When the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) arrives in San Diego on July 22 for its annual meeting, the agenda will include efforts to undermine clean energy and climate policies that are widely supported by the people of California. Yet the public won’t know what is discussed at the meeting because the doors will be closed to most media, despite the presence of lawmakers from around the country.
ALEC might promote limited government, but it is certainly not a proponent of open government. The group has a long history of blocking press access to its functions. In a widely shared video, an Atlanta television reporter was denied access in May to an ALEC conference between state legislators and corporate lobbyists. The reporter, however, learned from two legislators that ALEC gives state lawmakers free resort stays paid for by lobbyists while providing them with industry-friendly “model” legislation written by lobbyists. One state senator interviewed called ALEC “a corporate bill mill.”
Despite its tax status as a non-profit charitable organization prevented from spending any substantial time wielding influence over legislation, ALEC provides corporate lobbyists venues to influence policymakers behind closed doors.
A new report, “The Climate Deception Dossiers” by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), details how ALEC and some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies it counts among its members have actively misled the public and policymakers about the climate risks of fuel extraction despite repeated scientific warnings. UCS researchers chronicled the decades of deceit by reviewing internal documents related to ALEC and companies including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Shell that came to light through leaks, lawsuits, and Freedom of Information Act requests. The documents show that the corporate leaders long knew the realities of climate science—that their fossil fuel products were harmful to people and the planet—but still supported disinformation campaigns that actively denied or obfuscated the facts.
One of ALEC’s major priorities has been to attack climate science and dismantle state policies to reduce carbon pollution and accelerate the transition to clean energy, including the very policies that make California a climate leader. ALEC’s Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force convenes frequent backroom meetings in which state legislators are briefed with climate disinformation and lobbied by utility and fossil fuel interests, according to the UCS report.
These sort of deceptive tactics have led to public pressure on some major California tech companies to leave ALEC, which Google, Facebook, and Yahoo have done over the past year. As Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told NPR last September, “Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people…they’re just literally lying.”
The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the top lobbyist for the oil industry in the western United States, follows a similar playbook as ALEC and shares some of the same members. In an attempt to weaken, delay, and defeat climate-related policies on the West Coast, WSPA funds so-called “astroturf” organizations that purport to advocate on behalf of drivers and taxpayers rather than oil companies. These front groups, with grassroots-sounding names such as the California Drivers Alliance, create an illusion of consumer backlash to the state’s climate and energy policies, but undermine true public discourse.
Recently, WSPA came out swinging against proposed legislation in California to reduce petroleum use. Under the guise of one if its front groups, it issued false threats on social media claiming that consumers would be faced with gas rationing and government limits on the miles they can drive if the legislation passes. Surely WSPA knows that the California Air Resources Board has no such authority and no proposed bills would give it to them.
Between January 2009 and September 2014, oil companies spent more than $26.9 million through WSPA directly lobbying in Sacramento to defeat the state’s groundbreaking climate policies aimed at achieving a sharp reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. Chevron alone reported spending nearly $14 million.
None of this bodes well for democracy. ALEC calls itself “America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state lawmakers,” yet the top three speakers at this year’s meeting in San Diego are Republican presidential candidates with no Democrat in sight.
ALEC claims to stand for free-market principles, but nothing about it is free or principled when it enables corporations to dictate public policy.