Recently Paul Polzin and Richard Barkey published a defense of an economic study they completed as "independent contractors" for PPL Montana (Pennsylvania Power). Barkey is director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, a University of Montana-affiliated research and education organization. Polzin is director emeritus of the bureau. The report they wrote attempts to quantify the historic impact of the coal plants at Colstrip. It quickly drew criticism from other economists. Tom Power and Dick Barrett wrote an opinion (Jan. 31) dissecting the report and now Polzin and Barkey have responded (Feb. 10). This series of columns focuses on the confusing world of economic modeling and multipliers. That's all well and good but there is another issue involved.
Pennsylvania Power and the owners of the Colstrip plants are engaged in a well-organized public relations campaign defending the huge profit they derive from generating electricity at Colstrip. Their concern is that the Environmental Protection Agency may require them to clean up their coal plants. Fearing the cost of controlling their pollution might come out of their profits, they are gearing up the media machine. Pennsylvania Power wants people to think these old coal plants are critical to the economy of Montana. Of course, they know the big energy corporations that own the plants are not the best messengers. Heck, people might think they are jimmying the numbers in their own favor. They need people perceived to be independent, respected experts to deliver their message.
Enter Polzin and Barkey. As directors of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UM, they have traveled the state providing economic analysis to business groups, local officials and legislators. They have a reputation as experts on Montana's economy. In sum, they are exactly the messengers a big energy corporation wants to have as spokespersons defending its interests. So, Pennsylvania Power enters an "independent contract" with the good doctors to do the study. Not surprisingly, the study delivers the information Pennsylvania Power needs for its PR campaign. As an example, Pennsylvania Power's director of environmental and engineering compliance submitted a (Jan. 24) guest opinion to papers around the state. In it, he refers to a "recent economic study" but neglects to mention the study was commissioned by his bosses.
On the web, there is a page promoting the study that says, "This report, prepared by University of Montana economists ..." Well, true enough, but just think how different this would look if they wrote, "This report, paid for by Pennsylvania Power ... " And it's not just newspaper editorials and promotional pieces on the web. Pennsylvania Power also helped organize a community meeting in Colstrip. Presenting their report at that meeting was Barkey, providing just the right amount of "independent scientific" authority to set the stage for the coming battle over regulating pollution.
All of the above is what we know. But there is a lot we don't know. First, how much did Pennsylvania Power and the other owners of the Colstrip plants pay for this work? Would they have paid for it if it failed to reach conclusions they wanted? Since several of the other partners are regulated utilities, were rate-payer dollars used? What about the role of UM's Bureau of Business and Economic Research? Why was the study not conducted by that organization and instead handed off to the current and former directors? Unfortunately, there is nothing new in any of this. Big corporations routinely sponsor "scientific research" which promotes their bottom line. The tobacco industry, chemical companies, and most recently the utility industry have created a kind of cottage industry for "independent experts" who tow their line. When the government contemplates any action which restricts their behavior, they trot out their panel of experts to refute the science which identified the problem in the first place. The unfortunate consequence is that the public ends up confused and cynical about the competing information flowing from these "scientific debates." And, in the end, it undermines public support for our scientific and educational institutions.