The Northeast Public Power Association's annual conference last month featured a climate denialist as the speaker in its only session on climate change, raising questions and concerns among some members. Credit: The Everett Power Plant in Massachusetts/Todd Van Hoosear via flickr
Are some utilities managers, even in pro-climate New England, so far behind the science that they would invite a speaker arguing fossil fuels don't warm the planet?
At the Northeast Public Power Association's annual conference in Lake Placid, N.Y. last month, what was billed as a "common sense" discussion on climate change was actually a talk by Steve Goreham, an author of books that deny that burning fossil fuels causes global warming.
His appearance was sharply criticized by a few among the public power managers, directors and board members gathered there, while others viewed it as just another event in a conference packed with energy policy and technology discussions, networking and golf.
Giving Goreham a significant forum among power managers, however, raises serious questions about their role in responding to global warming and their understanding of climate science. The episode also illustrates how the climate misinformation camp has exploited opportunities to influence climate policy, by targeting those with a direct stake in the policy debate.
NEPPA represents about 80 not-for-profit, publicly owned utilities from across New England. It coordinates a sharing of resources among members, offers safety and other trainings and does some lobbying.
New England would not figure to be a welcome mat for climate denial. Rather, it is a region with bold plans to reduce greenhouse emissions and increase reliance on renewable energy sources. About half of NEPPA utility member companies are in Massachusetts, a state that seeks an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and where lawmakers recently passed the nation's most ambitious offshore wind energy target.
As the idea of a dramatic transition to a clean energy economy in the coming decades takes hold in the Northeast particularly, how does such a speaker get invited to address a group that environmentalists, politicians and regulators expect to help drive this shift? And why did his talk generate only minimal controversy?
Surprisingly, there appears to be a general lack of awareness about climate science among some high-level officials in the public power industry in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Goreham has authored two books on climate change, but has not published in the peer-reviewed science press. He makes his money not just from book sales, but by giving talks on climate change at conferences across the country largely for various trade groups, from electricity to oil and gas to plastics. Goreham is scheduled to speak this month at conferences for the North Carolina Propane Gas Association and the Nebraska Trucking Association.
He's also a policy adviser to The Heartland Institute, a Chicago area conservative think tank known for spreading misinformation about climate change. In addition he runs a self-described "non-political" group dedicated to "informing Americans about the realities of climate science and energy economics," called Climate Science Coalition of America (CSCA). In an email to InsideClimate News, Goreham said his Heartland Institute and CSCA work is unpaid.
Goreham told InsideClimate News that he reached out to NEPPA to give a talk to the group and was subsequently invited to speak at the conference. "They were interested in my points of view on energy, electricity and public policy," Goreham wrote in an email.
Goreham's session was summarized in the NEPPA conference material as offering "a discussion about energy, electricity and modern society, with common sense about climate change, public policy, and implications for the power industry."
His talk consisted of the usual top climate denier talking points, according to several people who attended. (InsideClimate News did not attend the conference.)
Goreham's framing of the issue is that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing and so are global temperatures, but these changes to the climate are largely due to natural causes and not a cause for alarm. He makes similar points in his latest book, published in 2012, "The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism: Mankind and Climate Change Mania."
InsideClimate News repeatedly called and emailed NEPPA's board members. Six of them responded. One was part of the speaker selection process but did not provide specifics, two declined to speak about it, and three said they didn't have any involvement in the process. Some of them praised the group's decision to expose members to people on all sides of an issue. (The conference only had one dedicated speaker on climate change, and it was Goreham.)
In an email to InsideClimate News before the conference, NEPPA executive director David White wrote: "With regards to the selection of speakers, we have an internal committee that selects speakers for our conferences. I do not know how Mr. Goreham came to our attention, so I cannot comment on that aspect. Given the interactions that our members have with the general public, I am sure that the committee saw value in hearing what those who question climate change are likely to say."
At least one NEPPA member raised concerns about Goreham's talk in the days before the conference, which was held in late August. The conference agenda, however, gave little clue about the talk's true content.
According to the program, "speaker, author, and environmental researcher" Steve Goreham was scheduled to give a one-hour talk called "Energy, Climate Change, and Public Policy."
What was not mentioned was that Goreham does not have an education in climate science, nor has he published any peer-reviewed articles on the topic. Instead, Goreham has an MBA from the University of Chicago and a masters degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, according to his website biography. Also not explained was Goreham's ties to The Heartland Institute. (A few of the glowing reviews of Goreham's books on Amazon were written by people affiliated with The Heartland Institute.)
In Goreham's 2012 book, he wrote, "There is no direct scientific evidence that man-made greenhouse gases are causing catastrophic global warming. Instead, the world has been captured by the ideology of Climatism—the belief that man-made greenhouse gases are destroying the Earth's climate."
When speaking about the buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the Earth's atmosphere, Goreham correctly told NEPPA members that greenhouse emissions only make up a small fraction of the atmosphere, but wrongfully deduced that this means they could not have any significant impact on the planet.
These views have been vigorously disputed by an overwhelming consensus of the world's top climate scientists. The threat of continued climate change is so urgent, more than 170 world leaders have signed the Paris climate agreement to dramatically cut their greenhouse gas emissions in the future and transition towards a clean energy economy. The United States and China recently took the next step and formally ratified the agreement this month.
Reactions to Goreham's talk at Lake Placid were split between people "who didn't believe a word [Goreham] said" and people who hadn't made their mind up on whether man-made climate change was real, said former NEPPA president Calvin Ames. Ames, the superintendent of Madison Electric Works in Maine, said he thought Goreham raised some interesting points and that he wanted to do more research on the topic.
David Talbot, a commissioner for the Reading Municipal Light Department in Massachusetts, found NEPPA's decision to hire Goreham infuriating. Talbot both criticized Goreham during his talk and repeatedly raised his disapproval of the group's hiring of Goreham with NEPPA leadership.
"NEPPA may have made a mistake," Talbot told InsideClimate News. "I'm not sure what vetting was done, if any. It's a small organization having limited scope." Talbot said he hopes NEPPA will "now correct the record and provide real, credible facts to this community."
Other NEPPA members including board member Patty Richards also spoke out at the end of Goreham's talk. "The talk was mostly opinion-based, not fact-based," said Richards, general manager of the Washington Electric Co-op, a Vermont utility that runs entirely on clean energy sources.
Although Richards disagreed with many of Goreham's positions, she said it provided an opportunity for NEPPA members like herself that understand and believe the scientific consensus on manmade climate change to speak out.
Reginald Beliveau, a NEPPA board member who also works at the Vermont-based Swanton Village Public Works, didn't attend Goreham's talk but said he heard about it at the conference. There was "a lot of good dialogue among NEPPA members" on the issue of climate change after the talk, he said.
"It's good to hear two sides of the story," Beliveau added. "We've always heard about global warming and climate change...To hear another perspective, it will either reinforce your belief or make you ask more questions and do research."
That some in the New England public power industry still think there's a debate on climate, was reason for concern to others. Conservation Law Foundation's Greg Cunningham said: "That's distressing." (Cunningham did not attend the NEPPA conference.)
"Municipal power companies have a fiduciary duty to make energy decisions that are in its best interests of their residents [and] citizens. It is not possible to uphold that fiduciary duty while failing to consider, let alone, mitigate against climate change and its associated costs to the economy and environment," said Cunningham, who heads CLF's clean energy and climate change program. CLF is a New England-focused environmental advocacy organization.
At the conference, there were also at least two sessions on renewable energy including a round-table discussion on battery storage and a talk on developing utility-scale solar farms. Some NEPPA members already get or are planning to get a significant amount of their power from renewable sources. Ames' utility, for example, has commissioned Maine's biggest solar farm. The motivating factor to go solar was "all price," he said.
Goreham received an honorarium for speaking at the NEPPA conference, but declined to say for how much. "If you are concerned about funding for climate change, please consider [how much] funding [is] on the side of the theory of man-made climate change," he said.