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Bankruptcy filings of a Virginia coal firm shed new light on climate science attacks

"Have you heard about the group that has abused open records laws to harass climate scientists across the United States? The organization behind North Carolina's ban on using sea level science to inform coastal planning? The institution attacking renewable energy targets?"
From Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists,
writing for The Guardian on
Friday 28 August 2015 08.00 BST

"These are all activities of the innocuous-sounding Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal). Now, thanks to a scoop by Lee Fang at The Intercept, we now know where some of their money comes from.

It's the coal industry.

We have known for years that privately funded organizations have attacked climate scientists, both in the US and the UK, to the extent that they had to set up a legal defence fund. But we've known little about where their money comes from, beyond efforts to connect the dots between different groups.

Now, the bankruptcy filings of Alpha Natural Resources, a large Virginia-based coal company, provide a rare window into the list of political and advocacy organizations the company has funded. E&E Legal (formerly known as the American Tradition Institute) is one of them. Other recipients include the Heartland Institute, which compared climate scientists to the Unabomber, the American Legislative Exchange Council and numerous others.

In the US, companies are usually not required to disclose this kind of spending, so public scrutiny is grossly inadequate. Trade associations and corporate front groups like E&E Legal are willing to do the dirty work that companies don't want to associate themselves with. A recent Union of Concerned Scientists analysis found that utility and energy companies are often unwilling to support publicly the climate change activities of the trade groups that represent them.

In a follow-up article, Fang zeroes in on attorney Chris Horner, who is connected to E&E Legal and a number of other organizations that have sought to undermine public understanding of climate science. According to the filing, Alpha provided money not only to groups with ties to Horner, but also to Horner personally.

One of the tactics embraced by Alpha-funded groups, individuals, and politicians is the harassment of scientists. In 2010, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli used an obscure health care fraud law to subpoena emails, draft research papers, handwritten notes and other documents from the University of Virginia related to the work of climate scientist Michael Mann. Even some climate sceptics described this move as a witch hunt. The university decided to fight the subpoenas and the case played out over the course of two years, with the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously ruling that Cuccinelli had overstepped his authority.

Alpha contributed heavily to Cuccinelli's campaigns for attorney general and governor, to the tune of $163,375 between 2009 and 2013. In 2009, Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield gave the campaign a thousand dollars, the maximum individual contribution.

When it became clear that Cuccinelli was losing in court, E&E Legal requested the exact same documents, word for word, under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act. When the university resisted, this case also went to the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the university could prevent the disclosure of documents that would harm the research process.

E&E Legal has since filed open records requests with universities in Arizona (where it also lost in the state supreme court), Texas and Illinois. Yet while they lose repeatedly, in one way they are successful: they confuse the public debate, and force universities and scientists to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves. This takes time away from research and dissuades scientists from public engagement.

Filings show that Alpha also funded the Consumer Energy Alliance, an oil industry front group, and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, which is based at the home of David Schnare, the lead attorney for E&E Legal's open records cases.

So now we know at least one company directly funds harassment of scientists. How many others are supporting these attacks?

Chris Horner is a go-to guy for a number of coal companies. According to the Intercept, earlier this summer, the Coal and Investment Leadership Forum sent an email to its membership list referring to a "commitment we have made to support Chris Horner's work." The email was signed by representatives of Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, United Coal, Drummond Company and Alliance Resource Partners.

How many of these companies (and others who were not signatories to the email) are sending funds to Horner or to the organizations with which he is affiliated? The public deserves answers to these questions. And it shouldn't take a coal company going bankrupt to bring such activities to light."

Michael Halpern (@halpsci) is manager of strategy and innovation for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

homepage: homepage: http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2015/aug/28/digging-into-big-coals-climate-connections