HOUSTON (CN) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's director Scott Pruitt and speakers at a fossil fuels conference in Houston sponsored by right-wing groups had a mutual love fest, with Pruitt praising the groups for their commitment to oil and gas and the groups lauding Pruitt for getting the EPA "out of science."
The Heartland Institute advocates for decreased government regulation and has been described as the leading U.S. organization pushing climate-change skepticism. The Illinois-based institute hired former Kansas congressman and Tea Party Caucus Chairman Tim Huelskamp as its president in July.
Several conservative groups and political action committees cosponsored the conference, including The Heritage Foundation, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Ayn Rand Institute. David Koch, a top executive at the energy and commodities conglomerate Koch Industries, founded Americans for Prosperity.
To celebrate the first anniversary of Trump's election, The Heartland Institute held an America First Energy Conference on Thursday at a Houston hotel, where Pruitt praised its work in a taped message.
Since taking over the EPA in February, Pruitt has rolled back President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and withdrawn the Waters of the United States rule, claiming it puts too many bodies of water, even dry creek beds, under federal jurisdiction.
"The attitude before we arrived said that you can't be about growth and jobs and also be a good steward of the environment," Pruitt said via video. "That's inaccurate. That's a false narrative.
“I want to say to you at The Heartland Institute, thanks for what you are doing to advance energy. Thank you for what you're doing to advance natural resources. We've been blessed immensely as a country."
Several panels focused on how the EPA is changing under Trump and Pruitt, and multiple panelists criticized the agency’s history in the pre-Trump era.
"The EPA was always junk science-fueled," said Steve Milloy, founder of JunkScience.com and author of "Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA," during a "Reforming EPA" panel.
"We need to get government out of science, especially in the EPA," he said.
Milloy claimed the Obama administration paid climate scientists to doctor data to bolster the narrative that fossil fuels contribute to global warming.
Panelists said they want to undo the Endangerment Finding, an official proclamation from the EPA in 2009 that says greenhouse gases are driving global warming.
Milloy's prescription for the agency is simple: "We want to shrink the EPA," he said.
One panelist likened Trump's industry-friendly stance on climate change to a holiday.
"We had a door opened, and it was opened when Trump was elected president. ... It's like Christmas," said David Stevenson, director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute and a member of Trump's EPA transition team.
For The Heartland Institute, the consensus among world scientists that burning fossil fuels and their release of carbon dioxide is heating the planet and increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters is blasphemy.
They say carbon dioxide is good for the Earth.
"Carbon dioxide is vital plant food," said Paul Driessen, senior fellow at the nonprofit institutes the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
Driessen called carbon dioxide "the miracle molecule that makes life on Earth possible. Rising atmospheric CO2 levels are actually greening our planet by spurring crop, forest and grassland plants to grow faster and better for the past three decades," Driessen said.
"Plant experts say that some 70 percent of that greening is due to higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and that too is an enormous dividend worth countless billions and maybe even trillions of dollars."
But authors of the "Greening of the Earth" study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change in April 2016, which Driessen cited, found that while carbon dioxide does contribute to greenery, the long-term impacts could be limited.
"Studies have shown that plants acclimatize, or adjust, to rising carbon dioxide concentration and the fertilization effect diminishes over time," co-author Dr. Philippe Ciais, associate director of the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France, said in an interview with NASA.
But Heartland panelist John Dunn, a retired physician and licensed attorney, said he shares Driessen's optimism for a world with abundant carbon dioxide.
"I would rather be in a warm place than a cold place," Dunn said.
The United States gets about one-third of its electricity from coal and one-third from natural gas. The rest comes from nuclear plants and wind and solar power, according to conference panelists.
Many scoffed at the idea that wind and solar power will soon become the dominant forms of energy production in the United States.
"The environmentalists have this dream of everything running by solar power and wind, and we know that's not going to happen," said Richard Trzupek, a chemist and consultant for an Illinois engineering firm.
He said the U.S. Energy Information Administration did a study under the Obama administration that predicted the percentage of energy the country will get from wind and solar will increase to just 17 percent by 2040.
"I think it shows that the real choices we are going to be making here are between coal and nuclear and natural gas," he said.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican and Tea Party member, said in a high-energy speech that growing up in Louisiana, where 80,000 jobs are directly tied to the energy industry, he came to appreciate that oil and gas drilling has built the middle class better than any industry in the United States.
Landry represented Louisiana in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2011 to 2013.
Louisiana loses about a football field of coastal land every 100 minutes to erosion caused by canals and pipelines installed for oil and gas extraction, according to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The study wasn't mentioned at the conference.
Heartland Institute research fellow Isaac Orr said that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which let drillers extract oil and gas from shale, caused oil prices to drop from more than $100 a barrel in 2013 to around $55 today.
"Rising oil and gas production in the United States has created 1.7 million jobs in the U.S. And low energy prices have saved consumers millions of dollars. And it's also given us a really good competitive advantage when it comes to manufacturing," Orr said.
"The average family has saved about $675 per year in gasoline compared to 2013 prices. That's ginormous. Low natural gas prices have saved anywhere between $181 to $432 per person [on power bills], depending on the geographical area of the country you're living in," Orr said.
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