Clean Air Council Helps Heinz Find 57 Ways to Oppose Natural Gas
The Clean Air Council out of Philadelphia seems to be popping up everywhere these days offering the same testimony at numerous compressor station hearings over the last several months. It brings along the same small group of reliable friends to offer the same comments, few of which have much of anything to do with the application at hand. The one consistent message, of course, is “no way, no how.”
We wondered what would motivate a Philadelphia clean air organization, with major air quality problems much closer to home, to suddenly take such a great interest in pipeline air compressors in our region, more than 150 miles away, where air quality is relatively good (in fact, northeast PA didn’t even register as an area worth testing for adverse air conditions by the American Lung Association; Philadelphia Co. was, though, and scored an “F”). At any rate, we decided to follow the money and found our answer.
The Clean Air Council is essentially the work of one man, an environmental lawyer named Joseph Otis Minott, who has led the group as its executive director since 1986. This “young idealistic attorney,” as the Clean Air Council history glowingly describes him, was hired in 1982, the same year he was admitted to the bar. He’s apparently never had any other professional experience, although he has taught a course on “environmental violence (pg. 11)” at the University of Pennsylvania as a Lecturer in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department. Here is the rather interesting course description:
SM 658. Violence and the Environment. (B) Minott.
Governments, corporations, environmental organizations, anti-environmental organizations, and individuals have resorted to violence as a means to achieving an environmental end. Although some defend such violence as the only way to achieve specific goals, do the ends ever really justify the means? Does violence have a place in the environmental movement? How should environmentalists respond to pro- or anti-environmental violence? This course will study instances of such violence, and explore why violence has been seen as an acceptable or sometimes the only way to achieve a desirable end. Emphasis added.
Although this is certainly a curious subject for a community organizer to teach, it must be said Minott seems more interested in cutting deals and building his organization than anything else. When he joined the Clean Air Council, in 1982, it had only 300 members, three staff and a budget of $77,325. Today, it has 8,000 members, 20 staff and a budget of $1.1 million. If nothing else, Minott is a good manager and he brings in money – lots of it. Let’s give the man his due.
The Council’s 2009 tax return indicates it received $375,708 or 36% of its revenues from government grants. This was more than it raised in membership dues ($365,282). It raised another $241,029 in other contributions, gifts, grants and the like, meaning two-thirds of its financial support comes from providing services or representing particular interests. The 990 tax return acknowledges the organization does lobbying, but indicates only $20,000 was spent on this activity. That number clearly understates the extensive work it does trying to influence state and federal decisions on matters such as compressor stations. Unfortunately, this is an all too common occurrence among non-profit entities, greatly distorting any comparison of lobbying expenditures by industry with anti-natural gas forces.
The Clean Air Council’s lobbying activities are less a concern, however, than the matter of who is paying its bills and underwriting all that anti-natural gas testimony at compressor station hearings. The EPA gave it almost $275,000 in 2009 for the purpose of supporting the “social activism” of something called the Port Environmental Task Force (well worth perusing to understand the cynical view of the Council toward those who might not share its views). Pennsylvania DCNR gave it $50,000 to conduct a feasibility study for the development of a Philadelphia trail. It also received a $26,000 grant from Pennsylvania DEP to help “educate heavy-duty diesel vehicle operators, commercial vehicle location operators and local officials on the environmental and economic effects of unnecessary idling and the availability of idling reduction technology.”
Now, the intentions behind these grants may be purer than a bottle of distilled water, but at least two problems persist. First, money is fungible: a dollar given to the Council for one purpose is, once given, indistinguishable from other dollars, and helps to pay the same overhead expenses associated with fighting compressor stations (e.g., Joseph Otos Minott’s salary) and other activities. While there may be separate accounts, many overhead expenses are necessarily shared and, therefore, a grant for one purpose invariably serves all interests of the Council.
Secondly, there is a direct conflict of interest. The Clean Air Council regularly attacks both EPA and DEP. Check out this headline, for example:
This web page launches a “legal blitz” described as follows:
The Council is taking our case to the next level. This fall the Clean Air Council and WildEarth Guardians are launching a legal blitz called Frack Attack. The blitz will be focused on forcing EPA engagement on the critical air pollution and public health issues associated with natural gas operations. FrackAttack will focus on forcing full compliance with the Clean Air Act from the natural gas industry nationwide. Here in Pennsylvania, the Council will focus on ensuring that the existing pollution associated with natural operations are included in the State’s emission’s inventory, the repeal of major exemptions for the natural gas industry from permitting requirements, and assuring proper permitting and meaningful air monitoring.
This is accompanied with FLIR (Forward Looking Infa-Red) camera video, complete with rap music narration, that demagogically portrays what is water vapor and heat as if they were dangerous unhealthy air emissions, a scam very popular on anti-natural gas sites these days, but that’s a subject for another post.
The more serious problem is the EPA (and even DEP under a previous administration) funding of an organization that routinely attacks it. This seemingly irrational behavior, often thought extraordinary by ordinary people reading this blog, is, sadly, all too common. It’s one of the dirty little secrets of many governmental agencies, especially environmental ones like EPA. They often fund special interests that oppose them. Why? Because bureaucrats working in these agencies often think things should be moving faster or in a different direction than their department heads or political leaders desire. Funding an entity that attacks the agency serves to set everything up for a compromise, or legal settlement, that advances the views of the bureaucrats over those of those elected to represent the people.
The Clean Air Council is a master at manipulating these types of situations, accepting money (for what may often be otherwise good projects) in the one hand from an agency it slaps with the other hand, all the while growing itself into a more potent political force.
The exploitation of government funding to attack government isn’t the worst of it. The Clean Air Council also takes plenty of money from the usual suspects fighting the war against natural gas, including the Heinz Endowments. This foundation helped fund a sham study of economic impacts of the Marcellus Shale by Cornell University and has given the Clean Air Council $180,000 to fund its anti-Marcellus efforts. The purpose appears to be finding another 57 ways to say no to natural gas development from shale.
The Heinz Endowments easily gave over $2 million to various organizations in 2010 and 2011 for what can be described as Marcellus opposition. This includes support for Dr. Conrad Volz’s extremist proselytizing (now ended) and money for Earthjustice, the organization that made an unholy alliance with EPA Region III to go after the Marc 1 Pipeline. It has also been a semi-regular funder of the Clean Air Council (providing funding in 2002 and 2004). Surely it expects something for its investments.
We can argue what those expectations might be, but its easy to see what’s being delivered – a relentless attack on Marcellus development under the guise of “air emissions” from pipeline compressor stations (sources that are already required to meet ambient air standards). The Council has been successful in exploiting DEP rules that provide an option of holding a hearing whenever there is local controversy. The Council helps gin up controversy using its loyal band of about a dozen followers and brings in Matt Walker to testify about aggregation rules. The whole purpose being to give the act an aura of authenticity, all the while simply arguing “no” as many ways as possible. The sad part is, the actual law and court decisions revolving around it are shunted aside in favor of an extreme position that yields that “no.”
Through all this, as it tries to cozy up to the agency staff at the hearings, the Clear Air Council is charging DEP is “not interested in complying with the Clean Air Act or protecting its citizens from the massive influx of Marcellus Shale operations and air pollution.” Or, it is asking EPA to sanction DEP for “for failing to implement the Clean Air Act when it comes to Marcellus related production” based on the absurd notion a pipeline connecting compressor stations makes them a single plant. Or, it is telling the press “Pennsylvania is simply dropping the ball on a significant source of pollution in the state” because it isn’t getting the interpretation it wants – one that would stymie Marcellus Shale development. But, it took DEP’s money, of course, as well as EPA’s and the Heinz Endowments as well.
This brings us back to the central point – money drives the Clear Air Council machine. This is not to say it doesn’t have a worthy mission that its staff believe in. The pattern of most organizations like this is the same. Over time, the driving force becomes that of sustaining and growing the organization. The Clean Air Council is very focused on money. It intervened in the Peco Energy and Unicom merger to form Exelon in 2000, for example, to leverage millions of dollars of equity in support of a for-profit Community Energy company it helped set up. It was the price of going silent on the merger. Here’s what the Philadelphia Business Journal had to say:
None of the money will go to the council. But the council’s mission in life — keeping vigil over pollution, pointing out polluters and promoting alternative energy — certainly gets a nice kick, especially if Community Energy meets real success, which, by the way, isn’t likely.
There have been far grosser instances of this sort of you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours behavior. Moreover, the Clean Air Council’s mission is, in fact, laudable. But that doesn’t make what occurred here less discomforting.
Holding corporations hostage to narrow special interests just ain’t right, folks.
The Clean Air Council’s activities have also met with severe skepticism by some of the same folks who routinely oppose natural gas development. It revolves around a proposal by the Council and others to replace two natural gas boilers, in a Newport, Del. facility owned by Ciba Corporation, with a biomass incinerator that would burn logging residue as part of a combined heat-and-power (CHP) co-generation system. The new boiler was specified, installed, owned, and operated by Intrinergy, a “renewable energy company.” Although this project never came to fruition, it brought forth some stinging criticism from a group known as Green Delaware. Here are some excerpts:
The latest attack comes from Ciba, a subsidiary of the big German chemical company BASF. (The plant used to belong to DuPont back in the days when DuPont was a global leader in the chemical industry.) BASF wants to burn wood, and, many suspect, plant wastes. Ciba is trying to frame this issue as a decision to be made by the Town of Newport, because Ciba is by far the biggest influence in the small town. But nobody wants to give solid information on what the emissions would be. The idea is for people to agree to it, and find our afterwards what the emissions would be.
When the scheme was rolled out last year, opposition was strong. State legislators promised not to act at the time, but we knew the evil burner genie would try again to come out of the bottle.
That time is now, and Ciba has adopted a clever ploy: get an “environmental” organization to front for the burner. The chosen stooge is “Clean Air Council” (CAC) out of Philadelphia.
More recently, CAC’s reps in Delaware have built a following among pols and regulators and polluters by sucking up. CAC says it’s gotten money from Bluewater Wind, DNREC, New Jersey and Pennsylvania regulators, the Energy Foundation, and many others.
In December of 2007 the “Contaminated” Air Council rolled out a report entitled “Burning Biomass in Delaware? Energy Needs and Environmental Impacts A report to the Citizens of Newport, DE.” This purports to be objective and informative, but it’s really just a promotional piece for “biomass” incineration.
It was presented to the Newport Town Council at a meeting where “members of the public were not allowed to ask any questions,”according to Pat Todd of the League of Women Voters.
(Other authors of the report are Al Denio, identified with the American Chemical Society but often associated with the Delaware Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Gwen Ottinger of the “Chemical Heritage Foundation” of Philadelphia. But we think the Contaminated Air Council is really the responsible party.)
Very interesting, isn’t it? The Clean Air Council’s concerns with air quality seem to take a back seat when the subject is somehow stopping natural gas or raising money. That certainly fits the pattern of what we see in our region as the Council continues its circus-like parade from from town to town raising objections to compressor stations on the bizarre theory a pipeline connection makes them one. When it comes to doing the bidding of the Heinz Endowments, fighting natural gas and just saying no, 57 varieties are just the beginning.