WASHINGTON – As President Obama pushes an aggressive national climate-change plan, his administration’s non-profit advocacy arm is becoming active in clean-energy drives across the country.
Organizing for Action also has formed a partnership that steers its volunteers to purchase wind and solar power from a single company with ties to liberal groups.
“While we are doing all of this work to advance the president’s agenda in Congress, we also want to do everything we can locally to help switch to clean energy,” said Ivan Frishberg, Organizing for Action’s climate-change manager.
Organizing for Action, for instance, will recommend that its volunteers and activists who want to purchase renewable energy for their homes and businesses consider signing up with Ethical Electric, a firm that currently sells wind power in four Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia and bills itself as a socially responsible energy supplier. It also has licenses that will allow it to expand to New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Ohio.
Organizing for Action’s leaders “are trying to show people that it’s easy to make a change,” said Tom Matzzie, the president of Ethical Electric and a former Washington director of the liberal group MoveOn.org Political Action. “It’s an important role they can play in mobilizing people to participate in the clean-energy economy and not think that it’s just something that happens in Washington.”
Organizing for Action officials say the group is not accepting any money from Ethical Electric. Instead, Matzzie said, OFA is directing the sign-up bonus that Ethical Electric offers to all new partners to another nonprofit – Community Power Network – which helps schools, neighborhood groups and other local organizations push for renewable energy.
Meredith McGehee, who examines government ethics at the Campaign Legal Center watchdog group, questions whether it’s appropriate for an organization so closely linked to a sitting president to develop ties with one business.
“You can say that developing clean energy is great, but do competitors feel the weight of the presidency being used to undermine their business model?” she said. “It raises questions about the ethical propriety of the use of the president’s bully pulpit.”
Organizing for Action has no real precedent in American politics. The nonprofit organization, run by former campaign and White House aides, has the goal of mobilizing Obama’s legions of 2012 campaign volunteers to advance the president’s second-term agenda on immigration, gun-control, climate change and other issues.
OFA counts 2.6 million people as having taken at least one action on behalf of the president’s agenda this year – ranging from attending a rally to promote an immigration overhaul in Congress to making a financial contribution. The group, which can raise unlimited amounts of money, collected nearly $5 million during the first three months of the year.
The group’s energy activism comes as the White House tries to sell a sweeping climate-change plan that circumvents Congress after failing to get lawmakers to pass legislation that curbs the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.
Under the plan unveiled last week, Obama is using his executive powers to impose new limits on carbon-dioxide emissions by new and existing power plants. The plan also increases energy efficiency standards and boosts the production of renewable energy on federal land.
Environmental groups largely applauded the move, while Republicans and some Democrats have lambasted the action as another sign of what they call the president’s “war on coal.”
Two months ago, OFA took aim at lawmakers who disagree with the president, launching a “climate deniers” website that singles out more than 100 members of Congress.
At the local level, the group has paired with environmental groups in northern California and in Illinois to encourage county and city governments to add more renewable energy to the mix of electricity options available to customers.
Next week, for instance, OFA volunteers plan to help urge the Santa Rosa City Council, north of San Francisco, to vote to join Sonoma Clean Power, a new public agency with the power to purchase renewable energy from electricity suppliers. Sonoma County officials and two cities within the county already have opted in to the new organization, which would displace Pacific Gas and Electric Co. as the main electricity provider. Pacific Gas and Electric still would distribute the electricity and handle billing.
(Three years ago, the San Francisco-based utility giant spent more than $46.4 million to unsuccessfully push a ballot measure that would have required two-thirds of voters to support a local government starting or joining a public power agency. Asked this week about the Sonoma Clean Power push, PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt said: “We respect the energy choices that are available to our customers.”)
OFA’s volunteers in the Sonoma County, who number in the “hundreds,” have attended county and city council meetings to push the renewable energy plan, said Linda Hemenway, who oversees the group’s volunteer efforts in the county. Hemenway also has met with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., on national climate-change issues.
“Grassroots organizing was the key to victory in 2012, and it will be key to passing legislation for years to come,” she said.
In Illinois, where a 2010 law allows municipalities to buy electrical power on behalf of residents, OFA recently approached the Environmental Law and Policy Center about joining its efforts to encourage cities and countries across the state to boost renewable energy, said Howard Learner, the environmental group’s executive director.
In the next year, 30 municipalities will renew expiring electricity contracts and “we want to see more clean energy as part of the mix,” he said.
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