Climate-science deniers join forces against NC renewable-energy program

John Droz, David Schnare and Daren Bakst (from left to right) speak at an anti-wind energy forum in North Carolina in December 2011. (Photo by Sue Sturgis.)

Climate-science deniers with ties to the fossil-fuel industry have joined forces in an assault on North Carolina's renewable energy program and particularly wind power, which has been making big gains in the U.S. in recent years.

Representatives of the American Legislative Exchange Council, American Tradition Institute and the John Locke Foundation held forums this week in the N.C. coastal communities of Wilmington and Morehead City titled "The Truth About Wind Power on the Coasts of North Carolina." Facing South attended the Wilmington presentation, which was heavy on emotion and shaky on the facts.

"The picking and choosing of information and the way it was presented was misleading and troublesome," said N.C. Sierra Club communications chief Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, who also attended the Wilmington event. The Sierra Club has taken a nuanced position on wind power in North Carolina; it has generally supported the industry's development but joined other environmental groups in fighting one commercial wind farm proposed for the northeastern corner of the state over concerns about wildlife impacts.

The speakers at this week's forums included Daren Bakst (right in photo), director of legal and regulatory studies for the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank that has been the leading voice of climate-science denial in North Carolina public-policy circles. JLF gets most of its funding from the family foundation of Art Pope -- a discount-retail mogul, conservative benefactor and one of four national directors of Americans for Prosperity, a tea party group founded and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers who own and operate the Koch Industries oil conglomerate.

Bakst also chairs the energy and natural resources subcommittee of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an unusually powerful corporate interest group that works to discredit state-level efforts to cut global-warming pollution. ALEC has received over $1.4 million from ExxonMobil since 1998 as well as extensive funding from Koch Industries and the Koch family foundations, according to a PR Watch investigation. Additionally, Bakst chairs the energy and natural resources subcommittee of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that's dismissed the scientific consensus around global warming as "nothing more than an educated guess" while receiving over $165,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998.

Another presenter was David Schnare (middle in photo), a former government lawyer and scientist who directs the environmental law center at the American Tradition Institute, a conservative think tank that's part of a family of advocacy groups founded and funded by energy interests active in Western politics and that has been actively working to kill state renewable energy programs. ATI is currently involved in a controversial Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the University of Virginia that aims to obtain the emails of Michael Mann, a former professor at the school who's a leading scholar of climate change. Paul Chesser, ATI's former executive director and now its director of communications and research, previously worked for the John Locke Foundation and led its climate-science denial efforts.

Also speaking was John Droz (left in photo), who recently became a fellow with ATI. While Droz identifies himself as a physicist and holds a master's in solid-state science from Syracuse University, he retired from industry in 1979 and has worked in real estate for the past 30 years, according to his resume. A New York native, he splits his time between homes in that state and in Morehead City. The forums were moderated by Roy Cordato, an economist who serves as JLF's vice president for research.

'Manipulating the data'

Bakst opened the Dec. 5 forum at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington with a broadside attack on Senate Bill 3, a North Carolina law passed in 2007 that made the state the first in the Southeast to adopt a minimum requirement for the use of renewable energy sources by investor-owned electric utilities. The law requires that 12.5 percent of all electricity sold in the state by 2025 come from renewable sources such as wind and solar or from improved energy efficiency. Bakst dismissed the law as an "energy tax."

"Who gets hurt the most when energy prices are very high? I'll tell you who gets hurt the most -- the poor get hurt the most," he said, ignoring the fact that low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by coal power and climate disruption, and that North Carolina utilities are seeking substantial rate hikes to pay for coal and nuclear plants.

Though North Carolina's renewable energy standard is modest compared to some other states, such as California's 33 percent by 2020, the John Locke Foundation is calling for repealing it entirely, as well as abandoning all state efforts to address global warming.

As Bakst spoke, a group of UNCW students stepped in front of the panel and unfurled a banner that said, "This program brought to you by the fossil fuel industry." The students stood silently for a moment while some in the audience of about 50 booed, then they filed out of the room to applause. Brady Bradshaw, one of the students who participated in the protest, told Facing South that his environmental activism was spurred by his own struggles with asthma, an increasingly common health problem in the U.S. that can be triggered by power-plant pollution.

Next up was Droz, who presented a slide show that's available online.

"My main concern is that our energy and environmental policies are not being dictated to us by science," he said -- before going on to give a presentation marred by errors of fact.

For example, in Slide 34 Droz purports to compare annual federal subsidies for various types of electric power. His stated source for the information is a controversial July 2011 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But the numbers on the slide don't appear in the referenced report.

Brian O'Hara, president of the N.C. Offshore Wind Coalition, an industry group, suspects Droz calculated the figures from other numbers in the report -- but said that by doing so Droz "is just manipulating the data in order to support a story he's trying to tell." O'Hara pointed out that a large portion of the subsidies the EIA report identified for wind energy is from the Treasury Department's 1603 program that provides some cost reimbursements for renewables. Droz attributed the entire amount of the credit to just the energy produced in 2010 rather than over the life of the project, thus overstating the subsidy for wind by a factor of anywhere from 30 to 300.

Droz drew on the same report for Slide 35, again using EIA data in a misleading way. At the top of the slide, to his credit, Droz states that he is comparing only "some" annual federal subsidies. But he doesn't disclose in his slide presentation -- nor did he mention in his accompanying narrative in Wilmington -- that the EIA takes pains to point out that the report does not look at all of the subsidies that impact the energy sector. In fact, the EIA report has a two-page sidebar detailing the subsidies excluded from the analysis, such as accelerated depreciation, which is commonly used by oil and gas companies; potentially inadequate coverage by energy-related trust funds such as the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund; and liability limits for nuclear plants created by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Price-Anderson Act.

Among the other incorrect claims Droz made is that wind "takes well over a thousand times the amount of area" as nuclear power to generate the same amount of electricity (Slide 29), which wrongly assumes that no other activity goes on in between turbines at a wind farm. In that same slide, he claims that the windiest U.S. sites are far from where power is needed, ignoring the fact that offshore wind can be located close to some of the biggest demand centers.

Droz said he's no fan of coal; instead he promotes underground mini-nuclear reactors, with his slide show specifically mentioning uranium-fueled reactors being developed by NuScale and lithium reactors developed by Toshiba. But Schnare used his presentation -- punctuated with images of burning and broken wind turbines (photo above) -- to mount a defense of coal-fired power plants as just not that polluting.

"Don't tell me these coal plants … are causing a problem," he said -- ignoring the fact that last year alone the nation's 100 top-polluting coal plants reported releasing over 194 million pounds of toxic chemicals to the air and another 2 million pounds to surface waters, and that fossil-fuel plants are the leading source of U.S. carbon emissions. And though Schnare holds a master's in public health from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he didn't acknowledge any of coal's well-documented public health impacts. He also dismissed concerns about mountaintop removal, saying mining companies leave the sites in good condition -- when in fact scientific studies have found that mountaintop removal causes severe environmental damages that are "pervasive and irreversible."

During the question-and-answer period that followed the Wilmington presentations, the first query was who ATI was and where it got its funding from.

Schnare responded that since he and Droz work for the American Tradition Institute pro bono, it "doesn't matter where the money comes from." Droz added that he had no idea who funds the organization, while Cordato said he believes questions about money are "beside the point." In response to a second question about the groups' finances, Cordato stated, "I don't know where we get our funding."

He added, "To suggest people's views are being bought I think impugns their integrity."

Changing the ground rules

Droz faced no tough questions about his funding or integrity in the anti-wind energy presentation he gave to members of the N.C. General Assembly at the invitation of the Republican leadership on Nov. 28 during a special short session called to repeal a law guarding against racially discriminatory application of the death penalty. About 20 lawmakers attended the presentation, all of them Republicans, according to environmental advocates who attended and spoke with Facing South.

The presentation Droz gave to lawmakers contained the same misleading information about energy subsidies. It also criticized La Capra Associates, an independent consulting firm hired by the N.C. legislature in 2006 to study the state's potential for renewable energy, as unqualified to conduct such a study. Why? Because if they found that renewables were not a good idea, Droz claimed, "their NC employers would not be happy" and "they would never again get renewables consulting business."

So who did he say was qualified to offer assistance? The John Locke Foundation.

Environmentalists who viewed Droz's legislative presentation called it "wacky" and "bizarre." But such out-of-the-scientific-mainstream views are gaining greater traction in a legislature now controlled -- thanks in no small part to Art Pope's money -- by a Republican Party that increasingly refuses to recognize mounting scientific evidence that human activity is disrupting the climatic balance.

The same week that Droz gave his presentation to the North Carolina legislature, the noted environmental journalist and activist Bill McKibben spoke a few miles away at Raleigh's Community United Church of Christ. He began by detailing the worsening climate crisis, noting that oceans are now 30 percent more acidic than they were just decades ago, 2010 was the warmest year on record, and growing numbers of people around the world are suffering through unprecedented droughts and floods.

Science has provided good information about the nature of the climate problem and engineering has provided good solutions, McKibben said, but "the political method has failed completely" because the fossil-fuel industry has too much power and wants to continue to use earth's atmosphere as an open sewer in which to dump its waste.

Despite recent victories enjoyed by the climate-justice movement -- such as last month's successful effort to get President Obama to delay a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline transporting heavily polluting tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries -- McKibben observed that addressing the climate crisis one problem at a time simply isn't going to work.

"We're going to have to change in certain ways the ground rules of this game," he said. "We're going to have to figure out ways to rein in corporate power."

But there were no members of the state legislature there to hear McKibben's message: The only elected officials in the room were Raleigh City Councilor Russ Stephenson and Sammy Slade, an environmental organizer who also serves as an alderman for the town of Carrboro, N.C. Both communities have taken steps in recent years to reduce their own carbon emissions.

Whether the John Locke Foundation, American Tradition Institute and their climate-science-denying ilk will manage to build enough support to kill North Carolina's renewable energy program is uncertain, especially given that the state's politically powerful utilities oppose the idea because it disrupts their long-range planning. But their efforts to discredit renewables will make it that much more difficult for environmental advocates to win political support to strengthen the state's clean-energy initiatives.

Meanwhile, the news coming out of the international climate negotiations taking place this week in Durban, South Africa was not good: 2011 has tied for the 10th hottest year on record, Arctic Ice has melted to record lows, and the U.S. set a new record for billion-dollar weather disasters -- serious problems that the climate-science deniers conveniently ignored.

(Second photo is a still from the John Locke Foundation's recording of the Dec. 5 anti-wind energy presentation in Wilmington, N.C.)