Corporations Crafting Environmental Policies; Credit: © Shutterstock
An organization called ALEC - the American Legislative Exchange Council-has recently gained much attention for its efforts to implement the "Stand Your Ground" law linked to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. However, ALEC has been influencing, and in many cases directly dictating, laws that affect everything from education to the environment since 1973. ALEC has just concluded formal discussions of a new wave of legislation in its 2012 conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, where it was met by a coalition of locally based organizations called the ALEC Welcoming Committee. These organizations, which included the climate justice group Peaceful Uprising, rallied against ALEC's mission to allow corporations to strongly influence the creation and passage of laws that privilege only the wealthy few.
"ALEC is the ultimate smoke-filled back room," says the American Association for Justice. At ALEC conferences, multinational corporations and state legislators meet behind closed doors to discuss, vote on, and disperse model bills. These bills increase corporate power and lower accountability while seizing the rights of ordinary citizens. The collective power of corporations such as Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, and Chevron-not to mention the Koch brothers-gives them a powerful voice with the business-friendly legislators who join ALEC.
ALEC's Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force works to eliminate citizens' ability to protect themselves from pollution and other environmental threats, the Center for Media and Democracy illustrates on its website ALEC Exposed. This ALEC task force is chaired by a member of the American Gas Association and a major lobbyist for companies like ConocoPhilips, and funded by groups like Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute. The following are some of the primary mechanisms through which this task force works to subvert citizens' democratic power to protect themselves and their environment.
Subversion of Federal Regulations
ALEC acknowledges in its own literature ("EPA's Regulatory Trainwreck," 2011) that it aims to undermine EPA regulations to further the interests of industry. Its model bills give states the right to opt out of EPA regulations such as the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act. ALEC even advocates resolutions that ban regulation of carbon dioxide altogether.
ALEC's model bill "Resolution to Retain State Authority Over Coal Ash as Non-Hazardous Waste" would allow toxic metals to contaminate the water system. Coal ash contains toxins such as mercury, arsenic, and beryllium, which pose a grave threat to public health. Although ALEC typically influences state law, a very similar bill passed in the House in April 2012.
Meanwhile, ALEC's model bill "Resolution to Retain State Authority Over Hydraulic Fracturing" attempts to give states the authority to opt out of the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill claims, "Hydraulic fracturing is a proven technology with a long history of environmentally safe use in the completion of oil and gas wells." This bill has passed in Utah, while ALEC-based laws that allow fracking companies to avoid disclosure of chemicals have passed in a number of states such as Texas and Ohio, as a ProPublica article explains. These are just a few examples of a multitude of bills that have allowed industry-friendly legislatures to opt out of federal standards. Other bills, including "Resolution in Opposition of Carbon Dioxide Standards," provide an umbrella of un-accountability for all polluting industries.
ALEC also creates bills giving states the right to opt out of international environmental agreements such as the Kyoto protocol. Such legislation imposes a significant barrier to the U.S. joining a global climate change mitigation agreement.
These resolutions deny or minimize the problem of climate change, providing a firm foundation for undermining environmental protections and the public wellbeing. In addition to subverting federal regulations, some ALEC-based bills aim to subvert regional initiatives to mitigate climate change. ALEC's "State Withdrawal from Regional Climate Initiatives" bill aims to halt the formation of agreements such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of the northeast and the Western Climate Initiative.
The bill has passed in New Jersey and appeared in numerous other states such as Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. A similar bill that passed in Utah cites the discounted "Climategate" scandal as reason to halt EPA regulations of CO2. This resolution, HJR12, Climate Change Joint Resolution, denies that carbon dioxide causes climate change and demands that the EPA cease regulating it immediately.
Seizure of Public Lands
ALEC also aims to eliminate the idea of the commons-public land and resources that all people share. The idea that clean air, water, and land are a birthright of all people goes against ALEC's mission to amass as much power as possible for the wealthy few. The Sagebrush Rebellion Act-an ALEC model bill-seizes public lands under Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction for the states. In industry friendly states, these land grabs would eliminate the long federal review process for companies that wish to extract resources. The bill has passed in Utah, which could allow for a rapid expansion of the tar sands mining industry, which is positioned to begin operations this summer for the first time in the U.S.
Denial of Citizens' Rights
ALEC writes bills that deny citizens the right to regulate environmental pollutions at the local level. Such bills allow factory farms to use methods or chemicals that citizens find unacceptable. ALEC's "Right to Farm Act" would bar public objections to factory farms that pertain to pesticide use, animal mistreatment, noise, fumes, and an array of other concerns, for instance. The "State Pesticide Preemption Act" misleadingly claims to "ensure the safety of America's food supply through the preemption of city, town, county, etc. pesticide ordinances."
ALEC also strives to strong-arm the U.S. public school system into passing off propaganda as legitimate educational materials. It passes laws that require the "balanced" teaching of global warming-meaning that teachers must present climate change skepticism as an equally valid theory, despite the conclusions of the international scientific community.
ALEC's "Environmental Literacy Improvement Act" requires a state panel to review environmental education materials to make sure they don't "propagandize" or encourage political action. The bill specifically excludes professionals with an environmental education focus from this panel, and requires that "a range of perspectives" be presented "in a balanced manner." Furthermore, the bill continues, environmental education must "not be designed to change student behavior, attitudes or values." Such bills have passed in Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, and South Dakota.
Protection of Polluters
A range of ALEC bills give substantial protections to corporate polluters. The "Opportunity to Correct" act lets companies clean up their pollution with impunity once a violation is discovered. "The Environmental Good Samaritan Act" eliminates liability for companies that voluntarily clean up pollution caused by fuel extraction. Other ALEC bills such as the "Private Property Protection Act" require that companies be compensated for land they cannot pollute.
Restructuring of Oversight
ALEC bills such as "Environmental Priorities Act" restructure regulatory authorities or advisory boards that oversee or influence environmental policy. This particular act requires that a panel of non-scientists review environmental regulations. ALEC's bill "Conditioning Regulations of Non-Pollutant Emissions on Science Act" imposes new steps in the regulatory process that keep state environmental agencies from swiftly dealing with environmental threats.
ALEC also created the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, a bill that aims to substantially increase penalties for a broad range of activist tactics such as sit-ins and obstructing business operations, which may include various forms of defamation. The language of this model bill even makes pamphleting a crime, as it aims to silence any form of "coercion... intended to obstruct, impede or deter any person from participating in a lawful animal activity." This act, which passed in Texas, is very similar to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act that led to the conviction of the SHAC 7 (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) activists for running a campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences Lab on their website.
The Environmental Corrupt Organizations-Preventative Legislation and Neutralization (ECO-PLAN) Act also aims to label a broad range of activities as terrorism. The bill also gives the government the authority to shut down organizations criminalized under this act, silencing those who protest environmental injustice.
During the week of protests against ALEC in Salt Lake City, Peaceful Uprising held a rally to acknowledge the sacrifices of Tim DeChristopher and other imprisoned activists and to protest the ALEC-based laws that allowed for their imprisonment. The rally took place one year-to the hour-of DeChristopher's sentencing to two years in federal prison for disrupting an illegal auction of public lands. The group marched to the Grand America hotel where the conference was taking place, where some members attempted to register for the conference and were denied entry.
The Reach of ALEC's Environmental Policies
The Center for Media and Democracy provides a list of bills created by the ALEC Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force, as well as analysis that helped to inform this article. The bills discussed here-and the many more put forth by this task force-have influenced environmental policy across the nation. One in every five ALEC bills introduced in state legislative sessions becomes law, and legislative members introduce 1,000 ALEC bills per year, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Unless ALEC and other groups like it cease to exist, anti-environmental legislation will only grow more harsh, and the largest corporations will continue to amass more control over the environment at the expense of ordinary citizens and nature as a whole.