Groups Funded by Oil Industry Bash Plan to Reduce Northeast's Dependence on Oil


Last month New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu announced the state would not be participating in the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a regional cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing carbon emissions from vehicles. The program is still in early stages of development, but groups tied to petroleum interests and conservative networks funded by the Koch empire are already fighting it with opposition campaigns.

These campaigns are active in multiple states throughout the Northeast, featuring public events to sway legislators, public letters co-signed by various free market groups, and at least one study produced by a Koch- and oil-industry funded think tank based in Texas. 

Public Health and Sustainability Benefits

Supporters of the program describe TCI as an important step towards cleaning up the transportation sector and say it will improve public health and community sustainability. A draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was released in December, along with initial projections of potential economic and public health benefits.

According to the TCI website, “Preliminary modeling estimates that by 2032, the proposed program could yield monetized annual public health benefits of as much as $10 billion, including over 1,000 fewer premature deaths, and over 1,300 fewer asthma symptoms annually region-wide, among other safety and health benefits.” 

In his comments announcing New Hampshire’s withdrawal from the 12-state coalition, Governor Sununu cited an estimate for fuel price increase. “New Hampshire is already taking substantial steps to curb our carbon emissions, and this initiative, if enacted, would institute a new gas tax by up to 17 cents per gallon while only achieving minimal results,” Sununu said

Around the same time as Sununu’s announcement, a coalition of 18 conservative think tanks released an open letter in opposition to TCI. The groups claim the initiative is “a carbon dioxide tax being implemented through a gas tax.” According to the letter, “Citizens in TCI states can expect to be hit with higher personal costs, higher costs for goods and services, and higher taxes.” The language in the letter appears similar to Sununu’s description of TCI as a “gas tax” and a “financial boondoggle.” 

The Republican governor of New Hampshire is the brother of James Sununu, board chairman of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy — one of the groups behind that open letter.

The Bartlett Center is a member of the State Policy Network, a Koch-funded network of think tanks based in states across the country that advocate against climate and clean energy policies and other initiatives deemed in opposition to “economic freedom.” This New Hampshire think tank also lists former Governor John H. Sununu — Chris Sununu’s father — as an emeritus board member. The organization has led the opposition to TCI in the Granite State. 

With New Hampshire now backing out, pressure is mounting in other states to follow suit, as conservative think tanks continue to raise alarm at the proposal to rein in transportation-sector emissions. 

‘Biased’ Surveys and Oil-Funded Studies Deployed in Connecticut and Virginia

When asked about the TCI in a recent radio interview, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont did not give a definitive position, but he did say that a “gas tax” is “probably not the way to go.” Several newspapers picked up on this remark, including the conservative Boston Herald in Massachusetts and the Middletown Press in Connecticut.

The Yankee Institute for Public Policy, one of the think tanks that signed the opposition letter to TCI, posted a link to the Middletown Press article on its Facebook page with the caption, “good.” The Yankee Institute is Connecticut’s prominent conservative, free market think tank and another member of the State Policy Network. In December last year, the group posted on its blog in response to the TCI’s draft MOU release. The blog post labels the TCI as a “regional gasoline tax” and quotes from the oppositional open letter that the Yankee Institute signed. 

More recently, the Yankee Institute attacked TCI in a blog post by claiming that modeling shows the program would have no effect on climate change.

But the overall effect on the climate is too small to be measurable, according to climate modeling conducted by Brent Bennett, PhD, of Life:Powered — the energy policy division of the Texas Public Policy Foundation,” the blog post states. That climate modeling is meant to measure the impact of policy changes on global temperature, and is often used by conservative groups opposed to climate action — like the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) — to claim that a single policy will do nothing to alleviate global warming on a global scale. 

This modeling is flawed in that it’s an effort of focus on local costs and then change the scope of impact to global impacts. Demanding that any specific reductions making a difference on total pollution levels has been a polluter mantra for decades,” David Littell, senior advisor at the Regulatory Assistance Project, told DeSmog. “If we require any specific reduction in greenhouse gases to reduce global warming noticeably we will never do anything. No single reduction will move the dial, we need to transform our energy and transportation systems as a whole to address global warming and climate change.”  

In Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy is ramping up criticism of TCI though an opposition campaign that includes questionable polling and research. The Jefferson Institute is another conservative think tank, a member of the State Policy Network, and signatory of the TCI opposition letter. 

The Jefferson Institute is promoting a new report, conducted by one of its own staff members, filled with misleading information about the expected impacts of TCI.

For example, the report claims that TCI will have no health benefits, will prevent no deaths, and will have no environmental benefits, citing dubious sources including the Koch-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation and notorious climate science denier Steve Milloy. The report points to the same TPPF climate modeling cited by the Yankee Institute, examining the impact that TCI would have on global temperature.

Jefferson Institute for Public Policy's report on the Transportation and Climate Initiative
Jefferson Institute for Public Policy’s report on the Transportation and Climate Initiative posted on its website.

The author of the report, titled “The Transportation and Climate Initiative — All Pain and No Gain,” is David Schnare, an attorney who was embroiled in a legal dispute over finances with his business partner and who has sued universities to obtain climate scientists’ emails. Schnare is now the director of the Jefferson Institute’s Center for Environmental Stewardship. 

The Jefferson Institute is also touting results of a poll indicating a majority of Virginians would oppose TCI if it meant a tax increase of at least 18 cents per gallon of gas. The same poll found that 61 percent would support TCI given benefits like reducing carbon emissions and developing the clean energy economy. The two questions yielding these results were added at the request of the Jefferson Institute to a more general poll on political and legislative topics.

According to one expert in polling and strategic communication, the way in which the two questions were posed was intended to generate these results. 

The approach used in this survey strikes me as biased in a more subtle way,” Ed Maibach, of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, told DeSmog. “The first question specifies the benefits only — which are benefits that most people value — and then assesses support for the [TCI] proposal. The second question states the costs only, and then assesses support for the proposal, but participants in the survey may or may not remember the benefits stated in the prior question,” Maibach explained. “A better (i.e., fairer) way to assess support for the proposal would be to present the benefits and costs — in a fair and balanced manner — in the same question.” 

TCI Opponents Gather in Boston

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a free market conservative think tank, is leading the opposition to TCI in the Bay State. The group is lobbying the state legislature and pushing for a bill that would prohibit participation in TCI without legislative approval.

Last week the alliance and other conservative think tanks convened a press conference in Boston voicing their opposition to TCI.

Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance spokesman Paul Craney told reporters that multiple governors have expressed concerns about the initiative and that momentum to squash it was on their side. “Things are going in our direction for the taxpayers and consumers,” Craney said.

What we once saw as maybe a regional approach seems to be falling apart,” added Chris Carlozzi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Groups represented at the press conference, according to MassLive, included Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, the Vermont chapter of Americans for Prosperity, Maine Heritage Policy Center, Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, and Connecticut’s Yankee Institute for Public Policy. Most of these groups are members of the Koch-funded State Policy Network

TCI Moves Forward

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker
Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, MassDOT Secretary and CEO Stephanie Pollack and Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides at the Massachusetts Transportation and Climate Initiative Business Summit in December 2019.
Credit: Gov. Charlie BakerCC BYNCSA 2.0

Despite the criticisms and opposition campaigns, the initiative to introduce a regional cap on transportation sector emissions is moving ahead. The program is accepting public comments on the draft MOU through the end of February. A final MOU is expected later this spring, and the program could become operational by 2022. 

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker let TCI critics down when defending the program in his State of the Commonwealth address this week.

Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have been on the rise for decades and now represent 40 percent of this state’s total emissions. Unless we take on transportation, we won’t meet our objectives,” Baker said. “RGGI, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that our proposal is based on, has worked for 10 years. Power plants have adopted clean energy solutions and funded energy efficiency programs, investing 3.3 billion dollars across the region. Greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector have dropped by nearly 50 percent. Applied to the transportation sector, the same market mechanisms can encourage automakers and fuel suppliers to find efficiencies and deploy cleaner fuels. In addition, the Transportation Climate Initiative will deliver millions of dollars in needed investments in our transportation infrastructure. It’s a critical part in expanding public transportation, transforming our highways and reducing congestion.”

Main image: Traffic in Boston Credit: by petrrCC BY 2.0 

Dana is an environmental journalist focusing on climate change and climate accountability reporting. She writes regularly for DeSmog covering topics such as fossil fuel industry opposition to climate action, climate change lawsuits, greenwashing and false climate solutions, and clean transportation.

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