Across the country, state and local lawmakers are battling over a solar energy policy called net metering. But while the reasons for disagreement vary from place to place, several share a common and oft-unreported thread: Many attacks on the solar policy are supported by fossil fuel interests.
Net metering allows customers who have installed rooftop solar panels to generate their own electricity and send what they don't use into the electric grid for others to use -- like during the day, when the sun is shining but a family is at work or school. In exchange for the electricity provided to the grid, the customer gets a credit applied to their utility bill. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council has explained that solar panels "predictably produce energy during peak hours of the day, supporting the grid when most needed," and that net metering makes solar energy a "viable financial investment for many consumers." The policy has widespread support from liberals and conservatives alike, and has even spurred an offshoot of the Tea Party, called the "Green Tea Coalition," which connects environmentalists with Tea Partiers in support of net metering.
The amount of credit solar energy users receive, however, is the subject of fierce debate in states across the country. Utilities have been pushing for legislation to roll back net metering credits by adding a cap or charging a flat fee for solar users. Net metering poses a distinct challenge for utilities because it disrupts their long-standing monopoly in the electricity market.
Moreover, net-metered solar energy cuts into utilities' profits; with more distributed solar energy in the electric grid, utilities have no reason to invest in and build new power plants. As the Energy & Policy Institute's Matthew Kasper told The Washington Post, distributed solar energy prevents "the need to build new, expensive power plants or transmission lines." He added, "Utilities make their money by building big, new infrastructure projects and then sending ratepayers the bill, which is exactly why utilities want to eliminate solar."
In coverage of net metering battles, the media has largely focused on opposition from utilities. But there are larger forces at play: Outside interests are influencing the battle through front groups and legislation. Here are just a few of the groups inserting themselves into net metering battles:
Americans for Prosperity, which was created by the Koch brothers and acts as their political arm, has fought against net metering in Georgia and Florida, and pushed misleading claims that net metering policies "have resulted in rate hikes and did not result in solar becoming more economically viable." In March, PolitiFact rated this claim "Pants on Fire" and called it "completely wrong."
Consumer Energy Alliance, which has received over $400,000 from the American Petroleum Institute and been affiliated with fossil fuel giants including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and others, produced a phony petition in 2014 that attacked Wisconsin's net metering policy.
The Institute for Energy Research, which has received funding from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Koch brothers' political network, released a report earlier this year claiming that net metering only benefits higher-income households.
The National Black Chamber of Commerce, which has received $1 million in funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation, recently claimed (falsely) that Louisiana's net metering policies shift costs onto low-income families.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate front group that connects fossil fuel industry executives with legislators to push model bills serving industry interests, has released a resolution on net metering, calling it "antithetical to free markets."
Several other fossil fuel front groups have been fighting against net metering, as detailed in a report by the Energy & Policy Institute:
The involvement of these groups, who don't appear to have direct ties with local utilities, may seem strange. But not when you consider that net metering policies are causing an unprecedented increase in solar energy use and thereby helping wean Americans off fossil fuels.
From 2010 to 2014, the amount of annual solar photovoltaic (PV) installations roughly increased by a factor of seven, and the U.S. had a record quarter for solar photovoltaics installations in the second quarter of 2015, reaching a total installed capacity high enough to power over four million homes. Meanwhile, prices have dropped rapidly over the past 10 years: the cost of installing solar is now 73 percent lower than it was in 2006.
Nine of the 10 states with the most solar electricity installed per capita also have strong net metering policies. But policies to roll back net metering are already impacting solar companies. One company, Vivint, scrapped its plans to expand to Nevada after the state changed its policy to cap net metering at what solar advocates call an unreasonably low limit. Massachusetts' net metering cap poses a similar threat to the solar industry there.
Attack campaigns against net metering could halt the expansion of a clean energy industry that threatens the fossil fuel interests usually behind those attacks. Media coverage of net metering debates should make that fact loud and clear, so the public knows the real identity of who's against net metering, and why.
Photo at top from Flickr user Wayne National Forest with a Creative Commons license.
The bureau chief of CBS' Raleigh affiliate accurately reported the fossil fuel ties of American Energy Alliance, a Koch front group whose industry affiliation is regularly ignored by mainstream media outlets.
In a September 9 article headlined "Renewables critics sound off," WRAL capitol bureau chief Laura Leslie reported that the American Energy Alliance (AEA) sponsored a roundtable attacking North Carolina's renewable energy policy. Leslie described AEA as "the political lobbying arm" of an organization funded by the Charles and David Koch, explaining that its president, Thomas Pyle, is a former Koch Industries lobbyist. She added that "[m]uch of the money the Koch family has made has been through petrochemical fuels."
Additionally, Leslie detailed the Koch ties of another roundtable participant, a professor from Utah State University's Institute for Political Economy who authored an anti-renewable energy study described by advocates as "misleading."
From the WRAL post:
Opponents of renewable energy programs held an hour-long roundtable at the Legislative Building on Wednesday about their concerns.
The event was sponsored by the American Energy Alliance, the political lobbying arm of the Institute for Energy Policy, a conservative think tank funded by Charles and David Koch. The event moderator was Tom Pyle, president of the AEA and the IEP, and a former Koch Industries lobbyist.
Much of the money the Koch family has made has been through petrochemical fuels. According to a Pro-Publica investigation in 2014, the Kochs have used a trade group known as Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce to funnel money to a long list of conservative nonprofit groups, many of which defend the fossil fuel industry against public policy initiatives favoring renewables.
Another panelist at the event was Ryan Yonk, an assistant professor at Utah State University's Institute for Political Economy, a free-market think tank that also has strong ties to the Koch brothers. Yonk co-authored a study that says the average household in North Carolina lost $3,800 in disposable income in 2013 because of the cost of the renewable energy standard.
"The folks that get hurt the most are the folks that are very least able to afford it," Yonk said.
Dustin Chicurel-Bayard with the North Carolina Sierra Club pointed out that the study, which he characterized as "misleading," has been thoroughly debunked by researchers at the American Wind Energy Association.
Broadcast evening news programs entirely ignored Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign finance reform proposal, instead continuing to focus on speculation about Clinton's email use and poll numbers, according to a Media Matters review.
In reporting on conservative activist James O'Keefe's latest absurd adventure, major media coverage acknowledged it was a flop and something of a joke, except for the New York Times.
O'Keefe held a press conference to announce that his group Project Veritas had released an undercover video of the Clinton campaign allowing a Canadian to give a Project Veritas operative money so that she could purchase a Clinton t-shirt, which was a campaign product that could not be legally purchased by a non-American. At his event O'Keefe presented the incident as if it were a major scandal, while most of the press reported that it was at best a trivial infraction of less than $80.
Bloomberg Politics compared the offense to "jaywalking," National Journal described O'Keefe's press conference as a "vortex of political absurdity" and noted that "we had been snookered into another supposedly salacious release from O'Keefe's organization." The Los Angeles Times said the story, "billed as a blockbuster," was "hardly the stuff of a Pulitzer Prize. " The event and revelation were so underwhelming that a reporter from the Daily Beast asked O'Keefe, "Are you sure it's not a joke?"
The New York Times' Alan Rappeport, in an article headlined "James O'Keefe, Political Sleuth," was far more charitable than the rest of the media. Rappeport wrote that O'Keefe "fired an opening salvo" in 2016 coverage and "campaigns were put on notice on Tuesday."
The Times accepted O'Keefe's framing of the exchange between the Canadian woman and the Project Veritas staffer, writing, "Mr. O'Keefe made the case that the video showed a willingness by the campaign to skirt laws that forbid taking donations from foreigners by using a conduit." In fact the video shows a Clinton staffer pointing out that a foreign national is prohibited from buying the t-shirt in question.
Rappeport proceeded to parrot O'Keefe's argument by noting, "Foreign donations are a sensitive subject for the Clintons, as their family foundation has been under scrutiny for accepting money from overseas." The Times has repeatedly misinformed its readers on the nature of donations to the Clinton Foundation. To reiterate, this is in reference to a $75 transaction over a t-shirt.
The paper even sought comment from the Federal Election Commission, reporting that "at least four commissioners would have to agree that there was a violation before any penalties could be imposed."
While the Times noted that reporters attending O'Keefe's presentation snickered at the obvious absurdity of the occasion, the Times report gave O'Keefe's deceptive claims an enormous and largely uncritical platform.
From the August 24 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
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On the August 3 edition of CBS This Morning, CBS News allowed contributor and Republican strategist Frank Luntz to defend Republican presidential candidates courting donors at an event hosted by the Koch brothers without disclosing that he has previously advised Koch-affiliated groups. The Koch brothers have used Luntz as a messaging consultant for years, dating back to the 2010 election cycle, and including messaging advice for Americans for Prosperty and Freedom Partners.
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From the August 3 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
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In the years since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, political spending has skyrocketed, much of it in secret. The ruling has kept the media and public from knowing where this "dark money" comes from and what conflicts of interest exist. However, if President Obama decides to issue an executive order requiring contractors to disclose their political donations, as he is reportedly considering doing, journalists will soon be able to expose the hidden relationships between contractors and elected officials.
Citizens United opened the financial floodgates to dark money groups - organizations that raise unlimited money from donors to pay for political advertising and campaign organizing but are not obligated to disclose where the money came from. The decision has allowed corporations and wealthy individuals to have enormous influence over elections because it allows them to get around the legal direct donation limits to candidates and parties, creating what many view as a corrupting influence.
As a recent New York Times editorial noted, President Obama is considering issuing an executive order that would force federal contractors to disclose donations to dark money groups. The editorial, which advocated for an order "requiring federal contractors to disclose their donations to political candidates," also noted that House Republicans are currently crafting legislation to further decrease transparency in political spending. Because of entrenched Republican opposition to campaign finance reform, the proposed executive order requiring disclosure on the part of federal contractors may be the only forthcoming measure to address the crisis of money in politics.
[Center for Responsive Politics, accessed 7/14/15]
Some of the larger implications of the Citizens United decision and the ability of federal contractors to skirt federal law have been the subject of investigative reporting by national media, who have looked into the origins of dark money groups. But federal contractors' political spending has received little coverage, mostly because so little reliable information is available, given the secretive nature of the donation process. That is slowly changing, thanks to a renewed push by media outlets and advocacy groups for executive action to force contractors to disclose donations. Their efforts could soon produce results and give media the power to report on how contractors try to gain influence by supporting candidates through dark money groups.
Citizens United gave federal contractors a huge incentive to contribute to these third-party groups as a way to curry favor with politicians who award lucrative government contracts. Washington hands out hundreds of billions of dollars annually in federal contracts and grants, and a vast majority go to large corporations. According to the Brennan Center, "Since 2000, the top 10 federal contractors have made $1.5 trillion from the government." In some states, these federal contractors are an outsized influence on the local economy.
Though the law says 23 percent of federal contracts must go to small businesses, large defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have found ways to qualify as small businesses in certain circumstances. Nine of the top 10 contract winners so far this year have been defense contractors whose political action committees (PACs) were among the largest contributors to federal candidates in the first quarter of 2015:
Requiring contractors to disclose donations would not only affect companies that survive off of federal contracts, like many defense firms, it would also shed light on companies for whom contracts are only part of a larger business model, such as the billionaire Koch brothers-controlled Koch Industries, which has a history of winning federal contracts.
The potential conflict of interest inherent in allowing contractors to donate to politicians who decide which companies get government contracts was acknowledged as far back as 1940. As The Brennan Center for Justice's Ciara Torres-Spelliscy reported, the 1940 Hatch Act made it illegal for contractors to donate "directly or indirectly to make any contribution of money or other things of value, or to promise expressly or impliedly to make any such contribution to any political party, committee, or candidate for public office or to any person for any political purpose or use." However, courts have decided that a contractor may set up its own super PAC as a separate entity to get around the Hatch Act. As the Brennen Center explained in a report on one of the legal challenges to the law:
In 2013, Public Citizen launched a complaint against Chevron for giving $2.5 million to a super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF). This expenditure was the largest one from a for-profit publicly traded company in the 2012 election cycle.
This should have be a slam dunk of a case since Chevron is a government contractor covered by the Hatch Act. But the FEC did not see it that way. As Mother Jones reported, "The FEC bought the company's argument, which is that Chevron Corporation (the organization that donated to CLF) and Chevron U.S.A. (the organization with government contracts) are entirely different entities." It did not matter that Chevron U.S.A. is 100 percent owned by Chevron Corp. Now it is open season for government contractors to spend in federal elections since all they have to do is spend through a different subsidiary. The Hatch Act is now barely worth the paper it's written on if this is how the FEC is going to "enforce" it.
And while super PACs are transparent, listing publicly where they got their funds, the donors to super PACs can be dark money conduits like 501(c)(4)s or 501(c)(6)s. Consequently, federal contractors could be hiding among the donors of $600 million in dark money that has been spent in the past four years.
While an executive order would not eliminate contractors' ability to donate to dark money groups, as the Brennen Center points out, it would give journalists and citizens a clearer view into which organizations are supporting which candidates, and could go a long way toward deterring corrupt pay-to-play practices:
Such disclosure [of federal contractor's donations] would not bring all dark money to light, but it would expose a type of dark money that should be especially troubling: campaign contributions that could have been given to influence a contract awarded by the government.
The Wall Street Journal's opinion page has been serving as a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry's attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which will set limits on carbon pollution from power plants. Nearly every WSJ op-ed about the proposed rule since it was released on June 2, 2014 has been written by people with ties to the energy industry -- and every single one has attacked it.
The Wall Street Journal dismissed concerns that likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has delayed announcing his campaign while he sidesteps campaign laws and continues coordinating with his super PAC, describing questions about his candidacy as the "return of the speech police." But Bush has been facing increased scrutiny from both legal experts and media noting that he may have violated the law.
Campaign law watchdogs organizations have repeatedly filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission urging them to investigate whether Jeb Bush is illegally coordinating with the super PAC Right to Rise. They argue that Bush is in violation of campaign finance laws that prohibit candidates from certain coordination with PACs and believe that Bush's actions suggest he should be treated as a presidential candidate under the law, regardless of whether he's formally announced his candidacy.
The Wall Street Journal dismissed these concerns in a June 8 editorial, warning readers not to "be surprised if the subpoenas [from the DOJ] hit Republican candidates at crucial political moments." The Journal described criticism of Jeb Bush for delaying his announcement as the "return of the speech police" from the "political left":
The theory behind this accusation is campaign "coordination," the new favorite tool of the anti-speech political left. Earlier this year the Justice Department invited such complaints with a public statement that it would "aggressively pursue coordination offenses at every appropriate opportunity."
Under federal law, illegal coordination occurs if a campaign expenditure (say, a TV ad) mentions a candidate by name in the 120 days before a presidential primary, or if it advocates for a candidate and if the candidate and Super PAC have coordinated the content of the ad.
The liberals claim that a Super PAC raising and spending money in favor of a Bush candidacy should be treated as coordinated expenditures, making them de facto contributions to his campaign. Candidate is the operative word here, a designation that has always been applied to those who announce they are running for public office.
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer says Mr. Bush should be considered a candidate who is illegally coordinating because if you asked "100 ordinary Americans" if he is a candidate, they will say yes. What a bracing legal standard. What would the same 100 Americans have said about Hillary Clinton in 2013, or Ted Cruz in high school? Where is the limiting principle?
But the Journal's dismissal of the criticism of Bush's questionable PAC coordination ignores the growing number of legal experts who have raised questions about his actions. The New York Times noted that "[s]ome election experts say Mr. Bush passed the legal threshold to be considered a candidate months ago, even if he has not formally acknowledged it." CBS' Bob Schieffer similarly pointed out that it is "pretty obvious" Bush is running for president, even as he "rais[es] huge amounts of money for [his] super PAC." Even conservative blog Brietbart.com criticized Bush's PAC coordination, pointing to "Several campaign finance law experts [who claim] they believe Bush is violating the law."
The Wall Street Journal has previously advocated for doing away with the same laws they're now claiming Bush isn't breaking, again claiming they are "dangerous" and no more than a "political attack ... [as] part of a larger liberal campaign." In reality, the decades-old law crafted in the wake of the Watergate scandals to prevent coordination between independent groups and political candidates has long had support across the political spectrum, including the conservative majority in the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
A coalition of 18 groups that advocate for campaign finance reform are calling on broadcast media outlets to devote more coverage to America's broken campaign finance system and the need for reforms, especially as some estimates suggest that spending for the 2016 presidential election could top $10 billion.
On June 4, the groups sent a letter to the heads of the major news networks, calling on them to "take greater action in the future to ensure that Sunday political talk shows and nightly news devote appropriate attention to campaign finance reform." The letter, which was sent to Fox News, CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, and PBS, comes after a series of Media Matters analyses indicated that the crisis of big money in politics -- an issue that is of deep concern to a bipartisan majority of Americans -- was rarely covered by these networks.
The letter went on to explain that increased coverage of money in politics is crucial in the run-up to the 2016 election because of the influx of "dark money," secretive funds given to political nonprofits and super PACs by undisclosed donors. As the groups explained in their letter, dark money "runs counter to American values of accountability and transparency that give voters the information they need to make informed decisions," and substantive coverage of its outsized influence on the democratic process is more important than ever:
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has responded to an investigation by Atlanta's 11Alive News Tonight, which exposed millions of viewers to the influence of ALEC's corporate members over the Georgia Legislature.
ALEC, which has a history of blocking press access to its functions, refused to let a news reporter from the station cover a meeting between state legislators, corporate representatives, and lobbyists in late May at a Savannah resort. However, the reporter, 11Alive's Brendan Keefe, talked to former ALEC members to find out more and recorded a conversation with a legislator and lobbyist at a hotel bar who offered details of how the group gives state lawmakers free hotel stays and provides them with corporate-backed legislation suggestions.
ALEC responded to 11Alive's investigation by saying its reporter's questions "caught [the spokesperson] off-guard." The group said it has "welcomed journalists from prominent outlets" to its events in the past, but through its lawyers, denied permission to the station to broadcast video it took of the legislators meeting with members of ALEC representing corporations and lobbying interests.
In fact, ALEC has often hired private security or off-duty police officers to remove unwanted reporters, like Keefe in this instance, from its meetings with legislators. Security guards working at the 2011 ALEC annual meeting in New Orleans physically removed ThinkProgress reporters Lee Fang and Scott Keyes from the hotel in which the conference was being held. In 2013, uniformed Washington D.C. police turned away Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.
Reporters critical of ALEC are denied even the limited access granted to the handpicked journalists ALEC allows to attend portions of their conferences. As Toronto Star reporter Olivia Ward discovered in 2011, some journalists, along with protestors, are threatened with arrest while trying to cover ALEC conferences:
I'm talking to a fellow hotel guest, Beau Hodai, a journalist from the left-wing magazine, In These Times, who has written probing articles on ALEC. Unlike me, he hasn't enjoyed its co-operation and credentials. His calls have gone unanswered, and he has been turned back by the police and guards who firewall the meeting.
The noise level in the bar rises and so do I. As I say goodnight, Beau is summoned by hotel security and herded away toward the elevator by uniformed police. Why? In Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, I was evicted from my hotel by machine-gun-toting militias as the Kosovo war began. But in America. . . ?
ALEC and their corporate sponsors have a vested interest in keeping their conferences confidential. In secrecy, lobbyists and lawyers construct model right-wing legislation to be introduced in state houses across the country. These model laws include the controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which has been used in high-profile cases to defend an individual's use of deadly force. In its investigation, 11Alive reported on legislation that "severely limits who can file asbestos claims against corporations," showing a side-by-side comparison of ALEC's template for the bill, and the nearly identical bill passed by the Georgia legislature in 2007. Minnesota passed a similar ALEC-authored asbestos bill in 2012.
As ALEC's profile has become more public and the unethical implications of its corporate-written legislation have become more obvious, some major companies have quit the group. Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft have all left the organization in the last two years. However, the departure of Google may be the most notable as its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, cited ALEC's climate change denial as Google's reason for leaving (emphasis added):
"The company has a very strong view that we should make decisions in politics based on facts -- what a shock," said Schmidt. "And the facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people -- they're just, they're just literally lying."
As the Center for Media and Democracy's Brendan Fischer has reported, ALEC's 2015 agenda is no less controversial despite the loss of a few powerful members. According to Fischer, ALEC's focus this year will be on efforts to stifle the growing minimum wage movement among localities as well as supporting union busting right-to-work legislation.
Beyond continuing to create model legislation for state governments, ALEC has also launched a subsidiary to focus on more city and county legislation. Bloomberg noted that the newly formed American City County Exchange will work to increase privatization of municipal functions by "push[ing] policies such as contracting with companies to provide services such as garbage pick-up and eliminating collective bargaining, a municipal echo of the parent group's state strategies."
Broadcast evening news programs on ABC, NBC, and CBS completely ignored likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush's questionable delay in announcing his campaign while he sidesteps campaign laws and continues coordinating with his super PAC. Despite increasing scrutiny of a strategy that "tests the legal definition of [a] candidate," the nightly news programs have devoted zero coverage to the matter since The Associated Press (AP) first reported on it in April.
While most of the Sunday political news shows ignored accusations that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) may be unlawfully coordinating with his super PAC, CBS' Bob Schieffer asked the prospective presidential candidate if he was "violating the spirit of the law."
Bush has recently come under scrutiny for coordinating with his super PAC, Right to Rise. As the Washington Post reported, "Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center -- sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch [on May 27] asking that the Justice Department investigate whether Bush and his PAC 'are engaged in knowing and willful violations of federal campaign finance laws.' The groups are calling on Lynch to appoint an independent Special Counsel to investigate potential violations."
In a May 31 editorial, The New York Times editorial board endorsed the idea and urged the Justice Department to get involved, describing Bush's relationship with Right to Rise as "brazen," and "cynical" and noted that Bush is "obviously" running for president:
Ideally, the F.E.C. should be doing its enforcement job. Given that agency's dereliction, the Justice Department must exercise its authority to enforce the law. The abuses of runaway political money will only grow when candidates believe there's no one to stop them.
During the May 31 edition of Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer questioned Bush over his questionable PAC coordination. Asserting that it was "pretty obvious" that Bush was running for president, Schieffer pointed to criticism and requests for investigation into his dealings with Right to Rise, asking if he thought he "may be just at least violating the spirit of the law" by coordinating with the group. Bush dismissed Schieffer, claiming that he "wouldn't ever do that" and simply was "trying to get a sense of whether [his] candidacy would be viable or not" prior to deciding if he would officially run for president:
The media have largely continuously ignored that likely Republican presidential contenders in 2016 are using dark money and secretive nonprofit groups to sidestep campaign finance laws. Face the Nation was the only Sunday broadcast network political show to even broach the subject.
In March, Bush gave his "tacit endorsement" to Right to Rise Policy Solutions, a nonprofit organization that allows him to side-step campaign finance laws that cap donations from individual donors and require donations to political action committees (PACs) to be publicly reported, permitting "individuals and corporations" to "give as much as they want while remaining anonymous," according to the Post. The news garnered little media attention at the time, with just a scattering of articles and two segments on broadcast and cable news outlining the dark money connections.