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Big Tech Abandons ALEC
Turns out that ‘literally lying’ about climate change can backfire for even the most business-friendly of lobbying groups.

Three major tech companies—Google, Facebook, and Yahoo—all announced last week that they are abandoning the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-business lobbying group that has pushed to block or gut environmental regulations at the state and local level in recent years. Then on Friday, ALEC suffered an even more ignoble loss when a large oil and gas company bolted.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt blew the organization a raspberry on his way out the door, accusing ALEC of "literally lying" about climate change, while several other companies also said the group's anti-science stance was behind their decisions. [UPDATE 10/2/14: When asked yesterday whether human greenhouse gas emissions are the leading cause of climate change, ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson told the National Journal, "I don’t know the science on that." Yeah, no kidding...]

Here's why ALEC—and its recent high-profile defections—matter.

For starters, what is ALEC?

ALEC calls itself a “constructive forum for state legislators and private sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical, state-level public policy issues.” What that really means is that corporations pay between $7,000 and $25,000 annually for membership in ALEC, although many donate far larger sums. An additional fee  buys those corporations the right to sit on a “task force” devoted to high-minded-sounding causes such as civil justice, communications and technology, and international relations. But in reality, companies are buying direct access to state lawmakers, hundreds of whom have joined the organization free of charge.

ALEC claims to be nonpartisan, but that’s true only in the most formal sense. If ALEC were your uncle, he would be the guy who gripes constantly about government overreach and “activist judges” all through Thanksgiving dinner. Uncle ALEC is far right on gun control, environmental regulation, and health care, to name just a few issues. Conservative icons such as the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, and current Ohio Governor John Kasich were all early supporters.

How does ALEC exert influence?

At an ALEC conference, corporate members have the opportunity to hand over examples of what they think would be great legislation to friendly state lawmakers, who then introduce those corporation-crafted laws during their state’s legislative sessions, often with virtually no alteration. This has happened with pollution control legislation and so-called "ag gag" laws designed to stop journalists and activists from filming animal cruelty inside of factory farms, among other areas.

Corporate members also communicate their priorities with ALEC-affiliated state legislators in less formal ways, such as direct email.

“Many state lawmakers have little staff, not a lot of time, and full-time jobs when the legislature isn’t in session,” says Aliya Haq, a researcher and policy advocate at NRDC (which publishes OnEarth) who has delved deeply into ALEC’s inner workings. “They rely on ALEC to feed them legislation that they can throw into a committee,” she says.

ALEC conferences happen several times each year. The last one took place in Dallas in late July. The next meeting in December will be particularly important, because it precedes the opening of state legislative sessions around the country.

Who is involved in this cabal?

ALEC doesn’t reveal the full extent of its membership rolls. But the list of companies that hold leadership positions—Exxon Mobil, Koch Companies Public Sector, Peabody Energy, to name a few—is publicly available. Task force chairs are also public. The Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force, for example, is co-chaired by a representative of energy giant American Electric Power and State Representative Thomas Lockhart of Wyoming.

Public break-ups and leaked documents have also outed a number of lapsed members. As mentioned above, a host of technology companies have recently left. (At the time of this writing, Ebay is the only tech giant still involved with ALEC.) In the wake of the 2012 Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, the group’s public defense of “stand your ground” laws drove away companies like Amazon, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Kraft, McDonalds, and Wal-Mart. Last year, the Guardian newspaper published a leaked ALEC document about the “Prodigal Son Project,” the group’s attempt to lure back departed members.

What sorts of environmental policies does ALEC pursue?

ALEC claims to favor “free-market environmentalism,” which is a pseudo-intellectual way of saying “no regulations.” This year, 16 states have adopted ALEC-inspired legislation to block or weaken the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. (Many of the laws were nearly identical when introduced.) And ALEC was behind efforts to mandate climate denial in classrooms.

The group is also attempting to roll back or eliminate renewable portfolio standards, which require utilities to generate a minimum percentage of their energy from cleaner resources like wind and solar. The effort failed in most states, but ALEC did manage to convince Ohio to freeze its renewable energy requirements at current levels, instead of bumping them up over time as planned. The required ramp-ups would resume in 2017—unless, of course, a committee featuring a prominent ALEC legislator moves to extend the freeze or repeal the standards altogether.

The president of the anti-science Heartland Institute took to the podium at July’s ALEC conference to make the following outlandish claims about climate change, according to documents obtained by PR Watch:

  • “There is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change.”
  • “Carbon dioxide has not caused weather to be more extreme, polar ice and sea ice to melt, or sea level rise to accelerate.”
  • “Global warming is not a crisis. The threat was exaggerated.”

ALEC’s legislative policies reflect these views, which, as Google’s Eric Schmidt so elegantly put it, are literally lies. (Full disclosure: Schmidt’s wife is an NRDC trustee.)

If ALEC folds, aren’t there dozens of other groups ready to take its place?

Yes and no. There’s no shortage of lobbying groups that push climate denial (see: U.S. Chamber of Commerce), but none of them connect big energy interests with state legislators quite so directly. Through ALEC, major polluters can literally write their own laws and funnel them directly into statehouses around the country.

For more information on ALEC’s dirty deeds, just Google it. Eric Schmidt finally did.

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Brian Palmer covers daily environmental news for OnEarth. His science writing has appeared in Slate, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many other publications. MORE STORIES ➔