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In defense of Faith Birol's declining House invitation to appear

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 5 min read

No other words describe what happened to Fatih Birol, Chief of the International Energy Agency. To put it bluntly, he’s been Morton’s Forked by Republican House Energy and Commerce Committee members.

Morton’s Fork, named for Cardinal Morton in the reign of Henry VII, is distinguishable from Hobson’s choice in that there are two actual picks—both unpleasant. Under Hobson’s scenario, there’s only one real option, e.g., take it or leave it.

Dr. Birol, a renowned and respected economist, has been the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) since 2015. Both Forbes and Time magazine have recognized him as one of the world’s most influential people in terms of energy and climate policy. The Financial Times declared him the Energy Personality of the Year (2017). 

Birol has received numerous awards, including the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (France) and the Medal for Outstanding Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey. He is also the chairman of the World Economic Forum (Davos) Energy Advisory Board. Prior to joining the IEA in 1995, he worked at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna.

House Republicans accuse Dr. Birol of bad faith because he’s failed to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy, Climate, and Grid Security. A June 18th letter to Birol stated:

“Serious questions have been raised about the IEA’s management and its adherence to the energy security mission authorized by Congress and funded by US taxpayers.”

The letter went on to say that the committees have oversight authority on IEA “to ensure that the US government’s continued participation and funding of the IEA aligns with the interests of the American people.” The missive was signed by the committee and subcommittee chairs, Representatives Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Jeff Duncan (R-SC), respectively.

The argument between the committees and IEA has been ongoing since April of this year. For its part, IEA has “pushed back on claims that the body does not promote energy security – pointing to examples where it coordinated releases following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to show how the European Union could reduce its reliance on Russian natural gas suppliers.” (Washington Examiner)

In an earlier letter, McMorris Rodgers and Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, called into question IEA’s forecasts, accusing it of bias. According to the letter, IEA’s “energy modeling no longer provides policymakers with balanced assessments of energy and climate proposals. Instead, it has become an ‘energy transition’ cheerleader.” (Emphasis added.)

Responding partly to the accusation of bias, IEA “defended its scenario analyses, claiming other groups that produce long-term trajectories for energy markets – such as ExxonMobil and Shell – projected a peak in oil demand before or around 2030.” Dr. Birol has also indicated his willingness “to travel to Washington to meet with members of the committee, and that they are ‘continuing efforts to find a mutually agreeable date.’”

Birol is faced with two very unpleasant choices. He ignores the committee’s “invitation” to testify at his and IEA’s peril. Although not the last word in federal funding for IEA, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its climate subcommittees authorize how appropriated funds may be spent, and their oversight authority should not be discounted. And, yet, Dr. Birol seems quite clearly to want to avoid—or, at least delay—having to testify before the committee.

Who, other than the Republican committee members, could blame him? In terse terms, he’d be walking into a trap—setting himself up for abuse.

The timing of the June 18th letter expressing GOP disappointment with Birol’s April response is hardly coincidental. It is, however, highly political. The Republican House majority is in the process of passing as many of the twelve individual FY 2025 appropriations bills as possible before the July 4th recess, beginning July 1st. The committee’s tardy response is likely intended to explain why IEA funding is being reduced or eliminated in the GOP bill.

Other political events of recent days include the first debate between the two presumptive 2024 presidential nominees. Biden boasts about being the most climate-conscious president in history and his accomplishments on climate-related programs and policies—highlighting the progress made to transition the US to a low-carbon economy. Former President Trump condemns those same accomplishments as the products of a woke mind and the first steps on the way to replacing democracy with socialism.

Trump isn’t the only one who sees Biden and the Democrats as socialist dictators. Subcommittee chair Duncan released on the day of the presidential debate a statement on X (formerly Twitter) supporting Trump’s accusations.

Should Dr. Birol choose to testify, he’ll face a hostile Republican majority who will turn the climate debate into a binary series of questions to be used as soundbites against President Biden and the Democrats, as well as climate activists and clean energy developers.

I understand why politicians—particularly those at the extremes on the right and the left—want to reduce choices to either “this’ or “that.” Stark characterizations are much more dramatic—catching the attention of voters and cash contributors. Just ask Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) how to parlay a “yes” or “no” question on a very complex matter into a possible vice-presidential nomination.

In a complex world, binary propositions often misrepresent the truth.

I can picture Dr. Birol being asked by Chairperson Duncan: have IEA projections always been correct? Yes or No. Mr. Chairman, time and technologies change; as they do, we try to... Duncan: Dr. Birol, yes or no?

Then, too, McMorris Rodgers might ask the IEA chief whether investments in solar and wind mean diminishing investments in fossil fuels. Well, Madame Chairperson Rodgers, we at IEA—like the oil companies themselves—see a transition to cheaper, more sustainable.....McMorris Rodgers: Dr. Birol, yes or no?

The truth is that climate change and clean energy are so much a part of the culture wars that truth is being sacrificed on the altar of political expedience. It’s hardly more of a lie to say that climate science is the product of woke minds than the 2020 election was stolen out from under the former president. Evidence-based truth seems never to matter the MAGA nation.

Because of the power of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its subcommittee, Dr. Birol has to keep responding to the invitations and queries. Whatever his responses, however, he’s in for a beating at the hands of the MAGA-minded with future US contributions to the IEA on the line. It’s a fine example of Cardinal Morton’s Fork.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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