When a lawsuit was filed to block the nation’s first major offshore wind farm off the Massachusetts coast, it appeared to be a straightforward clash between those who earn their living from the sea and others who would install turbines and underwater cables that could interfere with the harvesting of squid, fluke and other fish.
The fishing companies challenging federal permits for the Vineyard Wind project were from the Bay State as well as Rhode Island and New York, and a video made by the opponents featured a bearded fisherman with a distinct New England accent.
But the financial muscle behind the fight originated thousands of miles from the Atlantic Ocean, in dusty oil country. The group bankrolling the lawsuit filed last year was the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit organization backed by oil and gas companies and Republican donors.
With influence campaigns, legal action and model legislation, the group is promoting fossil fuels and trying to stall the American economy’s transition toward renewable energy. It is upfront about its opposition to Vineyard Wind and other renewable energy projects, making no apologies for its advocacy work.
Even after Democrats in Congress passed the biggest climate law in United States history this summer, the organization is undaunted, and its continued efforts highlight the myriad forces working to keep oil, gas and coal companies in business.
In Arizona, the Texas Public Policy Foundation campaigned to keep open one of the biggest coal-fired power plants in the West. In Colorado, it called for looser restrictions on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And in Texas, the group crafted the first so-called “energy boycott” law to punish financial institutions that want to scale back their investments in fossil fuel projects, legislation adopted by four other states.
At the same time, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has spread misinformation about climate science. With YouTube videos, regular appearances on Fox and Friends, and social media campaigns, the group’s executives have sought to convince lawmakers and the public that a transition away from oil, gas and coal would harm Americans.
They have frequently seized on current events to promote dubious narratives, pinning high gasoline prices on President Biden’s climate policies (economists say that’s not the driver) or claiming the 2021 winter blackout in Texas was the result of unreliable wind energy (it wasn’t).
They travel the nation encouraging state lawmakers to punish companies that try to reduce carbon emissions. And through an initiative called Life:Powered, the group makes what it calls “the moral case for fossil fuels,” which holds that American prosperity is rooted in an economy based on oil, gas and coal and that poor communities and developing nations deserve the same opportunities to grow.
“When you look at their advocacy, it is consistently a false choice between being environmentally responsible and enjoying economic prosperity,” said Jeff Clark, chief executive of Advanced Power Alliance, an Austin-based trade group for renewable energy companies. “They’re against offshore wind, yet they spent decades advocating for offshore oil drilling. They are against subsidies, but only when it applies to renewables. They’re for looser restrictions on fracking and drilling, but greater restrictions for solar and wind. This organization exists to defend fossil fuels from any threat to their market share.”
The Spread of Misinformation and Falsehoods
On Thanksgiving, Jason Isaac, an executive at the group, tweeted “Today, I’m thankful to live a high-carbon lifestyle and wish the rest of the world could too. Energy poverty = poverty. #decarbonization is dangerous and deadly.”
Mr. Isaac said that the benefits of oil, gas and coal outweigh the risks, and that while emissions may be warming the planet, the changes are modest and humans can adapt.
“Absolutely, man is having an impact, I just disagree with the argument that it’s dangerous,” Mr. Isaac said in an interview.
Mr. Isaac’s remarks run counter to the overwhelming scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is already making weather more extreme, and if not quickly and sharply abated will lead to increasingly catastrophic floods, heat, storms, drought and social unrest.
“Just as the tobacco industry had front groups and the opioid industry had front groups, this is part of the fossil fuel disinformation playbook,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist at the George Washington School of Public Health who has studied corporate influence campaigns. “The role of these so called policy organizations is not to provide useful information to the public, but to promote the interests of their sponsors, which are often antithetical to public health.”
Robert Henneke, the foundation’s executive director, disputed the assertion that it was a front for fossil fuel interests. “That characterization is inaccurate,” he said. He also said that most of the policies the foundation promotes have nothing to do with energy.
A Local Group Goes National
James Leininger, who earned a fortune selling medical beds, founded Texas Public Policy Foundation in 1989 to promote charter schools. As it evolved, the organization embraced other causes including criminal justice, immigration, border security, taxes, and energy.
Mr. Leininger bankrolled Rick Perry’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 2000, and Mr. Perry reciprocated by donating the proceeds of his 2010 book, “Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington,” to the group. Other wealthy conservative donors began writing checks, including Tim Dunn, an oilman who is the vice chairman of the board.
In 2015, the group moved into a $20 million six-story headquarters in downtown Austin, where the Texas Capitol is visible from the headquarter’s “Governor Rick Perry Liberty Balcony.”
When President Donald J. Trump tapped Mr. Perry in 2017 to serve as energy secretary, the group followed him to Washington, opening an office there and placing several senior officials inside the administration.
Mr. Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White, a fellow at the foundation, to lead the Council on Environmental Quality. Ms. White, who had once described believing in global warming as “a kind of paganism,” stumbled at a confirmation hearing, and the White House withdrew her nomination.
Susan Combs, another fellow at the group, became acting assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks at the Department of the Interior. Brooke Rollins, chief executive of the foundation, went to work at the White House.
Bernard McNamee, a onetime policy adviser to Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, joined the Department of Energy under Mr. Perry, then left for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, only to return to the Trump administration after a few months. Mr. McNamee is now a lawyer who advises fossil fuel companies.
Douglas W. Domenech, who ran the foundation’s efforts to block the Obama administration from regulating emissions from power plants, became assistant secretary at the interior department. He was later found to have violated federal ethics rules by meeting with foundation officials, creating the appearance that he was working on behalf of a former employer.
As the organization’s profile grew, donations ballooned from $4.7 million in 2010 to $25.6 million in 2021, the most recent year for which records are available. That allowed the group to expand its mandate far beyond the Lone Star state.
The foundation said much of its funding comes from individuals. Because it is a nonprofit, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is not required to disclose its donors. But publicly available tax filings show that the group has received money from fossil fuel companies including the coal giant Peabody Energy, Exxon Mobil and Chevron.
The foundation has also received at least $4 million from conservative donors including Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch, according to public filings. Koch Industries owns oil refineries, petrochemical plants and thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines, and the brothers have a long history of funding efforts to block climate action. Many of the foundation’s executives and board members have worked for the oil and gas industry, including Mike Nasi, a top lawyer for coal companies who is a senior adviser to its Life:Powered project.
The energy policies supported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation largely line up with those of the fossil fuel industry. And in at least one instance, its work directly affected a donor, Peabody Energy.
For more than four decades, the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., burned coal from a nearby Peabody mine, releasing mercury, arsenic, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides from its smokestacks, along with carbon dioxide, while draining the underground water supply.
The rapid expansion of cheap, natural gas starting around 2007, combined with new emissions rules during the Obama administration made the Navajo Generating Station too expensive to operate, and by 2017 it was slated for closure.
To try to attract new buyers for both the plant and the mine in 2018, the Texas Public Policy Foundation produced a video that portrayed the coal plant as not only a major employer for the Navajo nation but also a part of its culture. The video featured a Navajo girl speaking over Native American flute music.
“Papa says it’s the heart of the land,” she said as an image of the plant’s three smokestacks fill the screen. “Sometimes I think I can hear it beating.”
The effort wasn’t enough; the Navajo Generating Station closed in 2019. Peabody Energy did not return a request for comment.
Last year, the foundation set its sights on the fight in New England over the Vineyard Wind project, which will consist of 84 turbines located 14 miles off the coast.
Attorneys for the organization filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of fishing companies, working free of charge, and the foundation produced a cinematic YouTube video to promote the case. The video attacks wind energy, showing footage of rusted, stalled turbines and suggests that tax subsidies for wind turbines benefit “foreign governments.”
Meghan Lapp of Seafreeze Shoreside, a seafood wholesaler and one of the plaintiffs, said she hadn’t been aware of the foundation’s extensive work to dispute climate science but was willing to look past it.
“The fishing industry needed somebody to represent them,” she said. “When you’re at the point where you’re facing complete annihilation, you look for people who can help.”
Taking on New Fights
Since President Biden came to office pledging to make climate action a top priority, the organization has only increased its efforts to combat what it sees as the overblown response to global warming — disputing broadly accepted models that project an uptick in temperatures, questioning the viability of wind and solar energy and dismissing the 2015 Paris climate agreement as a political stunt that will “will push more people into poverty.”
When a storm led to blackouts across Texas in February 2021, the foundation blamed the blackouts on frozen wind turbines, even though utility officials said the primary cause was the state’s natural gas providers. The message was echoed by Republican politicians across the country and commentators including Tucker Carlson.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation continues to campaign against wind power despite the fact that Texas now generates almost a third of its energy from wind power.
It is also helping shape the law. When a Texas oil executive complained that he couldn’t get a bank loan to expand drilling operations, Mr. Isaac, a former state lawmaker who previously co-founded a nonprofit that promotes natural gas, drafted a bill directing the state to stop doing business with banks and companies that were divesting from the fossil fuel industry. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed the law last year.
With encouragement from Mr. Isaac and a network of Republican state treasurers, four other states — West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma — have passed similar laws. That has led some states to stop doing business with major financial institutions including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and BlackRock.
Meanwhile, the foundation is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, challenging its designation of greenhouse gases as a danger to human health and welfare, and this summer lodged its objection to a proposal at the Securities and Exchange Commission that would require public companies to disclose the financial risks they face from climate change.
As Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January, the Texas group is poised to regain influence in Washington.
“It gives us a leg up,” Mr. Isaac said. “We’ve been educating staff on the Hill on our research, our positions and our messaging. We’re going to have more of an impact in Washington not only over the next two years, but over the next six years. It’s great.”