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Science may show why Senator Whitehouse and Governor Raimondo tacitly support local fossil fuel projects despite pro-environment claims



“If you have a chance to do a little bit of light reading in your spare time, I recommend a wonderful book called Bury the Chains, which is about a small group of people that banded together and successfully ended the industry of slavery in England,” said United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse to the larger than expected crowd at the the Brown University mini-conference on climate denial. “They started very small, in the basement of a nondescript bookstore, in a non-fancy neighborhood in London, and they brought down the biggest industry in the country by a variety of methods.”

To Whitehouse, of course, the scholars and academics gathered for the mini-conference aimed at tackling the Climate Change Counter Movement (CCCM) are the “small group of people” he was comparing to 19th century slavery abolitionists, but he could just as easily have been talking about the residents of Burrillville and allied environmentalists that have been fighting against a fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant aimed at the pristine forests of northwest Rhode Island for the last four years.

This is a power plant that Senator Whitehouse, the leading voice on the environment in the Senate, initially supported, then claimed to be neutral about after receiving backlash from local environmental groups.

During his keynote address, Whitehouse railed against the CCCM, and claimed, correctly, that the Republican Party “has been captured by the fossil fuel industry.” He pointed out the hypocrisy of the CEOs of fossil fuel companies that know their product is harming the world, and say so publicly, but fund climate (and science) denial networks through dark money without accountability.

During his keynote address Whitehouse said that the work of the roughly 100 academics who study dark money and the CCCM needs to be amplified and that “we need to get that work out” to the public.

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Amplifying the science of these academics and calling out hypocrisy is what this piece is about, then.

During the mini-conference, some time after Whitehouse’s keynote, a researcher, Kerry Ard, presented findings from a paper she co-authored that found that donations to Democratic House Representatives from CCCMs were “significantly associated with these Democrats voting against their party platform.”

The video above is worth the time to watch, but I’ll sketch out some of what Ard talked about and the conclusions in her piece below.

Political Action Campaigns (PACs) have been around since 1943, but in 1974 a change in the law allowed corporations to use their own treasury money to fund them. This allowed corporations to make “unlimited expenditures” on things like television advertisements and create expensive, “multi-prong” electioneering strategies.

In Ard’s paper she and her colleagues looked at PAC donation data from 92 industries, from 1990 to 2010. This time frame allowed Ard to see the trajectory of corporate PAC influence on Congress.

Ard looked at 304 bills and how 4,717 Representatives voted on them. From her analysis, Ard concluded:

  • Donations from the CCCM are increasing over time.
  • Labor gives more to Democrats, and if you add up all the Republican giving, it about equals Labor’s contributions to Democrats. The second largest amount of money comes from the CCCM.
  • Ard found that for every additional $10,000 a Representative received from a CCCM PAC, it decreased the probability of a member voting for a pro-environmental piece of legislation by two percent.

When broken down further, Ard found that it was mostly the oil and gas industry leading this kind of anti-environmental PAC giving.

  • CCCM PAC money is more impactful when applied to Democrats, said Ard.
  • For every additional $10,000 dollars a Democrat received from a CCCM PAC, they were three percent more likely to vote against environmental protections.
  • Democrats are particularly affected by National Resources PACs, such as sport fishing or hunting, groups that drove the probability of a Democrat voting against the environment by 52 percent when donations are made.
  • If you are a member of an organization that gives $10,000 to a Republican, the probability that the Republican will vote for pro-environment bills goes up 48 percent.
  • The amount of money environmental organizations give is not as great as what the CCCM gives, but when these groups do give, it has a major impact.

When students from SunriseRI were given the opportunity to ask Senator Whitehouse the first question after he delivered his keynote address, they asked him to sign a pledge refusing money from the fossil fuel industry.

“I think I have completely stopped that,” said Whitehouse, to applause. “I don’t even take any corporate PAC money at this point.”

But Whitehouse had a caveat:

“The way the fossil fuel industry deploys its muscle is perhaps least through the limited, transparent, reported contributions that are made to individual members,” continued Whitehouse. “You’re not going to diminish their influence much by telling people in the most transparent, most regulated and smallest dollar denomination part of this whole mess that that’s what has to go.”

“Just to follow up on that,” said another SunriseRI student, holding a copy of the pledge, “I have a pledge right here that if you want to…”

“I don’t do that kind of stuff,” said Whitehouse.

“It’s in line with your…”

“My response will stand,” interrupted Whitehouse. “I don’t do like, random pledges.”

Of course, Ard’s paper shows that what Whitehouse calls “the most transparent, most regulated and smallest dollar denomination part of this whole mess” significantly changes the ways in which Republicans and Democrats vote on legislation to combat climate change.

During the question and answer portion of the mini-conference, I asked if any of the academics in attendance were aware that Labor is oftentimes a part of the Climate Change Counter Movement and a contributor to the kind of dark money misinformation campaigns being studied. As I showed here, the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council (Building Trades) began working in 2016 with a Koch brother-funded astroturfing campaign to fight against renewable energy.

Ard didn’t have an answer for me, neither did the rest of the academics who study the CCCM.

“Labor is not Green,” said Kert Davies, the founder and director of Climate Investigations Center from his seat in the audience, “and neither are Democrats.”

Both Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo enjoyed the support of the Building Trades during their recent and successful bids for re-election.

Both Whitehouse and Raimondo have previously supported the proposed power plant in Burrillville, and both have now assumed putatively neutral positions on the power plant.

Now we have the science to understand why.

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.