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Lawsuit Seeks Records on Federal Loans Fueling Coal, Gas Plants in Arizona, North Carolina

WASHINGTON -

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service today for failing to release public records regarding federal loans to electric generation and transmission cooperatives in Arizona and North Carolina.

The Center first requested the public documents in March 2020 under the Freedom of Information Act, but the agency has failed to release hundreds of pages that it has acknowledged are responsive to the Center’s request. The records could show whether these loans incentivize fossil-fuel investments by Arizona Electric Power Cooperative and North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation and how the program might instead be used to transition these rural electric providers from coal- and gas-fired plants to renewable energy.

“Billions of dollars are trapped in this antiquated federal loan program that’s heavily invested in fossil fuels and making the climate emergency worse every single day,” said Lauren Parker, an attorney with the Center’s Climate Law Institute. “These public records could shed light on a key opportunity to transition away from dirty coal and gas to clean, renewable energy. As it is, millions of people in rural communities are stuck getting their electricity from heavily polluting power plants mired in fossil fuel-based debt.”

Congress established the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service in 1936 to provide loans and loan guarantees to electric utilities that agreed to serve rural areas. Over the years the program incentivized rural electric cooperatives to invest in coal- and gas-fired plants, transmission lines and other infrastructure, and the cooperatives racked up substantial debts.

Today some 700 rural electric cooperatives provide power to 40 million people in 46 states and owe roughly $7 billion in debt, most of it invested in fossil fuel-generated electricity. Advocacy groups and political candidates have proposed forgiving debt for cooperatives that agree to reinvest it in renewable energy and retire old, polluting power plants.

In spring 2020 the Center filed public records requests with the USDA seeking loan documents for Arizona Electric Power Cooperative and North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation, as well as power supply contracts between these cooperatives and other utilities. In Arizona those utilities include Arizona Public Service Co., Salt River Project and Tucson Electric Power. The North Carolina cooperative has contracts with, among others, Duke Energy Carolinas, Duke Energy Progress and Dominion Energy North Carolina.

More than a year later the USDA has produced only four pages for the Arizona cooperative and 177 pages regarding the North Carolina cooperative, though the agency says it has identified more than 1,200 additional pages of records.

“Delay is both illegal and unproductive when we’re in a race to reduce climate pollution,” said Parker. “If these documents show how we can take money used to pollute and reinvest it into just, renewable clean energy systems, then we should jump on it. The only thing the government achieves by holding on to these documents is continuing business as usual, and that’s a death sentence for the planet.”

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive. 

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