“The Tea Party has formed an unholy alliance with the left,” Debbie Dooley recalls a panicked member of Georgia’s big energy lobby lamenting.
Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, doesn’t deny the charges. In fact, she is set this Tuesday to celebrate the official launch of the Green Tea Coalition – the same “unholy alliance” of right and left grassroots that has big oil interests reeling.
“It’s an unholy alliance because they see it as a threat to them,” Dooley said, speaking ahead of the launch. “In the past, the elites on both the right and the left got away with it. On the right, they’d say, ‘This person’s on the left. Stay away from them,’ On the left, they’d say, ‘They’re radical, they’re the Tea Party. Stay away from them.’
"But we got through all that bull, got to know each other, and started working together,” she said.
And it’s not the first time. In 2012, the Atlanta Tea Patriot Patriots joined the NAACP and the Sierra Club to successfully defeat a $7.2 billion transit tax referendum. That same year, Tea joined forces with Occupy Atlanta and the AFL-CIO to stop an anti-union bill that would have banned protests at private residences (the bill sought to protect the “right of quiet enjoyment” of CEOs).
The threat of a grassroots movement united across ideological lines manifested itself again last month when the Tea Party Patriots – allied with environmentalists of the Sierra Club – triumphed in a win for solar energy.
Like many other states, Georgia law, through the 1973 Territorial Act, grants a single electric utility supplier the exclusive right to generate electrical power services. The beneficiary in Georgia is Georgia Power, which is owned by the Southern Company. Southern Company is the fourth largest utility in the country, with operations also in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi.
Even electric co-operatives in the state aren’t allowed to generate their own energy under present law. Instead, they must buy it through Georgia Power, relying on a power grid that operates mainly off coal, gas, and nuclear power.
Such a centralized power grid presents practical dangers, claimed Dooley. For example, a terrorist could theoretically plunge an entire region into darkness with a few well-coordinated attacks.
Southern Company isn’t rushing to jeopardize its lucrative business model by embracing alternative energy. But thanks to Green Tea efforts and a Public Service Commission vote of 4 to 1 in July, the company will be required to obtain 525 megawatts of additional solar power by 2016.
That win didn’t come without fierce opposition from deeply entrenched interests, including the Koch Brothers-funded organization Americans for Prosperity. AFP Georgia sent out a misleading email to some 50,000 members urging them to oppose the solar changes, erroneously claiming that solar would raise prices by as much as 40 percent.
In reality, falling solar prices promise a future of cheaper energy – and perhaps even the opportunity for individuals to someday generate their own energy, independent of companies like Southern Company. For rate payers held captive by a government-imposed utility monopoly, what could be more conservative than achieving self-sufficiency?
Through all this, the clash between Atlanta’s Tea Party and AFP has been raising eyebrows. The Koch Brothers, through organizations like AFP and Freedom Works, have spent millions of dollars to influence Tea Party groups across the country since 2009.
“We agree with AFP on a lot of issues, but when it comes to energy, they’re not exactly unbiased,” said Dooley. And that's putting it mildly. Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States, makes over $100 billion a year on oil, coal, and logging, among other industries.
Critics of the Tea Party have pointed out the substantial role that AFP and Freedom Works played in the initial Tea Party protests of 2009 — not to mention the years of planning and attempts by the Koch Brothers to launch the party as far back as 2002, and even previously. However, the Kochs may have foreseen not only the benefits of jumping on the Tea Party train, but also the dangers of allowing such a movement to grow without a little corporate “direction.”
The danger was that conservatives – whose politics have traditionally aligned with the interests of corporate America – would take some of the ideas brewing in the teapot too far. Conservative Americans had begun to wholly embrace the idea that there was such a thing as "crony capitalism," that certain powerful industries didn’t need to be subsidized for under-performing, or bailed out for failing, and that local and individual autonomy was more important than maintaining the profit structures of big industries.
Those ideas, taken to their logical conclusions, might have led to a conservative revolution that would have severely crippled the power of industries like Koch and Southern Company.
The Koch plan, then, was to jump into the fray: a corporate entity hidden among the throngs of one of the largest political movements in decades. On the fertile ground of an emergent movement, Koch would sow their genetically modified seeds of ideology. The idea was to tweak the message of the Tea Party just enough to reroute the movement’s trajectory in such a way that, far from being the bad guys, industrialists could cast themselves as the victims and even allies of average Americans.
“We don’t need taxpayer funded government subsidies and renewable energy mandates,” AFP Georgia wrote in a statement on the Georgia solar plan. “The government has spent $14 billion since 2009 propping up renewable energy projects. They wouldn’t have to do that if the technology was more market ready.”
See? AFP is on the side of the people, standing up against big government subsidies for technology that may not even be ready for prime time. The fact that solar even requires government subsidies proves it isn’t ready, so they claim.
But just don’t expect AFP to apply the same standard to Koch-style industries. Between 1994 and 2009, U.S. oil and gas industries amassed nearly $450 billion in subsidies, compared to a relatively paltry $6 billion for renewable energy over the same period.
And don’t expect AFP to rail against Southern Company’s $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee for its new nuclear projects, either – despite its being the same type of loan granted to solar power company Solyndra, which AFP spent over $8 million to defame between 2011 to 2012.
But Dooley and the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots saw through the distortions. They didn’t buy AFP’s attempts to cast its campaign against solar energy in Georgia as a “grassroots driven initiative.”
“There are lots of Tea Party activists who care deeply about the environment,” Dooley said. “We have grandchildren. Some of us hope to have great grandchildren. I have a four-and-a-half year old grandson that I adore. I want him to have plenty of air and water. I want him to live in a world where green forest parks and mountain streams are not poisoned.
"I want him to live in a world where, maybe, by the time he’s grown, he can just come off the grid and generate his own power that he needs using solar or wind.”
The Green Tea Coalition, set to launch in Georgia on Tuesday, includes activists from the Sierra Club, Georgia Watch, Occupy Atlanta, Tea Party Patriots and the NAACP. Georgia's former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes has also indicated interest in taking part in the Coalition, said Dooley.
To Koch, Southern Company and other energy titans who thought they had the Tea Party in their pockets, it's an unholy alliance indeed. Beyond that, it's a wedge that could grow bigger -- and not only in Georgia.
“The elites like to keep us divided because we have to look to them for power,” Dooley added. “But now grassroots activists are coming together from across the aisle and saying, ‘We’re going to do this and we don’t need to look to elites from either party – we just need each other.’”