News » Unda' the Rotunda

Cool to New Ideas

Legislature's energy plan arrives amid misinformation


Last week, I watched a public television kids' show with my daughter.

The child actors did an experiment. They dropped various balls--golf, tennis and rubber--off of a table and measured the bounce. The golf ball bounced highest. I was surprised; we had been rooting for the rubber ball. But the kids had a satisfactory way to measure bounce.

It's called the scientific method.

A recent discussion in the Legislature's House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee also touched on science and the scientific method. Lawmakers who defend polluting industries, including what they fondly call "baseload" or "firm" power generation, stopped House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet of Ketchum from introducing a resolution that calls for reductions in Idaho's greenhouse gas emissions to stem global warming.

"There is scientific evidence that particulates going into the air could cause global cooling," committee Chairman Dell Raybould, a Rexburg farmer, announced.

Raybould asked Jaquet to pass around an article about how cold it is this year in Greenland. After the hearing, Raybould, a Republican, said, "The global warming side gets all the publicity, but it's been awful cold here in Boise."

The discussion in the energy committee is evidence of a larger national campaign, perfected during the Bush administration and creeping into state and local government meeting rooms: the use of science to obfuscate, rather than inform, debate.

Raybould's article on Greenland comes from the Environment and Climate News, a tabloid produced by the Heartland Institute. The institute is directed by captains of the tobacco and oil industries and promotes "market-based approaches to environmental protection." The News is mailed to lawmakers across the country with headlines like: "Report: Forests are Expanding Worldwide" and "Warming Debate Not Over."

"It dedicates itself to giving us bad information," said Rep. Nicole LeFavour, a Boise Democrat. LeFavour, who sits on the energy committee, suggested bringing someone in to discuss "science" with lawmakers.

"We do throw the word around a lot," she suggested to Raybould. "It's important to have a common understanding of what it means."

To get there, the Legislature has turned to a group called the Idaho Council on Industry and the Environment, or ICIE. High-powered corporate lobbyists, under the banner of ICIE, have spoken this year to several committees about the rulemaking process and environmental regulation in Idaho.

Directed by representatives of DuPont, Simplot, agriculture, forestry and mining industry groups and their lobbyists, ICIE aims "to facilitate the use of science and facts in shaping public policy on environmental issues."

This year, with the reorganization of its sister group, IACI, the Idaho Association on Commerce and Industry, ICIE has registered three lobbyists and is more focused on its Statehouse presence. In 2003, the industry groups carried a bill through the Legislature that forced the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to consider "the best available science" when considering new rules that exceed federal rules.

"I would say that this has a long history, and the long history goes back to the whole stringency argument that started in 1983," said Joan Cloonan, a member of the DEQ board, ICIE and a former J.R. Simplot Co. vice president on environmental affairs.

IACI members did not want the state to enact waste, air or water quality regulations that were more stringent than the federal guidelines. They tried for years to chip away at the rules. In 2003, they jumped on the "junk science" bandwagon.

"Why would anyone want to be regulated based upon junk science?" asked Cloonan, an attorney and consultant.

Retired DEQ analyst Tim Teater testified against the "science" bill in 2003. He called it a mandated form of "paralysis by analysis."

"It is not necessary to understand the caliber, bullet weight, velocity, trajectory and potential neighborhood victims of a bullet before one passes rules outlawing shooting off a gun in the backyard," Teater told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee at the time.

Legislators partly heeded that advice in a draft energy plan that addresses Idaho's power needs. The report encourages energy conservation and promotes renewable energy sources like wind and sun, but carefully dances around the greenhouse gas problem.

The energy plan's priorities have been warmly received by environmental groups, though the plan lacks any measurable goals or means of enforcement and took little public comment. (Utility companies were intimately involved in its crafting.)

Though often couched as a "debate," a conservative trope absorbed by the mainstream media, the only debate that remains on global warming is who is going to pay to rectify it. That's what the Kyoto Protocol was getting at, and why the United States has resisted signing on.

I asked Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, on his first stroll through the press pit in the basement of the Statehouse, his take on global warming. He started by saying it's part of a historic cycle.

"They found palm trees down in Hagerman," he said. He acknowledged that humans have had some effect on the atmosphere, but pointed out that the sun does as well. For example: cows enjoy the warmth of the sun on asphalt, Otter said.

But, he concluded, whatever the causes and effects, the solutions should not involve shutting down industries and putting lots of people out of work.

"Legislators don't want to get into the business of screwing up the economy," said John Freemuth, Boise State's Energy Policy Institute director.

The energy plan argues that we need renewable energy sources because the federal government is going to regulate carbon dioxide emissions at some point. Because it's good for rural development and homeland security. Because the technology is getting better.

Anything but global warming.

"Logically, they're all connected, but politically, they're not," said Freemuth.

While oil companies and major industry groups in Idaho and across the country continue to push research that justifies pollution, policy makers are squirming to the tune of Al Gore and the 70 percent of the Idaho public who now believe we are making the planet even hotter.

Jaquet, a political realist, shrugged off her committee's global warming snub, pleased that Republican legislators are now talking about wind and solar power.

"I'll change it to 'climate change'," she said. "That can be cold or warm."

You can reach Nathaniel Hoffman at 208-331-8371