Paul Loeffelman, corporate contact for American Electric Power, one of the largest electric utilities in the U.S. John Eick, director of ALEC’s EEA task force, did make himself available for questions.
Eick said ALEC believes “energy consumers — not governments — should have the power and ability to determine what types of energy best suits their needs and desires,” and that “it is the government policies that give certain types of energy artificial competitive advantages over others that ALEC opposes.”
Eick did not mention the estimated $21.6 billion in subsidies for oil, gas, and coal exploration and production that U.S. federal and state governments gave away in 2013. Or any additional costs imposed on taxpayers due to environmental and health impacts from fossil fuel spills or pollution. Or the negative externalities associated with the increased carbon pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels, such as more frequent and intense severe weather or prolonged heat and drought.
The International Energy Agency’s latest estimates indicate that fossil-fuel consumption subsidies worldwide amounted to $409 billion in 2010, up from $300 billion in 2009.
In a preview of the group’s continuing attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency, Eick said that while “ALEC absolutely believes that EPA has an important role to play,” over the last several years the agency has “radically altered” the balance of power between it and the states and is now “cutting states out of the process.”
The EPA designed its new carbon reduction plan for existing power plants specifically with state flexibility and input in mind and tailored each state’s requirements to a number of state-level factors. Going forward, states will have most of the say in how they reach the desired carbon limits.
Eick acknowledged climate change, calling it a “a subject that is inextricably linked with all discussions of energy policy.” He did not elaborate on any way that climate change may be impacting humans or the environment or present any means of mitigating or adapting to it. He did say that ALEC supports an all-of-the-above strategy and that there will be a focus on nuclear energy in the future electricity generation mix at the annual meeting.
As for climate change discussions during the upcoming annual meeting, a representative from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) will be providing attendees with a summary of their most recently released report on the current state of climate science. The NIPCC is funded by the Heartland Institute, which questions the existence of climate change, considers the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be “a joke,” and has equated people that believe in climate change with the Unabomber. The Koch brothers have donated to the institute as well.
Keynote speakers at the conference will include Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott. Gov. Perry is an avowed climate change denier and prefers praying for rain over planning for the lack of it — though he did sign new water legislation last year as Texas could no longer ignore the extreme drought conditions occupying the state. As Attorney General, Abbott has made a cottage industry out of suing the EPA, having done so at least 17 times. Climate change-denying Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina and former Republican presidential candidate Hermain Cain, who said “mandmade global warming is poppycock,” will also be speaking.
“According to the meeting agenda, legislators will be schooled on how industry wants them to talk about climate change,” Nick Surgey, research director for the Center For Media and Democracy’s PR Watch, told ThinkProgress. Surgey said there will be a heavy focus on EPA regulations this year and that lobbyists from ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and BP will help model a bill opposed to limiting carbon emissions from coal plants.
“ALEC has been campaigning on this issue all year, encouraging its legislator members to push their state attorneys general to sue the EPA to block the proposed rules,” he said.
Not Just Giving Money For The Heck Of It
While ALEC prides itself on keeping a low profile and remaining opaque, they do make some memorandums available to the public. In preparation for the annual summit, the EEA task force released a mission statement and list of resolutions.
One of the resolutions deems the EPA’s proposed guidelines for reducing carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants “to be on a schedule that is not achievable or workable.” In support of what Surgey said, the memo recommends that state legislators provide “comments” to the EPA on the “legal, reliability, affordability, achievability, timing, implementation, scheduling and other issues that need to be more appropriately considered.”
The term EPA appears 24 times in the memorandum while climate change, global warming, solar power or wind power are not mentioned at all — which doesn’t mean they aren’t at the top of ALEC’s agenda. Documents obtained by the Guardian from ALEC’s 2013 annual meeting show the organization pushed more than 70 bills in 37 states that would have impeded clean energy growth last year. While ALEC originally sought to repeal state-level Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) in 2012, after limited success and a lot of negative push-back the group refocused on weakening the standards. In 2013, ALEC lost all 13 of its anti-clean energy legislative fights at the state level.
“Utility companies and fossil fuel companies that back ALEC now realize they’re not going to be able to put an end to renewable energy grids across the country,” Matt Kasper, a fellow at the Energy and Policy Institute and formerly of the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. “So they are trying to limit growth and protect as much revenue as they can.”
Kasper said that these companies aren’t just giving money to ALEC for the heck of it and if they don’t see results, they might eventually get frustrated and turn their attention elsewhere. “ALEC was created to take the heat and prevent the line of fire from reaching companies like Peabody Coal and American Electric Power,” said Kasper.
‘This Particular Issue Might Turn Into Something’
In early July, ALEC announced that Lisa B. Nelson would be the next CEO of the organization. Nelson was a former Visa Inc. executive and an aide to Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House. Upon hearing of her appointment, Gingrich said Nelson is a great leader and will “greatly enhance ALEC’s ability to serve state legislators.”
Gingrich, who will also be speaking at the ALEC meeting, has repeatedly dismissed the dangers of climate change, having said “life was fine” when the planet was “dramatically warmer” during the age of the dinosaurs.
In a statement about her new position, Nelson said “at a time when the American people are calling for change, our unique public-private partnership is highly relevant and poised for growth.”
Judging by ALEC’s recent actions, this change calls for hindering the EPA at the national level, stifling renewable energy at the state level, and infiltrating local politics through a new initiative called the American City County Exchange.
The American City County Exchange, still in its infancy, will make its national showcase at the annual conference. The initiative will adhere to a similar recipe of melding lawmakers and business groups to create “free market solutions” as Jon Russell, a former local official in Washington state who is leading the initiative, told Governing Magazine.
Surgey said that while not much is known about who is funding this new project, as a possible sign of agenda items to come, a recent ALEC presentation focussed on the risks to the natural gas industry posed by local bans on fracking.
On a similar note, Kasper said he thought ALEC’s interest in Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs at this year’s conference might be a way for the group to tie in this new hyper-local initiative. PACE funding mechanisms make it easier for individuals to invest in small-scale renewable energy projects or energy efficiency technologies and are used by a number of cities and municipalities. By allowing a special tax levied on the property, PACE programs lower the risk for owners. At least 31 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing individual counties or municipalities to institute PACE programs.
According to Eick, EEA task force members requested to hear about PACE at the conference.
“Going forward, it’s certainly possible that this particular issue might turn into something a bit more substantial — such as proposed model policy — but it’s probably too soon to tell,” he said. “If a member has an idea for a proposed model policy, usually they will start with a presentation in order to gauge interest and to receive feedback from other task force members before a concrete proposal materializes.”
All members might get one vote, but not all members are created equal. And the rest of the public is kept behind closed doors.