The Year In Dirty Energy: Money, Corruption, And Misinformation
The Year In Dirty Energy: Money, Corruption, And Misinformation
It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That statement has proven itself true time after time in both politics and business, but I would like to amend that statement slightly: Power corrupts, but money and power corrupt absolutely. This year has been no different. We’ve seen unprecedented amounts of money flowing from the dirty energy industry into the hands of politicians in order to achieve everything on their corporate wish lists.
From near constant hammering of the Environmental Protection Agency, to getting approval for dirty energy projects, corporate money has corrupted every level of politics this year.
I already covered the extensive efforts of the Koch brothers in a previous post, but they are hardly the only culprits who are attempting to undermine democracy and decency by pouring money into politics. Here are a few other stories of interest that DeSmogBlog has covered over the last 12 months:
The biggest “non-event” for climate denier dollars this year was the Heartland Institute’s “Denial-a-palooza” conference:
The Heartland Institute gathered a who’s-who of the global warming denial network together in Chicago in May for the fourth International Conference on Climate Change.
As in years past, the event is expected to receive very little mainstream media coverage. The deniers like to think the reason is some liberal media conspiracy. In reality, the lack of interest stems chiefly from the fact that this denial-a-palooza fest is dripping with oil money and represents a blatant industry effort to greenwash oil and coal while simultaneously attacking the credibility of climate scientists.
Despite the lack of press interest, the show must go on. After all, the Chicago meet-up provided deniers and industry front groups a chance to coordinate their ongoing efforts to smear the reputation of the IPCC, and they can reminisce about the Climategate non-scandal like boys in the schoolyard kicking around a rusty old can.
For insight into the underlying aim of the Chicago denier conference, let us take a look at the funding sources for the sponsoring organizations.
19 of the 65 sponsors (including Heartland itself) have received a total of over $40 million in funding since 1985 from ExxonMobil (funded 13 orgs), and/or Koch Industries family foundations (funded 10 orgs) and/or the Scaife family foundations (funded 10 orgs).
This gathering was just the beginning of the massive astroturf campaigns that the dirty energy industry worked on this year:
The oil industry has put their astroturf and lobbying efforts into overdrive over the last few months, preparing for a bitter fight in the upcoming 2012 presidential election. In addition to their usual work of pushing for increased domestic oil production and the opening of federal lands for oil drilling, the industry is working around the clock to convince lawmakers to sign off on the Keystone XL Pipeline that would transport crude tar sand oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.
ThinkProgress reporter Lee Fang has helped uncover some of the oil industry’s recent astroturf tactics at townhall meetings across the country. But the oil industry isn’t just limiting themselves to townhall meetings – they have also embraced social media as a means to manipulate public opinion. Rainforest Action Network blog The Understory and Mother Jones are reporting that oil industry insiders are creating fake Twitter accounts to tout the need for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Chris Mooney offered a great analysis of why these astroturf groups have become so important to the industry, and how effective it can be:
One obvious goal of astroturfing is to shape public policy, and public opinion, in a manner congenial to corporate interests. And indeed, the outrage over astroturfing in a sense presumes that this activity actually works (or else, why oppose it).
Yet there have been few scientific tests of whether the strategy does indeed move people—in part, presumably, because doing a controlled experiment might be hard to pull off. That’s why I was so intrigued by a new study in the Journal of Business Ethics, which attempts to do just that.
Charles H. Cho of the ESSEC Business School in France, and his colleagues, set up a study in which they created (ironically) fake Astroturf websites related to global warming—as well as fake grassroots websites on the same issue—and tested over 200 college undergraduates on their responses to them. To ensure a strong experimental design, only a few things were varied about these websites—what they claimed about the science, and what they disclosed about their funding sources.
Interestingly, when the results were gathered, it turned out that information about the site’s funding source didn’t have any significant effect on the study participants’ views. However, readers of the astroturf sites were much more likely to feel that the science of global warming is uncertain, and to question the phenomenon’s human causation.
One finding was particularly disturbing: People found the Astroturf messages less trustworthy overall, and yet were still influenced by them. The most influenced were those study participants who were the least engaged in the climate issue—and thus, presumably, the most vulnerable to astroturf misinformation.
In cases where astroturfing isn’t effective enough at confusing the public, dirty energy companies like Exxon have attempted to just pay scientists to deny global climate change:
The Carbon Brief (TCB) has a nice analysis on the not-very-startling coincidence that at least nine of the top 10 “skeptical” “scientists” who are publishing on climate change have direct links to Exxon.
This is interesting, as well, in that it doesn’t account for the increasing amounts of money being invested invested by funders (such as the Koch brothers) who have been taking a less transparent approach than Exxon in acknowledging their links.
In a second instalment, TCB also took a closer look at both the quality and content of the purported “900+” science papers identified by the Global Warming Policy Foundation as somehow skeptical of the science of climate change. The news, for the skeptics as for the climate, turns out to be all bad.
Only a small number of the papers actually appeared in reputable publications (eg., 34 in Nature, 33 in Science), and many of those either don’t address the climate question directly or do NOT come to the conclusion that the GWPF attributes.
The industry has even tried to push their agenda in our school systems:
Under fire from outlets like The New York Times, the education publishing behemoth Scholastic (of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Harry Potter fame) pulled an energy curriculum sponsored by the American Coal Foundation, which gave a nice PR sheen to coal without bothering to cover, uh, the whole environmental angle. The curriculum had reportedly already been mailed to 66,000 classrooms by the time it got yanked.
What’s currently seeping into classrooms across the country is far, far worse—more ideological, and more difficult to stop. We’re talking about outright climate denial being fed to students—and accurate climate science teaching being attacked by aggressive Tea Party-style ideologues.
Even with the propaganda taken from the schools, the dirty energy industry has found another way to covertly push their misinformation onto the public:
There appears to be an increasingly sophisticated and planned effort by conservatives and polluter front groups to use “persona management” software to pollute social media outlets and website comment forums with auto-generated sockpuppet swarms designed to mislead and misrepresent real people.
Leaked emails from Aaron Barr, CEO of a federal subsidiary for HB Gary, disclose the latest efforts and technology used underhandedly for “ganging up on bloggers, commenters and otherwise ‘real’ people to smear enemies and distort the truth.”
This phenomenon was first reported by Happy Rockefeller over at Daily Kos.
ClimateProgress is following this issue, particularly when it comes to the online discussion about climate change, noting that readers joke about pre-programmed ‘denier-bots’ and “how the same arguments and phrasings keep cropping up in the comments’ section of the many unmoderated news sites on the web.”
Public opinion is one thing, but political positions are another. That’s why American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard made the following admission this year:
Oil industry lobbyist and president of the American Petroleum Institute (API) Jack Gerard made his industry’s goal clear in a recent interview with Fortune Magazine. Mr. Gerard said he hopes that in the near future there will be an oil lobbyist on the ground in every U.S. Congressional district in order to help his industry flourish, “so when a policy proposal hits the industry’s bottom line, lawmakers from Seattle to Savannah will hear complaints about it from voters back home.”
After applauding the House’s vote to rush a decision on TransCanada Corp’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a new campaign to boost the controversial project. The Partnership to Fuel America is run out of the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, and seems positioned to be the U.S. Chamber’s main influence channel to drum up support for Keystone XL. Supportive comments aside, it’s also the first time the U.S. Chamber has so publicly and overtly aligned with the Canadian company’s project.
TransCanada Corp, the company hoping to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, spent $540,000 on lobbying in the third quarter of 2011, according to lobbying disclosure records released this week.
In addition to $390,000 reported by Paul Elliott, TransCanada Pipelines, Ltd's infamous in-house lobbyist, two outside firms lobbied on TransCanada's behalf to promote the Keystone XL pipeline: Bryan Cave LLP, which reported $120,000 in earnings from TransCanda in quarter three; and McKenna, Long & Aldridge, which was paid $30,000 by TransCanada in the same period.
And when they feared that their generous tax breaks could be repealed, the dirty energy industry sent their best lobbyists to the members of the “super committee”:
As the so-called “Super Committee” works to figure out how to trim $1.2 trillion from the U.S. government’s federal deficit, the dirty energy industry has their lobbyists working overtime to make sure that their billions of dollars in annual subsidies aren’t among the items on the chopping block.
Not being ones to miss an opportunity, members on the committee have scheduled dozens of personal fundraisers for their campaigns before that deadline hits. And many of the companies who fear that their subsidies could be cut will be in attendance. After all, the lobbyist blitz contains more than 180 former staffers of members of the Super Committee, so access is not an issue, and no introductions will be necessary.
But money doesn’t always come from lobbyists or special interests; sometimes it comes from the most obvious source: The banks. Alternet has put together a fantastic piece detailing the top 20 banks that have helped fund anti-environmental efforts this year:
A new study by Urgewald, a German environmental organization, establishes a strong link between large multinational banks and the coal industry, one of the biggest contributors to climate change.
The study (.pdf), “Bankrolling Climate Change,” identifies the top 20 “climate killer” banks by the amount of financial support they give the coal industry. Number one is JP Morgan Chase, followed by Citi and Bank of America. That's despite lofty rhetoric from these companies about their work to address climate change.
Building a 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant - a typical size - is going to cost over $2 billion. That's not money that utilities usually have just lying around in the corner. Bank financing pays an important role, either through direct lending or banks organizing capital for utilities to pursue these projects. The two most important roles of banks are as providers of corporate loans for the coal industry and as providers of investment banking services, meaning helping the company to sell shares or bonds. In terms of our calculations of the amounts of money in the “climate killer bank” rankings, we didn't differentiate between these roles. We figured it's secondary whether a bank directly gives its own money or plays an organizing role: This is support the banks give to the coal industry.
So whether the money comes from banks, corporations, or lobbyists, the impact that big money has on politicians and policy is undeniable. Until the funds dry up, we’ll never be in short supply of politicians willing to do the dirty work of the dirty energy industry.