Editor’s note: On April 28, at the Warwick Public Library, the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island hosted a climate leadership workshop for Rhode Island candidates running or planning to run for state and local office and for their campaign staff. Speakers included Kat Burnham of People’s Power & Light; Cristina Cabrera of the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island; Rachel Calabro from the Rhode Island Department of Health; John Flaherty from Grow Smart Rhode Island; and Frank Carini, co-founder of ecoRI News.
By FRANK CARINI
Rhode Island has a money problem. Many actually, but let’s focus on the flow of largely concealed out-of-state fossil-fuel money that is used to discredit climate science and thwart climate legislation.
Organizations that scream freedom and yell about protecting the Constitution, such as the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, are typically funded by the industrialist Koch brothers or other big-moneyed special interests.
ProPublica has a webpage for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s 990s. Good luck finding anything on the center’s website about how the organization is funded.
SourceWatch outlines the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s strong ties to Koch-funded organizations such as the State Policy Network — a group that touts the free market as the panacea to all ills and rails against government regulation — and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate bill mill.
The Gaspee Project is a spin-off with similar funding and talking points.
These groups and their industry-funded staffs all have one thing in common: they ignore science, and polls that show strong support for climate mitigation, to undermine government interventions and muddy the waters when it comes to climate change and environmental protections. All too often they lie or misrepresent facts.
As we approach the midterm elections, candidates for all levels of elected government should know they might be attacked for supporting climate action or energy bills the industry doesn’t like. Respond by pointing to the direct links between the attackers and the self-interested people and industries from outside the state they work for. Ask the attackers to provide data, or have them disclose the nonpartisan studies and research that back their bought claims.
Fossil-fuel lobbyists are omnipresent at the Statehouse; they regularly meet with state agencies, such as the Office of Energy Resources; they routinely file testimony opposing local legislation on climate and energy.
In an ongoing study of 49 such bills by professor Timmons Roberts’ Climate & Development Lab at Brown University, several groups and corporations showed up repeatedly to testify against energy and climate legislation. Among those frequent voices were and remain:
National Grid: a multinational British corporation that made $4.2 billion in profit last year.
Invenergy: a private Chicago-based energy company. Top officials from the company, which has proposed building a natural-gas/diesel power plant in the woods of Burrillville, have donated to Gov. Gina Raimondo, who expressed support for the fossil-fuel project early and often.
American Petroleum Institute: the largest U.S. trade association for the oil and natural-gas industry. Based in Washington, D.C., it represents about 400 corporations. It has an annual budget of some $240 million. Institute representatives testify at the Statehouse regularly, from arguing against a carbon tax to attacking a statewide ban on plastic bags.
There are also groups with local-sounding names that regularly testify against any bill that puts fossil-fuel profits at risk — the Oil and Heat Institute of Rhode Island, the aforementioned Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, and the Rhode Islanders for Affordable Energy, to name a few. They are tentacles of a national group and/or receive some or much of their funding from corporate interests.
For example, the creation of the Rhode Islanders for Affordable Energy last year by an alliance of building and trades unions and business advocacy groups was backed by Invenergy.
The organization says it was created to protect Rhode Islanders from higher energy costs. The organization, its supporters and its funder claim the proposed Clear River Energy Center will do just that. They fail to mention that Invenergy, which went to court looking to have ratepayers pay millions for the project’s interconnection costs, is a private company looking to maximize its profits. Rhode Islanders for Affordable Energy's claims and corporate reality don’t match.
In fact, this fossil-fuel tactic of harping on high energy costs requires information to be presented out of context. It plays to people’s fears. This well-worn con, used every time special interests argue against, say, renewable-energy incentives or grid upgrades, always ignores public health and environmental costs.
Study after study has shown, however, that the continued burning of fossil fuels has and will disproportionately impact the elderly and poor. Fossil fuels also degrade the environment. There’s no “clean coal.” Natural gas is not a “bridge fuel.” They’re both just marketing strategies paid for by fossil-fuel money.
The industry’s well-paid local clan, however, continues to claim, without evidence, that Rhode Island’s climate initiatives will hurt the economy, increase cost for ratepayers and slow job creation. They argue that such initiatives are just hidden taxes, or some violation of the free market or the Constitution that would make the Founding Fathers throw up in their mouths.
None of it is true. They’re lies to protect out-of-state industries and billionaires.
Rhode Island spends some $3.5 billion annually on fossil fuels we don’t produce. That’s why fossil-fuel money is spilled all over Rhode Island and used to influence policy that protects the industry.
Fossil-fuel money corrupts local politics by pressuring politicians and policymakers to address private interests, with dangerous consequences. We can’t have an honest and open discussion about how to mitigate the very-real impacts of climate change if the Statehouse and state agencies are being manipulated with fossil-fuel money.
Those screaming the loudest against climate action and renewable-energy bills need to be asked who is funding their anger. Candidates should demand to know.
Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.