Bigger Pie Forum: Secret History, Hidden Agenda

In early 2012, when the news broke that the Sierra Club had taken $26 million in donations from natural gas interests over the course of four years, many in the public were rightfully dismayed. After telling the public repeatedly that coal-fired power was bad for America, it suddenly became clear why their suggested temporary alternative – natural gas – was so easy for the anti-fossil fuel organization to stomach. For the Sierra Club, it seems the millions made the bitter pill of natural gas a little easier to swallow. It also made the group’s Beyond Coal campaign that much easier to launch.

Eventually, the Sierra Club’s gas money ran out, coinciding not so subtly with the organization’s next big campaign, Beyond Gas. Yes, once the dollars from natural gas companies ran out, so did the Sierra Club’s affinity for natural gas as a solution. The Sierra Club duped us all, especially those who believed the organization’s policy positions were based on something other than whose check cleared last. Given this sordid history, we should all be a little suspicious when any group holds up natural gas as the magic bullet for energy policy.

Enter the Bigger Pie Forum. The group has consistently told anyone who will listen, especially Mississippi’s power regulators and consumers, that a new power plant in Kemper County is too expensive and won’t work. Critics like Kelley Williams and Ashby Foote have told us the technology, which converts native lignite coal to gas, is unproven. They’ve said the Kemper County coal-to-gas plant is a bad investment. What kind of power plant do they believe Mississippi regulators should have approved instead? Natural gas, of course. The Sierra Club has proposed the same solution.

The source of funding for Bigger Pie Forum might surprise you. The Institute for Technology Development (ITD) is a not-for-profit organization funded by tens of millions of dollars from the federal government and state taxpayers. ITD was created for the specific purpose of developing “applications of satellite, airborne, field or laboratory imagery.” Recently, though, the organization suspended its operations, leaving about $5 million in the bank account. Those in the know say that at least $1 million of that money is now being used to fund the agenda of Bigger Pie Forum. Starting to sound a little like the Sierra Club’s tactics?

These revelations don’t mean that the Bigger Pie Forum doesn’t deserve to weigh in. It just means that when this pseudo-journalistic group does speak out against the Kemper County plant, we should take its opinion with a sizable grain of salt. When the voices of Bigger Pie Forum criticize the government for being too involved in supporting new technology, we should recall that the Bigger Pie Forum is essentially using our tax dollars to make its point. In other words, they believe in free market principles only for everyone else. We should remember that when the group stands on its soapbox to call for transparency, it hasn’t been very forthcoming about the taxpayer sources of its funding. We should also note the irony of taxpayer money intended for “technology development” being used to argue against the state-of-the-art technology being deployed in Kemper County.

In truth, the technology being used at the Kemper County plant presents a real challenge to the campaign for natural gas supremacy. That’s because while a conventional coal-fired power plant produces more emissions than a natural gas power plant, the Kemper County power plant won’t. The plant is actually environmentally friendlier in a number of important ways. The natural gas folks see that as a threat, of course, and figure that when the Kemper County plant succeeds, there will be more like it to come. And they are right. The Kemper County plant offers the hope of using America’s most abundant energy resource, coal, in a much cleaner way and the possibility of eventually out-competing natural gas on price.

It’s okay to debate which energy resources provide the best benefit to businesses and families. That’s what political discourse is all about. But if Bigger Pie Forum has an agenda other than defending consumers, it should say so. That way, the public knows why the group’s preferred solution of simply building a natural gas plant rolls so easily off the tongue. Just as important, it would allow Mississippians to see Bigger Pie Forum for what it really is – a paid assassin with an agenda, not a public advocate.