ALEC and Private Utility Companies Conspired to Freeze Renewable Energy Standards in Ohio

Ohio State Senator Mike Foley and EcoWatch Founder Stefanie Spear say 30 states could be next

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica in Baltimore.

Climate change just took a backseat in Ohio. The Buckeye State is poised to become the first state to roll back its renewable energy mandate, meaning previously approved measures which would require Ohio utilities to use renewable energy will be delayed. Both the Ohio Senate and House have approved some form of this bill, and the Republican governor, John Kasich, says that he would sign it into law.

With us to discuss the ramifications of the recent Ohio vote and what this means not just for Ohio but for the rest of the country are our two guests.

Mike Foley is the Democratic state representative from the 14th House District, which is in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a four-term legislator, active in environmental tax and revenue legislation.

And also joining us is Stefanie Spear, who is the founder and CEO of the website EcoWatch. She is also the president of Expedite Renewable Energy, a consultancy company that works on energy policy on the local, state, and federal level.

Thank you both for joining us.

MIKE FOLEY, MEMBER, OHIO HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Thank you.

STEFANIE SPEAR, FOUNDER AND CEO, ECOWATCH: Thanks for having us.

DESVARIEUX: So let’s just jump right into this. Mike, you’re a Democrat, and you were actually against the bill. Can you just describe the significance of the vote? And was the vote split along party lines? Or did members of your own party vote for the bill?

FOLEY: The bill–so the bill stalls, freezes our efforts in Ohio to reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere and to increase more energy efficiency into our electric system and renewable and advanced resources into our electrical system, our generation system of electricity. It passed out of the house 55 to 38. I think yesterday there were two Democrats in the House who voted for it, seven or eight Republicans who voted against it.

As I said in my floor speech, I think it’s the most self-destructive, you know, bill that I’ve dealt with in eight years in the House of Representatives. And actually this week was my eight-year anniversary of being a legislator in the House. And we’ve had some bad legislation in Ohio. We had Senate Bill 5. We’ve had other pieces of legislation [incompr.] this, this more than any other bill, disturbed me more than anything else, because it reverses, it guts our ability to contribute to reducing climate change in this country and in this world.

DESVARIEUX: Stefanie, you were actually involved in having Ohio’s renewable energy mandate passed. Can you just describe for us, ’cause we don’t have a sense of what’s happening behind the scene, what forces are really pushing this sort of freeze for new renewable energy standards?

SPEAR: Yeah. So six years ago, Ohio passed SB 21. It was a really exciting day when Ohio finally passed its own energy bill. And and it set into going a standard, a renewable portfolio standard that mandated 12.5 percent of our electricity by the year 2025 come from renewable sources. So we were really headed in the right direction. That coupled with the Ohio Advanced Energy Fund, which was an incentive for renewable energy projects in the state, really set us on the right course for creating green jobs, building the economy, and also protecting the environment.

But, unfortunately, partly due to change in our governor, a lot of other policies started to come into play. And as great of a day as it was in May 2008, that’s how upsetting yesterday was when SB 310 passed, diminishing, freezing the current RPS.

The legislation is fatally flawed. It’s a job-killer. And it fails to create market certainty, and it slows the project–progress of renewable energy projects in our state. So definitely the wrong direction for creating jobs, bettering our economy, and having a clean environment.

DESVARIEUX: Stefanie, I know you’ve written about this on your website EcoWatch. What about ALEC? What role do they play?

SPEAR: Yeah, so Ohio is not the only state that has been facing this. Unfortunately, Ohio is the first state that caved and actually passed an ALEC anti-RPS bill. There are 37 ALEC bills throughout the nation that [are seeking to] roll back RPS policies. Kansas in March actually turned back an ALEC attempt to repeal the state’s RPS that we were unsuccessful at doing here in Ohio. So, yeah, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is behind these bills. And when you look at certain legislators, you find–when you follow the money, you find ALEC involved. So, in this case our governor, Governor Kasich, is also recognized in the ALEC internal talking points as someone who helped mold ALEC in its formative years. And then Ohio Senator Bill Seitz is known as the legislation’s loudest advocate and is also an ALEC board member.

DESVARIEUX: Mike, why are lawmakers like yourself being courted by members of ALEC? Why do you think all these politicians who are meant to serve the interests of the people end up serving the interests of big business?

FOLEY: ‘Cause, look, I think that–look, I think groups like ALEC, the folks who have a lot of money and want to make more money and who are, frankly, greedy and selfish realized many, many years ago that there’s a lot of money to be made in at the state level. And state legislatures are important. Ohio has a $60 billion biennial budget. That’s a lot of money, that’s a lot of resources that big corporations can play in and get access to.

But, you know, look, we’ve got a responsibility in Ohio to fight back, [incompr.] yesterday, while there were many of us who did fight back, and I think the environmental community did a strong job of advocating on behalf of the RPS standards, we lost yesterday. And that’s utterly–it’s really disturbing. It’s a disturbing on a whole bunch of different levels. But we lost.

And I think it’s really important that we take this as a lesson in the environmental community. The people who rationally care about the climate, the existence of where our kids are going to be in 30, 40 years, really start getting organized and fighting back and put pressure on people in my position and legislators across the country for people who are casting bad votes like they did yesterday. Yesterday was an awful day in Ohio, and I don’t think that anyone who voted in favor of Senate Bill 310 should get away with it. There should be consequences.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk about the arguments that the people who voted in favor of this bill were making. They were saying that essentially the cost of energy, people’s electric bills would go up. What’s your response to that, Stefanie?

SPEAR: Yeah. That’s incorrect. It’s not true. You know, like I said earlier, we’re failing to create market certainty. If we just were to keep things as they were and if we could bring back that Ohio incentive, because fossil fuels are so highly incentivized in our state, we need to level the playing field between renewables and fossil fuels. And if we can just do that–you know, we’re on an incredible path. When we talk about wanting to rebuild the economy, renewable energy is where it’s at. You know, we can create, you know, we have created a lot of jobs in renewable energy in our state, and we really need to keep the system going. And yesterday roadblocked all of the progress we’ve made in advancement of renewable energy and green-job creation in our state.

DESVARIEUX: But this is–.

FOLEY: And if I could add, if I could jump in–.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, go for it. Jump in, Mike.

FOLEY: Yeah. So on everyone’s electric bill, there’s about a two dollar, two and a half dollar a month rider that goes into an energy efficiency fund. Energy efficiency is the cheapest way to produce power. If you equate it or try to create an equivalent to power generated by other sources, it’s a lot cheaper. The estimate is is that by paying two dollars, two and a half dollars a month in your electric bill, you’ll get about a fivefold return.

So electric bills are estimated to go up. The average electric bill in Northeast Ohio now, it’s estimated go up by about $100 a year because there will be less dollars going into energy efficiency programs in the state of Ohio.

Besides that, there’s a lot of just jobs that are available for people to take advantage of. So I talked to the Cleveland Housing Network yesterday, who does a lot of energy efficiency weatherization, you know, smart appliances work for low-income people in the Cleveland area. They are–they expect now, because this bill was passed, that First Energy, which is the large utility company up in Northeast Ohio, was forced to basically put in money into an energy efficiency program for low-income people. They know now that they will get less money into this program, so there’s less money going into energy efficiency programs, weatherization programs, less jobs available for people in the community to go out and do this work.

The argument that somehow–and it’s some sort of kind of right-wing magical thinking–that somehow these energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards somehow cost us money is–it’s a rational. It just purely irrational.

DESVARIEUX: And this legislation is a freeze. It’s not necessarily doing away with renewable energy standards. But Stefanie, are you concerned that this could spread to other states? And if it does or has that potential, what do you propose in terms of protecting this thing from going all over the country?

SPEAR: Yeah, you know, like I said, there’s 37 ALEC bills throughout the nation seeking to roll back RPS standards. So the fact that one passed is not a good sign. But like I said, Kansas in March was able to stop it.

So what I recommend is that people educate themselves on these issues. Ohio’s grown an incredible grassroots movement fighting this. And, you know, they’re still really strong. Everybody’s, you know, recouping from yesterday. But we already are working to repeal SB 310. So, you know, my hope is that we just gain more momentum since this setback and we’re able to persevere.

So, you know, I’d also like to mention, you know, we’re talking state-by-state here, right? So we’re talking about how states need to do this. But we also need our federal government to act. We need a renewable portfolio standard on the federal level. Monday is a very exciting day, when President Obama rolls out new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards towards [incompr.] pollution. That’s under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. That is a really historic day for our country. These guidelines will help foster clean energy and efficiency while cleaning up the nation’s air.

And it’s just ironic that here Ohio would take such a step backward when the federal government’s about to take a big step forward. What we’re going to find in Ohio because we’re freezing the RPS is we’re going to have more difficulty keeping up to this federal standard.

So, you know, we need to just keep educating ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, our family. EcoWatch is an excellent resource for all this information. We really need to show how renewables do work. What they’re trying to do is to make people believe they don’t work. There’s so much rhetoric out there it’s unbelievable. We can power our country from wind, from solar, from other renewable sources, and energy efficiency has a vital role in all of this. We could use less and then generate from clean sources.

DESVARIEUX: And, Mike, on a state level in Ohio, how do you plan to fight back?

FOLEY: It’s a good question, ’cause I feel like after last night or yesterday’s vote I’m a little bit depressed, I got to tell you. I’m also angry and I’m mad. And I think that, you know, I need to–I guess I need to reassess where we go, what the next steps are, both for myself and other legislators who fought really hard yesterday. I want to tell you that we had some great floor speeches on the floor, and there was a lot of kind of anger about–you know, that this thing passed before the House yesterday and it’s going to take effect when Governor Kasich signs this.

I think the environmental community and legislators like myself and people of goodwill really need to come together and reassess the kind of strategies that we’re utilizing or not utilizing in terms of winning.

I’m just going to go back. This is really irrational, what we did in Ohio yesterday. This should not be difficult. Climate change is happening. It’s real. It’s got detrimental consequences to the Earth and to our kids and my grandkids someday. I don’t understand why this is so hard for especially Republicans to get, that the science is clear and unequivocal. We’ve got real problems. And what we did in Ohio yesterday in freezing our standards, you know, it’s going to cost us 9 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere within three years. It’s going to cost us almost a million tons of smog-related greenhouse gases into the atmosphere within three years. That’s stuff that we can never get back.

And so it’s devastating to me, what we did in Ohio yesterday. And, you know, I think that a lot of us need to sit back and assess where the state of kind of the climate movement is, the environmental movement is, and really start thinking about what the next steps are. I hope to be part of that discussion.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Mike Foley and Stefanie Spear, thank you both for joining us.

FOLEY: Thank you.

SPEAR: Thanks for having us.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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