The corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council works with lobbyists and legislators to derail climate change policies.
Scientists are exaggerating the climate change crisis.
There’s no need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions because the benefits of warmer temperatures outweigh the costs.
Over-the-top environmental regulations are linked to such problems as suicide and drug abuse.
These aren’t the ramblings of a right-wing conspiracy theorist, but the opinions expressed at a midsummer retreat for U.S. state legislators held by a powerful U.S. think tank and sponsored by corporations as varied as AT&T and TransCanada, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal.
Internal documents from this summer’s Dallas meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, leaked to a watchdog group, reveal several sessions casting doubt on the scientific evidence of climate change. They also reveal sessions focused on crafting policies that reduce rules for fossil fuel companies and create obstacles for the development of alternative forms of energy.
The meeting, hosted in Dallas from July 30 to Aug. 1, involved a mix of lobbyists, U.S. legislators and climate change contrarians, and was sponsored by more than 50 large corporations, including several that do business in Alberta’s oilsands.
One workshop had the goal of teaching politicians “how to think and talk about climate and energy issues” and provided them with guidance for fighting environmental policies and regulations.
“Legislators are just there as foot soldiers, really,” said Chris Taylor, a Democratic state representative from Wisconsin and a member of ALEC.
Taylor, who said she belongs to the group in order to keep people informed about what it’s doing, said research groups appear to be writing policies presented at the meeting on behalf of corporations that are trying to get rid of obstacles to profit.
“Legislators aren’t coming up with these ideas,” she said.
An ALEC spokeswoman, Molly Fuhs, said in an email to the Star that all of its meetings are meant to bring together members “to discuss and debate model solutions to the issues facing the states,” using principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.
All of the model policies, which must first be introduced by a legislator member, are voted on and approved by a national board made up of 23 state legislators, she added.
“This is to ensure ALEC model policies are driven by, and are reflective of, state legislators’ ideas and the issues facing the states,” she wrote.
The group, founded in 1973, says it has about 2,000 elected Democratic and Republican state legislators in its membership. Its non-partisan status as an educational organization allows it to give U.S. tax receipts to its donors.
With nine separate committees made up of corporate representatives and politicians, the council says it can contribute to as many as 1,000 different policies or laws in a single year. And on average, about 20 per cent of these become laws or policies in areas such as international trade, the environment or health care, it says.
“For more than forty years, ALEC has helped lobbyists from some of the biggest polluters on the planet meet privately with U.S. lawmakers to discuss and model legislation,” said Nick Surgey, research director at U.S. watchdog Center for Media and Democracy.
“ALEC is a big reason the U.S. is so far behind in taking significant action to tackle climate change.”
A separate session on climate change at the ALEC retreat, presented by another educational charity, featured several proposals to discourage development of renewable energy, to stop new American rules to reduce pollution from coal power plants, as well as a “model resolution” in support of Keystone XL, which is seeking approval from the Obama administration.
According to a conference agenda, obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, this presentation was given by Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank. Neither Bast, an author and publisher with an undergraduate degree in economics, nor the institute responded to requests for comment.
Slides from the presentation show that it also challenged established scientific evidence on climate change, while proposing to dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Other internal ALEC records released by the watchdog show that it previously asked its elected members to publicly speak out in support of Keystone XL, providing them with “information” to include in submissions for the U.S. State Department, which is reviewing the TransCanada project.
“They lobby,” Taylor, the Wisconsin Democrat, said of ALEC. “They come up with model policies. They send emails to legislators. They urge people to support model policies. They send thank-yous when the model policies pass. My goal in going is to make sure it’s not stealth, to make sure people know where these policies come from. And these policies come from big corporations through ALEC.”
The Harper government has also participated in an ALEC event, sending a Canadian diplomat, Canada’s consul general in Dallas, Paula Caldwell St-Onge, to a 2011 conference in New Orleans to promote the Keystone XL pipeline, the oilsands and other fossil fuels. Speaking notes from her presentation don’t mention climate change.
Fuhs, ALEC’s spokeswoman, confirmed that several multinational corporations were among those to sponsor the Dallas conference, including telecommunications giant AT&T, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Bayer and energy companies such as Chevron, Devon, Exxon Mobil and TransCanada.
But she stopped responding to questions from the Star after being asked about the internal documents circulated at the meeting and obtained by the watchdog group.
Most of the companies contacted by the Star confirmed they had sponsored the event, explaining that this didn’t necessarily mean they endorsed all of ALEC’s proposed policies.
Alberta-based TransCanada, which sponsored an “Ice Cream Social” event at the ALEC meetings in each of the past two years, downplayed its role.
“I cannot honestly speak to whether or not someone who was a consultant for our company was at the event — because we are not their only client — but no one was directed to be at this event to present views on behalf of TransCanada,” said TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard. “I can’t be any clearer than that.”
Howard, who said the company’s contributions to ALEC weren’t considered to be charitable donations, said the sponsorship doesn’t mean TransCanada agrees with the organization’s policies.
“Reasonable people wouldn’t expect us to only go to or support things that are a perfect match for our own company’s views and values,” Howard said, noting TransCanada has a climate change policy that includes billions of dollars of investments in renewable energy.
“Sometimes you have to speak to people with different viewpoints to develop better public policy and decisions — that’s just common sense,” Howard said.
A spokesman for ExxonMobil told the Star the company didn’t want to comment about its sponsorship of ALEC, saying that it wasn’t a member of the organization. ALEC’s website lists representatives from 17 organizations on its “private enterprise advisory council” including ExxonMobil, AT&T, Pfizer, as well as Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal company in the world.
ALEC declined to explain the role of this “advisory council.”
A spokesman from Devon Energy, Tim Hartley, confirmed that it was “one of the many sponsors” of the Dallas meeting, explaining that the company “generally favours the principles of free markets and limited government that animate ALEC.” But he said he couldn’t discuss specific public policy issues.
“We interact with a variety of stakeholder groups in the course of our business, and we embrace our responsibility to participate in the free and open marketplace of ideas,” said Hartley.
Although she is often critical of ALEC, Taylor, who joined the organization as a legislative member a few years ago, said she doesn’t expect to be kicked out since it is trying to promote its bipartisan nature to preserve its charitable status.
She said energy was a major theme at the Dallas conference, driven by some large corporations, with one corporate representative from Peabody Energy urging the conference to help spark a “political tsunami” against new U.S. EPA regulations proposed to slash pollution from coal power plants.
Peabody Energy didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Surgey, from the Center for Media and Democracy, said one of his biggest concerns about ALEC is its secrecy.
“We have many of our state elected officials going on to these conferences, and yet we’re not allowed to know who they meet with,” said Surgey. “We just know that it’s a very large number of lobbyists from big multinational corporations but ALEC refuses to tell us who’s there.”
ALEC has also sponsored a pair of trips for U.S. politicians to the Alberta oilsands — described as an “oilsands academy” — arranging meetings for the politicians with representatives from TransCanada and Devon Energy, as well as one environmental group, the Pembina Institute, in October 2012.
TransCanada said it doesn’t organize or fund these types of visits, but it assists by freeing up staff to explain operations at facilities.
Sandi Walker, an Alberta government spokeswoman from the provincial department of international and intergovernmental relations, said it hosted 54 trips to the oilsands in 2012, including the fall visit co-ordinated by ALEC as part of ongoing efforts to inform legislators and officials about the industry with “fact-based information” to allow key decision-makers to make informed decisions about energy. Each trip typically cost about $3,000, she said.
She said an ALEC representative had contacted Alberta to set up the meeting, explaining that the province maintains relations with a variety of stakeholders and organizations in the U.S.
Walker said the province is committed to being a leader in greenhouse gas reduction technology by renewing its climate change strategy so that it can effectively reduce emissions at the source, noting it has already implemented a price on carbon emissions for industry.
While TransCanada’s pipeline proposal has popped up on the agenda at multiple ALEC events in recent years, Taylor said that the company’s latest “ice cream social” reminded her of what happened last year when it hosted a similar event.
The ice cream started melting, and in a crowd of skeptics, she joked that she thought this might be accepted as evidence of global warming.