WASHINGTON — The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) forged ahead with a new agenda at a D.C. Hyatt this week. Despite an exodus of corporate sponsors, who have balked at its policies and tactics, the nonprofit honed plans to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, roll back energy regulations and give the stage to climate change deniers.
With ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, ALEC promotes free-market principles and has since 1973 served as a forum for corporate members and predominantly Republican state legislators to collaborate on legislation — often behind closed doors.
ALEC’s policy task forces, made up of public officials and private sector representatives, formulate and debate “model policies,” which are then reviewed by the organization’s board. If approved, the laws will be introduced in state legislatures across the country.
Critics say the process amounts to a corporate bill-mill and that ALEC’s meetings are a free-for-all for corporate special interests looking to sway legislation away from the public eye. But ALEC says its purpose is educational, meant to facilitate public-private cooperation and partnership.
This year, ALEC’s environmental agenda was particularly robust. Its energy, environment and agriculture task force, chaired by state Rep. Thomas Lockhart, R-Wyo., and Paul Loeffelman, director of environmental public policy at the utility company, American Electric Power, considered a number of resolutions in closed-door meetings.
Among them were plans to abolish the EPA and replace it with an agency comprised of state representatives, give sole authority over hydraulic fracturing to state governments, expand offshore drilling and allow state legislatures to delay implementing the EPA’s carbon emission guidelines.
“It’s a definitely an escalation from what we’ve seen in previous years, and that’s noteworthy because ALEC has come under a lot of criticism for its anti-environmental positions,” said Aliya Haq, climate change special projects director at the National Resources Defense Council, a D.C.-based environmental group. “What’s interesting is that ALEC has doubled down on its anti-environmental agenda.”
In the last two years, Google, Yahoo, Yelp, Microsoft, Visa, Merck, General Motors, Walgreen’s, Walmart, Amazon, Proctor Gamble, McDonald’s, Kraft and Coca-Cola have all decided not to renew their membership with the organization. Some of those departures are linked to ALEC’s sponsorship of “Stand Your Ground” gun laws, which came into national prominence after the killing of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Since then, ALEC has decided to forgo social and cultural issues, like immigration, firearms and civil rights, in favor of focusing on policies that promote growth and limited government, said spokesman Bill Meierling.
Google, however, specifically attributed their recent departure to ALEC’s posture toward climate change.
"[Google] has a very strong view that we should make decisions in politics based on facts — what a shock," the Internet giant’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt said on NPR when asked about the company’s decision. "And the facts of climate change are not in question anymore. 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, they're just literally lying."
Meierling contended that ALEC had no official position on climate change and that labeling the organization anti-environment is a mischaracterization.
“There is no policy on climate change — as a model policy organization, we do not take positions where we do not have supporting policies,” he said. “We do have very strong policies in a variety of forms against subsidies and mandates of all kinds, whether its subsidies for companies who make tires or subsidies for companies that make solar panels. That’s being conflated by many groups as climate change denial.”
He noted that ALEC members’ objections to EPA regulations to reduce carbon emissions come from what they see as an improper balance of power between states and the federal government — not climate change denial.
Meierling said too that he had invited groups like environmental protection advocates, the Union of Concerned Scientists, to give presentations and had been turned down.
“Every person at this meeting loves the environment, but Arizona is different than Iowa, and Iowa is different than New Hampshire, and you can’t make one rule at a federal level and say this is how these 50 states will do it,” he said. “ALEC members are not against the environment — they are not happy when a rule is foisted upon them without consultation.”
Members, nonetheless, acknowledged that the last three years of negative headlines and campaigns launched by activists have had an impact.
"We've seen a tremendous assault from the left and the left of the left, and it's taken its toll," said incoming national chair, state Rep. Phil King of Texas.
Still, at this week's meeting, a number of panels and presentations amplified the views of climate change skeptics — views that have been widely discredited by members of the scientific community. A Friday morning workshop entitled “The Greening of Planet Earth” attended by member legislators and corporate representatives extolled the benefits of fossil fuels as well as the increased amounts of carbon being trapped in the atmosphere by human activity.
“We are rapidly approaching a dangerous precipice — a precipice defined by an insatiable desire by far too many policymakers to regulate the use of fossil fuels,” said Craig Idso, chairman of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change and a self-proclaimed climate skeptic. “Atmospheric carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.”
Another speaker, Roger Bezdek, the president of Management Information Services, a energy consulting firm, slammed “climate alarmists” as delusional and said the burning of fossil fuels was key to economic growth.
“Virtually everything that climate activists say is demonstrably false, whether it’s wildfires, whether it’s ocean climate or whether it’s hurricanes. … That’s why it’s frustrating,” Bezdek said. “It’s the old Nazi theory, that if you repeat a big lie loud enough and long enough, people believe it. That’s unfortunately what’s happened. It’s very difficult to counter with a silly thing like facts.”
Other organizations say that while the substance of ALEC’s policies are troubling, they are also concerned with how it does business and its classification as a nonpartisan nonprofit.
“It’s operating a tax scam — it brings these legislators behind closed doors where they are spoon fed legislation written by lobbyists and corporations, with the public and the press not participating in those conversations,” said Dale Eiseman, spokesman for Common Cause, a watchdog group that has done extensive probing into ALEC’s finances. "There are plenty of forums for business leaders and public policymakers to share ideas. They don’t have to do it behind closed doors."