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Astroturf, cage-matches and swing-state politics: huge energy fight brewing in Pennsylvania

by Resurgent Insider Read Profile arrow_right_alt

Just months into the 2020 presidential campaign, attention is already beginning to focus on a handful of states with disproportionate clout in the nominating and general election process.

Foremost among them are Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states that President Trump won narrowly in 2016 and which polling suggests could all flip with ease should former Vice President Joe Biden get into the race.

That is the backdrop against which a major fight involving major players in the energy industry, astroturf efforts and big-league cage matches is now playing out. And as Pennsylvania’s legislative session rolls on, things are beginning to get ugly– and not-very-transparent– extremely fast.

From Lachlan Markay’s “Pay Dirt” newsletter today:

A handful of corporate front groups have sprung up since last year to do political battle over proposals to prop up Pennsylvania’s struggling nuclear energy industry. Leading the fight against those proposals is the state’s natural gas industry, and PAY DIRT has exclusively obtained their playbook for doing so.

The industry’s leading advocacy outfit, the American Petroleum Institute, is organizing opposition to pro-nuclear legislation in Harrisburg through an initiative called No Nuclear Bailouts. API has paid for social media ads and mail pieces hammering House Bill 11, which would include nuclear in the portfolio of “alternative energy” sources that count towards utilities’ requirements for carbon-free power sources.

The legislation is widely seen as an effort to stave off financial ruin for Pennsylvania nuclear power plants. Critics call it a bailout financed by higher electricity rates. Supporters say it simply allows nuclear power to compete on a level playing field with other carbon-free energy sources.

API, which represents natural gas competitors to the state’s nuclear industry, began putting together its advocacy apparatus last year. It spelled out exactly what that apparatus looks like in an internal powerpoint presentation obtained by PAY DIRT.

The presentation, authored by API external mobilization director Tara Smith Anderson, details a host of advocacy activities designed to beat back the “nuke bailout” in Pennsylvania and a similar measure in Ohio. They include grassroots activism such as phone-banking and letter-writing campaigns, “legislator intercepts,” and engagement with third-party groups and “key influencers” to attempt to sway policymakers.

Check out the full API presentation here, and you’ll see at page 12 a collection of entities API is apparently relying on to do its work in this fight– not all of them likely out of the goodness of their hearts or as part of their corporate or charitable mission.

For example, it’s obvious why the Marcellus Shale Coalition would be supportive of API’s endeavors in pushing back on a save-nuclear effort.

Less clear, however, is what a group called “Clean Energy Future” is doing aligning with the oil and gas industry as opposed to non-CO2-emitting-nuclear. It also seems at least plausible that the United Pastors Network might be engaging in some pay-to-play, since bolstering the natural gas industry or denting the nuclear power industry don’t seem like endeavors pastors usually focus attention on (though as we all see daily, religious leaders are getting vastly more political, and usually more lefty, by the day).

In other words, it looks like there’s some astroturfing as opposed to transparent advocating going on here, a conclusion also supported by documents indicating that API is behind a group called “No Nuke Bailout” that has been running anti-nuclear ads in Pennsylvania on Facebook.

If this all seems a tad heated for a debate about a statewide energy bill, that’s because the debate has indeed gone thermonuclear (pun fully intended).

Pennsylvania legislators do have questions about the extent to which the nuclear industry needs the help it’s seeking and whether, assuming it does, that’s still something they want to support.

On the flip side, there’s also the sticky matter that Pennsylvania is a swing state, 2020 is coming, and nuclear industry sources say that the overwhelming majority of the 16,000 jobs directly tied to the bill being so hotly debated are swing voters who went for Trump last time. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 with just about 44,000 votes; if Republicans who control both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature are seen to dump on the nuclear industry and risk those voters’ jobs, getting those same Republicans and Trump re-elected in 2020 looks a lot tougher.

Set aside the use of the term “bailout,” Pennsylvania’s dominance in the electricity export market, and the respective clout of the warring gas and nuclear industries– it’s easy to see why this showdown is occurring.

It may not be solved easily. The latest news out of Pennsylvania today is that the Speaker is trying like mad to find a compromise that will keep both the gas and nuclear industries happy, but that the gas side of the equation is not yet ready to compromise.

Nuclear is more likely to bend, because of Exelon’s Three Mile Island and FirstEnergy’s Beaver Valley plant both being slated for closure. Nuclear also encountered some optics problems earlier in the week when former Gov. Tom Ridge testified in support of saving nuclear, and it emerged that First Energy, which would benefit from the bill in question, is a client of his firm, Ridge Global. That could make the industry prepared to bargain where API and the gas industry more broadly appears unwilling to cut a deal.

However this plays out, the likelihood is that Pennsylvania Republicans will be walking on eggshells for awhile over this bill, because in all probability, no matter what they do, they’re going to piss someone off that they really do not want to piss off. Maybe that’s API and its allies who have a lot of clout in the state. Maybe it’s the nuclear industry, which also does. Maybe it’s those 16,000 nuclear workers who probably did a lot of the legwork to keep Republicans in charge of the general assembly and to elect Trump.

In any event, this little energy bill is turning into a huge political cage match with high stakes for lots of people– inside and outside elected office.


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