Group says opponents, regional planning commission conspired to kill Northern Beltline project

By: Mike D. Smith | Birmingham News
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The JobKeeper Alliance, a group of business and labor interests formed to support the Northern Beltline, claims an opponent worked with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham to kill the project.
Construction of the first segment of the planned $5.45 billion, 52-mile corridor is scheduled to begin early next year between Alabama 75 and Alabama 79 near Pinson.

The project has attracted vocal public opposition from opponents who question the new interstate’s need and economic and environmental impacts. The JobKeeper Alliance states that a prime opponent has had inappropriate influence with the planning commission in an attempt to block construction. Alliance spokesman Patrick Cagle said emails requested from the planning commission show Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, had undue influence on the planning commission’s selection of a $250,000 consultant firm that has say in the priority of regional transportation projects. In 2012, the commission selected a firm to help form the regional transportation plan. Listing a project in the regional plan is a required step for securing federal construction money.

Cagle said email communication shows that during the selection process, planner Darrell Howard allowed Johnston and other SELC lawyers to evaluate and rank nine sealed bids from firms competing for the contract. The winning firm was Renaissance Planning Group, which Cagle said was recommended by Johnston even though it ranked third after the firms were evaluated and scored. The SELC is involved in two lawsuits filed to stop the project. One, filed in 2011, calls for an updated environmental impact study. The other, filed in October, challenges a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit for the first segment of the highway. Other communication shows Howard and Johnston met in a secret location with the leader of the Ochs Center in May 2012 to discuss the project. Cagle said at that time, the Ochs Center was working on its economic impact study that countered job and economic benefit numbers put forth by proponents.

“This unethical and potentially illegal collusion associated with the awarding of this consulting contract is appalling,” Cagle said. “We believe this issue must be fully investigated by the appropriate federal and state agencies. Cagle said the relationship implied by the emails could put the future of the project in jeopardy, possibly by keeping future segments out of the regional plan which would render them ineligible for funding. He called on planning commission Executive Director Charles Ball to launch an internal investigation. Cagle said the alliance has given the information to U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, who has forwarded the information to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general for review. The contract involved federal funds, he said.

JobKeeper Alliance To SELC: Don’t Use Lawsuit To Block 1,300 New Jobs

JobKeeper Alliance issued the following press release on October 9, 2013:

Birmingham, Ala.­– JobKeeper Alliance, a job-focused nonprofit organization, is concerned the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) will try to use the federal lawsuit the firm filed more than 30 months ago to block the start of construction on the Northern Beltline, which is currently slated to begin in early 2014.

Last week, Governor Robert Bentley announced that ALDOT has been issued the final permit needed to begin work on the first segment of the 52 mile Northern Beltline. He also expressed his confidence that the new highway will not threaten the environment. “We’re committed to building the Northern Beltline in the most environmentally responsible way possible,” Bentley said.

In 2011, SELC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper claiming ALDOT inadequately assessed the potential environmental impact of the proposed highway.

However, for the last two years SELC has used economic concerns to fight against the Northern Beltline, saying very little about the ongoing environmental lawsuit.

JobKeeper Alliance, a vocal supporter of the job-creating highway project, believes SELC filed the lawsuit to delay the project while the law firm and Black Warrior Riverkeeper attempted to erode public support for the Northern Beltline through an aggressive PR campaign focusing on the cost of the project.

“The fact that this project is supported by the vast majority of elected officials, including Governor Bentley, is a clear sign that the public has rejected SELC’s claims” said Patrick Cagle, Executive Director of JobKeeper Alliance. “Our concern is that SELC will now try to use the federal court system to accomplish their goal of killing the Northern Beltline; disregarding the will of our state’s leaders.”

Jobkeeper Alliance says it is highly likely that SELC will attempt to use their lawsuit to block the start of construction on the Northern Beltline, which is currently scheduled to begin in early 2014. The Alliance says it would be wrong for the environmental law firm to block the more than 1,300 initial jobs that will be created when construction starts on the highway project.

JobKeeper Alliance is a 501c(4) alliance formed between the business community and labor. This partnership is cemented by the two group’s mutual interest in protecting jobs and working to create new jobs. For more information, visit www.jobkeeperalliance.org

 

###

ITD & Bigger Pie Forum Lie About Use of Taxpayer Money Being Used to Fight MS Jobs

Press release issued by JobKeeper Alliance on August 27, 2013 

Take Away Points:

  • ITD lied when they said they’ve not received any taxpayer money since the “mid-1990’s.” State appropriation documents show they’ve received millions between 1995 and 2002*.
  • ITD admitted transferring taxpayer money to Bigger Pie Forum.
  • JobKeeper again calls on a full investigation and accounting of all taxpayer money and activities by both ITD and Bigger Pie Forum to help protect the public trust.

 In a joint press release last week with Bigger Pie Forum, ITD, a taxpayer-funded “economic development” organization admitted it used taxpayer money to form and fund Bigger Pie Forum in 2012. Now, to cover their misdeeds, the organizations are lying to avoid having to come clean about their misappropriation of money entrusted to them by the taxpayers of Mississippi.

“It is outrageous to claim, like ITD and Bigger Pie do, that the profits from taxpayer funded investments somehow belong to Kelley Williams and his personal agenda rather than the taxpayers of Mississippi,” said Patrick Cagle, executive director of JobKeeper Alliance. “JobKeeper Alliance is calling for an investigation of both ITD and Bigger Pie Forum to get to the bottom of how taxpayer money was spent in an attempt to kill jobs in Mississippi. Without an investigation, we may never know the extent to which taxpayer funds have been squandered by Williams and his cronies.”

“In addition to this bit of ENRON accounting, ITD and Bigger Pie Forum shamelessly lie when they claim they have not received any taxpayer money since the mid-1990s. In fact, public records clearly show, in spite of their obvious lie, ITD was appropriated taxpayer funds in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001.* The fact that they are telling such a verifiable lie should serve as an insult to Mississippians and their elected leaders.”

Kelley Williams, who sits on the board of both ITD and Bigger Pie Forum, has used taxpayer money to fund his personal project, Bigger Pie Forum, with absolutely no public oversight. To date, Williams refuses to disclose exactly how that money has been spent.

“They are basically telling Mississippi taxpayers that they will use public money any way they see fit,” Cagle said.

Bigger Pie Forum is a group that has been aggressively fighting against economic development projects in Mississippi, an activity in direct conflict with ITD’s original charter to foster economic development in the state.

Bigger Pie Forum has already been forced to admit it is funded by taxpayer money through ITD. The questions that have not been answered are A) how much taxpayer money Bigger Pie received from ITD, B) why it received it, C) if Williams was directly responsible for the group receiving it, and D) how those funds have been spent.

JobKeeper Alliance is determined to set the record straight about ITD and Bigger Pie Forum and is calling for a full accounting and investigation of ITD’s and now Bigger Pie Forum’s expenditures of public money.

“At best, the use of this public money by Kelley Williams and Bigger Pie Forum is an unethical move that deserves official scrutiny,” Cagle said. “At worst, this is an illegal act involving taxpayer money that merits a full investigation at the highest level. Until Kelley Williams and his accomplices come clean about the transfer of money from ITD to Bigger Pie Forum, or are forced to reveal the truth through an official investigation, JobKeeper Alliance will continue to raise these questions and expose this betrayal of the public’s trust.”

####

 *Known regular session legislative appropriations made to ITD: 1985 (SB2984 appropriated $4,000,000); 1986 (SB2903 appropriated $1,000,000); 1987 (SB 2959 appropriated $1,000,000 up to $2,000,000); 1988 (SB3104 appropriated $1,000,000); 1989 (SB2993 appropriated $1,000,000); 1993 (HB1587 appropriated $260,000); 1995 (SB2641 appropriated $2.5 Million); 1998 (SB3224 appropriated $750,000); 1999 (SB3155 appropriated $750,000); 2000 (SB3260 appropriated $750,000); 2001 (SB3106 appropriated $650,000). Additionally, the legislature authorized the issuance of up to $10,000,000 in bonds for the benefit of ITD in the 1987 regular legislative session (SB2857).

Recoup Taxpayer Money Being Used by Bigger Pie Forum to Fight Mississippi Jobs

Editorial by Patrick Cagle
(Originally published by The Clarion-Ledger on August 15, 2013)

JobKeeper Alliance, a nonprofit partnership formed between the business community and labor to advocate for the creation and protection of good-paying jobs, recently called on state leaders to investigate the transfer of taxpayer money to the Bigger Pie Forum.

The money at issue is unused funds held by the no longer operational Institute for Technology Development, a nonprofit subsidized by Mississippi taxpayers for two decades to the tune of $32 million. ITD was given taxpayer funds to support its mission of “fostering technology-based economic development.” Now, ITD is giving proceeds earned from the use of this taxpayer money to Bigger Pie Forum and financing its fight against one of the state’s largest high-tech economic development projects, a clean-coal power plant currently being built in Kemper County.

Kelley Williams and Ashby Foote are at the center of this controversy. Williams and Foote are the driving forces behind Bigger Pie Forum and officers of ITD, according to forms the nonprofit filed with the IRS. Foote recently told the Jackson Free Press that “Bigger Pie Forum has used some profits from ITD businesses.” Foote’s statement raises serious ethical and legal questions. How does a publicly subsidized nonprofit generate a “profit?” Why are ITD’s unused funds not being returned to the state to repay the taxpayer money invested in the organization? Did taxpayer money go to Bigger Pie Forum at the direction of Foote and Williams?

The same Mississippi state law that grants authority to the Legislature to appropriate funds to ITD also grants the state auditor the authority to audit the publicly funded nonprofit. JobKeeper Alliance sponsored a petition signed by 1,489 citizens that calls on State Auditor Stacey Pickering to exercise his authority and investigate the transfer of money from ITD to Bigger Pie Forum. In response to our request, Pickering informed us that this issue was “on his radar” and that he plans to ask the U.S. Treasury inspector general to review its use of federal funds.

While we support his decision to call for a federal investigation, we caution him against abdicating his responsibility to the federal government. Instead, we urge Pickering to launch his own parallel investigation into ITD, review its use of more than $32 million in state funds, and determine whether the $5 million in assets the mothballed nonprofit reported to the IRS should be returned to the state.

Pickering has earned a reputation as a diligent watchdog of public funds, and we are confident that he will seize this opportunity to return millions of taxpayer dollars to state coffers. In the meantime, we urge Williams and Foote to stop using public money to fund their fight against a major economic development project that has created 6,000 Mississippi jobs.

It is ironic that Bigger Pie Forum is on the public dole, given that the group’s purported mission is to promote a less-government, free-market philosophy explicitly opposed to taxpayer-funded subsidies for private business.

We can finally pull the curtain back on this shadowy group and see it is costing Mississippi jobs while taking government handouts. The only question left is why.

Public hearings held by the Alabama PSC produces results

08-13-2013_PSC_meeting The three part series of public rate hearings held by the Alabama Public Service Commission to review the ratemaking process for state’s largest electric utility culminated with an agreement that will save ratepayers money. The rate reduction, along with modifications to the ratemaking formula known as RSE were recommended by PSC staff and accepted by a majority vote of the commission at the PSC’s August 13th meeting.

At the first PSC meeting of 2013, JobKeeper Alliance held a press conference to express our concerns about a coordinated effort by several environmental groups and their allies seeking to create a “fire-storm about utility rates.” Their goal was to create a controversy that would lead to formal rate hearings, then hijack the closed-door venue and use it to advance their anti-coal agenda. We adamantly oppose this radical agenda because ending the use of coal in Alabama will raise energy costs, kill thousands of existing jobs, and hamper future economic development and job creation efforts.

We appreciate Commission President Twinkle Cavanaugh and Commissioner Jeremy Oden for supporting inclusive and transparent public rate hearings and opposing the environmentalist’s demand for closed-door hearings. By welcoming all citizens and organizations to participate in the open public hearings, the environmentalist’s unpopular agenda was met with fierce opposition from dozens of pro-job groups, local leaders, and hard-working Alabamians.

We are, however, disappointed that Commissioner Terry Dunn voted against the rate reduction supported by Commissioners Cavanaugh and Oden. Commissioner Dunn’s vote against the plan has once again placed him on the side of the environmental groups and their ally AARP, who is publicly backing the environmentalist’s agenda in nearby states. With Commissioner Dunn’s base of supporters thinning, we are concerned that he will likely continue clinging to the company of those courting him.

We also fully expect that the environmental lobby will continue to push forward in their campaign to change Alabama’s energy policy. As a result, JobKeeper Alliance will continue to vigorously oppose efforts of those who threaten existing jobs and future job-creating economic growth.

 

Bigger Pie Forum Fighting for Gas Industry, Not Mississippi Consumers

The Bigger Pie Forum’s Kelley Williams and Ashby Foote have a personal stake in seeing Mississippi run solely on natural gas. Their personal agenda will cost jobs and put Mississippi’s families and businesses at great risk.

What Williams, Foote, and Bigger Pie Forum Say

Kelley Williams, Ashby Foote, and Bigger Pie Forum have argued that natural gas is a superior fuel source, touting the abundance and low cost of natural gas and promoting the controversial hydraulic fracturing process (fracking) as a major element of this “gas bonanza”. Foote often writes about the “gas bonanza” and suggests that natural gas, a historically volatile commodity, is the end-all solution for Mississippi’s energy future.[1] As a cohort in Bigger Pie Forum, Williams echoes Foote’s enthusiasm for natural gas, arguing that natural gas plants are the best choice for electricity generation.

Both Williams and Foote have criticized a new power plant in Kemper County, arguing that the state’s Public Service Commission should force the owner, Mississippi Power, to build a power plant fueled by natural gas instead. If it were up to Williams and Foote, in fact, all electricity generation in Mississippi would come from natural gas.

Williams and Foote Are Connected to the Gas Industry

Kelley Williams is a veteran of the oil and gas industry whose company, First Mississippi Corporation, was involved in natural gas exploration. At one point, Williams’s company owned tens of thousands of gas wells and gas leases across 1.5 million acres of America. Williams and his natural gas colleagues have earned tens of millions from oil and gas production.[2] If the Mississippi public is looking for an unbiased perspective on energy sources, Kelley Williams, with his long history in the gas industry, is the last person you should ask.

Similar to Williams, Ashby Foote has been investing his client’s money in the natural gas industry long before the controversial extraction method known as fracking led to what he calls an energy paradigm shift.[3] In 2005, Foote touted Callon Petroleum Company, an oil and natural gas producer, as a wise investment.[4] That same year, natural gas prices peaked 340% higher than the current market price.[5] Foote should know from personal experience just how volatile the price of natural gas is. And like Williams, he is far from a neutral observer on fuel sources.

Williams and Foote are not journalists looking to help Mississippi customers. They are natural gas insiders looking to help themselves and their friends in natural gas.

A Natural Gas Monopoly Puts Mississippi Jobs At Great Risk

Natural gas prices are low today, but there is no guarantee they will remain low. Less than five years ago, natural gas prices were double what they are today.[6] Even in the past six months, natural gas prices have swung by as much as 30%. Natural gas prices that remain stable, without intense price spikes, would be the exception to the rule for what the U.S. has experienced over past decades.

Making Mississippi over-reliant on the price of natural gas puts electricity customers at great risk of significant price volatility. This lack of price predictability drives away existing jobs, makes new businesses harder to recruit, and burdens families. The better solution for the long-term is to generate power from a broad variety of sources, not to put all of our energy eggs into one basket.

By opposing the construction of a new Kemper County power plant, Kelley Williams and Ashby Foote are threatening the jobs of 5,000 workers currently completing construction of the new facility. Even more dangerous, they are supporting a position that could cost many more jobs and weaken Mississippi’s ability to grow its economy in future years.

JobKeeper Alliance strongly opposes the joint venture of the Sierra Club and Bigger Pie Forum to make Mississippi over-reliant on natural gas by opposing competing energy sources.

[1] Foote, Ashby (April 3, 2011) U.S. has gas bonanza http://goo.gl/jIruU
[2] International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 8. St. James Press, 1994
[3] Mississippi Opportunity Fund Annual Report (February 28, 1997) http://goo.gl/cSW9oW
[4] Jeter, Lynne W. (March 28, 2005) For many, investing in Mississippi makes sense http://goo.gl/kyk8x
[5] Henry Hub Gulf Coast Natural Gas Spot Price, U.S. Energy Information Administration http://goo.gl/iLGni
[6] Henry Hub Gulf Coast Natural Gas Spot Price, U.S. Energy Information Administration http://goo.gl/iLGni

JobKeeper Alliance Statement on President Obama's Climate Agenda

Coal Barg Captin JobKeeper Alliance strongly opposes President Obama’s plan to sidestep congress and use his executive power to impose new regulations on existing power plants. The plan he outlined promises to be an unprecedented government overreach that will kill countless jobs. This policy shift will turn the war on coal in to the war on working families, and it could not have come at a worse time. Our economy is still struggling to replace the jobs lost during the Great Recession, and we cannot afford another setback.

The President’s climate agenda is simply cap-and-trade by another name. It is a policy that he admitted would cause energy costs to “necessarily skyrocket” during a 2008 meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board. (view the video) The ripple effect caused by rising energy costs will negatively impact all aspects of our economy. Higher energy costs will ultimately be passed onto the consumer as an ad hoc energy tax added to the price of all domestically produced goods and services. Even worse, it will actually penalize U.S. manufacturing companies by making it harder for them to compete against foreign made products.

Environmental activist groups have promised to defend the President’s misguided climate agenda. The odds may be against us, but we must aggressively fight to protect working families and the jobs they depend on.

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.