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Environmental groups blast proposed clean energy bond issue

A proposal that would require the state to issue $13 billion in bonds for clean energy development, but give the state no control over how the funds are spent, hit a brick wall with environmental groups Thursday.

The proposal, which would appear on the statewide ballot as a constitutional amendment, is a “fatally flawed initiative” that should be scrapped, the coalition of environmental groups said.

If the unidentified backers of the proposal can collect the signatures of more than 385,000 voters needed to get the proposal on the ballot, and if voters were to approve of the concept, the state would issue $1.3 billion in bonds annually from 2013-2023 to fund green energy-related projects.

The dustup over the proposal came out in the open Thursday as the Ohio Ballot Board unanimously determined that the proposal constitutes a single ballot issue – one of several steps in the citizen initiative process. Last month the committee was cleared to begin collecting signatures to put the amendment before voters in the fall.

The environmental groups said in a letter that the measure would send $13 billion to the Ohio Energy Initiative Commission, a corporation in Delaware that would have sole control over how the money would be spent.

The Sierra Club, Ohio Environmental Council, National Wildlife Federation, Solar Energy Industries Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environment Ohio, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Buckeye Forest Council, and other groups also criticized a provision in the amendment that would give the out-of-state entity $65 million a year in management fees. They said nothing in the language spells out how commission members would be selected.

“The proposed structure – giving a private and anonymous company control of public benefit funds – is unprecedented and extremely alarming. The lack of transparency and accountability is completely unacceptable,” they said in the letter to John Clarke, project coordinator for ProEnergy Ohio.

Furthermore, the groups also said ballot issue language describing projects eligible for funding was so broad it could include virtually any technology or expenditure.

Before the Ballot Board hearing, Jed Thorp, manager of the Sierra Club, Ohio Chapter, said the proposal could have been designed to benefit one particular entity.

“Without knowing who’s behind it, everything is a possibility,” he told reporters. “This is a group of anonymous backers. It was incorporated in Delaware so they would have anonymity and that, I think, is concerning. When you’re talking about putting anonymous folks in charge of and empowered with $13 billion, that’s a big risk.”

Thorp said the campaign could generate a lot of negative publicity for renewable energy. “There’s a lot of good things happening now for clean energy and this just would be a distraction right now."

Brian Kaiser, director of green jobs and innovation for the Ohio Environmental Council, said the proposed bond issue is not something the clean energy community was asking for.

“What the clean energy community needs is consistency from lawmakers and certainty, and when they have that they succeed and they grow and that’s exactly what’s happening across Ohio right now,” he said.

Clarke, the spokesman for the Yes for Ohio’s Energy Future Committee, described the environmental groups’ concerns as a “sad case of friendly fire” and suggested the advocates did not fully understand the ballot issue.

He said the allegation that the amendment would give control of $13 billion in public funds to a private company in Delaware is “absolutely, positively untrue.”

Under the amendment, the state would award grant funds directly to renewable energy projects, he said in an interview. “The board simply evaluates them and decides which ones have these merits, and it’s impartial and it’s away from the political cronyism process that you have out there now.”

The Delaware-incorporated organization would simply protect supporters’ privacy, he said.

“It’s no more nefarious than someone who blocks their phone number,” he said. “This provides privacy for people who support it and don’t necessarily want to be out there in the street and get accosted by reporters and innuendoes and things like that and people looking into things that are unrelated.”

The amendment lays out “impersonal and impartial” criteria for funding clean energy projects, he said. “It has to have technical merit, economic merit, economic impact, financial impact and environmental – we don’t want windmills that are in the flight path of birds.”

Clarke said the proposal would boost employment in Ohio and preserve an industry that’s being threatened. According to the campaign’s website, it would create more than 300,000 permanent jobs.

“Renewable energy in Ohio right now is under attack by the legislature. So this is pretty much the saving grace,” he said, pointing to pending legislation that would eliminate the state’s renewable energy portfolio standards (Senate Bill 216), which require 12.5% of the electricity sold in Ohio to come from clean sources, like wind and solar, by 2025.

“And there’s a push to drive down energy costs and that hurts renewable energy companies that need those slightly higher costs to support their power purchase agreements. They’re in the fledgling stage and they need support,” he said.

Clarke said he expects the campaign will have sufficient funding to get the ballot issue passed.

Gongwer News Service


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