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Making Money By Feeding Confusion Over Global Warming

by: Clayton Sandell and Bill Blakemore    27 July 2006

Electric Utility Pays $100,000 To Global Warming Naysayer

July 27, 2006 — - Ever wonder why so many people still seem to be confused about global warming? The answer it seems, confusion means profit -- especially if you're in some parts of the energy business.

One Colorado electric cooperative openly admits it paid $100,000 to a university academic who prides himself on being a global warming skeptic. Scientists and consumer advocates say the co-op is trying to confuse its clients about the virtually total scientific consensus on the causes of global warming.

The energy co-op, Intermountain Rural Electric Association, is heavily invested in power plants that burn coal, one of the chief sources of greenhouse gasses that scientists agree is quickly pushing earth's average temperature to dangerous levels.

ABC News has obtained a copy of a nine-page document that IREA general manager Stanley Lewandowski Jr. addressed to the more than 900 fellow members of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The document is a wide ranging condemnation of carbon taxes and mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions that Lewandowski writes would threaten to "erode most, if not all, the benefits of coal-fired generation."

The letter also says that in February of this year, IREA contributed $100,000 to Patrick Michaels, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia.

Michaels is one of about a dozen academics who for years have cast doubt on the science surrounding global warming while downplaying the scientifically accepted idea that humans are causing it.

"We have had many apocalypses through the ages that haven't shown up and this is likely to be another one," Michaels told CNN earlier this year.

Consumer advocates say it's not surprising a utility that relies on burning coal to produce electricity would oppose regulation calling for mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions -- caps that Lewandowski says will mean expensive investments in new technologies and higher rates for customers.

What is an unusual breach of trust, say the advocates, is that a relatively small company like IREA has given such a substantial sum to Michaels without telling customers.

"It's outrageous. It's an abuse of authority," says Ron Binz, a public utility consultant who was Colorado's state utility consumer advocate from 1984 to 1995.

"Intermountain is a rural electric cooperative," Binz says. "The customers are member-owners. Stan Lewandowski is basically spending other people's money."

Lewandowski is unapologetic about the contents of the document and for donating the money to Michaels, who did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment.

"I think what we need to talk about is how much can be done, and at what cost," Lewandowski told ABC News. "My intent is to get the issue out there and say, 'This is important.' I'm trying to keep the low rates for our customers. And I'll do anything in my power to try and do that."

Lewandowski says the IREA board of directors legally and unanimously approved hiring Michaels -- who he says has "significant credentials" -- though he admits that IREA's 133,000 customers were not notified first.

Binz says that Lewandowski is "absolutely committed to fossil fuels going forward. He's free to do that, I guess. But I think his member-owners should seriously question whether he's acting in their best interest. He's shooting first and asking questions later."

Lewandowski is also under fire from scientists for grossly misrepresenting the scientific evidence of global warming in a six-page "fact sheet" that accompanied the letter, blaming global warming on natural cycles and "the influences of plate tectonics."

Scientists say he is simply wrong, and attempting to cloud sound science now agreed on after decades of debate.

"There is clearly a well-organized and well-funded effort to undermine the science and cause confusion in the minds of the public," says Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado. "And several contrarians have benefited solely to carry this disinformation campaign out."

Lewandowski responds: "I'm not trying to twist the science. I didn't dream any of this stuff up. I picked this up here and there. I didn't mean to mislead anybody and that's not my intent."

But experts and journalists who have documented a 15-year campaign funded by major companies in the fossil fuel industry to cast doubt on global warming science say the intent is to create confusion.

"This coal industry disinformation campaign is a repeat of a similar campaign launched in the early 1990s by Western Fuels and other coal interests," says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Ross Gelbspan. "That campaign, which involved some of the same players, was perhaps less reprehensible since the science of climate change was still maturing at the time."

In the last several years, however, a growing body of research has led virtually all credible climate scientists to the same conclusion. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- an international group of hundreds of climate scientists -- concluded in 2001 that "there is new and stronger evidence that most of the observed warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities." Just last month, the National Academies of Sciences said the earth is likely hotter than it has been in at least the last 2,000 years.

Gelbspan says that continued efforts to confuse the public in the face of the evidence are "particularly sinister" given that they follow "by almost 10 years the conclusion of more than 2,000 scientists from 100 countries in what is the largest and most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific collaboration in history."

For his part, Lewandowski says that he plans on telling his customers about how he's spending their money, probably in a notice mailed with September electric bills.

"We will go to our membership with this issue. I'm going to write them a letter and tell them, 'This is our side of it.' We'll tell them, 'If you think we ought to do something different, let us know.'"