Environmental Activists & Alabama’s Public Service Commission: The Unreported Side of the Story

JobKeeper Alliance, a job-focused nonprofit organization, is actively fighting the efforts of environmental groups who want to limit the Alabama Public Service Commission’s (PSC) decision-making ability. These groups want to control the resource planning process so they can advance an agenda that includes shutting down coal-fired power pants and forcing utilities to purchase expensive wind or solar energy. Multiple national research studies show this will cost Alabama thousands of jobs, raise the price of energy, and hamper our state’s ability to attract new industry.

Currently, Alabama is one of several states that does not allow interest groups to intervene in the PSC’s review and approval of a utility company’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). States such as Georgia that allow third-party intervention in the IRP process have faced fierce opposition from environmental organizations seeking to remove coal from the sate’s energy mix.[1] With Republicans in control of Alabama’s State House and every statewide elected office, environmental interest groups are unlikely to convince policy makers to give them access to the IRP process. As a result, these groups have turned to the utility ratemaking process as a backdoor approach to influencing Alabama’s energy policy.

Formal vs. informal review of utility rates

The controversy over utility rates started on November 16, 2012 when Ben Raines, an environmental reporter for Alabama Media Group’s Al.com, departed from his usual subject matter and began publishing a series of articles alleging that customers of Mobile Gas, Alagasco, and Alabama Power are paying more for utilities than they would in other states.[2] On December 27, 2012, Raines reported that PSC Commissioner Terry Dunn decided to call for formal rate hearings in response to Raines’ reporting on utility rates.[3]

During the first PSC meeting of 2013, Dunn introduced a motion calling for a formal hearing to review the rates of the state’s regulated utility companies. The motion was not supported by PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh or Commissioner Jeremy Oden, and ultimately failed for lack of a second. Both commissioners explained that the town hall style informal rate hearings previously approved by the Commission would be the best forum to address the issue since it allows them to hear directly from the public. Cavanaugh and Oden also expressed their concern that environmental groups were pushing for formal rates hearings so they could use the court-like proceeding to gain access to the IRP. As a result, both commissioners were subjected to unwarranted editorial mockery, with the most brutal blows directed at Cavanaugh.[4]

There is ample evidence that supports Cavanaugh and Oden’s claim that environmental groups are using the issue of utility rates and the demand for formal hearings to gain access to the IRP process. However, this side of the story is being inexcusably ignored by the media outlet publishing the majority of the stories about the PSC.

Environmental interest groups and the PSC

On December 5, 2012, the Alabama Environmental Council (ACE) held an energy forum where regional and local environmental groups came together to discuss their shared desire to reshape Alabama’s energy future.[5] In an Al.com story about the event, AEC executive director Michael Churchman said “There is not transparency currently in our energy planning process. That’s in contrast with nearby Georgia, where the Public Service Commission requires that utilities publicly share their so-called Integrated Resource Planning documents.”[6] This Al.com report is significant because it is the first and only story that acknowledges an environmental group’s interest in the PSC and the IRP process.

On March 21, 2013, representatives from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) came to Alabama to share their report calling for the retirement of 24 coal-fired generation units at 7 of the state’s power plants.[7]  In their blog post about the trip, SACE voiced their disapproval of the IRP process in Alabama and credited Georgia’s IRP process for the planned retirement of 10 coal-fired units identified in their report. The post also thanked the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and Black Warrior Riverkeeper for helping to facilitate their trip. According to PSC staff, SACE’s Amelia Shenstone and UCS’s Jeff Deyette met with some of the commissioners and their staff and discussed their desire to see coal-fired power plants in Alabama closed.

It is important to point out that Amelia Shenstone along with another representative from SACE spoke at AEC’s December 2012 energy forum.[8] It is also notable that a representative from AEC and SELC has been present at every PSC meeting this year.[9]

Fueling the controversy over utility rates

Ben Raines, Al.com’s environmental reporter, has not yet written about, or even mentioned the environmental groups that are seeking greater access to the PSC and the IRP process. However, Raines has written extensively about utility rates.[10] On March 1, 2013, the Arise Citizens’ Policy Project released a scathing report about the PSC titled “Public Utility Regulation without the Public.”[11] Raines published a lengthy article about the report but only discussed the report’s conclusions related to utility rates.[12] Raines’ story did not include any acknowledgement about the IRP process, even though that was a major part of the report.

A consumer group released the report. However, the lead author primarily represents environmental groups. In fact, 75% of David Schlissel’s clients are environmental interest groups, according to his company’s website.[13] Schlissel has testified in numerous regulatory proceedings on behalf of powerful environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and the Southern Environmental Law Center.[14]

In the report, Schlissel is critical of the Alabama PSC’s IRP approval process, which does not allow third parties such as environmental groups to intervene in the process. The report cites an internal document provided by a Birmingham environmental group called GASP, which was included to show that the organization did not have access to the IRP.[15] While speaking at UAB on February 21, 2013, GASP Executive Director Stacie Propst confirmed that she sees the utility rate issue as a way to help her group accomplish their goal. Propst said “In the midst of this firestorm about utility rates, you may be asking yourself, what in the world does this have to do with pollution. Right? It’s directly related. The point here is, obviously, that transparency would help us a great deal in understanding how power plants are polluting.”[16]

Conclusion

There is no precedent, as far as JobKeeper can find, that environmental groups have ever counted consumer utility bills as a chief goal. Rather, long experience shows that their goals do include overhauling Alabama’s energy portfolio in favor of more expensive, renewable sources. It is also clear from their own words that environmental groups in Alabama covet a public Integrated Resource Plan in Alabama, which would provide them an access tantamount to legal discovery.

It is the opinion of JobKeeper that environmental groups are using the utility rate discussion as a catalyst to drive the agenda they desire, which does not include protecting Alabama consumers and jobs. We believe strongly that if these environmental groups are successful, they will use the IRP process to fight for the closing of coal-fired power plants, push a renewable power mandate, and effect other initiatives from states like California. Changes to our state’s energy mix such as this increase costs and negatively impact Alabama businesses, workers, and consumers.

An issue this important should be reported so that Alabama citizens can make their voice heard.



[9] AEC: Joyce Lanning or Michael Churchman SELC lawyers: Christina Andreen or Keith Johnston

[14] Sierra Club- Florida PSC Docket No. 070098-EI, Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission Cause No. 43114, Ohio Power Sitting Board Case No. 06-1358-EL-BGN, Mississippi PSC Docket No. 2009-UA-014, Docket No. 2010-UA-0279, North Carolina UC Docket No. E-100 Sub 124, Wisconsin PSC Docket No. 05-CE-137, Docket No. 05-CE-138; SACE- Georgia PSC Docket No. 22449-U, Docket No. 27800-U, North Carolina UC Docket No. E-100 Sub 124; SELC- North Carolina UC Docket No. E-100 Sub 124

[16] GASP Executive Director Stacie Propst speaking at UAB on February 21, 2013

(Audio file: http://jobkeeperalliance.org/?attachment_id=633)

Protecting Coal-Dependent Jobs in Alabama

Climate change was the policy plan that President Obama spent the most time outlining during his inaugural address. During this time of prolonged economic uncertainty and lagging job creation, Mr. Obama ignored the wellbeing of working families and adopted an agenda pushed by radical environmental interest groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and San Francisco-based Sierra Club.

According to a recent New York Times article, the president will likely sidestep congress and use his executive powers to further reduce the use of coal. This comes on the heels of new EPA regulations enacted in 2012, which are causing hundreds of coal plants to shutdown and killing as many as 17,000 jobs, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

Coal Barg CaptinThis means that Alabama’s coal-dependant jobs will be under attack both nationally and locally. Last month the SELC formed a state level energy campaign targeting the use of coal in Alabama. JobKeeper Alliance has been fighting the SELC’s attempt to stop the job-creating Northern Beltline project, and we will vigorously oppose this new effort, which threatens the jobs of thousands of Alabamians who earn their livelihood from the mining, transportation, and use of coal.

The SELC has recruited other environmental groups to join their effort to remove coal from Alabama’s energy portfolio. So far, the groups that have joined the SELC’s campaign include the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC), Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA), and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE). On December 5, 2012, these groups publicly launched their energy campaign by hosting a public forum. The event was nothing more than a shrewd attempt to put a grassroots facade on an astroturf campaign.

AEC, the front group for this energy campaign, has gone to great lengths to convince informed Alabamians that public input led them to lobby our Public Service Commission (PSC) to hold formal rate hearings and to give third-party groups access to an energy planning document known as the Intergraded Resource Plan (IRP). They might have fooled us if this strategy had not been recycled from the playbook SACE and SELC recently used in Georgia. This strategy allowed these radical environmental groups to force the Georgia PSC to shutdown more than 10 coal-fired generation units. As a result of these shutdowns, Georgia will lose 480 power plant jobs plus the loss of hundreds of other indirect jobs.

Here in Alabama, the anti-coal agenda pushed by these radical environmental groups is gaining traction at the PSC, thanks to Commissioner Terry Dunn.  At the last PSC meeting, Commissioner Dunn criticized the previously approved plan calling for an informal review of the utility ratemaking process and insisted that there must instead be a formal review. His fellow commissioners, Twinkle Cavanaugh and Jeremy Oden, strongly disagreed. Both say that the informal review process welcomes public input in a town hall style setting, while the formal review process occurs in a court-like setting where lawyers talk to other lawyers without interaction from the general public.

Some observers suggest that Commissioner Dunn’s unwavering demand for formal hearings are the result of advice from his chief of staff, David Rountree, who happens to be a longtime friend of AEC Executive Director Michael Churchman. Others say that Commissioner Dunn’s position is merely politically motivated demagoguery. Commissioner Dunn recently told JobKeeper Alliance that his demand for formal hearings is strictly based on what he feels is best for utility customers, and that neither he nor Rountree had been communicating with the environmental groups that have recently become active at the PSC.

We are certain that anti-coal activists would exploit formal hearings. However, we trust, but will verify, Commissioner Dunn’s claim that neither he nor Rountree has been communicating with these environmental groups. JobKeeper recently submitted an Open Records Act request to the PSC seeking copies of documented communication related to this issue.

We are also concerned about bias reporting on this subject by several state newspapers. It is irresponsible to engage in editorial vilification and criticize claims that your paper has failed to investigate. Substitute your opinion with facts and report both sides of this issue. Ask AEC if they plan to ask the PSC to close any coal-fired power plants. Ask SACE if they advocated for the retirement of coal-fired units during formal rate hearings held by the Georgia PSC. Ask the SELC if their lawyers represented SACE in their fight against coal at the Georgia PSC.

We applaud PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Jeremy Oden for protecting Alabama jobs and utility customers. By requiring the ratemaking process to be reviewed in a public setting, Cavanaugh and Oden are preventing the process from being hijacked by the same radical environmental groups that used formal rate hearings held by the Georgia PSC to fight against the use of coal.

JobKeeper Alliance will continue to fight the efforts of radical environmental groups whose anti-coal agenda threatens thousands of Alabama jobs and our state’s ability to compete for new economic development projects.

SELC's opposition to the Northern Beltline is about more than just a highway (opinion from Stewart Burkhalter)

JobKeeper Alliance has made protecting the thousands of construction jobs and long-term economic growth associated with Northern Beltline a top priority. Our organization has worked hard to notify the public of the effort mounted by the Southern Environmental Law Center to block construction of the Beltline. We have utilized earned media, direct communication and radio advertising to deliver our fact-based message to the public. Thousands of people have visited our website to learn more about this issue and many have taken the time to share their personal thoughts about this project with us.

From inception to construction, public infrastructure projects such as the Northern Beltline are subjected to a maze of state and federal agencies. These agencies are collectively responsible for addressing critical issues such as the necessity of a proposed project as well as the economic, social, and environmental implications associated with the project. Our democracy ensures that infrastructure projects are prioritized and funded according to project necessity and public demand. If our elected officials in Washington, D.C., and in Montgomery do not prioritize projects appropriately, voters will voice their disapproval at the ballot box during the next election cycle.

The lawsuit filed by the SELC and Black Warrior Riverkeeper in an effort to block construction of the Beltline threatens our democracy. These groups are attempting to use our courts to circumvent legislatively determined public policy and replace it with policy aligned with their personal agenda. This is a slippery-slope that could lead to a future where the personal preference of a few individuals overshadows the needs and wellbeing of the general public.

There are two things to keep in mind when evaluating the validity of the concerns that SELC and BWRK point to in their argument for abandoning the Northern Beltline. 1). SELC’s goal is, and always has been, to permanently stop construction of the Northern Beltline. 2). The SELC has effectively abandoned its original environmental concerns in favor of arguments about fiscal responsibility. Most of the fiscal concerns raised by SELC are based on events that did not occur until years after the group first targeted the Beltline project in May of 2005. The SELC’s “kitchen sink strategy” of raising any concern they can come up with effectively conceals the group’s agenda.

The SELC takes offense to being called an anti-growth group. However, this term accurately describes the practical implication of their policies. The group has cleverly adopted the term “sprawl” to conceal their anti-growth mission. While most dictionaries offer varying definitions for this word, a thorough review of the 124 references to “sprawl” on the SELC website leads me to conclude that this group defines “sprawl” as any new growth that occurs in a previously undeveloped area. By this definition, the growth of areas such as Mountain Brook, Vestavia, and Hoover would be considered “sprawl.” The SELC’s attempt to stop the new growth that would result from the construction of the Northern Beltline is disenfranchising to the residents and elected officials and all of the small towns throughout Jefferson County.

JobKeeper Alliance may not agree with the SELC’s agenda, but we respect its right to pursue it. However, we believe that the SELC has an obligation to inform the public of its full agenda, including the desire to stop new growth from occurring in undeveloped areas. Also, the SELC should either disclose to the public that they are seeking, as part of their lawsuit, attorney fees to by paid to them by ALDOT, or amend the lawsuit and remove their request for financial compensation.

by: Stewart Burkhalter

Stewart Burkhalter is the former President of the Alabama AFL-CIO and current board chairman of JobKeeper Alliance, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization.

Governor Bentley: Passage of Amendment 2 critical to attracting industry to Alabama

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley
Photo: Dave Martin/AP

There is a measure on the November 6th ballot that will give us the tools we need to continue to bring high-quality jobs to Alabama.

Passage of Amendment 2 will allow the state to provide financial incentives that will attract new companies while also helping existing companies expand and hire more Alabamians.  Amendment 2 will help us accomplish this without raising taxes, without increasing the state’s debt limit and without increasing the size of state government.

Since taking office in 2011, my administration has been blessed to be able to announce the creation of more than 26,000 new jobs, and we are constantly working to create even more jobs for the people of this state. Alabama voters can help us continue our progress.

I personally consider Amendment 2 to be one of the most important items on the ballot. Amendment 2 redefines existing legislation so we can refinance bonds at lower interest rates and save the state millions of dollars. In turn, that will free up funds to provide economic incentives for companies considering moving their facilities to Alabama – or expanding the facilities they already have in Alabama.

Amendment 2 will not increase the state’s bonded indebtedness; it remains capped at $750 million. As the existing bonds are paid off, Amendment 2 will allow the state to issue new bonds in their place to help with job creation. The end result: More people will be able to find a good job.

Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved the issuance of bonds in a vote more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, the language in that amendment must be fixed to keep the state competitive. Amendment 2 remedies the flawed language regarding the refinancing of bonds by allowing the savings from lower interest rates to be used for additional job creation.

Just recently, we’ve seen how economic incentives are vital to job creation across the state. Incentives helped us attract Airbus. Incentives helped us keep Wrangler, which is now rebuilding in Hackleburg following the devastating April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak. Incentives keep jobs here instead of sending them somewhere else.

We need Amendment 2 to help us build on what we’ve accomplished. Other states work to recruit the same companies that we work to recruit. And those other states provide incentives. If we cannot offer the same types of incentives, Alabama stands to lose jobs to surrounding states.

Further, the money we invest in incentives comes back to Alabamians in the form of new jobs. When more people have a good job and are earning a paycheck, our entire economy will improve.

My administration has made job creation a top priority. I am asking all Alabamians to help us continue our mission of job creation by voting “Yes” on Amendment 2. This is needed for our long-term economic recovery. This is needed to help more people find high-quality, well-paying jobs. You have the power to help make this happen with your vote on November 6th.

By Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley
Press-Register Op-ed
October 17, 2012

JobKeeper Alliance to Activist Groups: Stop Blocking the Beltline

The Northern Beltline will create thousands of construction jobs and drive economic growth throughout Birmingham and surrounding communities. However, activist lawyers at the Southern Environmental Law Center are trying to block construction of the Beltline.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and their client, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, claim their objection to the project is about the environment. The truth is that they simply want to stop new growth. The Northern Beltline is just one in a long list of projects targeted by this group. Over the past 5 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center has actively opposed 13 road and highway projects in 5 states. It is important for the people of Birmingham to know that the SELC has made a practice of blocking new job-creating projects, regardless of whether they can prove any environmental harm. 

As if blocking jobs were not bad enough, the SELC is trying to force taxpayers to fund their obstruction efforts. According to federal court records, they have asked as part of their lawsuit to receive both attorney fees and expenses. In other words, if they block the Beltline, they get paid. While Birmingham is trying to build a stronger economy, these groups only seem interested in blocking jobs and stopping new growth.

“Our message to the SELC and Black Warrior Riverkeeper is simple,” JobKeeper Executive Director Patrick Cagle said.  “Drop your lawsuit and stop blocking the jobs and economic growth our region needs.”

A number of Birmingham-area business leaders also weighed in on the Northern Beltline project, as well as the legal opposition to it.

“The Northern Beltline has been the #1 priority of the Birmingham Business Alliance for years because of the jobs and economic development opportunities it will help create for our region,“ remarked Brian Hilson, President and CEO of Birmingham Business Alliance.

“I applaud the efforts of the JobKeeper Alliance in bringing to light those organizations blocking job creation at a critical time when economic growth is vitally needed in our state,” added Mike Thompson, Chairman of the Coalition for Regional Transportation. “We need this Beltline and the economic impact it will bring to our communities. Mostly, we need jobs for the people in these communities, and we need them now.”

Members of the community are asked to visit www.StopBlockingtheBeltline.org and make their voice heard.