If you were a newcomer trying to figure out how Texas politics works, a good start would be to look at the state’s two leading think tanks. The center-left Center for Public Policy Priorities, consigned to an office in North Austin away from the Legislature’s orbit, is full of warm-hearted policy geeks who try hard to find ways to surreptitiously slip their analyses into the minds of unsuspecting Republican lawmakers.
On the other side, there’s the aspiring power brokers at the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, which owns its own fortified tower in the sweet spot between the Capitol and the bar at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. The place is gaudy and stinks of money, which is fitting: TPPF is funded by a long list of special interests, millionaires and billionaires, and corporations with business at the Capitol. It’s not hard to draw a line between the think tank’s donors and its priorities.
For example, year after year, TPPF has had nothing to say about Tesla’s well-publicized attempts to strike a blow for the free market and get the Legislature to allow it to sell cars directly to consumers, instead of being forced to go through the state’s well-protected car dealerships. It so happens that GOP megadonor Red McCombs, who made his fortune in dealerships, is a prominent friend of the organization — the public event center in their glitzy new HQ is named after him.
But TPPF’s latest PR blitz is unusually deceptive and aggressive even for them. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see from a seedy advocacy group, not a would-be policy braintrust. In recent months, the group has launched a full-court press against wind power, though the campaign is branded with the slogan “End Renewable Energy Subsidies.” That’s strange, because wind power, which amounts to free money for landowners, is politically popular in Texas. And arguably one reason that Texas produces the most wind power of any state is the free market itself: a combination of a deregulated electricity market and a laissez-faire approach toward industrial development in rural areas.
The campaign is also strange because it’s so obviously conducted both badly and cynically. Take this ad, a “trailer” for a new series of mini-documentaries about the evils of wind turbines. The camera zooms in on a turbine as ominous music builds. “The wind towers are not about the wind,” a voiceover relates. “They’re about the money.” Well, it’s certainly a useful corrective to the idea that people build wind turbines because they love wind.
In a recent op-ed, one of the foundation’s analysts stakes out a much more sentimental position. “The days of warm, evening sun setting on scenic Texas plains are gone for some rural areas,” the piece begins. “Folks accustomed to unencumbered views will have to look elsewhere. Now, those views are pierced by the sharp teeth of a wind turbine. Summer breezes have transformed into the cyclical swooshing — and occasionally loud creaking — of nearby machinery.”
Quelle horreur. Though the TPPF campaign concerns itself largely with subsidies, this newfound concern for unpolluted Texas viewsheds is the easiest tell they’re being disingenuous. A few years ago, the Republican-leaning city of Denton attempted to ban fracking inside city limits. Fracking wells were popping up everywhere, including right next to homes, playgrounds and hospitals. They looked ugly, made noise, featured industrial lighting and exposed people to pollution.
Unsurprisingly, TPPF fought Denton’s regulations and helped ban fracking bans in the next legislative session. In its white papers about the Denton ordinance, the think tank argued that there were already sufficient means for “residents who have legitimate concerns about nuisance” to “seek relief in the courts, and within Texas’ existing regulatory framework.” If TPPF were consistent, it would tell the property owners in those sad mini-documentaries to go suck an egg.
It would probably be pretty annoying to live right next to a wind turbine, especially if you’re not collecting royalties from it. As a well-funded research institute stuffed-to-bursting with the brightest minds in the state’s conservative vanguard, TPPF could propose changes to make turbines less disruptive. Yet its sole policy prescription is to “end the subsidies.” Make renewable energy more expensive, and give a boost to coal and gas, which are even more heavily subsidized.
On August 15, the think tank made that case to a room of about 100 in Georgetown, at an event titled “100% Renewable Isn’t Doable.” TPPF brought along state and national flags, a podium, a photographer, a multimedia crew and a stack of literature to a small room in a public library, near a meeting of the Georgetown Chess Club. This slick operation was advocating the reversal of the conservative Austin suburb’s decision to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable power sources. That was a decision made well over a year ago by the town’s Republican mayor, who said at the time that the cost predictability of solar and wind energy made renewables a better economic bet than fossil fuels.
A succession of experts tried to convince residents that the city should return as quickly as possible to fossil fuel-based electricity, using a mix of agitprop — “They’re takers,” one speaker said of states that import electricity, “and we’re makers” — a quick succession of graphs and charts and a dizzying array of red herrings. It was impossible to actually use only renewable energy, one speaker said, because “There are no pure electrons.” OK.
Much of TPPF’s information was incomplete or missing context. Some was flat-out wrong: One speaker argued that sufficiently large-scale energy storage for renewables would never come to America, in part because it was “dependent on rare earth metals controlled by the Chinese,” which is gibberish. This was received warmly by the crowd, but the question lingers: Why is TPPF suddenly all-in on an anti-wind jihad? And what do they want to accomplish, besides getting this one local initiative repealed?
End the subsidies, they say. But the biggest subsidy for wind power is a federal one, and it pales in comparison to the direct and indirect subsidies that coal and oil companies get each year. Wind power receives local property tax breaks too, they say. But the think tank is not typically in the habit of arguing that Texans should pay more property taxes. Meanwhile, TPPF’s energy analysts have had little to say about old friend Rick Perry’s plan to give sweeping big-government bailouts to the coal and nuclear industries.
In a statement, TPPF Communications Director Alicia Pierce said that the campaign was growing simply because its experts were concerned by the “increasing harm renewable subsidies have caused to the reliability of the Texas and the national electricity grid,” and were “ramping up for a debate about subsidies that will likely take place in the next legislative session and in Washington.”
But who is funding the campaign? “Out of a respect for donor privacy,” Pierce said, “we don’t disclose that information.” There are plenty of deep-pocketed oil and gas guys in Texas, of course, and TPPF has consorted with everyone from the Kochs to coal baron Robert Murray. Maybe some of them are convinced that if they can break wind power here, they’ll break it everywhere.
Is there a deeper reason that these people fear the prospect of clean energy? There’s a theory about modern history that says the way we generate power determines the shape of our politics. In the 19th century, when coal was king, a huge labor force was required to extract and ship it, giving organized labor the potential to control important checkpoints in the global economy.
Oil, on the other hand, can be extracted and transported by machines, supertankers and pipelines from imperial client states halfway across the world. As a consequence, it broke labor and handed control over the economy to boardrooms and rich men, the kind of men who fund TPPF. So much of what is bad about Texas politics comes from oil and gas fortunes, and much of it is hidden to the public.
A future in which clean energy gets better and better, and in which electricity generation is distributed to ranches and rooftops across the state, is a future in which oilmen lose power. It is by no means guaranteed, but it’s heartening that they are afraid.