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Merrill questions legal status, funding of environmentalists ‘threatening the economic livelihood of Alabama businesses’

Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill is continuing to be outspoken against what he sees as environmental activists promoting their “political agenda by threatening the economic livelihood of Alabama businesses” during the ongoing pandemic.

Earlier this week, Merrill penned an op-ed lamenting that California-based Sierra Club, along with the Birmingham-based liberal environmental group GASP, filed a lawsuit against the State over air and water permits for Plant Barry, an Alabama Power Company electric generating plant north of Mobile.

“Today, Plant Barry is complying with all air and water rules set forth by state regulators. Despite this, the Sierra Club and GASP are still fighting to see that south Alabama lose its largest source of electricity and the more than the 300 jobs provided by Plant Barry,” Merrill wrote.

However, his advocacy for Alabama families and jobs did not stop there. Merrill on Thursday sent four letters following up on the issue, and those letters have been obtained by Yellowhammer News.

Merrill wrote to both the Sierra Club and GASP, as well as environmentalist Daniel Tait and a representative of the so-called Energy and Policy Institute.

Tait is listed as “a Research and Communication Manager” for the Energy and Policy Institute on the shadowy organization’s website. That website refers to him as the former CEO of Energy Alabama.

In his letter to Tait, Merrill advised that he could not find the Energy and Policy Institute being an incorporated entity with the State of Alabama, nor any other state or the federal government.

The secretary of state further referenced Tait recently representing Energy Alabama in proceedings before the Alabama Public Service Commission when a coalition of environmental groups advocated against Alabama Power’s usage of natural gas to provide reliable and affordable energy for Alabamians.

Merrill wrote, “[O]fficial records submitted to the IRS by Energy Alabama (under the name Alabama Center for Sustainable Energy) show you having received no compensation from the group since 2016.”

An independent review of Alabama business filing records by Yellowhammer News turned up no results for the “Energy and Policy Institute” nor “Energy Alabama,” however “Alabama Center for Sustainable Energy” is indeed incorporated and actively registered. Tait is listed as one of three incorporators, as well as one of three directors.

“In recent weeks, you personally have taken an active role in attempting to shape the policies of both state regulatory bodies such as the Public Service Commission and of utilities during the COVID-19 crisis,” Merrill wrote to Tait. “Assuming you will continue such advocacy, I hope that you will clarify three critical matters so that elected officials and the Alabama public can understand the source and the nature of your work.”

Merrill asked Tait the following:

“During my tenure as Secretary of State, I have labored to create as much transparency as possible in state government,” Merrill added to Tait. “When we engage in debate about the future of our state, especially about the energy that today powers economic development and that tomorrow will fuel economic recovery from this current crisis, we should do so in good faith and with the greatest possible transparency about what is driving our advocacy.”

He concluded in that letter, “I hope you will provide answers to these questions as quickly as possible so that we all understand the origins and motivations of your work.”

In his letter to the Energy and Policy Institute, Merrill additionally underscored the irony of an alleged “watchdog” group being funded by unknown sources of money.

The questions regarding funding and pay raised by Merrill are reminiscent of when environmental groups last decade fought to kill Alabama’s coal industry, advocating against the usage of coal-based power generation. It was later revealed that a California-based group had funneled over $3 million to Alabama environmental groups to aid this effort. GASP was one such entity receiving funding.

Now, after dealing an irreversible blow to the thermal coal industry in the Yellowhammer State, many of these same — and some new — environmental groups are attacking the usage of natural gas in electricity generation, which Merrill pointed out in his letters.

Plant Barry currently operates a total of six generating units: four natural gas and two coal. Alabama Power wants to add a gas-burning unit, which is part of the proposal Merrill referenced that is being opposed by environmental groups before the Public Service Commission. This proposed unit would be Barry 8, a new generation unit that would be one of the cleanest, most efficient natural gas units in the country.

However, as Merrill also pointed out, these groups have recently gone even farther than opposing the proposed expansion, attacking the existing Plant Barry units and jeopardizing a major part of the state’s power grid.

Writing to the Sierra Club, Merrill began, “During these times of unrest and uncertainty, Alabamians understand the importance of protecting jobs firsthand and maintaining the resources that fuel our economy.”

“That is why it was disheartening to hear the news that Sierra Club had taken advantage of a global pandemic to promote its political agenda by threatening the economic livelihood of Alabama businesses,” he continued.

The secretary of state’s respective letters to the Sierra Club and GASP were similar in nature.

To both GASP and the Sierra Club, Merrill added, “Alabama has a long history of supporting its industries and the jobs they create, especially in times when they are critically needed. In short, your group’s targeting of our state’s infrastructure and the jobs of essential employees is both troubling and inconsistent with Alabama thinking and its values.”

“This is a time to work together to address issues and solve problems, not to promote political agendas,” Merrill concluded to GASP. “In the days ahead, I encourage your group to work cooperatively with industries that are critical to our economy instead of targeting them with unnecessary lawsuits.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

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