Congress is once again wavering over extending a key tax break for the wind industry, and wind’s foes — largely sponsored by coal, oil and gas moguls Charles and David Koch — are pushing hard for its demise, never mind the fact that fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change, are more heavily subsidized.
Last month, the Koch brothers’ flagship group, Americans for Prosperity, organized a letter signed by 102 local and national organizations calling on Congress to end to what AFP Federal Affairs Manager Christine Harbin Hanson dubbed a “misguided handout for the wind industry” in a recent column in The Hill. Hanson cited the letter as evidence that a “diverse and broad” range of “grassroots” organizations have joined the fight against the wind production tax credit (PTC), and suggested that it prompted Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to pull together his own letter urging the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to let the PTC die.
But Hanson neglected to mention that 26 of the groups collectively received at least $100 million over the last decade from Koch family funds and foundations the brothers support, including the Center to Protect Patient Rights and a secretive, pass-through philanthropy called Donors Trust. Besides that, eight are ExxonMobil grantees; seven received money from the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s main trade association; and at least 20 belong to the Koch-funded State Policy Network, a national association of anti-government, free-market think tanks that received more than $10 million between 2007 and 2011 from Donors Trust and its affiliate, Donors Capital Fund, alone. With that level of petrodollar funding, Hanson’s grassroots opposition to the PTC looks a lot more like Astroturf.
Meanwhile, 34 of the 52 House members who signed Pompeo’s letter received campaign contributions from the Koch brothers’ conglomerate, Koch Industries, during the last two or three election cycles, according to Federal Election Commission data collected by the nonpartisan Center for Responsible Politics. Pompeo, whose district includes Koch Industries’ hometown of Wichita, pulled in the most: $200,000 since 2010, more than four times what his second highest contributor kicked in. A quarter of the signatories also cashed checks from ExxonMobil. And all but two representatives who didn’t take any energy industry money received sizable contributions from trade associations and number of other energy companies that would love to knock the wind out of wind, including the American Petroleum Institute, Arch Coal, Chevron and Exelon, which owns the most nuclear reactors in the country.
Hanson also failed to mention that while wind has benefitted from the PTC only since the 1990s, the oil and gas industry has been feeding at the federal trough since 1918. On average, oil and gas has benefited from $4.86 billion in tax breaks and subsidies in today’s dollars every year since then, according to a 2011 study by DBL Investors, a venture capital firm. Renewable energy technologies, meanwhile, averaged only $370 million a year in subsidies between 1994 and 2009. The 2009 stimulus package did provide $21 billion for wind, solar and other renewables — and the PTC is worth about $12 billion in tax breaks over a 10-year period — but that support barely begins to balance the scales that, according to the DBL study, have tilted toward nuclear power for more than 50 years, oil and gas for 95 years, and coal for more than two centuries.
While Congress has generously provided the fossil fuel and nuclear industries a number of permanent subsidies, it has typically granted the wind industry the PTC on a short-term basis and then vacillated over renewing it. Last year the PTC expired on December 31, but as part of the “fiscal cliff” budget deal the next day, Congress extended it for the seventh time since it debuted in 1992 — for only one year.
Given that it takes years to plan, finance and construct a wind farm, Congress is again undermining the industry’s potential by slow-walking the PTC extension this year. And that potential is tremendous. Wind already generates about 4 percent of U.S. electricity, and by 2030 it could produce more than 20 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory also is bullish on wind and renewables writ large. Last year, it published a report that concluded today’s commercially available renewable technologies could easily generate 80 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050, with nearly half coming from wind.
Ramping up wind energy will go a long way to help avoid the worst consequences of climate change, not to mention protect public health, the environment, and the economy. But if the Koch brothers and their allies have their way, it likely will take a lot longer to get there — and it will cost a whole lot more.
Negin is the director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.