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The American Petroleum Institute spent over half of that total on contracts with the PR giant Edelman, says Kert Davies of Climate Investigations Center

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

Pro-fossil fuel industry messages are seen in print publications, around high profile sporting events, on billboards, and on TV ads. Here’s one that promotes natural gas.

Advertising and mass communication on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, the industry most scientists say is a central culprit of climate change. In short, it’s prolific. Fossil fuel and other corporate trade groups paid PR and advertising firms at least 1.4 billion dollars from 2008 to 2017. That’s according to a new report from Climate Investigation Center.

And joining us here to talk about that report is Kert Davies. He is the director of the Climate Investigation Center, he’s joining us from Alexandria Virginia today. Thank you so much for joining us today.

KERT DAVIES: It’s great to be here.

DHARNA NOOR: So I want to start by asking you how you actually uncovered all of this. What documents did you have to look through? How did you actually obtain the information on the spending on PR and advertising?

KERT DAVIES: Well, it started in 2014 when we sent a survey, a brief questionnaire, to a bunch of PR companies, the top ones in the business, asking them if they had any individual climate plans with their companies, if they had carbon tracking or if they did any business in climate change. Turns out, nobody had ever asked the PR companies these questions before, but we got some very interesting responses, including the biggest company, Edelman, who accidentally sent me an email saying “there are only wrong answers here, don’t respond.” So we put that out with The Guardian, and The Guardian took it a step further and asked these companies if they would pledge not to engage in climate denial, not to put out false information with advertising. And it turned into a big snowball of news in the fall of 2014.

On the heels of that, the Center for Public Integrity looked at the spending that is disclosed in these trade association 990, their tax forms. A trade association like the American Petroleum Institute, it’s technically classified as a charity under the IRS rules. It has to submit a form that talks about its income and its outlays. And in those forms, the Center for Public Integrity found that API, the American Petroleum Institute, who was the largest spender, and Edelman was the largest recipient, of these funds. This is only scratching the surface, I have to say, because you only see the top five contractors in those tax forms, so we can’t see dozens of other contractors at a smaller scale. But the contracts we looked at include 75 million dollars one year to Edelman from American Petroleum Institute, for example.

DHARNA NOOR: And Edelman is, for those who don’t know, the largest PR firm in the world, I believe, and API, American Petroleum Institute, is sort of the strong arm trade industry or trade representative for the fossil fuel industry. And so, you mentioned that 2015 report from Center for Public Integrity. Much is made of the money that these industries spend on lobbying. But your report builds on that Center for Public Integrity report that showed that while federal lobbying grabs the attention of the public and policymakers, public relations spending by trade associations actually far outweighs what they spend on lobbying. Does that mean that it’s cheaper to buy off members of Congress and federal agencies than the hearts and minds of the public?

KERT DAVIES: I think it’s all connected. These firms are hired to sort of soften up the public square for these companies and these trade associations to get their way. So they spend money on specific advertising, much of it in the DC metro area. You’ll see these ads pop up during the Sunday news talk shows, for example, which is pretty expensive turf to buy. You’ll see Metro ads, placards in the Metro stations sometimes, or you’ll see very targeted online ads. And all that is to lay a backdrop, not only on fossil fuels, you see it on military spending, you see it on other things. But these guys spend a lot more. And I think your question is the right one, why are they doing it and how does it link up with the lobbying spending that they do? And it’s really intricate.

I mean, we have one plan where we got leaked an Edelman plan for TransCanada, which was the keystone pipeline company, where they were trying to get a different pipeline to cross Canada and drop the oil off at the Atlantic Ocean for shipment overseas. In that plan, there’s an intricate web of strategies to get over farmers and towns and indigenous populations on the way to the Atlantic Ocean. So advertising was one segment of that bigger plan, but they also talked about many other lobbying and public affairs strategies. So this is much more than advertising, is the short answer.

DHARNA NOOR: And again, the recipients of all this money aren’t exactly household names like Chevron or Exxon. But again, the highest paid firm is the largest paid firm in the world, Edelman, from your report, and most of that, again, was from the American Petroleum Institute. They got 358.9 million dollars from API. Could you talk a little bit more about what API does, what role they play in the political system, and how Edelman landed some of these huge contracts?

KERT DAVIES: Well, how they got the contracts is probably unknown. They know. But the API is, as you said in the beginning, the oil and gas lobby arm. It is a giant building here in DC that does all of the scut work for the oil industry on Capitol Hill and nationally. We know, for example, that Edelman worked on a campaign starting in 2009. Again, we got a leaked memo that showed the head of the API launching this thing called Energy Citizens. And what they were trying to do was ride the wave of the Tea Party and create, out of thin air, rallies of people that look like normal Americans who were pushing for energy as their top issue and were claiming that they would vote on that issue, and were nudging politicians. That evolved into something called Vote 4 Energy, which was a multimillion dollar campaign launched in 2012 to specifically influence the presidential elections.

DHARNA NOOR: We’ve actually got a clip of one of those ads. Let’s roll it before we keep going.

SPEAKER 1: I vote.

SPEAKER 2: I vote.

SPEAKER 3: I vote.

SPEAKER 2: For American jobs.

SPEAKER 4: I vote.

SPEAKER 5: I vote for more domestic energy.

SPEAKER 2: Energy from all sources.

SPEAKER 4: To get America working again.

SPEAKER 3: I vote.

SPEAKER 6: I vote.

SPEAKER 5: I vote for energy security.

DHARNA NOOR: And I believe that Greenpeace found, actually, that that campaign was said to be full of volunteers, but they were actually being fed lines.

KERT DAVIES: Most of those people were recruited probably on craigslist with an offer of “real people needed for advertising,” and they read a script that you heard there. So but you see, the visual is intended to look like a cross-section of America who is voting for energy as if it’s the most important thing in the world. And we know that’s not true. Education, jobs, a lot of other things top people’s list of why they vote or why they choose candidates. But they wanted to give the impression that there was a movement out there of people who were focused on energy. They’re still doing that campaign. A different PR firm appears to have taken over the contract with API, but it’s still going. Energy Citizens is still online and they’re still pushing it.

DHARNA NOOR: And Edelman, the report points out, also landed contracts from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, of which Koch Industries is a subsidiary, Flint Hills Resources is a member. Koch industries, as much of your work has pointed out over the years, and as we’ve said a number of times here on The Real News, is a key funder of climate change denial messaging. But on their website, Edelman’s says that climate change is “one of the most important global challenges facing society, business, and government today.” Why? How do you think they reconcile their role in promotion for these fossil fuel industries?

KERT DAVIES: Well, they just put that statement up after our 2014 hit. Their reaction was to not answer questions. Later had put that statement up, claiming that they cared about climate change. Meanwhile, inside Edelman, they were trying to get more and more oil business. Various journalists revealed that Mr. Edelman was trying to make them the largest company by far, trying to reach a billion dollars in revenue. Much of that revenue goes through Edelman to buy TV time, by the way, so it ends up with CNN or NBC. But they were actually growing that business at the same time as they had sort of a greenish business side doing PR for companies that were trying to do good, and there was a major internal scuffle between those two camps.

So they ended up being ditched by API, or it lost the contract with API. They cut off their advertising arm, which is called Blue, and that maintained the API contract after Edelman left the building. There’s some debate about whether they actually got fired or they just figured out that was a better PR move, to not be associated for the time being. But this is enormous business. The bottom line is we’re seeing a tiny little bit of what is a multibillion dollar annual influence-peddling industry in DC and around the country to try to influence our minds around issues like fossil fuels.

DHARNA NOOR: But renewable industries like wind and solar advertise too. So how does their spending compare to the oil and gas industries, to coal. How does the fossil fuel industry spending compare to other industries?

KERT DAVIES: Well, yes. We also analyzed, like the Center for Public Integrity did, the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Association, just to compare. And it turns out that if you add all of them up, including the ones that do biofuels and ethanol, which are called renewable energies, they are a fraction of the total spending by the API and the other fossil arms and the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. API alone is six times the total spending of all the renewable energy associations combined.

DHARNA NOOR: And the oil industry did spend more than any other fossil fuel industry. But big coal didn’t pinch pennies when it comes to spending. Your report details that the coal industry trade group, American Coalition on Clean Coal and Electricity, spent 126.4 million dollars during this time period. That’s 8.9 percent of the grand total. And much of that money went to the firm DCI Group, which has important ties to the Republican Party. Could you talk about big coal spending?

KERT DAVIES: Well, the coal industry, especially in the early years of the scope of this analysis– which begins in 2008 and endis in 2017–in the beginning, they were really striving for some credibility. They put a lot of effort into the 2008 election with a field campaign where they were trying to get people to talk about clean coal. They put enormous effort into the early Obama years to try to block measures to to cut coal. And that’s when the spending added up. And in fact, the the head of the American Council for Clean Coal Electricity was a former RNC guy and an associate of Karl Rove. I mean, very deep ties. You still see this coming, you still see a promotion of coal by the Republican Party. But coal has been knocked out mainly by gas in this country, which is so much cheaper now. So that spending number does rise up in this report as very significant. So it’s a much smaller industry by scale, by revenue, than oil and gas, but they spend way outside their weight.

DHARNA NOOR: And DCI Group also has more recently been doing some work to discredit pipeline protesters. Could you talk a little bit about their more recent work?

KERT DAVIES: So DCI is not an advertising company. DCI is more of a public affairs and a political PR company. They worked on the Romney campaign, I believe, and they have deep ties–a multi-skilled office here in DC. For years, they worked with Exxon. They built something called Tech Central Station, which was an early blogsite that was basically promoting corporate interests through apparently independent thinkers from think tanks. And they’ve gotten into all sorts of dirty tricks, including sending video cassettes to TV stations in the Gulf Coast area the year after Katrina, saying there was no connection from climate change to hurricanes, looking like it was actual news when it was actually a fabricated video news release. So there are different species than just the type of ad companies that you see advertising hamburgers on TV.

DHARNA NOOR: I want to wrap up by asking you if there’s any evidence that all of this spending is working. Is there evidence that all of this PR is influencing public opinion? I mean, this year, Yale did a poll that shows that Americans’ concern for climate change has surged to record levels. Does that mean that thiis s is not being put to good use, or that they know something that we don’t?

KERT DAVIES: So again, this spending that we see just from the trade associations does not include the tens of millions that are spent by Exxon, for example, which during the last Winter Olympics huge ad campaign sponsorship of the TV coverage, including, people will remember, an ad about algae. All of this is to gain social license. These companies know that they’re under pressure, that people don’t like their business, don’t like being dependent on fossil fuels. And the increasing awareness of climate change puts them in the spotlight. So they really need people to appreciate what they do. One of the more recent campaigns is called Power Past Impossible, and they just show all the great things that energy does in our lives every day, and take credit for it.

So they want us to love them. That’s the gig. So they want us to trust them and love them and they don’t want politicians or elected officials doing anything that harms them. That’s the bottom line. So to answer your question more succinctly, it must be worth it if they spend 10 million, 20 million a year doing it. I’m sure these trade associations have metrics where they measure the success of these campaigns.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Well, thank you so much for this really rather revelatory report. Viewers, please stay aware of who is sponsoring the advertising that you’re seeing around you. And Kert Davies, hopefully we’ll talk to you again soon. Thanks so much for being on The Real News.

KERT DAVIES: Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.