Google, the search giant with the famous motto: “Don’t be evil,” is boasting about its involvement in a 2012 coal industry lobbying effort to block the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) ability to protect the public from dangerous and potentially lethal coal plant emissions, according to a recently discovered Google case study.
In February 2012, long time coal industry supporter, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced a Congressional Review Act resolution proposing the elimination of the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for power plants. The emissions from coal-fired power plants are the largest human-caused sources of the neurotoxin mercury, arsenic, cyanide, and a range of other dangerous pollutants, according to the EPA. Inhofe's proposal was ultimately voted down in the Senate by a vote of 53 to 46.
Legislative and policy experts close to the issue said that if Inhofe's proposal had been passed, it would have removed vitally important public health protections more than two decades in the making that every year prevent up to:
- 11,000 premature deaths;
- nearly 5,000 heart attacks;
- 130,000 asthma attacks;
- 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits; and
- 540,000 days when people miss work and school
The EPA regulations, approved under President Obama, are designed to reduce emissions of mercury and other pollution up to 90 percent by requiring plant owners to install pollution control mechanisms. Energy companies oppose the regulations for being too costly. The lobbying campaign was initiated by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), whose membership includes electric utilities such as Southern Company and American Electric Power, two of largest air-borne mercury polluters in the country.
A Google promotional document, Four Screens to Victory [PDF], describes Google's involvement in the 2012 election cycle, and specifically highlights its role in garnering support for Inhofe's proposal to abolish the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards:
“In the spring of 2012, the U.S. Senate was considering legislation critical to the clean coal industry. As the industry’s voice in Washington, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) sought ways to mobilize grassroots supporters of the legislation across the country to make their voices heard in the nation’s capital. The bill that the Senate would vote on was not on newspaper front pages or leading nightly newscasts, ACCCE needed to find creative ways to identify citizens who backed its position – and then needed a mechanism to connect those people with their U.S. Senators.”
A web version of Four Screens to Victory can be found on Google.com, however the mercury campaign case study is not included in that version.
“Social media marketing firm New Media Strategies (NMS) [now MXM] and Google implemented a groundbreaking click-to-call mobile advertising campaign on ACCCE’s behalf, connecting constituents with their U.S. Senators to support an amendment to stop regulation harmful to the clean coal industry. ACCCE’s campaign, which generated 3,000 phone calls to Senators over about two weeks, is the first time an issue advocacy organization has used mobile click-to-call advertising on Google to connect constituents to Senate offices at this scale.”
An inquiry to MXM confirms as much. In response to my questions, Ross Parman, MXM's manager of insights and public affairs said,
The amendment supported by the click-to-call campaign was actually a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act. CRAs are a gambit that rarely succeed – I believe it has only worked once – and in this case came up short, 46-53. Our goal was to move key Senate targets, and that was highly successful. The majority of our targeted senators voted in favor of the CRA.”
The campaign garnered several PR awards for having effectively fused search, social media and Google’s “click-to-call technology” into what its participants are now heralding as ”the next progression in technology in the lobbying business.”
In response to our inquiries, a source at Google told me that the company maintains a neutral stance when it comes to who uses their various platforms and for what purpose, especially on politically charged issues like US environmental policy. With the scale of clients and users Google needs to deal with, their politically neutral stance is understandable, and Google does have strict standards around using their platform for things clearly inappropriate to promote (i.e.. illegal drugs, sexual services, hate literature etc.).
However, in the case of ACCCE, MXM and their efforts to stop the regulation of deadly chemicals in our air, Google has shown no qualms for having engaged in the implementation of the campaign. Maybe it was too focused on the medium, and not enough on the message.
Image of Google homepage via Shutterstock