Tom Pyle and IER: Punching Above Their Weight for Energy
When a person hears the term “think tank,” the mind naturally turns to politically-oriented entities like the Brookings Institute, the Cato Institute, Harvard University’s Kennedy Center and the Hoover Institute at Stanford. Those institutions and many others formulate policy positions from varying perspectives on the major issues of the day, with a goal of influencing the legislation and regulations emanating out of Washington, D.C.
Another community of think tanks specializing in issues impacting major U.S. industries also exists. Where issues impacting energy are concerned, none has become more prominent and influential in the 21st century than the Institute for Energy Research (IER), led by its President, Tom Pyle. Founded in Houston in 1989, IER is now based in the nation’s capital where it has become the energy sector’s leading voice for energy policies based on principles of free markets, sound science and non-preferential treatment between energy sources.
IER advocates for a holistic approach that considers the welfare of energy consumers, energy producers and taxpayers concurrently in order to ensure the most efficient outcomes possible, and avoid the pitfalls inherent in subsidies and other policy choices in which elected officials or unelected regulators end up picking winners and losers in the marketplace.
“I think we’ve made a pretty big difference in terms of these battles, these policy fights,” Pyle said when we sat down for an interview in early May. “I think we’ve established ourselves as a bedrock, a foundation of free market, promotion of free markets and less government intervention in energy. I’m really proud of the team that we’ve built, and we’ve got a lot of great alumni spread around, both at the Hill and in other places. One of our communications directors is working for Texas Governor Greg Abbott, for example, another at the Department of Energy. Others have gone on to run other organizations. We’re just a little one issue shop, but I think we punch above our weight, and we’ve helped prevent some really bad policies from coming into fruition. We’ve been on the other side as well, where we’ve been providing some great solutions that this president has been able to achieve in the last three years.”
That last point is undoubtedly true. There is no question that President Donald Trump, with his “American Energy Dominance” agenda, has been more focused on the promotion of expanding U.S. energy resources than any of his predecessors. The last three years have represented a 180° turnaround from the Obama Administration’s efforts to artificially pick winners and losers in the energy sector, and to actively work to restrict the production of so-called “fossil fuels” like coal, oil and natural gas.
Pyle and the staff at IER recognized what was coming during the 2008 presidential campaign, as candidate Obama and his supporters in the environmental alarmist community made clear their intentions to promote a legislative and regulatory agenda that would aim to limit the use of those traditional sources of energy that have been the drivers of the U.S. and global economies for more than a century.
“We saw the threat,” Pyle said. “To give the former president credit, he never hid what his intentions were with respect to the energy issues and the environmental issues. He made it absolutely clear he wanted to fundamentally transform this country. And he also made it clear in many a speech that he wanted to make ‘renewable’ or ‘clean’ energy become ‘profitable’ energy. That was code for using the government to make his pet energy sources more competitive with those that work better in the market.”
Fighting Against the War on Fracking
One of the main areas of focus throughout 2008 for candidate Obama and his activist supporters was the demonization of a long-used and safely-regulated process that the oil and gas industry refers to as hydraulic fracturing. It became obvious in early 2008 that the leftwing environmentalist lobby was mounting a coordinated effort to turn what they nicknamed “fracking” into a frightening public boogeyman. The campaign wasn’t limited to messaging produced by well-funded groups like the Sierra Club: Soon, Hollywood was producing entire movies and episodes of popular TV series like “CSI” in which evil “fracking” somehow managed to kill entire families and devastate vast swaths of landscape, things that simply do not — and physically cannot — actually happen in the real world.
Pyle recalled those efforts during our interview. “Hydraulic fracturing was still an infant; well, not fracking itself, but the combination of fracking and horizontal drilling, was still an infant when Obama’s first term started,” he said. “The talking points they used were that we live in an era of scarcity, that we are running out of these resources, and that we are a consumer or a hog of them. And so, he was basing this whole agenda on this myth of scarcity, and we were having none of that. From the very beginning we intended to blow a hole in those theories.
“One of the first projects we produced was an inventory of the natural resources that we have in this country. We found that we have more energy resources underneath our lands and shores than any other country in the world, by far. So, it was never an issue of scarcity. It was an issue of technology and price, and once those things came together, we began to produce the shale oil and gas. And hydraulic fracturing was a big part of that, which is why they did go all out to demonize that process. Just to plant in people’s minds this word that sounds a little bit scary. Right? ‘Fracking.’”
One of the films produced in the midst of this campaign to turn fracking into a national boogeyman was one called “Gasland.” The movie was produced by a then-unknown filmmaker named Josh Fox. Many readers will remember that this was the film that pretended to show how fracking operations in Colorado were causing natural gas to leach thousands of feet upwards into underground water tables, which is a geologic impossibility. Fox included one scene in which a nearby homeowner actually lit his tap water on fire. He conveniently left out the fact that local residents had been able to do that for hundreds of years since the water table in that area lay directly above a coal formation, and the natural gas leached naturally from the coal into the water.
When I raised the fact that Fox has recently been attacking documentary producer Michael Moore on the grounds that his own new film, “Planet of the Humans,” which points out the dishonesty of many in the renewable industry, is filled with inaccuracies, Pyle laughed out loud at the irony.
“Josh Fox! Yeah, he’s saying Moore’s movie should be taken down because it’s ‘riddled with inaccuracies.’ ‘Gasland,’ oh my gosh, are you kidding me? ‘Gasland’ is full of inaccuracies, outright lies, and they tried to use it to destroy the industry. And they were unable to do it.”
Pyle points to the fact that the Obama regulatory agencies attempted to use the publicity derived from misleading efforts like ‘Gasland’ to justify the placement of onerous regulations on drilling and hydraulic fracturing. As Pyle points out, though, the activists ran into a big problem: Very little shale oil and gas lies beneath federally-owned lands.
“They tried to use regulations to destroy the industry,” he said. “The Obama administration was successful in locking down the federal lands. They slowed up the permit process; they created layer upon layer of paperwork, and they basically just tried to bombard the industry with regulations. Well, it had an effect on the federal lands, but they couldn’t get at the state land or the private land.
“Year after year the administration was successful in offering less land up for leasing. Federal leases were down year over year under Obama during his two terms. Unfortunately, there was a spill, the Deepwater Horizon, which had a big impact for offshore, but that was more of an impetus, or an excuse, to really lock it down.”
One of the strategies the Obama administration used throughout its eight years was to use the leftwing activist organizations like the Sierra Club and NRDC as recruiting grounds for employees to staff federal agencies like the EPA and the Department of the Interior. Pyle talked about how this led to a very ideologically-motivated effort to shut the onshore industry down via regulation. “Onshore, what they tried to do was go after the private land activities and the state land activities with the Clean Water Act and the Waters of the US, or WOTUS as it’s called. The administration also tried to compel methane regulation as well, and use those tools of the regulatory stream to try to get after the private lands and the state land production, but the clock ran out on them.”
Pyle points to a seemingly innocuous provision contained in an omnibus energy bill passed by congress during 2005 as one that prevented the Obama regulators from being able to achieve their goal of shutting down hydraulic fracturing operations nationwide. That language enshrined into federal law a principle that had already been in practice for many decades, which was that the various states had regulatory primacy over oil and gas operations conducted within their borders.
“Thankfully, in 2005, although I would argue it was probably one of the worst energy bills except all the others,” he laughed, “there was a safeguarding giving the states primacy to regulate the technology and the process of fracking. And I think that saved the industry in part. Because if they had been able to regulate on a federal level, they would’ve been able to lock it down. They weren’t able to get those major regulations through.”
Pyle went on to point to the fact that some of the onerous regulations the Obama administration did manage to set into place, like WOTUS and restrictions on fracking on federal lands, have been successfully repealed or modified by the Trump administration over the last three years. He is rightfully proud of that fact since he was actually asked to serve on the Trump Transition Team, where he played a major role in developing the Trump “American Energy Dominance” strategy.
“I was fortunate to serve on President Trump’s transition team managing his Department of Energy work and some other issues within the transition team,” he said. “And that was great because we were able to give our ideas and our blueprint for how to make this country great again, and how to make American Energy great again.”
When asked why he chose not to go into the administration, he laughed. “I love my job too much!” he said. “I wanted to go back and put my IER hat back on shortly after the transition — I took a couple days off and went right back at it. Now, we have the opposite; we’ve got the ability to do all the things we could only imagine about before. Quite honestly, I would argue that this president has done more than any other Republican in the modern era, with respect to free markets and his understanding of the importance of the oil and gas industry.”
There is no question about that.
A Long and Winding Road
So, how does one end up being the president of a prominent think tank like IER? For Pyle, it was a long and winding road, one that is best told in his own words. We asked him to start at the beginning.
“Well, it wasn’t the military, but we moved around a lot. Well, ‘us’ meaning my mom and the kids — my parents were divorced when I was little. I was born in Buffalo, New York, and we lived in a little town in Western New York near Buffalo, actually closer to Niagara Falls, and it was tiny. It was nice because we had a fairly large, extended family that all lived close by — in fact, most of us lived on the same street. So, we were able to play at each other’s houses, and to live that life, you know, a really small-town upbringing.
“When I was a bit older my mom got a bug to move out west because my grandparents had moved out there for health reasons. We had some family in the Central Valley in California, so we moved there when I was in grade school, between 9th and 10th grade, and I finished out my high school years in a town called Lodi, California.”
He chuckled recalling the lyrics to the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Stuck in Lodi Again.”
“Yep! Stuck in Lodi! It was quite a change for me. I was expecting surfboards and beaches, and we ended up in the heart of ag country in the Central Valley in California. At first, I was kind of annoyed, but man I’ll tell ya, it didn’t take too long for me to adjust and really enjoy living in California.
“You’ve got to remember at the time it was a much different state. It was the late 80s, early 90s, and man, talk about night and day in terms of the make-up of the state compared to today. When I graduated from high school, I was accepted to the University of Southern California, and some other schools out west, but I ended up choosing USC. So, I moved down to Southern California and had a really great experience there. I took advantage of doing a lot of Southern California stuff.”
“At the time there was also an environmental initiative on the ballot called the Big Green Initiative, Prop 128, I think it was. So, I was working on that as well, and that was my first foray into energy and environmental policy in politics. When I finished college, I had already been bitten by the D.C. bug, so I moved back out there. I didn’t have a job, but naturally I started putting out feelers, and stumbled into a staff position for then-freshman Congressman Richard Pombo, who was the youngest Republican ever elected at the time. I think he was 31, and I was 22 or 23, something like that. Anyway, he was my hometown congressman, and I couldn’t believe it.
“Rich is just a great guy — a real go-getter. I really learned a lot from him, and we did a lot of good stuff together. When the Republicans took the House majority in the Contract for America election about a year later (1994), he was appointed to run a task force on reforming the Endangered Species Act. I had the fortune of being able to staff that for him, and we conducted field hearings all around the country; we were able to meet a whole lot of folks who were impacted by the law. Mr. Pombo quickly became the national voice for the Property Rights Movement, and for Western-related issues.”
After two more years working for Congressman Pombo, another opportunity arose for Pyle, this time with another California congressman named George Radanovich. “Mr. Radanovich was from further south in the Central Valley near Fresno,” Pyle began. “I was his Legislative Director for about a year and a half, at a time when he was also the Vice Chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus. So, I was increasingly handling a lot of the responsibilities for the caucus. At the time it was more of an informal caucus, but we really worked to put some structure around it.
“As a result, I became the first Executive Director of the Congressional Western Caucus. And that was also a great experience because it was beyond committee work; it was caucus work. In the U.S. House of Representatives there’s strength in numbers. If you can put a pretty strong coalition together, you can get a lot done. So, we spent a lot of time trying to advance the western property rights issues, Clean Water Act, endangered species, forest issues – a lot of the issues that we’re doing now quite honestly – and obviously energy issues as well.
“So, that was a great experience, and during the course of it I got to know the House Majority Whip’s office really well, a gentleman named Tom DeLay. He had an opening for an Energy, Environment and AG Policy Director, and I was hired by Mr. DeLay to work in the Whip’s office. And that was really, just really interesting, I mean just really great, to be able to work in the capitol, to be able to work for such a go-getter, a hard charger, a really conservative member like Mr. DeLay. Doing that really helped to hone my skills even more, both on the policy side, but also the politics.”
Pyle remained in his role in the Whip’s office until 2001, when America had just seen the most unusual and controversial end to a presidential campaign in its history. The election between Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, Jr. ended in such a photo finish that its entire outcome hinged on a few hundred paper ballots in the state of Florida. It was the election that saw the birth of a new term, “hanging chads.”
“So,” Pyle said with a laugh, “this campaign came around, this guy named George W. Bush, and he ran for president, and he ended up winning, but not quite winning; he went through the whole hanging chad thing.
“So, I was deployed, or not ‘deployed’ per se, but I volunteered to help with the Florida debacle. I was one of those chad counters. If you remember the recounts and everything, I was down there for about five weeks. And Bush finally ended up being elected over Al Gore, and I think that overall, on balance was a pretty good, wise decision by the voters.
“After that experience, with 10 years on the Hill, I decided that I wanted a change. I left the Hill, and I ended up working for a company called Koch Industries which at the time not a lot of people had heard of. More recently, the Koch brothers have become a bit of a household name, mainly because the political left and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid kind of demonized them for some of their politics. I was Koch’s energy lobbyist for about five years, and it was another amazing experience—- it was just another one of these things that made me a smarter, more well-rounded person. I learned at each job more and more.
“From there, I actually decided to hang my own shingle, and I set up my own shop. I had a consulting business, a one-man shop, for a couple years. I had about five or six clients, including some non-profit organizations. And towards the end of that, I was approached by the founder of The Institute for Energy Research, a gentleman named Rob Bradley, who still lives in Houston.
“Rob founded IER originally as a Texas think tank, and he was approached by some folks to see what they could do about getting IER more concentrated on the policy that was in Washington.
So, he hired me as a consultant to help put together a business plan and budget, and also a plan for ‘what are we going to do, and how are we going to bring talent to this organization?’ So, I worked closely with Rob and the board. I helped them to recruit talent, and they were looking for a CEO, because Rob didn’t want to move to Washington. They liked some of the candidates I forwarded them, but they never really settled in on anybody.
“As that process was taking place, some of the board members kept asking if I was interested, but I kept saying no. But, the more that I thought about it, and the longer I worked on the project, the more I got into it. So, lo and behold, I ended up taking the gig. And that was about 12, going on 13 years ago.
“We started small. Initially, we were about a $300,000 a year organization with two employees, and we slowly and steadily built up to where today IER is about a 15 person shop. Under normal circumstances, we are about a $3-5 million a year organization. We’re not a huge group, but as I said before, we punch above our weight.
“In 2009, we added a 501 (c)(4) organization, The American Energy Alliance (AEA), because we wanted to have a place where all this great work that we do at IER could also be beneficial in the advocacy arena.
“And I’ll tell you, I love this job. As you know, everything changes every election cycle, and we’ve seen just an amazing turnaround in just how the world views energy over that time. We fought lots of battles during the Obama years, and now we have lived close to one full term of what I would argue is the exact opposite in a president who sees the value of free markets, and choice in energy across the board and who understands the negative impacts of unnecessary and duplicative regulations on the industry.
He paused before adding, “This job is the best job I’ve ever had because doing it has taken all the different skills that I’ve learned both on the Hill and in business in policy and politics. You have to know what a major corporation deals with, and also what a small company deals with, which I can do because I had one of my own. And the most important thing, the best thing, is that in a town where not making waves is usually what gets you ahead, I’ve been able to do and say what’s really on my mind while working in Washington D.C. It’s been very rewarding in that regard — It’s absolutely cathartic.
He paused again, and then added, “I love this stuff.”
We’re Living in the Green New Deal Today
In a conversation we had had with Pyle a few weeks earlier, he had briefly talked about the “Green New Deal” introduced last year by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and which had been endorsed by every Democratic presidential candidate, including presumptive nominee Joe Biden. Speaking in the context of the current state of the U.S. economy, which is highly depressed at the moment due to the reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pyle said what we see around us is pretty much what life under the Green New Deal would look like.
We asked him to expand on that thought for this article, and he was happy to do so.
“If you like your current situation, you’re going to love the Green New Deal. That’s what it comes down to,” he began. “We have seen folks in the Green movement cheer and celebrate; we’ve seen them make comments like ‘humans are the virus, and the coronavirus is the cure.’ These are things these people are actually saying.
“The bottom line is this, this is what the Green New Deal is: stack people up, put them in public transportation, don’t drive, don’t fly. That’s what it comes down to, and we are living that. And we’re doing it because we were asked by our government to stay home, but this is really the way they want us to live permanently.
“In order for the global Paris Agreement targets to be met, one of my guys crunched the numbers, and he thinks it would take five coronaviruses, that level of economic inactivity, to get to where they would like to be.
“But of course, the Green New Deal isn’t about the environment, it’s about power and control. It’s about who decides: you, me, or them? It’s about who makes the choices about the cars they drive, the places they live, the electricity consumption that they use, even what type of energy is being used and how much they pay. And it’s about who controls it — the government or us, the people, individuals, consumers, Americans? That is what the Green New Deal is, it’s about power and control, it’s not about the climate.”
We pointed out the fact that carbon emissions levels have been the holy grail of the climate alarmist movement for 20 years now, and one outcome of the economic shutdown has been a significant reduction in such emissions globally. Pyle was ready for that one.
“Yeah, sure, but here’s another interesting fact: In spite of all the humming and hollering by the Greens and the Obama administration and now the former Obama administration officials like (ex-EPA Administrator) Gina McCarthy who’s still at it at the NRDC, our emissions have gone down year over year since 2005.
“In fact, the United States has crushed the world in emissions reductions. The numbers are stunning, and the countries that wag their fingers at the United States are not on track to meet their own emission targets. And of course, India and China — which basically received a free pass from the Paris Agreement — their emissions have gone up significantly in that time.
“The power of the free market is the single most important thing that has reduced CO2 in this country, and the most important piece of that is fracking. Oh, they hate it when I bring that up! We’ve been able to use a lot more natural gas because it burns cleaner than other sources, and it’s cheaper to build a gas plant than it is to build a coal or nuclear plant. Plus, it’s harder to build a coal plant anyway because the Greens have made it part of their mission to prevent any new coal plants from being built.
“So, the key, the important part of IER is we put this information out there, and it’s not debatable. Our facts are not debatable because we source them all, they come mainly from government sources, and we put the facts out there in a way that basically tells the story. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; well, good charts are worth a thousand words as well. What we’re trying to do is to give consumers, Americans, policymakers, staff, and to the extent we’re able to — it’s not easy — the media the information and the tools to better understand, cut through the noise and get to the signal of these important issues of energy and environment.”
On Not Keeping It in the Ground
We raised the topic of a recent, specious court decision by an Obama-appointed federal judge in Nebraska that is now holding up the completion of the Northern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline system for what seems like the 100th time over the past 10 years. Even worse, the decision is now also being used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a reason to suspend the permitting processes for several other crucial interstate pipeline projects. We asked Pyle to discuss IER’s position on this key issue.
“Yeah, well here’s the thing,” he began. “You’ll remember probably four or five years ago now the Greens organized around a philosophy of ‘keep it in the ground.’ That was their mantra: don’t let these hydrocarbons come out of the ground. Well, they were unsuccessful, thanks to the shale producers, in that keep it in the ground effort. So, now they’ve shifted their strategy. They’ve gone from ‘keep it in the ground’ to ‘keep it from moving around.’ That’s what this whole thing is with the pipeline.
“The fight over Keystone XL was really the first prototype for this type of, what I call, environmental pressure tactics. They forum-shop, they look for friendly judges. Fortunately, the Trump administration is doing a darn good job of appointing conservative federal judges, and that’s going to have a long-term positive impact, I believe.
“But what it does is it slows down the process for Alberta to get in the game here, to get their oil down to the refineries in the United States. Well, we’d much rather be filling our gulf refineries with Alberta crude than, say, Venezuelan crude. Seems like a much better partner, don’t you think? So, we’ve got to get this pipe in the ground.
“The good news about Keystone is I understand that the Canadians are doubling down on getting it done and have done work at the border now. We also got past the Department of State permitting issue that the previous administration had bottled up.
“Longer term, we’ve got to address a couple things with legislation or these judges are going to keep doing this, and keep slowing projects down, and keep preventing us from getting infrastructure built to meet up with the demand of the production that’s taken place over the last decade.
“Honestly, it’s Congress’s fault. The national legislature has been an embarrassment for a very long time now. They refuse to tackle issues that matter; they punt everything over to the administration, and then they wonder why these administrations have more power. Well, it’s because they’re not inserting themselves into the conversations. They don’t have the wherewithal to reform these laws.
“If the Greens don’t think they can achieve their goals with the Clean Air Act as it exists and want to go beyond it, then let them change the law. We free marketeers think these laws are woefully outdated and need to be reformed, so let’s have at it in Congress.
“But you know how hard that is: You can’t even pass a stimulus bill without weeks and weeks of lag, because everyone’s holding out for their own, and they’re all leveraged for their pet projects. I see this as a combination of a couple things. One, the Green influence on the Democratic party is outsized, and it needs to be reined in. Energy should not be a partisan issue the way that it has been, especially in this decade.
“Two, we’ve got to get a handle on these regulations, and the Trump administration has done a good job of that. Hopefully, in a second term, he can finish the job and get some of these issues I’ve mentioned cleaned up as well.
“And lastly, we need a congress that actually functions again, and that has ramifications across all issues, but none as important or as critical as the energy stuff, because there’s just this chasm between the parties on these issues.
“It’s not just oil and gas. It’s for everybody. It’s really more about freedom, free markets and rule of law than it is about energy.”
Pyle appears to enjoy his job at IER so much that we felt the need to ask him if there aren’t some aspects of it that give him stress. “It’s not without its stress,” he said, “You know, we’ve got to raise money. That’s been a constant stress.
“But overall it’s been great, I really enjoy what we’ve built, and hopefully when I’m in a rocking chair, and I’m thinking about the good ol’ days, I can still pull up IER on the interwebs and see that it’s still going strong, because I think it’s important. It’s a really important institution for the energy industry.”
Indeed, the energy industry needs strong advocates willing to fight the good fight for free markets, sound science and source-neutral energy policies. Because without such advocates, the industry could have been essentially dead in the water a decade ago.
About the author: David Blackmon is the Editor of SHALE Oil & Gas Business Magazine. He previously spent 37 years in the oil and natural gas industry in a variety of roles — the last 22 years engaging in public policy issues at the state and national levels. Contact David Blackmon at [email protected].
Photos courtesy of IER