The Oil And Gas Industry’s Assault On Renewable Energy

This commentary was originally posted on our EDF Voices blog.

Source: ali_pk/flickr

Renewable energy enjoyed a record year in 2012 – the U.S. wind industry surpassed 50,000 megawatts of electrical power generation capacity and solar proved once again to be the fastest growing energy source in the United States. That's a milestone worth celebrating, since greater use of clean, homegrown energy resources creates jobs, cuts foreign oil imports, stabilizes prices, makes our system more resilient and reduces harmful pollution. The list of benefits is vast. So who could possibly be upset?

Well, some utilities that own old and often dirty fossil fuel power plants are upset that renewables are making it harder for their older, polluting units to stay in business. Then there are oil and gas industry association leaders like American Petroleum Institute (API) president Jack Gerard, who often talk about wanting a “level playing field” – implying that policies promoting renewable energy are unfair to fossil fuels.

Don’t be fooled. Renewable investments pale in comparison to the amount of money poured into fossil fuel companies since 1918 to fatten their bottom lines and crowd out competition. Fossil fuels have received around 75 times more subsidies than clean energy. Up to 2011 (adjusted for inflation), the oil and gas industry received $446.96 billion in cumulative energy subsidies from 1994 to 2009, whereas renewable energy sources received just $5.93 billion. An industry that has been enjoying federal tax subsidies for over a century has no standing to argue for a level playing field.

Heavily subsidized fossil fuels may have made sense 100 years ago, when we were racing to build the energy infrastructure of the last century. But today we're racing to build the clean energy infrastructure of the new century — and we need to support a new set of industries. And we're making real progress.

So it is no surprise that we are seeing a well-funded, industry-backed effort to roll back the policies that have been so successful in developing and deploying renewables. Take, for example, the latest assault on a series of state laws around the country that have increased the amount of clean, renewable energy these states produce.

Front Groups do the Dirty Work for Oil and Gas Industry

So far, 29 states have implemented Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) programs that require increased production of energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass. They’ve been adopted in red states and blue – from California to Texas to Maine – through democratic processes and with popular support. RPS programs have helped jumpstart an industry that is spurring economic development, creating American jobs, boosting energy independence and cutting our carbon footprint.

A Bloomberg article released last week details how the oil and gas industry, through some self-described free market organizations that they fund, are trying to engineer a legislative massacre of these policies in more than a dozen states.

The groups may sound familiar: American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is currently pushing legislation around the country that would mandate the teaching of climate change denial in public school systems, and The Heartland Institute, which ran a billboard campaign last year comparing global warming "admitters" to Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson. Both have long opposed sensible energy policies. And their funders will sound familiar, too: the oil, gas and coal industries and their owners like the Koch Brothers.

With this new campaign, though, they are not influencing legislation to fill young minds with false propaganda or attacking climate legislation. They're attacking renewable energy. Why? Apparently, an industry that the naysayers loved to call a loser is now threatening fossil fuel profits.

The Clean Energy Economy is Growing Fast

In Texas – a state deeply rooted in oil and gas, where an ALEC-backed bill has been introduced to eliminate the state’s RPS entirely (though the legislation would leave in a similar portfolio standard for natural gas) – renewable energy is booming. Texas blew past the RPS goal set for 2015, and now more than 1,300 companies employ more than 100,000 in industries directly and indirectly related to renewable energy. The state’s own Republican Comptroller has noted that, “After the RPS was implemented Texas wind corporations and utilities invested $1 billion in wind power, creating jobs…and increasing the rural tax base.”

Colorado’s RPS, which is also being targeted by ALEC as well, has been very successful. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that the state’s RPS is supporting at least 5,000 direct and indirect jobs and generating a billion dollars in annual wages along with millions in leasing revenue for landowners who benefit from the policy. Between 2006 and 2011, the Denver-metro area saw a 35% increase in direct employment growth in the clean energy sector; today more people are employed by the solar industry than the coal mining or steel manufacturing industries.

So you can see why some in the oil, gas and coal industry might be getting nervous.

We shouldn’t perpetuate our pollution problems by propping up the 20th century economy with fossil fuel subsidies — payments the industry clearly doesn't need. We should instead be building the 21st century economy by supporting clean, low-carbon energy. But groups like ALEC are trying to turn back the clock and preserve the “unlevel playing field” the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed for over 100 years.

One of the things I've learned over the last 30 years of watching, pushing and fighting various environmental laws is that nothing is ever final. When you lose, there's always tomorrow. Unfortunately, that's how these oil and gas companies see things, too. And even more unfortunately, when they lose, they always have the money to come back and swing harder.

If the oil and gas bosses think they are going to waltz into states and roll back all of the positive progress we've been making, they are in for the fight of their lives.

EDF has created an action alert to help concerned citizens swing back hard, stand up for a clean, low-carbon energy future and have their voices heard, please add your name and tell ALEC “hands off state renewable portfolio standards!”

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  • About the author

    Vice President, US Climate and Energy
    Jim Marston is the founding director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), located in Austin, where he has served since its beginning in 1988. He is also a leader of the Pecan Street, Inc., a partnership that includes Austin Energy, the University of Texas, the Chamber of Commerce, and several large high/clean tech companies aimed at making fundamental changes in the nation's electricity grid.

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