In a recent Tweet thread, Michael Thomas revealed some illuminating details about how seemingly local opposition to clean energy is being marshaled and led in a coordinated national effort, all led by one man, John Droz, Jr.
Thomas reports that Droz has only been in a few interviews, and for the most part isn’t interested in pursuing fame. He typically shirks responsibility for the impact he makes by telling interviewers, “This story isn’t about me.”
Well, thanks to Michael Thomas, this story is about Droz.
More than 1,000 wind energy and solar projects have already been blocked by seemingly ordinary citizens, and organizations created by these people. In reality, these efforts are connected and coordinated by their mission, their training, and in many cases one single individual with a strategy to induce ordinary folks to shut down clean energy projects.
A semi-retired real estate developer, John Droz holds a graduate degree in Solid State Science. Since 2011, he’s been the scientific advisor for NC-20, a group of people, businesses, and government officials who purport to “support, defend, and further the common environmental and sustainable economic development interests.”
Sounds a lot like he’s an advocate for the environment, right?
Nope. While the group sounds like they’re environmental advocates, their environmental interests have been largely limited to shutting down proposed offshore wind energy projects.
So why would anyone want to do this?
With an astronomical amount of data created by scientists and researchers around the world, we know climate change is happening, and will likely get worse in the future. Even the most fervent fossil fuel apologists acknowledge that it’s a non-renewable resource that requires combustion to release its energy.
Obviously the energy industry as a whole relies on high-carbon emitting assets such as coal, oil, and gas. They see clean energy projects as a threat to their livelihoods, so they have a vested interest in casting aspersions on clean energy to protect their bottom lines.
The industry is also not dumb. It knows that to protect its interests, opposition has to appear to be rational — even “scientific.” It should look non-partisan and organic.
This is where Droz enters the picture.
A Man On A Mission
Droz claims, “When I first heard about wind energy I was a supporter.” How convenient.
He says, “Quite frankly, I never liked the looks of turbines but felt that we would have to live with the unsightliness as a trade-off for the good I initially assumed they were doing. Then I did some research and Critical Thinking. My conclusion now (as a scientist, economist, and environmentalist) is that industrial Wind Energy is not based on sound science.”
“Critical Thinking?” That sounds so reasonable. And indeed, Droz’s scientific background and “fair and balanced” approach to the issue of clean energy earned him some attention from major news outlets, as well as fossil fuel cheerleaders who were thrilled with his messaging.
Armed with his seemingly well-informed and well-intentioned message, Droz went to Washington DC to help change the minds of environmental policy makers. He hoped to make it known that clean energy lobbyists had created fake science such as rising water levels, and he saw it as his job to stop them.
At that time, his home state of North Carolina was debating policies on sea-level rise. Droz created an analytic framework that purported to study the numbers independently, with the conclusion that clean energy was a scam trying to make a quick buck at the cost of the people, and with no positive repercussions for the environment.
In part because he was not a lobbyist, people listened. Politicians listened. Those invested in the success of oil, gas, and coal listened. Droz was effectively able to influence the policy and see to it that in 2012, a North Carolina bill prevented the state from taking action on sea level rise.
This victory caught the attention of dark money think tank ATI, who brought Droz on as a fellow. His role there was to develop a literal playbook that would be passed around to students who wanted a more effective way to shut down clean energy projects in their own home towns.
Droz’s National PR Playbook
With the backing and support of some of the most influential climate denier politicians and activists, Droz’s message had the heft to reach the masses. He’s produced hundreds of documents that have reached the public eye, and helped to shift public perception. In his words, “Public opinion [on clean energy] must begin to change among citizens at large.”
Droz wasn’t just attacking one particular clean energy project. He was attacking the rigorous science conducted by thousands of scientists worldwide.
In a secret meeting Droz held in 2012, he wrote to his cohorts, “Ultimate Goal: Change policy direction based on the message.” It wasn’t just about denying or destroying perfectly valid science. It was about replacing scientific facts and data with an easily digestible set of “alternative facts.”
The key difference between science and facts, is that science can change based on testing a hypothesis and drawing conclusions based on the evidence presented. Facts can’t change. For example, when someone measures the sea level rise over a period of years, the data are facts. Or when someone looks at the data of how many jobs are created by clean energy, those are also facts.
Droz proposed that they could come up with alternative data sets and evidence that was exactly contrary to established facts. These new “facts” would then be reported and published in think tanks such as Heartland, CFACT, and Cato.
Once they were in the public eye, these “facts” could then be relied upon to make arguments and citations that opposed clean energy. Dross wrote a training document titled, "What Not To Say" to prepare his acolytes to deliver this alternative message. Inside were hints on how to become more effective, with statements like, "You will be painted as a denier and as a person against progress (going green)."
Here’s the gist of Droz’s approach, which he claims to have repeated more than 1,000 times:
1. Take a scientific and open-minded stance admitting you’re not sure what the best possibility is. 2. Create a set of alternative facts that you adopt into writing.
3. Get people to repeat these facts until they become true.
4. Train community members to adopt this approach and oppose their own local clean energy projects.
Destroy or Delay - No Other Option
Anti-clean energy activists like Susan Ralston clearly got the memo. Her organization, "Citizens for Responsible Solar," sounds like they are environmentally conscious people who just want to make a difference. Yet they have managed to block huge clean energy projects throughout Virginia.
Their talking point sounds sensible enough. They think that solar should be on rooftops, not rural land. To drive this message home, they talk about how it’s the people who are missing out on opportunities to get solar on their own rooftops because big businesses are recklessly putting up solar on otherwise usable agricultural land.
The argument itself sounds fair and balanced, in line with all measures of reason. It’s not a heated situation and doesn’t resort to name-calling or slander. In fact, because it simply looks like a lone woman is taking on the corporate green lobbyists, Ralston appears to be the underdog hero.
Climate deniers are happy to hear her message because it’s in line with theirs. Policy makers hear her message and listen because she’s not a lobbyist, she’s a concerned citizen.
Because this approach is so simple and effective, it’s been repeated successfully throughout many US communities to generate bans, restrictions, and shutdowns on clean energy projects. Where this rhetoric doesn’t succeed, opponents file lawsuits preventing new projects until the developers either give up years later, or lose their financing.
John Droz offers training in what to say to become more effective in PR. His students learn the strategies and have effectively sunk dozens of clean energy projects using this technique.
The clean energy industry can actually learn from this.
Projects need credible, third party champions who are perceived as non-partisan and unbiased. Landowners and clean energy companies have a vested interest, so they aren’t always the most effective messengers.
Next, projects need an independently verified set of facts that disprove opposition arguments with easy to follow citations and validation.
Then, these facts need to get out to the public via social media, traditional press, and effective community organizing. Clean energy advocates need tools and training to be effective, and this is where clean energy companies can learn the most from Droz: we need to be hands-on in how we equip people to fight misinformation and move these projects forward.
From Clean Energy Opposition to Election Denialism
John Droz figured out how to deny climate change in a palatable way that effectively shuts down big clean energy projects. This did not go unnoticed by people who saw another use for his unique skill set.
In 2020, we experienced an unprecedented wave of election results deniers. Droz is now unofficially an election security expert, having sent dozens of emails to officials across the country about his, “independent analysis of the 2020 election."
This is what the clean energy industry is up against. Alternate “facts” dressed up as independent analysis, disseminated by trained acolytes equipped with tools to persuade otherwise well-intentioned folks to take tragically wrong positions.
As an industry, we need to be brave enough to confront these efforts head on, always alert to the possibility of centrally organized opposition, and motivated to bring true facts to the table by equipping credible champions to carry their messages on our behalf.
*For the full Tweet thread as well as people’s thoughts and insights into the topic, please see Michael Thomas’ feed.
You can find Michael Thomas on Twitter @curious_founder or on CarbonSwitch, his website dedicated to thought leadership and sustainability in the clean energy space.