'Consumer Energy Alliance' Front Group Exposed by The Tyee and Salon

Thu, 2011-12-15 18:32Steve Horn
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'Consumer Energy Alliance' Front Group Exposed by The Tyee and Salon

In a must-read piece co-published today by Salon.com and The TyeeGeoff Dembicki exposes the dark underbelly of the public relations and lobbying industry, revealing the interconnectedness between Alberta tar sands movers and shakers in Alberta and their oily compatriots in Washington. 

The investigative article focuses on the fossil fuel industry front group Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), which is run out of the offices of the PR firm HBW Resources, headed by David Holt, Andrew Browning, and Michael Whatley.

Geoff Dembicki's article “Big Oil and Canada thwarted U.S. carbon standards,” exposes CEA's effort to thwart government efforts to favor relatively cleaner conventional fuels over the dirtiest forms of extreme unconventional energy like the Alberta tar sands. 

Dembicki reveals how CEA influenced the debate at both the national and state-by-state levels on low carbon fuel standards (LCFS), working to defeat or delay any efforts to differentiate between the emissions footprints of extreme and unconventional fuels like tar sands oil and cleaner-but-still-dirty conventional oil.

Oil industry power players, including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon, Shell and Norway’s Statoil are among the CEA's key financially backers, and many of these companies also happen to have deep ties to the Alberta tar sands.

DeSmogBlog has previously written about CEA, as has The Tyee on numerous occassions. But what makes Dembicki's article so unique this time around is the valuable insight into CEA's behavior revealed in records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act from the Alberta government. The documents lend insight into how CEA interacts with the Alberta government, and in turn, how the Alberta government, working alongside CEA, influences the American government at both the state and federal level.

An excerpt from the article explains the significance of the FOIA documents:

The messages lay bare a sophisticated and stealthy public relations offensive, one designed to manipulate the U.S. political system; to deluge the media with messages favorable to the tar-sands industry; to sway key legislators at state and federal levels; and most importantly, to defeat any attempt to make the gasoline and diesel pumped everyday into U.S. vehicles less damaging to the climate. The goal of it all? “Defeat” Obama's effort to reduce carbon consumption and keep America hooked on Canada's $441 billion tar sands industry, no matter what the cost to our planet's future.

The article demonstrates once again what the father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, referred to as the “invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” in his 1928 classic, Propaganda.

Some highlights from the article:

  • Michael Whatley (the “W” in HBW Resources) worked overtime to defeat low carbon fuel standards, dating back to December 2009, waging an all out lobbying assault to ensure that low carbon fuel standards would not be implemented, working on a state-by-state basis. How did Whatley gain so much influence, you ask?

Dembicki explains,

“Whatley served as attorney and senior policy advisor on George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign and transition team. And Whatley was later appointed chief of staff to Senator Elizabeth Dole, a former cabinet secretary and the wife of GOP elder statesman Bob Dole.”

Whatley is now in private practice at HBW seeking to influence policymakers on behalf of his industry clients, a Beltway Bandit par excellance.

  • Another key player is Whatley's close pal, Gary Mar, a former Canadian politician and “smooth-talking and ambitious diplomat at the Canadian embassy” in Washington, DC, who played an instrumental role while CEA/HBW waged the anti-LCFS battle throughout the U.S. 

Dembicki writes,

“Mar’s lobbying wasn’t just confined to the U.S. capitol. Anytime state policymakers tried to introduce global warming laws potentially bad for Alberta’s oil sands, Mar hit the road, ready to glad-hand and charm. One major victory came in early 2009, when he apparently worked closely with the Maryland legislature to remove a climate bill that would have banned sales of high-carbon road fuel.”

Both Mar and Whatley understood full well that the apperance, or illusion, of a mass groundswell of support for dirty air is necessary – astroturfing and front groups are key tools in deceptive PR propaganda campaigns.

Dembicki summarizes,

“Despite their skills and experience, Mar and Whatley knew that defeating climate policy required allies. That’s why one of the first strategy proposals in Whatley’s January 25, 2010, campaign briefing to Mar was to team up with 'affiliated energy coalitions and trade associations, thought leaders, elected officials, unions and key allies.' The goal was to enlist these players to 'build opposition' towards low carbon fuel standards 'in each of our target regions.' The campaign apparently needed 'state-based and regional 3rd party advocates for Canadian oil sands' to give it legitimacy.”

These “third party advocates” included the likes of “airlines, truckers, railroads, highway users, shippers,” or those most dependent on fossil fuels.

Corporate front group “think tanks” also play a key role, Dembicki explains: 

“Whatley’s proposal suggested engaging with seven prominent think tanks, two of which, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, received millions of dollars in funding from Koch Industries to question the science behind global warming.”

Read the whole article and check out the emails obtained via FOIA for a glimpse inside the world of unethical dirty energy PR campaigns.

Stay tuned for the forthcoming original investigation by DeSmogBlog about CEA, as well.

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