New Orleans, Louisiana—At Heartland Institute’s America First Energy Conference, unbridled growth is the only path forward and the only way to get down it is in a military-grade tank run on fossil fuels.
Any policy that doesn’t help speed the U.S. down that road is a waste of time. Fuel efficiency standards? They’ll lead to more car crashes that kill people, so get rid of them. Wind mills? They kill American fossil fuel jobs so trash them, too. Climate change? Nothing to worry about. Keep the carbon dioxide pumping, it’ll make the crabs bigger.
A few years ago, the Heartland Institute, a far right Chicago-based think tank which has in the past taken money from fossil fuel titans like the Koch Brothers and Exxon Mobil, was relegated to the backwaters of the climate denial fever swamp. Its “work” on climate was (and continues to be) completely outside the mainstream, making it a bit of a pariah in Very Serious conservative circles. Its missteps, like erecting a set of billboards comparing those who accept climate science to the Unabomber, sent funders scurrying away.
Its fortunes changed dramatically in November 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency. Suddenly, there was a climate denier in the White House, and the Heartland Institute’s views were ascendent in Washington. I spent 13 long hours at their second annual America First Energy Conference earlier this week, which featured panels focused on ending all fuel mileage standards, hamstringing regulators, and casting doubt on established climate science. But even more stunning than the fact that this agenda has made serious political inroads under Trump is how the think tank’s acolytes still cling to the idea they’re being persecuted. It almost seems like they know their views will be kicked to the curb for good soon.
The conference drew a few hundred people to the Hilton Riverside, a liminal space of bad lighting and endless carpeted hallways that were flooded by Katrina. The city is a poster child for climate change, as the ocean rises outside its engineered defenses and tries to find a way in.
It’s also a fossil fuel mecca, with ships chock full of liquid natural gas running from refineries on the Mississippi River out to sea and toward the global market. You can watch them pass by from the Hilton’s river view rooms, like oily bullets that are slowly killing the city and surrounding coastal wetlands.
In the cavernous ballroom, though, those tankers were as wholesome as Sunday church, and anyone who felt otherwise was simply un-American. The day’s speakers focused their anger and paranoia on any number of targets.
Jeff Landry, Louisiana’ s attorney general, kicked things off by continuing a new tradition of Republicans inadvertently making the case for Alexandria Ocasi0-Cortez by attempting to trash her.
“What’s concerning is her message has resonated,” he said of her climate and energy plan to a wave of nodding, mostly gray heads. “Right now, there are 750 candidates and politicians who have signed a no fossil fuel pledge...That’s the face of climate change hoax believers.”
“How much good have oil and gas done for the world?” Landry continued, failing to point out that they’ve done a lot of good for him personally (the industry was his biggest donor, contributing $270,666 for his 2012 run for Congress).
Ocasio-Cortez was one of two bete noires that showed up time and time again, the other being billionaire Tom Steyer, who is plunging millions of his fortune into a campaign to impeach Trump that’s of questionable utility and funding climate-friendly candidates. But the conspiracy-tinged concerns over their adversaries activities didn’t stop there.
Green groups like the Natural Resource Defense Council were called out for their massive budget, while smaller groups were allegedly working with Russia. Radical leftists were trying to reduce access to fossil fuels and increase energy poverty.
“Anti-CO2 people” were trying to starve the planet because carbon dioxide is a harmless plant food. Climate scientists were keeping skeptics from getting government funding and with no young blood on the horizon, the skeptics’ misguided lines of inquiry are likely to die out. The “14,000 Obama holdovers” at the Environmental Protection Agency (civil servants appointed by Republican and Democrat presidents) were blocking any and all progress. Even other conservative think tanks like the Niskanen Center and R Street were bad guys pedaling false ideas about a carbon tax as a conservative climate solution.
To hear most attendees and speakers tell it, I was hanging out with a bunch of losers. Underdogs, oppressed by hemp-clad jackboot thugs trying to force Americans to drive tiny cars and eat smaller crabs.
Which is odd, because the conference featured a number of members of the Trump transition team as well as three Trump officials from the Department of Interior and Office of American Innovation. A number of local lawmakers from red and blue states were also in the audience, perhaps a side effect of the conference happening the same week as the arch conservative group American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting.
Joe Balash, an assistant secretary at the Department of Interior in charge of land management, gave the keynote address. In it, he laid out the Trump vision for federal lands, labeling it an “all of the above” strategy then proceeding to talk solely about fossil fuels. Like an auctioneer, he rattled off how many billions of barrels of oil and trillions of feet of natural gas could be extracted from federal lands and how it took a “willing Congress and willing president to make this happen.”
Steve Milloy, a Trump transition team members who worked at the EPA, was among the few people who seemed to grasp the power Heartland and its true believers are wielding right now. He wrote the transition plan for the EPA with regard to science, and a number of the boxes in it have been checked off by the dearly departed Scott Pruitt and his acting replacement, Andrew Wheeler. Chief among them are wiping out non-industry outside EPA advisors, and introducing a rule that limits the use of landmark public health science.
“I don’t have to convince anyone at EPA that science transparency is good, that the science advisory process had been corrupted or that particulate matter doesn’t kill people,” he told Earther. Apparently, he doesn’t: Our conversation came just a day after E&E News broke a story that the EPA is considering redefining how soot and particulate matter affect health, something Milloy said was in the transition plan he helped create. Nearly all scientific evidence shows particulate matter kills people.
“So you know I’m winning as far as I can tell,” Milloy continued.
On the back of the conference program, Heartland listed 13 recommendations for the administration that it came up with at the America First Energy Conference last year. Eight of them have been checked off. Among the five remaining are abolishing the EPA, withdrawing the finding that greenhouse gases are pollutants, and the red team, blue team climate debate Pruitt was so fond of. Winning those battles, let alone going to war over them will be much harder than, say, trying to extricate the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. Still, eight out of 13 is a hell of a success rate.
Victory may be short-lived, though. The Trump administration has been buffeted by legal challenges and racked by scandal. And while it’s too early to predict what will happen in 2020, Trump’s sway on the American people outside of his base is tenuous at best. Congress is also facing a potential blue wave, with women and progressives like Ocasio-Cortez laying out a bold, hopeful vision for the future.
Then there’s the biggest reality of all. We simply can’t keep drilling, fracking, and strip mining the planet for fossil fuels. If we do, we cease to have a habitable planet. Perhaps not a hothouse Earth, but one that’s hotter and and less habitable than the one that’s allowed humanity to thrive. Those looking to cut carbon emissions will ultimately win the battle, because they have to.
In this context, it’s easy to understand why the those at the America First Energy conference have fear in their hearts. This is final death rattle, and Donald Trump is the only thing standing between them and a new age of progress. And they know it.
“The Donald J. Trump administration is perhaps our last political chance at freedom,” Tim Huelskamp, Heartland’s director, said in his closing remarks.