Last month, two different troupes of petitioners flooded Oberlin’s campus, taking part in an ugly and complex political battle playing out across the state of Ohio. Both petitions were related to House Bill 6 (HB 6), a law recently passed by Ohio’s Republican legislature and signed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine that could have disastrous consequences for the climate. Some of these petitioners were gathering signatures to nullify the law by putting it to a vote in the 2020 elections; others encouraged Oberlin students to sign a fake petition in an effort to sow confusion and distrust. This strange encounter with Ohio politics left many wondering what exactly HB 6 is, what it means for our future, and what we can do about it. Answering these questions can teach us a lot about the state of climate politics.
HB 6 is a tax-payer funded bailout of several nuclear and coal power plants which supply energy to Ohio. According to FirstEnergy, the utility company that owns these nuclear facilities, these plants are no longer economically competitive: without the bailout, they would close. The law also slashes Ohio’s meager renewable energy standards and will completely eradicate them by 2026, eliminating any incentive for renewable energy development in the state. Lastly, it rolls back energy efficiency standards which decrease energy use and save Ohioans money on their energy bills. In short, HB 6 props up coal and nuclear plants while choking renewable sources of energy. Ohio is already highly dependent on fossil fuels, as the state currently generates about 47% of its electricity from coal, 34% from natural gas, 15% from nuclear, and only 3% from renewables like wind and solar. With only eleven years to rapidly move away from fossil fuels as reported by the UN, HB 6 is another step in the wrong direction.
HB 6 has united environmentalists, natural gas companies and taxpayer interest groups in opposition to the law, and these entities have formed an organization called “Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts” to launch a referendum campaign. This means gathering at least 265,773 signatures to put an “amendment” to HB 6 on the ballot in 2020 and essentially repeal the law. Meanwhile, FirstEnergy has teamed up with the coal lobby to muddy the waters by propagating misinformation and xenophobia. They’ve flooded the airwaves with the baseless claim that the Chinese government is behind the anti-HB 6 petition and is plotting to take over Ohio’s energy grid; they’ve sent mailers out to millions of Ohio residents, including Oberlin students, with the same message; and perhaps most egregiously, they’ve paid canvassers to gather signatures for a fraudulent petition — a petition with no actual goal, only the function of confusing the public. Several Oberlin students reported signing the false petition thinking they were signing the referendum petition, or ignoring referendum petitioners because they’d heard about the fake petition. Pro-HB 6 interests also hired “blockers” to intimidate and harass referendum petitioners, as reported by Cleveland.com in September.
That’s the sordid story of HB 6. It is an interesting and infuriating case study on energy politics, offering many important lessons for environmental advocates. For one, the law itself shows that the future of energy will not be decided by relative costs, technological innovations, or “market forces.” Rather, fossil fuels and renewables will compete for government favor, and whoever is able to wield the greatest political power will prevail. This story is not new: FirstEnergy has been bailed out several times already, and wind development in the state has been stifled by strict “setback” regulations pushed by the coal lobby. HB 6 also shows that the conservative Republicans — and some Democrats — who voted for the bill are not actually concerned about the free market or the perils of big government. Instead, they have revealed their commitment to protect the interests of their donors and allies. If we want to end the fossil fuel era, we must organize our people — those who believe in climate change and want to do something about it — into a political force that can defeat the fossil fuel lobby.
It’s important to note that electoral action is not the only avenue of resistance available to us: in West Virginia, Appalachians Against Pipelines have used direct action tactics like tree sits and blockades to successfully stall construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline for over a year. Fossil fuel corporations recognize the disruptive potential of these tactics and, in response, are pushing a bill called SB 33 through the Ohio state legislature, which would felonize any demonstrations that disrupt “critical infrastructure” including pipelines. We ought to use the powerful tool of direct action before it is further criminalized.
Referendum campaigns and direct actions are both deeply important projects, and both demand our support. But they also expose a major weakness of the climate movement: we are always playing defense. When environmentalists are only saying “no” to fossil fuel infrastructure without offering economic alternatives, we risk alienating fossil fuel workers, their communities, and working class people in general. The Ohio AFL-CIO —a powerful union and a prominent voice in working-class and labor politics — is running ads against the referendum petition. Workers at the old, uncompetitive nuclear and coal plants are represented by unions, which are desperate to hold onto the jobs that remain after decades of deindustrialization and union-busting. This is a major obstacle for the climate movement: fossil fuel billionaires have spent decades convincing Americans that they have to choose between good jobs and a healthy environment. This myth is especially compelling in our era of massive economic inequality and instability.
Our unfortunate severance with organized labor is no accident — it was designed by lobbyists who wrote HB 6. When we allow our adversaries to set the agenda, we also allow them to carve out allies and opponents. In the fight over HB 6, we not only lose the crucial support of organized labor, but also that of nuclear advocates who have made a deal with the devil to support the bailouts. Naturally, environmental causes should have the support of both of these groups. Building green systems of energy and transportation would offer enormous benefits to workers and unions, but when the conversation is confined to the debate over closing dirty power plants or not, that message gets lost. Likewise, nuclear advocates are largely supportive of decarbonization and renewable energy, but balk at the idea of closing Ohio’s only nuclear plants.
Meanwhile, the referendum campaign is supported by natural gas interests, which were excluded from the bailout and aren’t happy about it. This alliance of convenience may be useful in the short term, but natural gas is a fossil fuel just like coal and oil, and the extraction of natural gas via fracking leads to dangerous toxins polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink. Natural gas companies are not our allies, they are an industry that we need to dismantle as quickly as possible for a chance to save the world from climate catastrophe. The fight for climate justice requires a strong and diverse coalition, and these relationships require serious investment and attention. The HB 6 referendum campaign is building an entirely different coalition which cannot be harnessed to defeat the fossil fuel empire. This problem emerged in the political battle over HB 6 precisely because we were not the ones framing the issue.
Playing defense can be demoralizing and constraining. If the referendum campaign succeeds, we’ll essentially be back to square one, which is directly on the path to climate catastrophe. The fossil fuel industry will win in either outcome because they were able to define the bounds of political debate by playing offense and passing HB 6 in the first place. It is long past time to define the political contest on our own terms. We can do this by fighting unapologetically for our own agenda, the one that science and justice demand: a rapid transformation of our economy away from fossil fuels and a just renegotiation of wealth and power in the rising green economy. Time is running out, and if we play defense for much longer, we will have nothing left to defend.