You Can’t Stop the Wind. But These Folks Are Trying Anyway.

In Texas, tax breaks for fossil fuels outpace tax breaks for renewables by a rate of two to one. Guess which sector is whining about unfairness?

April 19, 2019
Boaters pass as the sun sets behind windmills and a refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas

Eric Gay/Associated Press

It’s really something, the lengths to which the oil and gas industry is going to try and stop renewables from gaining even more ground in the energy game. And as reality sets in—that the renewables sector is actually unstoppable—the desperation of fossil fuel special interests is starting to show.

Take Texas. The Lone Star State currently produces more wind power than any other. A quarter of all the wind energy generated in the United States, in fact, comes from Texas; if it were a country (which, hey, it once was!), Texas would rank sixth worldwide in wind energy production. The strong West Texas winds have a lot to do with the sector’s phenomenal success. According to the pro-wind group Powering Texas, so does a $42 billion capital investment that, among other things, supports 24,000 full-time jobs in the state.

Most Texans would be, and should be, proud of statistics like these. Yet the stats are infuriating to the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPFF), a small but disproportionately influential organization dedicated to tamping down the rise of wind energy in the state. This group—which is heavily backed by the state’s powerful oil and gas industry, as well as the Koch brothers—is doing all it can to convince Texans and their lawmakers to cease supporting wind power. And it’s using the most laughably hypocritical argument that one can imagine.

At issue is a pair of tax abatements worth more than $1 billion a year to the state’s renewable energy industry. Advocates for extending these state subsidies include not only members of the renewables industry but also rural landowners who lease their acreage to wind energy companies, as well as county officials—often conservative Republicans—who know which side their tax-base bread is buttered on. A majority of state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also support the abatements, as evidenced by the fact that initial votes to sustain them passed without much of a fight in the Texas House of Representatives last week.

But TPFF has been battling the tax abatements, and hard. The nonprofit, whose annual revenues total about $20 million, is the driving force behind a campaign to poison public sentiment on wind energy and sour lawmakers on giving renewables tax preferences of any kind. Recent investigative reporting by the Austin American-Statesman has shown that TPFF—which received almost $2 million in funding from the anti-renewables Charles S. Koch Foundation in 2017—has been behind a recent “barnstorming effort” that combines intense lobbying, exploitative anti–wind energy videos, staged town hall–style meetings, and a six-figure media buy. The goal is to paint state-sponsored support for wind as the spoiled fruit of political cronyism and, in the words of one particularly incensed Texas representative, an affront to “natural capitalism,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

According to a recent analysis conducted by University of Texas researchers, Texas subsidizes its energy production to the tune of $2 – $3 billion each year. But as the Statesman’s reporters observe, when you add up all the “tax credits, tax deductions, preferential tax rates and other handouts that include fuel extraction, fossil fuels receive approximately twice as much annual support in Texas as renewable energy overall.” Even so, TPFF has the temerity to argue that “state renewable subsidies are out of control.” And with its latest campaign, it’s putting its Koch money where its mouth is.

When pressed—as they were by the Texas Observer back in January—the organization’s spokespeople offer up tepid criticism of subsidies for all forms of energy production, not just renewables. But their monomaniacal focus on one form of energy in particular gives their game away.

Earlier this week, TPFF released a white paper that purports to be an evenhanded critique of tax abatements for renewables vis-à-vis the much larger manufacturing sector, which includes oil and gas. But the pro–fossil fuel bias shines like the midday sun glinting off a Gulf Coast oil slick. “The data is clear,” writes the author. “[R]enewable projects…especially if solar or wind, do not create jobs and also contribute to the growing reliability problem in Texas’ electric market. Manufacturing, meanwhile, consistently creates more jobs and, for common sense reasons, seems to be more likely to stick around for their communities in the long run. Wind and solar farms have simply become means to improve revenue for local governments, not to increase jobs or economic growth. They should not be eligible for [the tax abatements].”

Suffice it to say that there’s no mention in this paper—or in any of TPFF’s materials—of how building up our renewable energy economy will help curb pollution and mitigate climate change. That’s unsurprising given that the organization’s most famous senior fellow, Kathleen Hartnett White, is an outspoken climate change skeptic who has previously stated that carbon dioxide should be called the “gas of life” rather than a pollutant and that renewable energy is “unreliable and parasitic.” So outrageous are her public positions that even the Trump administration, a teeming nest of climate deniers, ultimately decided that it didn’t want her for a top post at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.

So far, it seems like tax abatements for renewables stand a good chance of continuing in Texas; the initial votes in the House of Representatives bode well, at least. But it’s worth noting just how much some folks want to end them—and it’s also worth asking why, exactly, the enemies of clean energy are fighting so hard, on so many fronts, to keep it from ascending. To almost everyone on the planet, renewables are a boon to clean air, climate, biodiversity, job creation, and the economy. But to one group of people, they represent a threat. Maybe it has something to do with “natural capitalism.”

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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