Are Climate Deniers Retreating or Doubling Down? Heartland and ALEC can't decide

Screen_Shot_2015-04-09_at_6.32.44_PM.pngAre climate deniers in retreat? We think not. But Heartland and ALEC seem to be speaking from both sides of their mouths the days.  Flip flopping for sure.

This week has seen a bizarre collection of some climate deniers denying their own denial, while others are denying they’re no longer deniers.  It's getting weird inside the Denial Machine.  Corporations, politicians and this week non-profit organizations are suddenly trying to either run from climate denial, deny their own history of denial or double down on denial.  

It all started with the recent revelations that ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) had sent “cease and desist” legal letters to a random selection of organizations (Common Cause, League of Conservation Voters and CREDO), calling on them to stop saying ALEC denied the science of climate change.   The Washington Post broke the story Monday.

But wait, said experts, ALEC does deny the science of climate change:  it regularly invites longtime hard core science deniers like Heartland’s Joe Bast, former Peabody Coal employee Craig Idso, CFACT's Lord Christopher Monckton and Marc Morano to speak at its meetings.  

That was strange enough.  Why would ALEC bring attention to its obvious climate denial?   Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Google had already left ALEC, citing its climate denial as a central reason.  

ALEC pointed interested parties at its statement on climate change and renewables

At this point it really started to get weird.  In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank announced his theory with the headline “Climate Change Deniers are in Retreat.”  Fair point and supposition, given ALEC’s flurry of legal letters.

He also pointed to a little-read blog by Heartland Institute blogger and editor, Justin Haskins, late last year on a conservative Justin.jpgwebsite.   Haskins made what some would call a substantially “off message” (for Heartland) series of statements about climate change (bold emphasis added):

The real debate is not whether man is, in some way, contributing to climate change; it’s true that the science is settled on that point in favor of the alarmists.

Haskins, who was only hired by Heartland last year, also put forward the usual argument that nobody knows the extent of how much climate change is human-caused and argued that warming would take a very long time.  But he’s clearly been doing some personal thinking about this issue, heading way out on the limb he was already balancing precariously on:

“However, if climate change is occurring, even if it’s occurring at a very slow rate, the world must take the potential dangers related to this problem very seriously—more seriously than many of the global warming skeptics are currently willing to agree to.

 And this statement that might as well be from Greenpeace:

 “It’s a rather extreme position to say that we ought to allow dangerous pollutants to destroy the only planet we know of that can completely sustain human life.” 

It was on these words that the Washington Post's Dana Milbank quite reasonably based his pretext about deniers being in retreat. 

And these are also some of the core arguments Heartland has been fighting against for at least a decade, the organization’s main message.  Heartland would never say "the alarmists" (our side) has won even a point.  Maybe they do internally however and that's where young Justin picked it up.

So.  Has the Heartland Institute changed its tune? 

It seems that Haskins is somewhat of an outlier within his organization.  Joe Bast, Heartland's director shot back at Milbank quiet venomously on the Heartland website, arguing somehow that Haskins’ view was very outdated, being from a whole four months ago.  Bast hastened to tell everyone that no indeed, the Heartland Institute hadn’t changed its view:

“The man-made global warming paradigm is crumbling, public support is vanishing, and except for a few last hold-outs at the Washington Post and New York Times, the whole world knows it. Human activity is not causing a climate crisis.”

Bast noted “I would have phrased it a bit differently, but I don’t disagree with the points Haskins made.

Which points exactly, Joe?  We’re confused. The ones that say the “alarmists” have won the debate about climate change being human-caused, or the one where Haskins calls carbon dioxide a “dangerous pollutant”?

Just in case we hadn’t heard him, Bast enlisted his mate James Delingpole at Breitbart (which appears to be the new Heartland mouthpiece, having run a series of frothing-at-the-mouth defences of Willie Soon), who also lambasted the Washington Post for getting it wrong.

Back to ALEC, where Bast, an invited speaker, told their 2014 summer annual meeting among other things:

“there is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change."

The benefits of man-made global warming exceed the likely costs.

Global warming is not a crisis.  The threat was exaggerated.  

There is no need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and no point in attempting to do so."

Are they all trying to have it both ways?  Is Heartland in retreat?  It seems not, neither is ALEC, although the difference is that ALEC is trying to look like it is, whereas Heartland is trying to look like it isn’t.

We look forward to this year’s ALEC annual meeting where perhaps they might like to hear from some of the 97% of scientists who agree that humans are causing climate change - instead of their usual rollcall of Bast and his cronies.  

Meanwhile it’s going to be difficult to see Heartland’s Haskins being allowed out of his blogger box on climate change for some time, if he keeps his job at all.



Southern Company Dumps Climate Denier Willie Soon

The Washington Post broke the news yesterday that Southern Company confirmed it is dropping the contract with Dr. Willie Soon at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  But not the end of the current 2015 contract.

Southern Co. has not issued a public statement or explanation, only sparse email responses to reporters.  

Before this week, Southern's response was a lot of avoiding the question.  As in this response to the New York Times in late February:

“Southern Company funds a broad range of research on a number of topics that have potentially significant public-policy implications for our business,” said Jeannice M. Hall, a spokeswoman. The company declined to answer detailed questions about its funding of Dr. Soon’s research.

Inside Climate News reports an email confirmation today from Southern Company

"Our agreement with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory expires later this year and there are no plans to renew it," Southern spokesman Jack Bonnikson said in an email.

Hidden within Monday's Washington Post article on American Legislative Exchange Council is this Willie Soon news:

In a separate example that echoes ALEC’s plight, Southern Co., the country’s fourth-largest electric utility, recently decided to quietly drop its funding for controversial scientist Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, a solar physicist at the the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory...
The company had been underwriting Soon’s research through a grant to the Smithsonian-affiliated laboratory where the scientists works, but the company has decided to end the relationship later this year, a spokesman confirmed. Soon declined a request to comment.
(Bold emphasis added)

What Southern Company Knew and When They Knew It

We have known this fact for some time, hearing through the grapevine that high ranking Southern Company executives were reaching out to multiple "stakeholders" immediately after the Willie Soon story broke in late February.  
The executives claimed ignorance of the Soon contract, calling it an artifact of a bygone era, some remnant contract, some other guy, etc.  We know this to be somewhat false. The Southern Co. PR/media team at least has been aware of that their covert relationship with Soon for at least four years, back to spring of 2011, when there was a round of coverage about Willie Soon's fossil fuel funders.
In fact, Southern Company was on the record in 2011 and just as cagey about the relationship, with a non-answer response about their broad research spending.
In 2011 when Greenpeace got the first return on its Freedom of Information Act request (detailing grants from Southern Company, ExxonMobil, Charles Koch Foundation, Donors Trust and others) Southern was questioned by Tim Gardner of Reuters and stated that they "did not fund Soon last year."  

"Southern gave Soon $120,000 starting in 2008 to study the Sun's relation to climate change, according to the FOIA documents. Spokeswoman Stephanie Kirijan said Southern has spent about $500 million on environmental research and development and funding and did not fund Soon last year.

Southern funded Soon for studies of solar variability but not to deny that mercury emissions are dangerous, she said."

At the time we only had funding data from Smithsonian through 2009 since the original FOIA was filed in 2009.  We now know Southern took a break in 2010 for some reason, then began funding Soon again in 2011 and continued through 2015, racking up over $400,000 in checks to Dr. Soon. 

We also know the Soon contract was run out of Southern Company Services, Inc. a subsidiary that does contract work for Southern, hires lobbyists etc.  Southern describes the subsidiary this way: "SCS is the system service company providing, at cost, specialized services to Southern Company and its subsidiary companies."

You can bet Southern Company HQ knows what Southern Company Services does... like take Federal grants to build the over budget underperforming Kemper "clean coal" plant, like sue whistleblowers who want to talk about Southern's "clean coal" plant, like hire Haley Barbour's lobby firm BGR to do the company's bidding...

More questions for Smithsonian and Southern Company

Some intrepid reporter or investigator might push Southern for more comment and explanation:
  • Has Smithsonian been notified by Southern Company on the termination of the contract?
  • Are there modifications to the existing contract with Southern Company through 2015?
  • What are the expected "deliverables" from Soon to Southern Company for 2015?
  • We also have not seen the "deliverables" or "Year End Reports" from Soon to Southern for the 2013 or 2014 contracts. (Inside Climate News reports that there is an expected report for the 2015 work)
Or to ask Southern Company the same questions:
  • Why wait until the end of the year?  
  • Why not end the contract with Soon immediately?  

This story will continue until we stop.

Alabama Power: No Public Oversight, No Plan, No Relief in Sight

What happens when a politically powerful utility is allowed to spend its customers’ money without any public accountability for over thirty years?

In Alabama, billions went to upgrade coal-fired power plants that are approaching – or have reached – the end of their useful lives, while the Alabama Power Company, which provides power to most of the state, faced nothing more than a rubber-stamp from the Alabama Public Service Commission, which routinely approves adding such costs to the rate base, according to a new report.

The result, says the study, is that customers will pay for decades for Alabama Power’s continued reliance on coal without the company ever having to demonstrate it's making good use of their money.

The report is called “LEFT IN THE DARK: How the Alabama Public Service Commission Makes Customers Pay Billions of Dollars for Alabama Power Investments without Any Meaningful Public Review or Involvement.”

Author David Schlissel, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, has written before on Alabama Power and the Public Service Commission. Schlissel’s report was prepared for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP).

Dominated by ultra-conservative Republicans who virtually never oppose Alabama Power’s will, the Alabama PSC has not conducted a public rate-setting hearing since 1982 when it traded hearings for something called “Rate Stabilization and Equalization,” under which Alabama Power adjusts its charges each year without the inconvenience of evidentiary hearings or participation by the rate-paying public. Instead, the utility opens up its books to the PSC and its staff, which reviews the numbers privately and renders a decision.

 In an earlier report, Schlissel wrote that this “extreme rate-making process” - held up as a national model by the Edison Electric Institute - was devised specifically “to shield the process from public involvement and scrutiny.”

Even within the Southern Company family of politically-influential utilities in Georgia, Mississippi and northwestern Florida, Alabama Power is considered unusually dominant in its home territory, where it provides electricity to about 1.2 million residential, 197,000 commercial and 5,200 industrial customers in the southern two-thirds of Alabama. And while Georgia Power has boasted of beefed-up solar capacity and its costly new nuclear plant, and while Mississippi Power brings delegations of energy ministers to its still-incomplete $6 billion “clean coal” facility, Alabama Power’s plan for the future is evidently to double down on its aging coal fleet.

Big Investments, Big Profits

For which it is being rewarded with industry-leading profits. Nationwide, the average return on equity for utilities between 2008 and 2011 was 9.4 percent. However, Alabama Power was allowed to earn 13.3 percent - nearly 30 percent more - under the PSC’s formula rate process.  Given this atypically generous return, it’s easy to see why Alabama Power is considered the cash cow in the Southern Company empire.  

Fueling this inflated profit margin is the 11.6 percent return the company gets on investments it adds to the rate base, such as the more than $3 billion in environmental upgrades Alabama Power has made at existing power plants in past 10 years, all without having to offer any evidence in a public forum that these expenditures are the most cost-effective and least risky of available alternatives. The same applies to another $722 million in upgrades that will be added to rates by 2019. 

 “Moreover, placing an investment into rate base means that the Company is allowed to earn a return on that investment for decades and can also recover annual operating & maintenance and depreciation expenses,” Schlissel notes.

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