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North Carolina: A Banana Republic for Dirty Energy Interests?

Cliffside coal plant in Cliffside, North Carolina. (Photo: Rainforest Action Network)

Clean energy opponents turned to dirty tactics this week at the North Carolina legislature to advance a bill repealing the state’s groundbreaking renewable power program.

In a contested vote that led to an outcry from Democrats, the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday advanced a measure to roll back the 2007 state law requiring electric utilities to generate a modest amount of energy from renewable sources including solar, wind, and livestock methane — 12.5 percent of total retail sales by 2021 and thereafter.

The vote brought back to life a bill that appeared near death in the House last week, when the Public Utilities Committee rejected companion legislation sponsored by its own chair, Republican Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherford County, in a bipartisan vote of 18-13.

Though Hager said he would keep bringing up his bill for re-votes in his committee, he didn’t this week, leading observers to assume he still doesn’t have support for passage. But the Senate version of the legislation, SB 365, was taken up later that day in the Finance Committee, whose members include Republican Sen. Andrew Brock of a Mocksville, a political consultant who is the bill’s sole sponsor.

The measure advanced — but there are questions about whether the repeal’s supporters actually won the vote. Senate Finance Committee co-chair Bill Rabon (R-Southport) refused requests to count a show of hands. In protest of the voice vote, the bill’s opponents shouted “No!” Many observers thought the vote was too close to call.

Afterwards, some Democrats condemned the process.

Democratic Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Buncombe County, who voted against the renewables repeal bill in committee, brought up the vote later that day during the full Senate session.

“It looks very bad to the public,” he told his colleagues, adding that it appears “the vote was called the wrong way.”

Also protesting the vote was Democratic Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh, who also voted against the bill in committee.

“North Carolina is not a banana republic,” Stein told The News & Observer. “That was no way to run a proceeding.”

The bill now moves to the Senate Commerce Committee for further consideration.

Fossil fuel interests behind renewables repeal effort

During the public legislative hearings held to date on the renewables repeal bill, it’s been overwhelmingly opposed by speakers. They’ve included owners of renewable energy businesses, who have pointed to the thousands of jobs created in the state by the existing law, as well as livestock farmers who have invested in solar and methane generation systems. At the same time, a recent poll found that over 80 percent of the state’s voters support renewable energy initiatives — 89 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents, and 76 percent of Republicans.

The renewables repeal has also met resistance from Republican legislative leaders, including Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte. She’s considered a likely candidate to replace Rep. Thom Tillis of Cornelius as House Speaker.

So why is the bill still alive? The measure is being pushed by a coalition of 16 influential state and national conservative advocacy groups — many with financial ties to the fossil-fuel industry.

One of the most outspoken proponents of repealing renewable energy laws in North Carolina and elsewhere has been Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based conservative advocacy group that was founded in 2004 with the support of oil billionaires David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries. The Kochs’ family foundations are also major funders of AFP, a key player in the conservative tea party movement.

Other coalition members with fossil-fuel industry connections include:

* American Commitment. Run by a former vice president of Americans for Prosperity, this conservative advocacy group promotes the Keystone XL Pipeline project at Koch Industries told Canadian regulators that it has “direct and substantial interest” in the Keystone project. It has also run ads claiming President Obama is waging a “war on coal.” Because it is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, it does not have to disclose its donors.

* American Energy Alliance. This group promotes what it calls “free market energy policies,” including oil and gas drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was founded in 2008 by Thomas Pyle, who previously lobbied for Koch Industries and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.

* American Legislative Exchange Council. This influential group brings together conservative lawmakers and corporations to craft and promote model state legislation, including a bill to repeal renewable energy laws. The Koch foundations and company are major funders of ALEC as are other fossil fuel interests including Energy Future Holdings, Exxon Mobil and Peabody Energy.

* American Tradition Institute. ATI’s founding was financed by a Colorado petroleum fortune heir whose family sold their company to William Koch, the brother of Koch Industries’ David and Charles Koch. ATI has long pressed to end North Carolina’s renewables program, and it has been a leading voice of climate science denial at the legislature. Last year the group lost a controversial lawsuit that sought to force the University of Virginia to release the emails of former professor Michael Mann, a leading climatologist who it has tried to discredit.

* Competitive Enterprise Institute. A free-market think tank and advocacy group, CEI is known for its misleading use of science to argue against the reality of global warming. It has received funding from the Koch foundations as well as the Amoco Foundation and Texaco.

* The Heartland Institute. This conservative think tank has been a leading proponent of climate science denial, likening people who accept the scientific reality of global warming to Unabomber terrorist Ted Kaczynski, and it teamed up with ALEC to write model legislation reversing state renewable energy standards. The group has received funding from the Koch foundations as well as Exxon Mobil.

* The Independent Women’s Forum. IWF is a free-market advocacy group that used to be affiliated with Americans for Prosperity, sharing staff and resources, and is funded by the Koch family foundations. In 2010, it launched a group called Balanced Education for Everyone that advocated an end to teaching about global warming, which it calls “junk science,” in U.S. schools.

* The National Center for Public Policy Research. This conservative policy group promotes denial of global warming, comparing acceptance of climate science to belief in religion. It’s received over $400,000 in funding from Exxon Mobil.

Other members of the anti-renewables coalition are the American Conservative Union, which issues influential ratings of state lawmakers; Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax advocacy group headed by Grover Norquist, a former lobbyist for the electric power industry and BP; the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a free-market policy group that promotes climate science denial; Freedom Action, a web-based activist group affiliated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute; the John W. Pope Civitas Institute and John Locke Foundation, North Carolina-based think tanks that promote global warming denial; and the National Taxpayers Union, which has close ties to ALEC.

Most of the North Carolina lawmakers pushing to repeal the state’s renewable energy law have ties to coalition groups.

As Facing South has reported previously, three of the four primary sponsors of the House version of the renewables repeal bill — Rep. Hager, Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Wake), and Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow) are affiliated with ALEC. In addition, Rep. Avila is a former staff member of the John Locke Foundation, also part of the anti-renewables coalition.

Brock, the Senate bill’s sponsor, previously worked for Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). That group was founded in 1984 when Charles and David Koch asked Rich Fink — now executive vice president at Koch Industries — to develop a plan for an organization that could effectively advocate for free-market policies. Koch Industries and the Koch family foundations were the group’s major funders.

In 2003, a rift between CSE and its affiliated foundation led to a split. The foundation took a new name: Americans for Prosperity.

Trading bananas for fossil fuels?

The phrase “banana republic” was coined by the writer O. Henry to describe a fictional country ruled by wealthy elites in which the national legislature is for sale.

While North Carolina might not be a banana republic, as state Sen. Stein pointed out, the debate over the state’s energy policy has revealed disturbing signs that the democratic process is being abused for the benefit of well-heeled interests — and the renewables repeal bill is not the only example of the problem.

Last year when the legislature was voting on an override of former Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of a bill legalizing fracking in the state, for example, the measure ended up passing by one vote. However, Democratic state Rep. Becky Carney of Mecklenburg County mistakenly pushed the wrong button and voted for the override, and the House leadership refused to let her correct her vote.

It later came to light that Rep. Hager, then Republican freshman leader and sponsor of the fracking law, tried to arrange for the veto override vote to take place while a key Democrat — whose district will be affected by fracking — was off the floor.

Hager recently told The News & Observer that he was not above turning to similar tactics to pass the renewables repeal bill:

The former Duke Energy engineer said he hopes some lawmakers switch votes and others miss the meeting; he won’t decide whether he’ll put his bill to another vote until the last minute Wednesday.

“It’s all about the numbers,” Hager explained. “It’s all about who has the incentive to be there.”

The problem of powerful energy interests manipulating the democratic process to their benefit is not limited to North Carolina’s legislature, either.

This week the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission — the state body charged with drawing up fracking regulations — was prepared to approve its first rule governing public disclosure of chemicals in fracking fluids. But shortly before the scheduled May 2 vote, commissioners were informed the rule was being changed.

The reason? Fracking giant Halliburton objected, telling state regulators the rule went too far.

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