From gust to gale


Back in February, I wrote on the Goat blog about "sWINDle", an anti-wind energy billboard campaign in Idaho that was developed by the Energy Integrity Project, an obscure nonprofit that fancies itself a grass-roots watchdog.  The group believes that wind energy projects in Idaho -- specifically those near EIP members' houses -- are not based on "genuine" science and that they threaten the economy, taxpayers, and the environment.

The Energy Integrity Project is one of a growing number of "grass-roots" groups around the country that aggressively lobby against regional wind development projects and renewable energy policies.  And while most are small, NIMBY-type outfits, documents recently obtained by the Checks & Balances Project -- a government and industry watchdog organization -- suggest that these local groups are more coordinated in funding and strategy than the average citizen-run non-profit. With the help of prominent conservative think tanks -- a number of which have ties to the fossil fuel industry -- these smaller groups are working to combine their small gusts of regional anti-wind rhetoric into a national gale aimed at subverting the renewable energy industry.

In a press release issued this week, the Checks & Balances Project, whose watchdog work to date has largely focused on exposing the fossil fuel industry's influence on energy issues -- says that a network of anti-wind activists, including the members of several high-profile conservative organizations with funding ties to the oil and gas industry, gathered in the nation's capital in February 2011 to "confirm plans for a coordinated national disinformation campaign against wind energy."

The plans were detailed in a confidential public relations campaign proposal that Gabe Elsner, co-director for The Checks & Balances Project, found (along with a number of related documents) via a Google search. The proposal was edited and presented to participants at the February gathering -- dubbed the D.C. Energy Advocates Conference -- by John Droz, Jr., a longtime opponent of commercial wind energy and the conference's organizer. From The Checks & Balances Project:

The document details a series of wind energy attacks ranging from "counter intelligence," setting up a "dummy business" and steering kids away from science projects on wind because "it doesn’t meet the criteria we set up." The document also notes that the groups should coordinate national messaging but make sure the same message "appears to come from as many as a dozen separate sources."

While Droz and other participants describe the conference as a gathering of concerned citizens opposed to government support for the wind energy industry, which Droz says has failed to "justify its existence," environmental groups and clean-energy advocates feel the gathering is "evidence of a concerted effort on the part of fossil fuel companies to squash a sector that could someday threaten their business interests," reports E&E News (subscription only).

Indeed, in addition to Droz's strategy memo, Checks & Balances' Elsner also found a list of conference participants, some of whom have ties to the oil and gas industry or are associated with groups that receive significant funding from fossil fuel interests.

For example, Droz is a senior Fellow at the American Tradition Institute, a conservative think tank that, Elsner says, receives 75 percent of its funding from Doug Lair, founder of Lair Petroleum, a business that billionaire oilman William Koch bought from Lair back in 1989. Paul Driessen, a Senior Policy Analyst at conservative free-market policy institute the Committee For a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) was also in attendance. CFACT received $577,000 from ExxonMobil between 2000 and 2007, according to the company's tax records and giving reports, but Driessen maintains that he was at the conference representing only himself. Marita Noon, Executive Director of the Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE) -- a New Mexico-based anti-wind lobby -- also participated. CARE is funded in part by New Mexico oil and gas producers.

This brings us back to the Idaho-based Energy Integrity Project. According to that list of conference participants, Tauna Christensen -- the president of the EIP -- was there as well.

The EIP incorporated only recently and so it's unclear as yet who funds the group. Christensen claims the EIP is paid for by concerned citizens "out of their own pockets." But, like the other supposedly self-supported anti-wind groups at the conference, notes Elsner, the EIP is -- in its "sWINDle" campaign – running what appears to be a very well-funded effort against local wind energy projects and policies. In fact, Elsner looked into how much it costs to advertise via billboard in Idaho: A quote he got from a Boise billboard company said 14 billboards would run $13,000 a month. So buying anti-wind billboards is a pricey endeavor for a group that Christensen says has only 4 active members.

For its part, The Checks & Balances Project, is not exactly a disinterested party in the wind energy debate: "We are pro-clean energy", says Elsner. But, unlike the EIP and other clean-energy-bashing groups, The Checks & Balances Project believes in transparency and is open about its funding sources: Renew American Prosperity (RAP) and the New Venture Fund.  RAP supports Elsner's work, and it, in turn, is funded by clean technology attorney Mike Danaher.

If groups like the EIP are going to embark on subversive local and national campaigns of disinformation about wind energy -- an industry they claim is non-viable despite the fact that electricity generation from wind increased from 6 billion kilowatt-hours in 2000 to about 95 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010 and that, since 1998, wind capacity has grown by an average of more than 25 percent per year -- then the least they could do is show us the money.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an editorial Fellow for High Country News

Images courtesy flickr users Wayfinder_73, calwest, and twicepix.

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