The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservative groups seek limits during lame duck on wind energy subsidies

Completed wind turbine blades sit outside TPI Composites in Newton, Iowa. The company makes blades for General Electric Co's renewable energy business. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg, 2012 file photo)
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Conservative gusto to rein  in environmental initiatives is on display during this lame duck session of Congress as two dozen House Republicans face pressure from a campaign to end federal support for wind energy.

The Americans for Prosperity organization, partly founded and funded by the brothers who control Koch Industries, launched a newspaper advertising and grass-roots outreach effort after the election asking more than 20 Republican House members to halt the tax break for wind energy that is included in a package of tax extensions.

"This is an important moment," said Tim Phillips, the group's director, underlining the importance of the post-election era for Republicans who are being targeted by his organization to defeat the wind energy tax extension. "Republicans who campaigned on limited government and getting the economy moving again -- now they have a clear example with this wind subsidy issue," he said. "Are they going to continue to allow taxpayer dollars to pick winners and losers in the market place, or will they allow the energy sources to stand on their own?"

But wind and other renewable energy have gone mainstream and are embraced by many Republicans, including those in red and purple states  such as Texas, Iowa, Colorado and North Carolina.  Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.)  waved away the pressure she has received from Americans for Prosperity in recent weeks to immediately end the tax break for wind energy.

"I have been a longtime supporter of an 'all of the above' approach to energy," Ellmers said in a statement to The Washington Post last week, after receiving hundreds of calls from constituents responding to the AFP campaign. "... Wind energy is only one of many avenues that our state has the ability to tap into, and it's allowing us to diversify our power sources and create jobs."

The Wind Protection Tax Credit provides about $10 billion a year to support wind producers. Despite the unusual pressure on Republican legislators, those who are watching the ongoing debate over tax breaks expect that legislation extending the wind tax break and most -- but not all  others -- will be approved for another year.

"It is almost certain that most of these will be approved for another year," said Curt Beaulieu, a tax counsel for the Senate Finance Committee who recently joined the Washington office of Bracewell & Giuliani. 

In addition to the AFP federal effort, which is expected to continue through the lame duck session of Congress, state legislators will be pressed by AFP,  the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other conservative groups to repeal state renewable energy mandates. Koch Industries has gone on the record opposing all such programs.

Philip Ellender, president and chief operating officer of Koch Companies Public Sector, said last week that the company continues to oppose state and federal subsidies — for any industry. “Consistent with Koch’s longstanding opposition to all types of corporate welfare, including subsidies and mandates, we oppose state-level renewable portfolio standards,“ he said in an e-mail statement to The Post.

So far, however, such efforts have been unsuccessful in most states. Of 18 states that considered model ALEC bills to roll back requirements to bring wind, solar and other renewable energy online, only one has acted. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) signed a bill earlier this year that would shelve requirements for utilities to boost the use of renewable energy sources.

ALEC's success in Ohio and in getting similar legislation introduced in other states has inspired Democratic Party donors to support a new state-focused organization called the State Innovation Exchange, or SiX. The goal is to eventually raise $10 million a year to boost progressive state lawmakers and their causes -- partly by drafting model legislation in state capitols to support and expand environmental protection efforts.

In addition, environmental groups and their allies are still working to discredit ALEC, which recently concluded its winter policy meeting in Washington. The organization, under new leadership, has dropped some of its most controversial initiatives on crime and other topics, and it has become more transparent and open, with reporters invited to some previously closed sessions. Still,  environmental, religious and labor groups sent letters last week to thousands of state legislators warning them to steer clear of ALEC and its agenda. "ALEC is a polluter-funded group that increasingly tries to obscure the purposes and impact of legislation it is peddling," the letter states.  

In a related move, more than 200 companies wrote congressional leaders announcing support for EPA's proposed carbon standard for electric power plants. The signers included executives from Kellogg's, Levi Strauss, Nestle and Ikea, who were organized by Ceres, a group of  investors and activists promoting environmentally sustainable business practices.

Those letters offset larger campaigns against the EPA rules led by the National Association of Manufacturers and other business and energy trade associations that have criticized the carbon and ozone rules as impractical, expensive and damaging to the economy.

Dave Hamilton, the Sierra Club official in charge of global warming and energy policy, is galled by the complaints against wind and solar subsidies when much larger tax breaks are imbedded in the tax code for petroleum. In the long term, he said, the appeal of renewable energy will win against well-funded fossil fuel lobbyists. But in the short run the debate will be fierce.