Climate science denier found behind controversial bill to muzzle NC agency representing utility customers

A North Carolina lawmaker recently introduced a bill that that would have restricted the work of the Public Staff, an independent state agency that represents consumers before the state Utilities Commission.

It turns out that he was acting on behalf of his friend John Droz, a prominent climate science denier and renewable energy opponent. Droz is a fellow with the American Tradition Institute (ATI), a conservative think tank that's been involved in controversial legal attacks on climate scientists and wants to overturn laws promoting clean energy.

House Bill 280, introduced earlier this month by Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow), tweaked the statute creating the public staff to say that the agency shall

act on behalf of the using and consuming public and shall not act on behalf of any other person, group, or entity. The public staff shall not give any advice, guidance, or opinion in any proceeding or other matter before the Commission that is not in the interest of the using and consuming public.

A member of the N.C. GOP Executive Committee, Cleveland accused the Public Staff of advocating for the Democratic Party's agenda. He told The News & Observer of Raleigh that he had "become very frustrated in getting information" from the agency.

During a hearing about the bill this week held by the House Committee on Public Utilities and Energy, Cleveland faced skeptical questions from other lawmakers -- including fellow Republicans -- concerned that the measure was vague and could have unintended consequences for the small agency. Cleveland agreed to pull the bill from consideration for now, though it could still come up again.

Meanwhile, WRAL News submitted a public records request and obtained emails exchanged between Public Staff attorney Tim Dodge and Droz between January and August of last year in which Droz repeatedly asked why the agency was not following the lead of its counterpart in Maine, which opposed expanding wind energy over cost concerns.

WRAL's Laura Leslie reports:

For months, Droz badgered Dodge with rambling, condescending, sometimes strange messages. "Your answer to Comment #5: is unsatisfactory," he wrote in one reply. He complained when Dodge did not respond, copying more than a dozen legislators, including leaders in both chambers. Cleveland was always first on the list.

On April 18, 2012, Cleveland intervened on Droz's behalf.

"Mr. Dodge," he wrote, "I have also been patiently waiting for your reply to Mr. Droz's questions. I believe he has raised some very valid points as to the operation of the NCUC Public Staff that I would like answered."

In an April 26 email, Dodge offered to meet with Cleveland "and talk about what issues you feel have not been addressed in my comments," but it's not clear whether any such meeting ever happened.

Droz is an outspoken opponent of wind energy. In previous talks delivered at the North Carolina legislature and elsewhere around the state, Droz criticized wind energy as well as the scientific theory of man-made global warming with presentations that contained factual errors and used data in misleading ways.

A real estate investor with a master's degree in physics, Droz is a senior fellow with ATI, which lost a controversial Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the University of Virginia that sought emails and other documents related to former professor Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist now at Penn State. A Facing South investigation documented ATI's ties to fossil-fuel industry interests.

Last year, the British newspaper The Guardian reported on a plan hatched by Droz with support from the corporate-backed tea party groups FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity to turn the U.S. public against wind and solar power. He proposed using questionable tactics such as launching "dummy businesses" to buy anti-wind billboards and creating a "counterintelligence branch" to monitor the wind energy industry.

Droz also serves as the scientific adviser to NC-20, a coastal development advocacy group involved in last year's passage of a widely ridiculed North Carolina law that bars state agencies from using scientific forecasts of sea-level rise to set policy.

Rep. Cleveland confirmed to WRAL that the email exchange between Droz and the Public Staff attorney was the impetus for his bill.

This was not the first time Cleveland has used his position to help Droz: Earlier this year, Cleveland sponsored a talk by Droz at the legislature that accused scientists, environmentalists, educators and the media of engaging in a hostile conspiracy against science and used dubious sources to back up its claims.

A former Marine, high school math teacher, and businessman, Cleveland was first elected to the North Carolina legislature in 2004 after years as a Republican Party activist. He is affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that brings together conservative state legislators and corporate representatives to draft model legislation promoting business-friendly policies. Droz has worked with ALEC to promote overturning state renewable energy laws, a priority for the group.

During the last legislative session, Cleveland was the sole sponsor of a bill to scrap North Carolina's renewable energy law, but it did not advance. This session, he's one of four primary sponsors of another bill to kill that law. This time it stands a better chance of passage as it also has the sponsorship of Rep. Mike Hager (R-Rutherford), the influential chair of the Public Utilities Committee and another ALEC member.