Energy Week

Access Is Power

EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Environmentalists use a revolving door into government to wage war on fossil fuels.

The foxes are running the henhouse at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In academic parlance, this is a textbook example of “regulatory capture” — in this case by environmental special interests. Thanks to their considerable partisan campaign support, green advocacy groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Sierra Club have gained access to the highest levels of the Obama administration’s regulatory apparatus. And they’re using this access to wage war on fossil fuels.

It wasn’t always this way. Forty years ago, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and NRDC rightly could claim to be scrappy underdogs. Today, however, they are sophisticated, connected, and extremely well-funded advocacy organizations. In 2012, NRDC had over $103 million in revenues; in 2012, the Sierra Club had assets greater than $82 million.

Increasingly, they are throwing their considerable resources into politics. The Sierra Club recruited 12,000 members to join Environmentalists for Obama, to participate in get-out-the-vote shifts on Election Day in 2012 and make over 30,000 phone calls on behalf of the Obama campaign. During the last election cycle, the NRDC Action Fund asked its donors to give directly to candidates or green advocacy groups, reports The Washington Post.

Then there’s the revolving door between green nonprofits and EPA political appointments. Consider former EPA Region 6 administrator Al Armendariz, who resigned in controversy after a video surfaced of him comparing his enforcement style to a Roman crucifixion. Soon after leaving the agency, he joined the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Alas, Armendariz’s experience is all too common. A recent Senate Republican staff report, “The Chain of Environmental Command,” lists the many EPA political appointees who came from the ranks of environmental special interests and explains:

The Obama administration has installed an audacious green-revolving door at EPA, which has become a valuable asset for the environmental movement and its wealthy donors.

Thanks to their political spending, green organizations can count on their voices being heard. “They have millions, which gives them access,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) during a recent committee hearing. “The EPA has turned a deaf ear on those that don’t.”

Access comes in many forms. My colleague Chris Horner has used the Freedom of Information Act to produce for the public thousands of pages of correspondence between EPA officials and green groups. There’s evidence that high-ranking EPA officials are relying on private e-mail accounts to conduct public business with special interests, probably to avoid compliance with federal transparency laws. In early 2013, for example, EPA Region 8 administrator James Martin abruptly resigned after conceding in federal court that he had used his private e-mail account to conduct government business with his former colleagues at Environmental Defense, a prominent green litigation group where Martin previously had worked.

The agency has also delegated policy-making prerogatives to special interests. In July, the New York Times reported that three NRDC lobbyists penned the “blueprint” for the EPA’s marquee climate policy, the Clean Power Plan — which would fundamentally overhaul the nation’s electricity markets in accordance with the Obama administration’s climate agenda.

The Times story prompted an investigation headed by a group of prominent Republicans from both chambers of Congress. To this end, they wrote to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, requesting more information on the nature of NRDC’s involvement in the climate rule.

In September, NRDC responded to the Republicans’ letter. NRDC’s David Goldston blogged of the “dangerous” precedent set by a letter questioning “those trying to influence public policy using the normal tools of government.” On Twitter, @NRDC posted that “Republicans act as if fighting for public health were un-American.”

If NRDC were merely using the “normal tools of government” to “fight for public health,” there’d be no problem! But that’s not what NRDC and other green groups are doing. Rather, they’re buying access in order to write policies that have more to do with using federal power to punish the use of “dirty” fossil fuels than with promoting public health.

An ideal example is the Clean Power Plan — a major policy initiative effectively written by NRDC, an unelected special interest that campaigned for the president. That’s a far cry from the “normal tools of government.”

Now, let’s consider the extent to which EPA/NRDC’s Clean Power Plan advances the “fight for public health.” In September 2013 testimony before a House committee, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy conceded the agency’s climate-change regulatory regime would not affect the climate, because the preponderance of current and future greenhouse-gas emissions originate in Asia.

So the Clean Power Plan’s supposed benefits are non-existent. Its costs, on the other hand, are very real. The EPA/NRDC climate plan will make it more expensive to do business in America by effectively forcing industries to use far less coal, the most affordable source of electric power.

Yet the Clean Power Plan is only one of many regulations that make sense only if your goal is to demonize fossil fuels. Such rules satisfy environmentalists, for whom coal is an existential evil. For the rest of us, these regulations make everything more expensive in order to obtain non-existent benefits. In short, they are all pain for no gain.

— William Yeatman is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C.

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