Monday, October 30, 2017

How Fossil Fuel Allies Are Tearing Apart Ohio's Embrace of Clean Energy

With scare studies, policy drafts and political donations, industry groups turned Ohio lawmakers against policies they once overwhelmingly supported.

Ohio's Electricity Mix:  Coal Is Losing Ground (Credit: Paul Horn / InsideClimate News) Click to Enlarge.On March 30, Bill Seitz, a charismatic Republican, took to the floor of the Ohio House to make a case for gutting a 2008 law designed to speed the adoption of solar and wind as significant sources of electricity in the state.  The law, he warned, "is like something out of the 5-Year Plan playbook of Joseph Stalin."  Adopting a corny Russian accent, he said, "Vee vill have 25,000 trucks on the Volga by 1944!'"

Nine years before, Seitz and his colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, had voted overwhelmingly for the measure he now compared to the work of a Communist dictator. It made Ohio the 25th state to embrace requirements and inducements to lure utilities away from coal, a major contributor of the gases fueling global climate change.  Studies suggested the law would help create green energy jobs and boost the Ohio economy—and it has.Now, Seitz said, it was obsolete.  Natural gas, rapidly displacing coal, was the resource Ohio ought to foster, he said.  He also argued the law gives an unfair advantage to wind and solar when the state's last nuclear plant is fighting for its life.  Most important, Seitz insisted, the government had no business telling anyone what kind of energy to buy.  By the time he was done, he had secured a veto-proof majority to undo key parts of the law.

What happened to turn lawmakers so decisively against a statute they'd adopted 93-to-1 less than a decade ago?

The answers begin with the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Ohio hard and greatly depressed energy demand, and they include the shale gas boom, which benefited Ohio producers and made coal uncompetitive.

Choke Hold Series
But there's more to the story, too.

As fossil fuel interests mobilized at the national level to fight proposals to mitigate climate change that would undercut their profits, they made Ohio a priority for fighting clean energy policy at the state level.  Beginning in earnest in 2011, a network of coal companies, utilities, think tanks, nonprofit foundations and political action committees coalesced to roll back Ohio's alternative energy initiatives.

Industry-supported think tanks provided highly questionable research purporting to show big job losses.  An industry group claiming to represent consumers—and accused of using fraudulent tactics before regulatory agencies—advised Seitz's staff on how to water down the definition of alternative energy.  And industry sources donated to the campaigns of state politicians, like Seitz, who've kept the repeal-and-replace bills coming, even after Republican Gov. John Kasich vetoed a similar effort.

This network includes Americans for Prosperity, a foundation funded by the energy magnates Charles and David H. Koch; the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group known for its criticism of climate change science; and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), another conservative nonprofit in Washington with Koch ties that frequently spoon-feeds draft legislation to state politicians.

Seitz is on ALEC's national board of directors, but he bristles at the suggestion that he relies on the council for guidance.  "ALEC doesn't drive me," he told InsideClimate News.  "If anything I drive ALEC."  Either way, in 2012 ALEC adopted an "Electricity Freedom Act" that reads like a declaration of war against the kind of energy rules on the books in Ohio and calls for the effort to reject them that Seitz leads.

The Rise of Clean Energy Scare Studies
"Ohio has a legitimate claim to being a leader in renewable energy, which is what makes the effort to stymie renewables here all the more ironic," said Bill Spratley, former executive director of Green Energy Ohio, an advocacy organization in Columbus.  He said if the Seitz bill became law, "we might end up supplying everyone else with these wonderful technologies while we don't get to benefit from them ourselves."

Spratley testified against Seitz's bill.  He noted that there are roughly 80 companies making parts for wind power systems in Ohio and scores of engineers and sales representatives installing solar, "and those jobs aren't going anywhere," he said.  "Those are local jobs."

Ten years ago, more Ohio politicians embraced Spratley's message.  In 2007-08, as the "Energy, Jobs and Progress" plan made its way toward law, energy demand was strong, prices were expected to remain high, and awareness of coal's contribution to climate change had peaked.  The law committed Ohio to cutting energy consumption by 22 percent by 2025 and diversifying sources so that 12.5 percent of its electricity would come from alternative energy sources—geothermal, biomass, wind, solar.

Ohio Renewable Energy Law at a Glance
Demand and prices fell with the recession and the shale gas boom, but the promise of more jobs and less global warming continued to resonate.  Or it did until studies started showing up that warned that the law would do more harm than good.

Read more at How Fossil Fuel Allies Are Tearing Apart Ohio's Embrace of Clean Energy

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