In Atlantic Coast Pipeline Battle, Dominion Hires Democratic PR Firm That Created Ads for Virginia Governor

Terry McAuliffe

Dominion Energy, the lead company behind the proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline, last year hired SKDKnickerbocker, a powerful communications and Democratic consulting firm that previously produced campaign ads for Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, according to a DeSmog investigation. 

McAuliffe, a long-time ally of the Clinton family and former head of the Democratic National Committee, has been a staunch supporter of the controversial natural gas pipeline since it was first proposed in 2014.

SKDKnickerbocker’s list of political clients includes such Democratic stalwarts as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. 

Dominion Dishes Out Big Bucks 

According to Dominion’s latest financial disclosure to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the company paid over $1 million to SKDK Acquisition in 2016. New York State corporate records show that SKDK Acquisition is registered to SKDKnickerbocker. 

FERC disclosure form showing Dominion's payment to SKDK Acquisition
From Dominion’s recent disclosure to FERC, showing a payment to SKDK Acquisition.

SKDKnickerbocker was purchased in 2015 by private equity firm Stagwell Group. Though now under Stagwell’s control, SKDKnickerbocker still operates as a standalone company with the same management. 

The firm’s top executives are well-connected to the highest levels of the Democratic party. Anita Dunn, one of SKDKnickerbocker’s founding partners, served in the past as President Obama’s communications director and currently does public relations for the Obama Foundation and Obama Presidential Library. Dunn’s husband, Bob Bauer, previously worked as Obama’s White House counsel and personal attorney. Another senior SKDKnickerbocker strategist, Hilary Rosen, served as a surrogate and adviser to Hillary Clinton’s recent presidential campaign. 

Greenwashing Gas 

A TV ad produced for Dominion last year by SKDKnickerbocker promotes the use of natural gas. Rolling out to the classic tune of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” the ad is awash in lush nature shots. A voiceover touts Dominion’s use of “cleaner energy,” including renewables and “natural gas.” Closing with sunlit images of cascading waterfalls and a couple hiking on a mountainside, the ad proclaims: “cleaner air and cleaner water: it’s good for all of us.”   

SKDKnickerbocker’s deep links to the Democratic elite stretch close to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, whose unwavering support of the Atlantic Coast pipeline has baffled and angered the project’s critics. 

In late 2013, then-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg poured over $1 million into McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign. In October 2013, a month before the election, Bloomberg’s Independence USA Political Action Committee (PAC) ran ads attacking McAuliffe’s contender, Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli. According to campaign finance records for the PAC, SKDKnickerbocker provided media services at the time. 

PR for TransCanada

This is not the first time SKDKnickerbocker has worked for a major fossil fuel company. At the height of the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline during the Obama years, the firm provided PR for TransCanada, the project’s owner. 

As the Obama administration debated the proposed tar sands oil pipeline, TransCanada appears to have been seeking to benefit from SKDKnickerbocker’s intimate ties to the president and his inner circle.

The New York Times reported in October 2012 that SKDKnickerbocker’s Anita Dunn visited the White House no fewer than 100 times since leaving the Obama administration two years earlier.  

Mammoth Pipeline as Political Flashpoint

The controversial Atlantic Coast pipeline has become a central flashpoint in Virginia’s political battles. If approved, the three-state, 550-mile-long project will bring fracked gas from West Virginia, through Virginia, and into North Carolina. Critics have highlighted its potential harmful environmental and health effects, as well as the impacts of continued reliance on natural gas, which exacerbates climate change.

Dominion’s significant political power has long been a fixture of local politics. The company is Virginia’s top corporate donor. During the recent Democratic primary for governor, contenders continually sparred over Dominion’s role in the state and the future of the Atlantic Coast pipeline. On June 13, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, who’s been reluctant to renounce the project, defeated his rival Democratic gubernatorial candidate and most outspoken opponent of the pipeline, Tom Perriello. 

Yet pipeline opponent didn’t allow Northam much time to bask in his win, storming the stage during his victory speech event. The protest signals that the Atlantic Coast pipeline will continue to be a politically explosive issue in the region.    

Anita Dunn, SKDKnickerbocker, and Dominion did not respond to requests for comment. A request for comment from Governor McAuliffe’s office also went unanswered.

Main image: Virginia Governor Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2013. Credit: Edward KimmelCC BY-SA 2.0