The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was having a tough year until November. Under public pressure to sever ties from a group that opposes government action on climate change, several of the ALEC's major members in the tech sector - Google, Yelp, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo - recently announced that they were joining dozens of other corporations and dropping their ALEC memberships. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt wasn’t shy about linking ALEC to climate change skeptics when he told NPR that the group is "literally lying" about the issue.
The recent midterm elections, however, have blown the wind back into ALEC's sails. Republicans won control of the Senate, 11 state legislatures and three governorships. Republicans now hold the majority in 68 out of 98 partisan state legislatures, the highest number in the GOP's history.
This political climate is perfect for ALEC, which is celebrating the rightward shift as "a clear mandate for limited government, free market advocates across the country." Although its operations were once veiled in secrecy, the group's purpose is now well known, and it has the Obama administration's historic plan to reduce pollution and fight climate change placed squarely in its crosshairs.
ALEC Wants Congress to Dissolve the EPA
Hundreds of state lawmakers, most of them Republican, are ALEC members, but nearly 98 percent of its income comes from dozens of wealthy corporations, trade groups and corporate foundations, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. ALEC brings together state lawmakers, right-wing think tanks and lobbyists for some of the world's most powerful corporations to vote on model bills to be introduced in state legislatures across the country.
That's exactly what ALEC is doing this week in at a policy summit in Washington, DC, and the agenda has environmentalists up in arms. ALEC draft proposals don't stop at hampering the Obama administration's efforts to reduce the nation's carbon emissions along with smog and dangerous air pollutants - ALEC even proposes a "model policy" to urge Congress to dump the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) altogether.
"The agenda really reads like a wish list for dirty energy companies," said Aliya Haq of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Which dirty energy companies? Major fossil fuel and energy firms like Exxon Mobile, Koch Industries, Transcanda, Peabody Energy and Chevron, to name a few.
Haq said that, despite the very public exodus of the tech firms from its membership over climate concerns, ALEC is "actually escalating" its attack on environmental reforms. Haq said the proposal to abolish the federal EPA and replace it with a committee of state regulators is "fairly ludicrous," but it is an indication that ALEC may becoming even more extreme.
Blocking Federal Climate Change Efforts
At the center of ALEC's climate change policy are two model bills targeting the EPA's June 2014 proposal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants, which produce 40 percent of the nation's carbon emissions. The proposal is at the center of President Obama's plan to fight climate change and has sparked an ongoing political war pitting the EPA and environmental groups like the NRDC against the coal and utility lobbies.
The proposal could force some of the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants to shut down and increase the nation's reliance on natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal and is cheap due to the domestic fracking boom. This threatens the profit margins of mining and utility companies that use coal to produce electricity. Many of those companies, such as American Electric Power and Peabody Energy, are members of ALEC.
Instead of issuing national standards for power plants, the EPA has proposed to allow each state to come up with its own plan for reducing emissions, allowing regulators to consider their own state's economic concerns. This flexible approach addresses concerns among conservatives that the EPA is overreaching its federal authority, but ALEC's model bills would use the approach against the EPA by setting up roadblocks in state legislatures, many of which are now controlled by Republicans.
"ALEC has worked with polluters and chosen a specific strategy that would force [the EPA] to overhaul the whole thing," said Haq, who added that 20 state legislatures have already passed resolutions opposing the power plant rules.
One bill would require a legislative vote before a state agency could submit its plan for reducing carbon emissions to the EPA, and the other would prohibit state agencies from submitting a plan as long as the inevitable legal challenges to the power plant rules are winding their way through the courts.
The current ALEC agenda also includes draft proposals to prevent the EPA from regulating fracking, as well as a model resolution that mimics federal legislation aimed at obstructing national health standards for smog and air pollution. The group also wants the government to allow more offshore oil drilling in deep waters.
ALEC insists that it does not have an official position on climate change and is only encouraging healthy debate on the issue, but a recent letter from 100 organizations to state lawmakers points to leaked slides from a presentation at a recent ALEC summit as proof that the group is still giving a voice to climate-change deniers.
ALEC, however, claims that its position on climate change is simply misunderstood and its opponents are clouding the group's libertarian message in the media. After Google left ALEC in September, ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson said the company had caved to "public pressure from left-leaning individuals and organizations who intentionally confuse free market policy perspectives for climate change denial."
"In the case of energy generation, ALEC believes renewable energy should expand based on consumer demand, not as a result of a government mandate," Nelson said, in a statement. "Many misunderstand the American Legislative Exchange Council and its legislator-led, free market priorities. ALEC members believe the Federal Government exerts too much control on state and local decision making."
To show what ALEC's ideas can do for the environment, ALEC has drafted a set of "environmental management and protection principles," which proposes "regulations as a last resort" and "free markets" as the "the most effective way to make efficient use of natural resources and reduce waste." Here's an excerpt:
Market prices reflect the scarcity of a resource and, more importantly, they prompt innovators to create ways to use less of the resource or find substitutes. Market innovation also reduced poverty, which is the greatest threat to wildlife habitat and pollution.
You may be wondering how poor people can be a threat to pollution, because it's typically the other way around. This ALEC draft needs an editor and a reality check, and it's obviously written by an organization that works for some of the wealthiest polluters in the world.