Congressional Republicans are on the offensive against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after launching a probe into alleged "collusion" between the agency and a major environmental group in drafting proposed carbon emission rules for power plants.
Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and several other GOP lawmakers allege that the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) had "unprecedented access to high-level EPA officials" that allowed the group to inject its own "private agenda" into the carbon rules, according to letters dated Sept. 2. The NRDC and the EPA have denied colluding to write the rules, which are aimed at curbing climate change.
However, many of the Republican lawmakers making accusations of "collusion" have received hefty campaign donations from members of the fossil fuel industry that have spent millions of dollars exerting influence in Washington and opposing the Obama administration's efforts to cut carbon emissions and combat climate change.
These donors include a coal mining company run by a CEO who has been accused of coercing his employees to donate to Republican candidates and putting more than 160 of his workers out of work in a cruel publicity stunt when President Obama won reelection in 2012. The CEO blamed the Obama administration's environmental regulations for killing the jobs.
Republicans Are Angry About Lobbying?
The lawmakers' investigation was sparked by a July 6 story in The New York Times that said the NRDC's lobbyists crafted a proposal that would become the "blueprint" for the EPA's recently proposed rules aimed at cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants, which are responsible for about 40 percent of the nation's planet-warming carbon pollution.
Both the NRDC and the EPA have denied that the group played an outsized role in crafting the rule, arguing that the NRDC was only one of thousands of stakeholders that provided input.
The EPA rules do include some of the NRDC's proposals, including the assignment of specific carbon standards to each state and allowing states flexibility in determining how to meet those standards.
There are also differences. Environmental groups often push for tougher regulations than the EPA - which also counts the industries it regulates as stakeholders - is willing to put out. The EPA's proposal, for instance, aims for a 30 percent reduction in the nation's carbon emissions by 2030, while the NRDC called for a 40 percent cut.
In letters to the EPA and NRDC announcing their investigation and demanding more information, Vitter and company claim the agency and environmental group are colluding to "shape agency action outside the normal regulatory process," citing emails between NRDC advocates and EPA officials.
In a recent blog post, NRDC Government Affairs Director David Goldston wondered just how Vitter thinks policy is made.
"NRDC exists, in part, to 'shape agency action' - just like every other group, right or left, that engages in policy advocacy in Washington," Goldston wrote. "We do that by formulating proposals and then advocating for them. That’s what we did here - NRDC’s climate experts developed a proposal, publicly released it, and then met with everyone we could about it - news media, utilities, EPA; you name it."
Vitter and his colleagues also allege that the NRDC influenced the EPA's decision to restrict the controversial Pebble Mine project proposed near Bristol Bay in Alaska. Goldston says the industry also had input on both these issues, and the NRDC has not been doing anything out of the ordinary or out of the public eye.
Knowing the Industry's Playbook
In its July 6 article, The New York Times credits the NRDC with taking a page from the fossil fuel industry's playbook and following a strategy used by the oil lobby to write energy policy for the Bush administration.
Vitter, Inhofe and their colleagues should be familiar with the industry's playbook.
Since 2009, Vitter has benefited from $152,499 in campaign donations from the electric utility industry that would be regulated by the EPA's proposed carbon rules, according to the campaign finance trackers at the Center for Responsive Politics. He also received $167,023 from the mining industry and $680,450 from the oil and gas industry.
In the past five years, the top contributors to Vitter's campaign committee have been employees and political committees associated with Murray Energy, a coal mining company run by the outspoken conservative Bob Murray, who has been accused of coercing his employees into donating to Republican candidates. Vitter can thank Murray Energy for a total of $39,423 in campaign contributions.
Murray knows a thing or two about political stunts. In 2012, the CEO said he was forced to lay off more than 160 workers because President Obama won reelection. He made the announcement in the form of a prayer with his staffers.
Before the layoffs, Murray held a lucrative fundraiser for then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney at one of his mines in Ohio. Murray's coal miners were reportedly forced to attend, and their photos were later used in a Romney campaign ad. A few months earlier, Murray had shut down another mine in Ohio, blaming EPA regulations and the Obama administration's "war on coal," a line echoed by Republicans that oppose climate change regulations.
Murray Energy is also a top contributor to Sen. Inhofe and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), two other Republicans who have joined with Vitter in the investigation of alleged collusion between the NRDC and the EPA. Since 2009, the company's employees and political action committee have donated nearly $20,000 and $39,656 to Inhofe and Barrasso respectively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Inhofe has also enjoyed donations from several oil companies, Koch Industries and American Electric Power ($10,000), a utility company that operates dozens of coal-burning power plants in states like Ohio. The company is also a top donor ($16,700) to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who signed on to the investigation with Vitter.
Murray Energy and American Electric Power are both members of the American Coalition For Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a lobbying and front group for the coal and electric utility industries. Since 2010, ACCCE has spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising, lobbying and rallying politicians to oppose EPA greenhouse gas regulations, according to Polluter Watch.
ACCCE opposes the EPA's proposed carbon rules because they could alter business-as-usual for coal and utility companies that have dominated energy markets in some parts of the country for decades. The rules, coupled with proposed limits for new power plants, could force the electric utility industry to shut down old, dirty coal-burning power plants and invest in new pollution control technology. The rules could also make cleaner-burning natural gas more attractive to utility companies and reduce the demand for coal at a time when domestic gas production has hit historic highs. The proposals are central to President Obama's plan to address climate change.
A "Billionaires Club"
Vitter, however, claims it’s the super-rich that are pushing the climate change agenda of the NRDC and other groups in the "far-left environmental movement," including the American Lung Association, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Vitter and other Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently released a report detailing how the so-called "Billionaire's Club," which includes philanthropy foundations like Schmidt Family Foundation and the Park Foundation, funds nonprofits and advocacy groups to push a "far-left" climate change agenda on politicians.
(Grassroots climate change activists may argue that the NRDC and Sierra Club are members of the mainstream environmental movement and not the "far left.")
While the report does not identify any illegal activity, Vitter claims it raises serious issues about "ethics" and "transparency." After the report was released, researcher Steve Horn at DeSmogBlog pointed out that Vitter himself is a member of the Congress' "Millionaires Club" and owns tens of thousands of dollars in stocks of an electric utility company in Wisconsin that operates two coal-burning power plants.
The utility company, Wisconsin Energy Corporation, reported in its recent filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission that new greenhouse gas regulations could have adverse financial impacts, according to Horn.
Horn concluded that "transparency, some would say, is in the eye of the beholder." Perhaps "collusion" is as well.