Polluter-backed misinformers are trying to kill carbon-pricing plans in the states

After tanking a carbon fee initiative in Washington state in 2018, fossil fuel interests are focused on other states in 2019

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

A carbon fee ballot initiative failed in Washington state last year, but that won't deter activists and lawmakers from pushing carbon pricing measures in other states in 2019. Unfortunately, polluter interests, which waged a $31 million misinformation campaign to defeat the Washington state initiative, are already ramping up efforts to kill like-minded measures around the country, even though carbon pricing enjoys broad and bipartisan support.

To curb the heat-trapping pollution that causes climate change, policymakers in at least seven states are seriously considering ways to price carbon. Oregon and Vermont are two states where carbon-pricing proposals are on the table in 2019 and have a better chance of passing than in previous years because of favorable outcomes in the 2018 midterm elections.

But a constellation of hostile companies and groups are preparing to thwart any efforts to put a price on carbon pollution using a well-worn playbook of fearmongering and pushing misinformation that has proved successful in the past. From major oil companies to conservative trade associations to Koch-backed think tanks, the polluter syndicate uses its money and influence to try to keep Americans hooked on fossil fuels. 

In Oregon, Koch-linked groups fight “cap and invest”

Climate advocates in Oregon are optimistic about passing cap-and-trade legislation this year -- specifically a Clean Energy Jobs bill that they describe as “cap and invest.” A version of the bill failed to pass the legislature in early 2018, but Democratic leaders reintroduced it in late January and are making it a priority for 2019. It would cap total carbon emissions, require the state’s largest polluters to purchase emissions permits, and invest the money that's raised in transitioning the state away from fossil fuels.

Voters in the 2018 midterms gave Oregon Democrats supermajorities in the state House and Senate, and delivered incumbent Gov. Kate Brown (D) a six-point re-election victory. Brown's campaign platform called for a Clean Energy Jobs bill, and she has expressed support for the new version.

Anti-climate-action groups opposed the Clean Energy Jobs bill last year and are ramping up for an intense lobbying campaign against it this year. If the measure passes the legislature, they could try to put it on the ballot and give voters a chance to overturn it. 

In the last year, one high-profile group opposing cap and trade has been Priority Oregon, a 501(c)(4) dark money group. Although Priority Oregon refuses to disclose its donors, it has acknowledged that its members include the Taxpayers Association of Oregon. In 2017, the Taxpayers Association of Oregon worked with the Koch-funded Institute for Free Speech (formerly the Center for Competitive Politics) to fight a campaign finance reform measure passed by voters in Multnomah County, which encompasses Portland.

The money Priority Oregon has received from both known and unknown sources allowed it to pay for a series of misleading ads during the 2018 legislative session that alleged cap-and-trade legislation would increase Oregonians' energy bills. These ads ignored the assistance the Clean Energy Jobs bill would provide to individuals and industries affected by potential price increases for electricity or natural gas. Priority Oregon also weighed in on the 2018 governor’s race, running multiple attack ads against Brown. 

Various other Koch-financed or -affiliated groups are also trying to stymie cap-and-trade legislation in Oregon.

Oregon Business & Industry, which bills itself as “Oregon's largest and most influential comprehensive business association,” is affiliated with two organizations that are deeply intertwined with the Koch network: the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In 2017, Oregon Business & Industry released an anti-cap-and-trade study it commissioned, which was heavily criticized for a number of methodological flaws by clean energy advocacy group Renew Oregon.

The Oregon Farm Bureau, a trade association whose advocacy arm has taken Koch money, also publicly opposes cap-and-trade legislation. It has fought other environmental protections in the past, including the so-called Waters of the U.S. rule, a federal regulation intended to conserve waterways.

Another opponent is the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, a Koch-connected, libertarian think tank that has promoted climate change denial and argued that the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are unnecessary. The institute came out against the idea of cap and trade as far back as 2008. In February 2018, the group's president and CEO argued against the Clean Energy Jobs bill in testimony before the state legislature. 

These groups have been able to push their messaging out through mainstream media and the business press.

In Vermont, the heating oil lobby and right-wing think tanks fight carbon fee

Environmental advocates in Vermont are hopeful about the state legislature enacting a carbon price on gasoline, natural gas, and heating oil in 2019, according to Tom Hughes, campaign director for Energy Independent Vermont, a coalition of pro-carbon-fee environmental organizations, business groups, low-income advocates, and others. Last year, the legislature dedicated money for a study of carbon pricing options and other ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont. The study, conducted by nonprofit research group Resources for the Future and released in January of this year, found that a carbon price combined with other climate policies could lower emissions without hurting the economy or low-income people.

Thanks to the 2018 elections, the state legislature is now more likely to act. “There are more climate champions in the Vermont State House in 2019 than ever before,” Hughes told Media Matters. According to Vermont Conservation Voters, “pro-environment candidates won 28 out of 33 hotly contested seats in the 2018 elections,” helping Democrats and Progressives gain a veto-proof majority in the legislature. They'll need it, as Republican Gov. Phil Scott is opposed to carbon fee legislation, even though he supports incentives for electric vehicles and a multistate initiative to curb transportation emissions in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Any carbon fee bill will also face stiff opposition from Koch-backed groups allied with the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association.

The Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, a heating industry trade group, has broad reach in the state, where it claims that its members service three out of four homes. Many of those homes use heating oil -- about 51 percent of Vermont households, according to the state government. The association, which is aggressively opposed to a carbon fee, has been using its influence to scare its members and customers about what it says would be the adverse economic impacts of pricing carbon, like higher heating oil costs -- despite the fact that the Resources for the Future study found that low-income people could be shielded from overall higher costs.

The association operates a website called Stop the Taxes that fearmongers about the effects a carbon fee would have on Vermonters. The Vermont Fuel Dealers Association also included several anti-carbon-fee messages in its weekly email newsletters in 2018. For example, the April 20 issue took swipes at Ben & Jerry's, which has supported carbon pricing:

The Vermont Carbon Tax will NOT pass in 2018, despite a media blitz by several famous Burlington businesses. There was very little debate about the tax proposal, which is designed to raise the cost of oil and gas in order to subsidize electricity. Most outside the statehouse recognize that taking money from poor Vermonters to lower the light bill at the ice cream factory isn’t a path to economic prosperity. It certainly isn’t a “solution” to climate change either.

The Ethan Allen Institute is another Vermont-based organization opposed to carbon pricing. The institute, which has a history of climate denial, has been funded for years by groups in the Koch network such as the State Policy Network, Donors Capital Fund, and the Cato Institute. In February 2018, the Ethan Allen Institute published a study attacking a carbon fee proposal being considered by the legislature at the time. The institute has also teamed up with the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, publishing an anti-carbon-tax blog post written by the association's executive director.

The anti-carbon-fee forces are getting a publicity boost from True North Reports, a Vermont-based right-wing policy organization that publicly presents itself as a news site. Backed by a Vermont megadonor who has funded conservative and right-wing causes, True North Reports has also been affiliated with the Koch network since it launched in 2010 with then-news director Rob Roper, former FreedomWorks state director and current Ethan Allen Institute president. True North Reports' current managing editor, Bruce Parker, has Koch ties too. He was previously a reporter and editor for Watchdog.org, a product of the Koch-backed Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Parker has also written for right-wing and conservative media outlets such as FoxNews.com, The Daily Caller, The Washington Times, and Human Events. True North Reports has also been directly involved in partisan politics, donating $7,500 to Republican candidates in 2016 and $10,000 to the Vermont Republican Party in 2018.

True North Reports has repeatedly criticized carbon fees on its website and on its television show, which airs on a local public access channel. In another demonstration of collaboration between Vermont’s anti-environmental groups, True North Reports hosted a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute in September 2018 to discuss the findings of the institute’s latest anti-carbon-fee report published earlier that month.

Carbon pricing momentum elsewhere will draw attacks too

The polluter interests attacking carbon pricing proposals differ from state to state. Oregon and Vermont have unique coalitions of groups trying to stop their respective cap-and-trade and carbon fee plans. In Washington state last year, it was big oil companies that spent millions to kill a carbon fee initiative.

But what's consistent is that there will be significant pushback against any efforts to price carbon from companies and groups that have financial interests in the continued burning of fossil fuels. We can expect to see this vocal opposition in other states that are considering carbon pricing plans this year, including Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia.

There's also a well-coordinated coalition of right-wing groups opposing carbon pricing on the national level, as Media Matters reported last year. Expect it to be particularly active in 2019 because there's modest momentum behind the idea of carbon taxes. A bipartisan group of U.S. House members has reintroduced a carbon pricing bill that it first floated late last year. Dozens of renowned economists, including a number of Republican heavy hitters, recently endorsed carbon taxation in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, as did a recently retired GOP representative. Carbon pricing could also become part of Green New Deal legislation, though it was not explicitly included in the Green New Deal resolution recently introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).

It's worth pointing out that many fossil fuel defenders and right-wing ideologues, who are now freaking out over the prospect of a broad Green New Deal, remain as opposed as ever to moderate, incrementalist carbon tax proposals. This polluter lobby draws little distinction between so-called “radical” plans like the Green New Deal and corporate-friendly carbon tax plans like that of the Climate Leadership Council, which has backing from establishment Republicans and Fortune 500 companies. They will fight bitterly against them all.