Courtesy photo
One of several postcards sent by Americans For Prosperity-Vermont opposing the implementation of Act 18.

Fossil fuel friendly political groups shift focus, and money, to state

Rep. Laura Sibilia charges that Koch-related political organizations are waging an early disinformation campaign to undermine state climate measures

DOVER-When your money comes from fossil fuels, the last thing you want is a state trying to go "net zero," or fossil fuel free.

That is why a network of political nonprofits funded by the Koch family acts all over the United States to protect its fossil fuel interests from things like heat pumps, solar panels, and greenhouse gas emissions controls.

Koch Industries Inc. is the second largest privately owned company in the United States, according to Forbes, As described in its corporate filings, the family business was started by Fred C. Koch, who developed a new method for the refinement of heavy crude oil into gasoline.

Koch was a founding member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society and a cofounder of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, in 1977. In 2004, his sons, Charles Koch and David Koch, began building a political network of libertarian and conservative donors.

Vermont has been a national leader in creating legislation dedicated to mitigating the devastating effects of climate change. It has until recently flown under the radar of the Koch Network. Now that has changed.

Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit educational PAC funded by the Koch Network, has discovered the Green Mountain State.

As described on its website, "Americans for Prosperity believes freedom and opportunity are the keys to unleashing prosperity for all. We are a community of millions of concerned citizens advocating for solutions based on proven principles to tackle the country's most critical challenges."

In practice, the organization has recently been sending email letters to legislators and postcards to voters, decrying the state's attempts to to combat global warming, especially the Affordable Heat Act, which became Act 18 in 2023 after the Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Phil Scott.

What is Act 18?

Act 18 defines itself as "an act relating to affordably meeting the mandated greenhouse gas reductions for the thermal sector through efficiency, weatherization measures, electrification, and decarbonization."

The act instructs the Public Utility Commission to design rules for the first-ever Clean Heat Standard - described by Abagael Giles, Vermont Public climate and environment reporter, as "a regulatory tool that would slowly push the companies at the top of Vermont's fossil fuel supply chain - think Vermont Gas, but also the companies that sell wholesale heating oil, propane or kerosene to your local fuel dealer - to slowly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that their products produce over time."

The PUC is required to file these new recommendations with the Vermont General Assembly by Jan. 15, 2025. The legislators will vote on them in the new session.

Act 18 is now law. No regulations have been voted on.

So why is Americans for Prosperity spending money in Vermont right now?

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, the vice-chair of the House Environment and Energy Committee and a strong supporter of Act 18, believes that Americans for Prosperity is trying to influence the 2024 elections.

"The first thing was I saw on Twitter was that they were bragging about a big spend coming in on Act 18, which is the Clean Heat Standard," Sibilia said. "Then I got two emails, which came to me as a legislator, from Americans for Prosperity urging me to sustain the governor's veto."

But the veto, of course, was overridden. The Public Utility Commission is in the process of developing rules for implementation.

"So Americans for Prosperity, I presume - as is the governor - is making this a campaign issue for the upcoming elections," Sibilia said. "The idea is that whoever's coming in will be voting on whether or not to implement the rules for the Clean Heat Standard."

The emails threaten that Americans for Prosperity will keep a scorecard on how each legislator votes. But the voting record of every legislator is already online at the Vermont General Assembly web site, Sibilia said.

Among the messages on the postcards:

• "Can you afford your energy bills to skyrocket? Tell your lawmakers to oppose Act 18 to lower costs for Vermonters."

• "America is the land of opportunity and abundance but our future is uncertain...."

• "Vermont was the land of the free, but now it's freedom with a price tag. Stop top down mandates and higher costs by telling your lawmakers to oppose Act 18!"

Not everyone in the state receives these postcards. Sibilia knows about them because a member of her family ended up on the mailing list.

"I would say that these postcards are not actually providing accurate information or good information," Sibilia said.

She cited one that says Act 18 "forces severe restrictions on natural gas; imposes tax on home heating oil; mandates heat pump installation in homes; gives regulators the power to create more useless red tape."

Of the four bullet points, "not one of them is true," Sibilia said.

"They say Act 18 forces severe restrictions on natural gas. That is not true. They say it imposes a tax on home heating oil. That is not true. They say it mandates heat pump installation in homes. That is not true. It gives regulators the power to create more useless red tape.

"Well, I suppose that might be true," she conceded.

Gov. Phil Scott is out campaigning on the same bullet points, Sibilia said. "I'll also say the governor is not providing accurate information or good information," she said.

"He's counting the cost of a Clean Heat Standard in this moment and telling Vermonters all these costs are going up, including their heating costs," Sibilia continued. "But we haven't even implemented a Clean Heat Standard. We may never implement a Clean Heat Standard. It's a performance standard that's under development. And the rules for implementing it are going to come to the Legislature next year, and perhaps we'll approve them and perhaps we won't."

Sibilia said she heard from others that the postcards cost Americans for Prosperity $60,000.

"I find that to be really interesting," Sibilia said. "They come out in May on Act 18, which will not be acted on until January. For the primaries, it seems like a pretty aggressive campaign. But Americans for Prosperity has a history of opposing climate change and climate adaptation legislation. It also has a history of opposing public schools and a history of opposing consumer protection."

Other right-wing entities are watching Vermont as well.

On June 25, Christina Thompson, the host of an environmental news program, EarthxNews, for Earthx TV, a division of Newsmax TV, a network to the right of Fox News, emailed Sibilia.

"I am working on a story about Vermont committing to becoming net zero by 2030," Thompson wrote. "Would you be free next Wednesday for a live-to-tape interview on this."

Sibilia declined, saying, "Christina, the premise of your story is not accurate, which makes me unlikely to agree to an interview. Best regards."

"Vermont has not committed to becoming net zero by 2030," Sibilia explained to The Commons.

What would the Clean Heat Standard actually do?

The Clean Heat Standard is essentially for the fossil fuel heating industry sector, Sibilia said.

"It requires Vermont fossil fuel sellers to offset their fossil fuel heating sales with clean heat measures," she said. "Clean heat measures have fewer greenhouse gas emissions."

The highest priority is keeping Vermonters warm in winter. But Act 18 is asking fossil fuel sellers to help customers use less fossil fuel to heat their homes.

"There are many ways to do this," Sibilia said. "Weatherizing homes can help use less fossil fuels. The fuel sellers can weatherize and install heat pumps, which run on electricity. If you use oil, your fossil fuels seller could sell you biostandard oils, which mix with your regular oil but have fewer emissions. The point is, how do we keep people warm by reducing fossil fuels?"

Between 2022 and 2023, Sibilia pointed out, fossil fuels - with prices controlled by a global market - doubled in cost.

"People with means are already getting off the crazy train," Sibilia said. "They are already choosing to be more comfortable and less exposed to volatile fossil fuel markets."

And the state's larger fossil fuel sellers are already moving in that direction because that is where the market is going, Sibilia said.

"We are hoping this also helps smaller fossil fuel sellers who need to find new markets," Sibilia said. "Like selling heat pumps or doing weatherization."

Small-scale fossil fuel sellers and people with fewer means are afraid of being left behind, Sibilia said.

"Aware of this, the Legislature designed Act 18 to support market transitions for smaller fossil fuel sellers to make sure all Vermonters are able to reduce their exposure to the unregulated volatile pricing," Sibilia said.

And, she said, "it will reduce emissions as required by Vermont's Global Warming Solutions Act, which was passed in 2020. It aligns Vermont with the decision of the 2015 Paris Accord, an international treaty to mitigate climate change."

The U.S. Supreme Court weighs in

Fighting for climate change mitigation was made far more difficult on June 28 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1984 case Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which instructed lower courts to defer to federal agencies' interpretations laws passed by Congress are not clear.

In a news analysis in The New York Times, legal policy reporter Charlie Savage wrote that ending what had become known as the "Chevron deference" will "make it harder for administrative agencies to impose rules that can cut into the profits of business interests. Those include regulations aimed at ensuring that the air and water are clean, that food, drugs, cars, and consumer products are safe, and that financial firms do not defraud people."

After the decision was announced, Sibilia immediately wrote to Brynn Hare, director of the Vermont Office of Legislative Counsel.

"I'm assuming you have been asked multiple times about the effect the Supreme Court decision may have on state policy," Sibilia wrote to Hare. "If you are preparing a brief I would appreciate being copied on it. If you aren't preparing materials or my concerns are unfounded, could we schedule a quick call?"

Sibilia said she has not yet received an answer.

"It's an important question," she said.

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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