By Francisco Alvarado
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The National Black Chamber of Commerce, a leading critic of efforts to expand solar energy production in Florida and nationwide, is funded primarily by fossil fuel energy companies, including Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, according to an analysis by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Founded in 1993 by Harry C. Alford and his wife Kay DeBow, the National Black Chamber of Commerce has been a staunch ally of utility and fossil fuel companies for nearly a quarter century.
Alford has testified before the U.S. Congress at least 16 times. He alleges that clean energy initiatives are disproportionately harmful to black communities in the United States. For instance, in 1998, Alford testified that the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, a commitment by 38 industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, would be harmful to minority-owned small businesses.
The National Black Chamber of Commerce, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, has been particularly active in Florida in recent months.
Last weekend, the organization held its annual convention at the Diplomat Resort and Spa in Hollywood, Fla., where sponsors included Gulf Power, the Florida division of Atlanta-based energy giant Southern Company; Koch Industries and its subsidiary Georgia-Pacific; as well as Chevron and the American Chemistry Council.
On June 23, Alford, the National Black Chamber of Commerce’s president and chief executive officer, submitted a letter to Florida’s Public Service Commission — which regulates utility companies in the Sunshine State — asking commissioners to revise solar net metering policies “to ensure that market forces drive policies that compensate solar users for excess electricity.”
The same month, the chamber also submitted a brief to the Florida Supreme Court opposing a proposed constitutional amendment on Florida’s 2016 ballot that would give residents the right to choose solar energy and bypass the utility companies that have locked down the electricity business in the state. The brief alleges that the amendment’s ballot language is misleading and violates the state constitution.
“It’s a front group paid for by industries looking to protect their interests, be it fossil fuel or big utility companies that have government-sponsored monopolies,” Susan Glickman, the Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
In an interview with FCIR, Alford insisted that he and his organization are proponents of solar energy production, but he criticized the proposed constitutional amendment for solar energy.
“We want solar power to blanket the earth,” Alford said. “But we want it to come in the right way, so consumers and small businesses are protected.”
Alford’s organization has contributed $50,000 to Consumers for Smart Solar, the political committee opposing the solar power amendment in Florida.
“These negative impacts — potential increases in electric service rates and higher state and local taxes — are why we oppose the shady solar amendment,” Alford said.
For more than two decades, Alford has made a living promoting the alleged dangers of clean energy policies on disadvantaged minority communities in the United States.
His opposition to clean energy initiatives has help create a substantial revenue stream for the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Alford’s organization brings in about $1 million per year, according to IRS filings, with most of the money coming from large companies that oppose clean energy initiatives.
It’s a lot of money given the organization’s small staff. The National Black Chamber of Commerce lists just two key employees on annual IRS filings — Alford and his wife.
Ron Busby Sr., president and chief executive of the rival U.S. Black Chambers, said the National Black Chamber of Commerce is helping fossil fuel energy companies mislead African-Americans and other minorities about clean energy policies.
“What’s further shameful is that these very same corporations are giving money to the same communities they pollute while disseminating misinformation,” Busby said. “The U.S. Black Chambers urges organizations to no longer accept funds from these corporate polluters and take a stand against the false information they spew.”
Just before the National Black Chamber of Commerce held its annual convention in Florida last weekend, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fort Lauderdale, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, issued a statement condemning the organization’s ties to Koch Industries and other energy companies.
“The National Black Chamber of Commerce should take a firm stand against the misinformation being spread by these industries,” Hastings said. “I believe that we should all be on the side of families, not industry polluters.”
Alford scoffed at Hastings’ criticism.
“We don’t have people telling us what to do,” he said. “We are a pro-business organization that supports good, responsible businesses. We’re not poverty pimps who hate business.”
While Alford makes assurances that the National Black Chamber of Commerce isn’t serving as a front group for the energy industry, his organization’s funding isn’t transparent. The chamber doesn’t disclose its dues-paying members or donors. According to its most recently available IRS filing, $896,000 of the nonprofit’s $1.2 million in revenue in 2013 came from corporate contributions.
Yet specific financial information is only available for one of those corporate donors — ExxonMobil. From 2002 to 2014, the oil company gave $1 million to the National Black Chamber of Commerce, according to ExxonMobil’s annual reports on charitable contributions.
Representatives for the National Black Chamber of Commerce’s other corporate donors, including Georgia-Pacific and Gulf Power, did not return calls for comment from FCIR.
The motivations and funding sources for the National Black Chamber of Commerce are now becoming clear, said Kert Davies, the director of the Climate Investigations Center, an organization in Alexandria, Va., that investigates front groups working to delay clean energy policies.
“We knew the National Black Chamber of Commerce had taken $1 million from ExxonMobil,” Davies said. “But now we have some new clues on who might be providing the rest of their budget, from Koch to Chevron to Gulf Power’s parent, Southern Company.”
Alford’s defense of the energy industry has become increasingly vociferous as the Obama administration and individual states have moved toward clean energy initiatives.
Two years ago, Alford wrote a column for The Hill in which he argued that a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directive to improve ambient air quality standards would be harmful to African-Americans and black small-business owners in need of “dependable energy and predictable utility bills” because coal-fired power plants would be shut down due to the new regulations.
More recently, in March, Alford joined a procession of utility company representatives and fossil fuel promoters before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to advocate against the EPA’s proposed tightening of regulations on ground-level ozone.
Alford’s outspoken opposition to clean energy has even drawn a public rebuke from President Barack Obama.
“Even more cynical, we’ve got critics of this plan who are actually claiming that this will harm minority and low-income communities — even though climate change hurts those Americans the most, who are the most vulnerable,” Obama said during public remarks on Aug. 3 to unveil the Clean Power Plan. “Today, an African-American child is more than twice as likely to be hospitalized from asthma; a Latino child is 40 percent more likely to die from asthma. So if you care about low-income, minority communities, start protecting the air that they breathe.”
The symbiotic relationship between the National Black Chamber of Commerce and its industrial benefactors was on display clearly during its annual conference in Florida.
One of the panels addressed the need to help felons released from prison get their lives back on track. The moderator was Erin Kreeger, the public policy manager for Koch Industries, and the speakers included Vikrant Reddy, a senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.
Alford said Koch Industries has been sponsoring the National Black Chamber of Commerce for three or four years by supporting a program that assists African-American and Hispanic incarcerated males re-enter society.
“Koch is putting up money to revitalize criminal offenders,” Alford said. “It’s a noble cause.”