In late March, the Texas Public Policy Foundation ran an advertisement warning of a supposed power grab about to take place in Washington. “Some congressional Democrats want to use the coronavirus aid bill to enact their climate change agenda,” reads a sponsored Facebook post from the Austin-based conservative think tank, which has received donations from major fossil fuel companies. The Texas Public Policy Foundation—which in 2015 argued that “CO2 is not pollution; it’s necessary for survival”—has for years fought to slow down the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. With Congress debating a $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the think tank wanted to make sure there were no relief measures specifically for wind or solar.
The U.S. renewables industry, like most sectors of the economy, is being hurt badly by the fall-out from coronavirus. Solar companies are at risk of shedding more than 125,000 jobs while wind companies could lose over $43 billion in investments. And as Republicans consider trying to bail out the struggling oil and gas industry, some conservatives also see an opportunity to hobble the industry that is the main competitor to fossil fuels.
On March 23, a group run by the Texas Public Policy foundation called Life:Powered published an open letter signed by 27 right-wing think tanks. “This is no time for political games. Climate change is not an immediate threat to humanity,” it reads. Life:Powered told VICE the letter was sent to more than 1,000 congressional staffers and members of Congress. It also received a mention in Politico's daily energy newsletter. “That exposure helps,” said Jason Isaac, a senior manager at Life:Powered and a former Republican state representative in Texas. “So yeah, I do believe [the letter] had an impact.”
Some Democrats originally wanted aid for the clean energy sector included in the stimulus, but as the negotiations stalled Republicans pointed the blame at renewables. “Here are some of the items on the Democratic wish list over which they chose to block the legislation last night,” argued U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell in a March 23 speech on the Senate floor. “Tax credits for solar energy and wind energy…. Are you kidding me?” The next day, Donald Trump told Fox News that he couldn’t support a relief package because Democrats started “throwing all of the little Green New Deal stuff in.” Democratic Congress members backed down and the stimulus package Trump signed into law on March 30 had no direct support for clean energy.
“I think we were successful,” Isaac said. Other signatories of Life:Powered’s letter were also happy with the outcome. “COVID-19 Relief Bill Passes Without Green Baggage,” is the headline of a post written by Myron Ebell, Trump’s former EPA transition team leader and a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The Financial Times in 2010 called Ebell “one of America’s most prominent climate-change skeptics.”
Ebell and others in the conservative movement are now looking ahead to the next battle: preventing wind and solar companies from getting tax credits and other incentives extended in “phase four” stimulus negotiations that could begin later this month. “We will oppose any attempt to provide long-term subsidies to any type of energy,” Ebell told VICE. “We would oppose any of the Green New Deal provisions as well.”
This is a perilous time for wind and solar companies. The industry was expecting 2020 to be a record year for installations, but instead the coronavirus has led to the shutting down of factories that make turbines and photovoltaic panels. Investors are getting jittery and contracts are being cancelled. Home solar installers have been hit hard due to customers delaying installations to limit their exposure to COVID-19. Roughly half of the solar industry’s 250,000 jobs could be lost as the crisis continues.
The industry faces an additional challenge in that it can only qualify for some pre-existing federal tax credits if projects are completed on relatively tight deadlines. With so many delays and challenges right now, many projects might be disqualified for assistance. This could slow down the transition away from climate-destabilizing fossil fuels at a time when it desperately needs to accelerate. “We want to keep the renewable sector growing, both to contribute to the coming recovery, which the renewable sector is very well positioned to do, and to continue to make headway in addressing climate change,” said Gregory Wetstone, CEO and president of the American Council On Renewable Energy.
Renewable energy is popular with Americans across the political spectrum. In red states like Texas, wind generation is now surpassing coal. Even some House Republicans are trying to expand the clean energy industry. This is why Wetstone is cautiously hopeful that relief for renewables will be included in the next round of stimulus negotiations. “We’re confident that there will be bipartisan steps to deal with the problem,” he said.
Conservative activists like Isaac will be doing all they can to ensure that doesn’t happen. “We will absolutely send letters with research backing up why that’s not a good idea,” he said. Ebell argues that Life:Powered, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other groups included in the late-March anti-renewables stimulus letter have many sympathizers on Capitol Hill. “The perspective of the groups that have signed the letter is not an unusual one… among conservative Republican senators,” he said.
Isaac said the issue isn’t with renewables per se, but rather a free-market aversion to government support for any type of energy. “We oppose all forms of subsidies,” he said. His group clearly favors oil, coal and gas expansion, however. “Surviving the coronavirus? Thank fossil fuels,” reads an article Life:Powered paid to promote on Facebook in early April.
Life:Powered’s parent organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has received millions of dollars in funding from the Koch brothers, Exxon and coal-burning utilities. The foundation belongs to the State Policy Network, which has attacked and opposed efforts to expand renewable energy in more than a dozen states across the U.S.
“They’ve always fought anything that’s a competitor to oil, coal and gas,” said Connor Gibson, a researcher with Greenpeace USA’s investigations team. “So whatever form that policy takes: the renewable portfolio standards at the state level, cap and trade initiatives out here on the East Coast, electric vehicle subsidies.” Or now, the coronavirus stimulus. Gibson called Life:Powered’s letter to Congress “a naked plan to help fossil fuel companies.”
Isaac downplayed the more than $3 million in funding that the Texas Public Policy Foundation has received from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, which is linked to the oil and gas producer Koch Industries. “We have thousands of donors around the country that like our principles of limited government, personal responsibility,” he said. “No one outside of our organization is dictating our policy.”
Yet conservative think tanks have an important function in the fossil fuel lobbying ecosystem, argue corporate watchdogs. Operating at arms length from companies like Exxon or Koch Industries, “they’re free to play a more aggressive or controversial role in their messaging to the public and policymakers,” explained Edward Collins of the UK-based group InfluenceMap, which is closely tracking fossil fuel lobbying during the coronavirus crisis. “The aim is to promote and secure a future for fossil fuels and prevent robust climate action.”
Now, more than ever, he said, the public needs to be paying close attention to the actions of polluters and their allies, especially as Congress begins debating the next round of COVID-19 stimulus. “When a crisis like this occurs, where there’s a significant amount of confusion, mixed messages from government and generally less transparency around meetings, really big policy decisions are made very quickly behind closed doors,” Collins said. This is the context, he said, where fossil fuel interests can “potentially secure some very significant wins.”
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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.