In the heat of the 2014 midterm election campaigns last September, Politico ran a story examining a new strategy among national environmental groups, such as liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s super PAC NextGen Climate.
“Seeing no end to gridlock in Congress,” the story read, “national environmental groups are trying a new strategy for winning battles on climate change and green power: pouring record amounts of money into legislative races in a handful of states.”
The story went on to detail how these groups were making a multi-million-dollar push in races for the state legislature in places like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, where flipping just a few seats could change the balance of power in the statehouse.
A month later, however, election results would prove their effort largely wasted, as Steyer-backed campaigns turned into a long list of losses. But since then, environmentalist groups have since shown no signs of pulling back from their agenda at the state and local level.
Just as Watchdog.org was on the ground during election season asking hard questions about alternative energy and environmentalist agendas, our reporters have kept up their scrutiny as statehouses around the country convene for a new term. Here are just a few issue areas where Watchdog.org is providing a counter-narrative to the environmentalist rhetoric of these groups.
The coal smokescreen
“Everyone wants as clean an environment as possible,” said Rob Nikolewski, National Energy Correspondent for Watchdog.org, “but one thing you quickly learn about energy is that in order to generate power there has to be a cost. Nothing is generated without it.”
Last year, for example, when the EPA announced its Clean Power Plan, an ambitious new proposal to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 30% by 2030 as part of President Obama’s climate-change agenda, Watchdog.org reporters were some of the first to look at the local- and state-level costs of complying with the plan in places like Missouri, Wisconsin, and Mississippi.
“EPA regulations come at a cost — and some states have to pay more than others,” Nikolewski noted. “It’s a big part of Watchdog’s job to get government officials to spell out how much these regulations will cost and let readers decided if those costs equal the supposed benefits.”
The flurry of media scrutiny over the Clean Power Plan has largely subsided, but our reporters have continued to investigate coal energy issues. In Wisconsin, Adam Tobias recently covered a new report that found the state would lose thousands of manufacturing jobs over the next several years if forced to comply with the EPA’s plan. Similarly, Vermont Watchdog reporter Bruce Parker noted that Vermont would see a 3.4 percent dent in manufacturing jobs, according to the report.
Furthermore, as Kenric Ward has reported, not all states are taking the crushing new regulations lying down. Several bills in the Virginia Senate would provide a last line of defense against tougher EPA rules by protecting customers from likely rate hikes and allowing the General Assembly to sue the EPA using State Attorney General funds.
Wind energy in the doldrums
When it comes to wind energy, Nikolewski said that “too much reporting simply parrots the talking points of its supporters and glides over inconvenient facts — such as the high cost of offshore wind farms and the number of birds that are killed.” Last year, for example, he covered the backlash that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suffered after enacting a 2013 rule exempting wind farms from prosecution for the unintentional deaths of bald and golden eagles. And in Watchdog.org’s Minnesota bureau, reporter Tom Steward has written a number of similar stories over the past year on the devastating toll wind turbines take on local wildlife.
As Steward has reported in other stories, concerns over wind energy are not limited to the endangered animals they may harm. They have also been the subject of costly tax breaks, such as when Minnesota recently waived $625,000 in taxes for a wind turbine manufacturer. And it gets worse at the federal level. At the end of last year, Kenric Ward reported that Congress voted for another $10 billion in renewable energy credits. Skewed heavily toward wind and solar, those credits help sustain industries that would have a hard time existing without help from taxpayers.
“Just about everyone touts the growth of the renewable energy industry,” said Nikolewski, “but it remains to be seen. . . whether renewables like solar and wind have the energy density to make really significant contributions, especially if they can ever stand on their own without government subsidies.”
Stories like that of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, for example, which was intended to provide electricity to the area at a cost of $2.5 billion but then lost financing from its two biggest customers, raise hard questions about the future offshore wind projects in the U.S.
Fracking isn’t a dirty word
“A lot of reporters repeat assertions by fracking opponents about dangerous incidents,” said Nikolewski, “but few report that there have been no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing.”
For his part, Nikolewski says he tries to be specific and clear on this issue, and to keep in mind an important piece of context: the capability for fracking has been around for decades. Even though it has only started making frequent headlines in the past few years, the technology has improved markedly over the years. These improvements, however, have apparently not been enough to stop states like New York and Maryland from restricting fracking, as Watchdog.org has reported.
One of Nikolewski’s most important stories since starting on the energy beat focuses on a fracking ban that was later tossed out of federal court. His investigation revealed how a small county in New Mexico may have been taken for a ride as a test case when it was encouraged by a Pennsylvania-based environmental group to pass the ban. Now that the ban has been invalidated, the county – one of the poorest in the Southwest – may be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Context, costs and critical thinking
Energy is at the heart of modern society because it is a fundamental part of almost everything we do. As such, it makes sense that energy topics show up often in debates not only at the federal level but in statehouses and city councils all over the country. Informed debates that lead to effective policy, however, are only possible with accurate facts and honest analyses of our energy sources.
Because so many people are emotionally invested in seeing green-energy causes advanced, Nikolewski worries that reports that put the environmental movement in a negative light can be given short shrift or ignored altogether. Unfortunately, this attitude can bleed into media coverage.
“Reporters are skeptical by nature,” said Nikolewski, “but too many times reporters on energy beats across the country come across as cheerleaders, especially when it comes to green energy.”
“There needs to be more critical thinking when it comes to energy reporting and I think that’s what Watchdog.org provides.”