As Activists Push Democratic Climate Debate, DNC Donors Profit from Oil, Gas
Top Photo Credit: JefParker | Wikimedia Commons
After weeks of pressure from climate activists, the Democratic National Committee is officially considering a pair of resolutions on whether to host a debate focused exclusively on climate change, reversing the earlier position of DNC Chair Tom Perez.
This comes after the first two Democratic Party presidential debates in Miami, in which only 15 minutes worth of discussion about the climate crisis ensued within the four hours of debate, both times not until the second hour of the debate. This occurred despite 63-percent of Democrats saying in a recent poll that it is “very important” for them to hear candidate’s policy stances on the climate crisis at debates, the highest percentage of any policy category.
Lack of a scheduled climate-specific debate moved activists with the Sunrise Movement to gather outside of the DNC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. before and during the first round of debates in Miami and demand a climate debate. In response, the DNC locked the door on Sunrise, leaving them outside. Their protest turned into a sit-in with activists camping out for the next two nights.
Sunrise Communications Director Stephen O’Hanlon told The Real News that he believed how Democrats treated Sunrise would be different if they were a group of fossil fuel industry lobbyists.
“We asked to go up and have a meeting with members of the DNC, and they refused. They locked the doors on us,” O’Hanlon said. “You can bet when the oil and gas lobbyists come here they don’t have the doors locked on them.”
In fact, one fossil fuel industry-connected adviser, Ernest Moniz, is connected to one Democratic candidate currently leading in the polls. He is former Vice President Joe Biden’s climate adviser and served as U.S. Secretary of Energy under President Barack Obama.
Moniz’s connections to the fossil fuel industry and to high-level Democratic donors with ties to the oil and gas sector show that, despite a push by activists for a Democratic climate debate and for candidates to reject fossil fuel money, the industry still carries significant clout within the party’s highest level.
Moniz is a nuclear physician by academic background, known by many as a key broker of the nuclear deal signed between the U.S. and Iran.
But while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before becoming Energy Secretary, Moniz also headed up the MIT Energy Institute, an entity heavily endowed by companies such as BP and Chevron which was instrumental in promoting hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for shale gas during his time there. In a lengthy 2013 investigative report examining Moniz’s full track-record at MIT promoting policies favorable to the oil and gas industry, Public Accountability Initiative called Moniz an “industry puppet.”
More recently, Moniz has written in opposition to the Green New Deal proposal being pushed by the Sunrise Movement and their allies in the climate justice movement, instead calling for a “Green Real Deal.” In that CNBC article, Moniz touts “electricity decarbonization” which “has taken [off] because of the natural gas revolution that has reduced coal use.” Biden’s policy team has said it aims to achieve a “middle ground” on climate policy, a stance criticized by rival candidate Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez (D-NY) and others.
Moniz and Biden also share a crucial tie to a key financier of the Democratic National Convention set to take place in July 2020 in Milwaukee, where whoever comes out victorious after the debates and primary elections will be named the party’s presidential nominee.
LNG Garden of Edens
That financier is Wes Edens, the co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. He is also the co-founder and co-CEO of the firm Fortress Investment Group, which has a natural gas-focused subsidiary named New Fortress Energy.
In its most recent annual report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), New Fortress cites the “historic abundant supply of natural gas and discoveries of substantial quantities of unconventional, or shale, natural gas” as the bedrock of its business model. It also notes that most of the gas it will commodify, and indeed most of the gas produced in the U.S. market, comes from fracking.
Methane is a greenhouse gas 86-105 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat trapping agent over a 20-year period, the key period during which most climate scientists say major action must be taken to combat the potential ravages of climate change.
In Florida, one of the Edens owns a natural gas liquefaction facility located about 10 miles west from the first round of debates took place, near Miami, in Hialeah. New Fortress has already begun shipping liquefied natural gas (LNG), a super-chilled version of natural gas allowing it to be shipped in containerized form, out of the Hialeah Rail Yard and to the global market.
That gas currently goes to goes primarily to a power plant in northwest Jamaica, the first country New Fortress signed on for a major LNG supply deal.
Biden and Moniz helped make that deal a reality.
After closing the deal on shipping LNG from the Miami area to Jamaica, New Fortress carried that momentum into getting deals in place to ship LNG to destinations such as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Ireland, Angola, with ongoing negotiations to do the same in the Dominican Republic.
LNG Trucks and Rail, Gas Rivers
New Fortress’ natural gas-centric energy proposals, though uncontested in Jamaica (at least according to all available press accounts), have received some opposition in the U.S. One of those sites of opposition is along the Delaware River.
A New Fortress subsidiary submitted an application with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in December 2018 for an $800 million facility which would superchill and liquify shale gas.
Interstate pipeline projects must undergo a robust regulatory process, overseen by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which includes public comments and hearings. But shipping LNG by rail and truck would help New Fortress avoid that.
A different New Fortress subsidiary got an initial environmental permit on June 6 from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to ship LNG by rail. In response, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced an amendment to a House appropriations bill, calling for a ban on LNG by rail shipments due to cited safety issues. It passed mostly along party lines as part of a House appropriations bill on June 24.
“These will be six trains a day going through the most populated parts of Florida, cars in each train,” DeFazio said on the House floor before the affirmative amendment vote. “And, oh, by the way, within the blast zone is Mar-a-Lago. Are they going to allow the trains to run while the President is there?”
DeFazio has also since requested a 30-day extension on PHMSA’s final ruling, to allow for more public comments and discussion over safety issues.
Environmental groups such as Delaware Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club of New Jersey have also raised safety concerns about LNG. They say it is chemically volatile which means it could TKTKTK. Further, they say it will incentivize more fracking, bringing with it community health impacts and more broadly, global climate impacts.
“LNG brings with it the hazards of a spill and release. If LNG liquid is released it creates a serious safety hazard for those around,” wrote Delaware Riverkeeper in a May 29 letter to the Delaware River Basin Commission.
Along another river, the Ohio, another New Fortress subsidiary has begun building out a natural gas power plant, as well as a frac sand processing hub, all connected to area pipelines and rail networks. Calling it the Long Ridge Energy Terminal, the Hannibal, Ohio-based facility aims to open by 2021. Frac sand, the mining for which has brought with its own community health impacts, is what enables gas to fissure and flow through wells during the fracking process. Construction of the power plant, dubbed the Long Ridge Energy Generating Project, began on June 18.
“Once In a Lifetime”
Edens co-owns the Milwaukee Bucks with Marc Lasry. With a net worth $1.8 billion, Lasry is also heavily involved in the fossil fuel industry via the private equity firm for which he works as co-CEO, Avenue Capital Group.
When global oil trading prices crashed in 2015, Lasry called it a “once-in-a-lifetime” investment opportunity. Just months before making those comments, Lasry’s Avenue Capital created Avenue Energy Opportunities Fund, putting over $1.25 billion into the cause.
As an individual institutional investor, SEC filings show Lasry has over half a billion dollars invested in oil companies such as TransOcean (one of the oil services companies responsible for the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), Pacific Drilling, Chaparral Energy, Ultra Petroleum and others.
Aberdeen Income Credit Strategies Fund—an Avenue Capital-managed fund which oversees investments for pension plans, endowments, foundations and other institutional investors—also has heavy investments in the fossil fuel industry. According to its most recent quarterly listing of portfolio holdings filed with the SEC, Avenue’s Aberdeen has investments in the tar sands extraction companies Southern Pacific Resource Corp and Connacher Oil, the offshore drilling rig company Seadrill Partners, California’s largest oil and gas driller California Resources Corporation, the fracking company Calfrac Holdings and others.
In 2017, Lasry announced he would shift Avenue Capital’s investment focus in the direction of financially distressed power plant companies.
One of the first examples of that happened at the Charles P. Crane Generating Station in Baltimore, formerly powered by coal until shuttering in 2018. Avenue Capital bought the power plant in 2016. The plant got a restart permit to switch from coal to natural gas power generation from the Maryland Public Service Commission on May 21, to the chagrin of area climate activists, who have argued against reopening the facility as a gas-powered entity.
Lasry’s Avenue Capital also has joint venture relationship with Middle River Power, a company which focuses on investing in natural gas power plants throughout California, as well as owning one each in Virginia and West Virginia.
Bucks Stop Here
Next year’s Democratic National Convention will be held in Milwaukee, at the Milwaukee Bucks’ stadium, Fiserv Forum.
Both Edens and Lasry have also functioned as key donors to Democratic presidential and congressional candidates in recent years. According to federal election contribution data, Edens gave $61,700 to the DNC during the 2016 presidential election cycle, while Lasry gave $72,800. Lasry’s wife, Cathy, also gave $33,400 to the DNC during that cycle.
Marc Lasry’s son, Alexander Lasry—also the Senior Vice President of the Bucks—will work as the finance chair for the 2020 convention. Alexander Lasry formerly worked as an aide to Obama White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett.
Alexander Lasry did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did press representatives for Fortress Energy Group or the Democratic National Committee.
DNC Chairman Perez has written that he does not believe single-issue debates should be held because some will feel short changed that their topic of passion was not similarly singled out.
“If we change our guidelines at the request of one candidate who has made climate change their campaign’s signature issue, how do we say no to the numerous other requests we’ve had?” Perez wrote in a June 11 article published on Medium.com. “How do we say no to other candidates in the race who may request debates focused on an issue they’ve made central to their own campaigns?”
But in response to the lack of a scheduled climate debate, the organization Progressive Democrats of America paid for a half-page advertisement open letter published in The Miami Herald on June 27 calling for one in the name of the unprecedented climate emergency. It was co-signed by numerous progressive climate thought leaders, including Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Josh Fox, Tim DeChristopher and others.
The Sunrise Movement, for its part, has continued to beat the drum on what it sees as a need for a Democratic climate debate, and will reveal more plans about the next steps in its campaign in a July 2 webinar.
“It’s absurd to host a debate in Miami—a city where millions of people could lose their homes due to sea level rise that’s also only 20 miles from the Everglades where massive fires are out of control—and spend only a few minutes on the climate crisis,” wrote Sunrise Movement’s Director, Varshini Prakash, in a press release after the debate. The debates, she added, “made it crystal clear that the media and the political establishment are out of touch with our generation.”
Rob Galbraith, a Senior Research Analyst for the Public Accountability Initiative—an organization which oversees the website LittleSis.org and specializes in power mapping research—addressed the role of Edens directly. Galbraith co-authored a 2013 study examining the industry connections Moniz brought with him to the Energy Department.
“Financial firms like Wes Edens’ New Fortress Energy are critical players in propping up the fossil fuel industry, which is responsible for our current climate crisis,” said Galbraith, co-author of a 2013 study examining the industry connections Moniz brought with him to the Energy Department. “By giving taking Edens’ money, awarding him a position of influence on the host committee of the party convention, and refusing to hold a debate about the most critical challenge of our time, the Democratic Party is showing that it is not serious about addressing climate change.”