Inside Climate News has revealed that a key leader of oil and gas industry front groups that oppose new fracking regulations may have been playing both sides of the issue. In an investigation into the funding of the Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) work on oil and gas regulation, Inside Climate News discovered that a key EDF funder had hired FTI Consulting's David Blackmon to promote fracking regulations. Unbeknownst to his employer, Blackmon is a longtime oil industry consultant who is paid to oppose regulation of the fracking industry.
The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation
The funder in question is the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, established by the late George Mitchell, known as the "father of fracking." George Mitchell owned and operated Mitchell Energy, the first company to combine horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett shale, which sparked the "shale revolution." Mitchell created the foundation with part of the $3.5 billion sale of Mitchell Energy to Devon Energy. The Mitchell Foundation describes itself as "a grantmaking foundation that seeks innovative, sustainable solutions for human and environmental problems." While its goals seem noble, the fortunes of the foundation and the people who run it continue to be inexorably linked to the success of the oil and gas industry. The foundation itself has more than $38 million in stock in Devon Energy. Three of George Mitchell's beneficiaries own over $21 million of Devon Energy apiece. Altogether the Mitchell Foundation and the Mitchell heirs own over one fifth of Devon Energy. One such heir is Todd Mitchell, who sat on the foundation's board for years and worked for Devon Energy for a decade. He currently runs oil and gas production companies and an investment business built on the assumption that gas will provide the baseload for electricity generation around the globe. The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation has funded a series of greenwashing efforts that have portrayed the shale and fracking industry as safe, clean, and reliable. These efforts include an online-based "virtual reality" well pad that makes no mention of water or air quality concerns. In fact, the "virtual well pad" does not mention any of the environmental or social impacts that communities near shale drilling experience. However, the Mitchell Foundation has also dedicated millions of dollars to groups that are trying to "green" the shale industry, like the Environmental Defense Fund. Since 2012 the foundation has given over $1 million to EDF. The funding was for studies of methane emissions from the fracking industry. These studies, which have been criticized as incomplete, are built on a base assumption that the drilling can be done "right." They have also led to some of the first federal regulations on the shale industry, including the methane regulations announced by the Obama administration in early 2015. The foundation also gives to a range of environmental groups, some of which are strongly opposed to fracking and oil and gas development, like the Tides Foundation and the Sierra Club.
David Blackmon and FTI Consulting's Conflicts of Interest
While the Mitchell family's finances are tied to the success of the gas industry in general, the foundation's funding of efforts to limit pollution from fracking appears genuine. That is what makes the Mitchell Foundation's hiring of David Blackmon and FTI Consulting so peculiar. In 2012 the Mitchell Foundation selected Blackmon of FTI Consulting to run the foundation's gas strategy. FTI Consulting is a PR firm that has worked with the shale and fracking industry to limit shale regulations by attacking journalists and community groups. FTI Consulting runs Energy in Depth, an oil and gas industry front group that maintains a hard line of attack against those who would regulate or criticize its corporate funders. The Mitchell Foundation paid FTI Consulting $120,000 to "start a dialogue between fossil fuel concerns and environmentalists around natural gas." Blackmon himself has long been a power player in the world of pro-fracking PR. Blackmon started his career as an oil industry flack, doing communications work and lobbying for Shell, Tesoro, and various other oil and gas companies. More recently, he has had top positions with nearly every major pro-fracking front group, including the Consumer Energy Alliance, Energy in Depth, and the industry's biggest lobbying arm, America's Natural Gas Alliance. That Blackmon was in charge of the Mitchell Foundation's gas strategy is troubling. His career has been dedicated to obstructing and delaying regulation on the oil and gas industry, especially in regard to fracking. While working for Mitchell, he led industry-funded groups that opposed the very methane regulations he was hired by Mitchell to promote. It is also troubling because of Blackmon's personal denial of the science of climate change, and his aggressive denial of the environmental and health impacts of fracking, which he called an "attention-grabbing boogeyman for all manner of nutcases, chicken littles and radicalized environmental organizations." Tweets from Blackmon's Twitter account reinforce the fact that he denies some of the basic pieces of climate-change science:
Fracking has been shown to pose a serious threat to the climate, given that methane, natural gas' primary component, traps 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 does. Blackmon and FTI Consulting's anti-regulatory and pro-fracking work constitute a potentially major undisclosed conflict of interest. Marilou Hastings, the communications manager for the Mitchell Foundation, admitted to Inside Climate that before settling on FTI, she approached and was turned down by "more than a dozen consulting firms" due to conflicts of interest. When she approached FTI Consulting and Blackmon, they not only accepted the job but failed to reveal their anti-regulatory work to Hastings. Inside Climate News writes that Hastings "didn't know of FTI Consulting's ties to anti-regulatory efforts." Furthermore, at the same time that Blackmon was being paid by the Mitchell Foundation, Energy in Depth, which is run by FTI Consulting and boasts Blackmon as a "field director," attacked the very studies Blackmon was paid to promote. All the while, Blackmon was using his position as a contributor to Forbes to promote the Mitchell Foundation's work without disclosing his financial incentives. This potentially violated Forbes' conflicts of interest clause. This raises the question: Did David Blackmon use his position with the Mitchell Foundation, in which he was tasked with promoting regulation, to feed information to his colleagues at FTI Consulting, which is paid to oppose regulation?
Test your BS meter with this one question quiz:
Which part of Obama's State of the Union was written by the oil industry?
a) “America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades”
b) “natural gas – if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”
c) fracking for oil and gas can be "sustainable"
d) all of the above
The answer is literally, "all of the above."
During his State of The Union speech, President Obama said:
"The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today, America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades."
The phrase “all of the above,” which the president used in his 2012 State of the Union address as well, is the creation of the oil industry’s most powerful lobbying and public relations arm, the American Petroleum Institute (API). According to the New York Times, the phrase was introduced in 2000 by API to advocate for oil drilling. API’s position at the time was “that an effective national energy policy must, at a minimum, allow for all of the above.” API, proud of the hegemony of their ideas, actually predicted the president would champion the pro-fossil fuel message in this most recent State of the Union address, the day before the speech was given.
After The American Petroleum Institute debuted the phrase in 2000, it was quickly picked up by republicans with wells to drill. John Mccain made it a central part of his 2008 campaign for president. Republicans in the house and senate used it to promote offshore drilling. The former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, now under federal indictment for corruption, listed the phrase on his campaign website.
ExxonMobil, the most profitable corporation in world history, continues to use the phrase in advertisements today.
This isn't just etymological trivia. The use of oil industry talking points by the president indicates how ingrained and powerful the fossil fuel industry is in the U.S’s energy conversation.
It also casts a revealing light on other pro-fossil energy comments made by President Obama in the speech, like promoting “Energy Independence.” The idea is, if we allow oil and gas corporations to exploit our land and water to extract fossil fuels, it will benefit the average citizen by lowering energy prices and reducing dependence of “foreign” energy supplies. This is completely false, as Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil will tell you. The oil industry wants to sell it's product on an open market, to the highest bidder, no matter who that is. Currently there are plans for 25 Liquified Natural Gas export terminals in the US, and the American Petroleum Institute is spending millions of dollars to undo a decades old law that prohibits the export of crude oil. As more oil and gas is drilled from American soil and water, more gas and oil will be exported. We will continue to import oil and other goods from around the world, regardless of how much drilling happens in the U.S.
Another energy myth promoted by the Obama administration and the fossil fuel industry is natural gas as a bridge fuel to renewable energy.
The truth is that gas is primarily comprised of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. Some scientists believe that methane could be up to 105 times as destabilizing to the global climate as carbon dioxide. When fully burned, gas releases less CO2 than coal or oil, but currently huge amounts of methane are escaping unburned into the atmosphere. An increase in spending on gas infrastructure, like pipelines, Liquified Natural Gas export terminals, or vehicle refueling stations, is not a bridge to renewable energy. It is the same old fossil fuel infrastructure that poses serious threats to the earth’s climate and local environments. The U.S doesn’t need more spending on fossil fuels, it needs a real commitment to renewable energy, efficiency, and cutting carbon pollution.
"The science that Willie Soon does is almost pointless."
Recent revelations regarding Smithsonian scientist Willie Soon's financing and coordination with fossil fuel companies for studies undermining the science of climate change has received quite a bit of attention. Our friends at the Climate Investigations Center have links to source documents, letters to the IRS and Congress, letters to journals that Soon appears to have mislead, and some of the press covering all of this.
The drama has largely outshone the main point among most scientists: Willie Soon's work is vastly discredited. For those who aren't familiar with Willie Soon's fossil fuel company contracting over the last fifteen years, there is probably a legitimate question of whether or not this guy deserves to be in his current pinch.
Frankly, he had it coming.
Scientists and science reporters have often had to waste their time addressing the interference of Soon and his cohorts, who take advantage of the public's general unfamiliarity with scientific nuance.
But scientists too are talking about Dr. Soon's work and what it means for the troubled peer-review process that the most stringent journals usually adhere to. Here is a summary of some of the most interesting conversations in science publications about Willie Soon's #Fakexpert scandal.
First, Soon's manager at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Charles Alcock, has time and time again said that neither he nor Smithsonian support Soon's fossil-funded conclusions. From E&E Publishing's ClimateWire:
"I'd have to say that I've reached my conclusions independent of Dr. Soon's work," Alcock said. "Dr. Soon is not actively engaged in actually gathering new data. He's principally disputing the interpretation of data gathered by other people. And I think this is an area where most of the progress will be made by people who collect new [climate] data or who build new models."
Soon's industry-financed papers have been debunked by climate scientists over and over. Just last month, Soon co-authored a paper claiming to debunk decades of science using a "simple" model of long term temperature projections. Scientists worldwide noted that Soon's methodology was grossly oversimplified, ignoring key factors that scientists have warned will lead to unprecedented temperature increases in the coming decades.
The Heartland Institute, a think tank with ties to the fossil fuel industry, paid to promote this paper in Science Bulletin, a journal published by the Chinese National Academy of Sciences. Heartland has misrepresented the Chinese NAS for political purposes before, and Science Bulletin was the latest victim of Dr. Soon's serial lack of disclosure of fossil fuel funding to science journals. Science Insider - published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) - interviewed editors at science journals who appear to have been fooled by Dr. Soon's non-disclosure of his industry payments.
But Soon's work was widely disregarded before his controversial 2015 paper in Science Bulletin. The prestigious science journal Nature notes that Dr. Soon's haggard relationship with science isn't new:
The scientist has published numerous papers that go against mainstream climate science. Most famously, in 2003, Soon co-authored a paper in the journal Climate Research that questioned the standard interpretation of climate change over the past millennium and argued that recent warming is not unusual by historical standards. Subsequent controversy led to the resignation of several of the journal’s editors. In that case, the controversy revolved around scientific issues, not disclosure of funding sources. [More on this scandal in our profile of Willie Soon]
NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt for RealClimate re-starts, giving Soon the benefit of the doubt (select clips):
However, a valid question is whether the science that arose from these funds is any good? It’s certainly conceivable that Soon’s work was too radical for standard federal research programs and that these energy companies were really taking a chance on blue-sky high risk research that might have the potential to shake things up. [...]
It is most succinctly highlighted in an article Soon wrote ‘It’s the Sun, stupid’ (not sure if it was ever really published anywhere, but he did send it to his contacts at Koch Industries). Towards the end he states:
The evidence in my paper is consistent with the hypothesis that the Sun causes climatic change in the Arctic.
It invalidates the hypothesis that CO2 is a major cause of observed climate change – and raises serious questions about the wisdom of imposing cap-and-trade or other policies that would cripple energy production and economic activity, in the name of “preventing catastrophic climate change.”
It is the leap from the first to second sentence that drives Soon’s research – the notion that if you can find enough correlations to solar forcing, the impact of CO2 must be diminished, if not obliterated altogether. But this is a fallacy. It is equivalent to arguing that if total caloric intake correlates to weight, that exercise can have no effect, or that if cloudiness correlates to incident solar radiation at the ground, then seasonal variations in sunshine are zero.
If you're feeling masochistic enough to read more from scientists into the documented gap between reality and Willie Soon's research, check older RealClimate posts on Dr. Soon here, here, and here, and this generously-detailed debunk of Soon's presentation at the latest Heartland Institute climate denial conference by ecologist Richard Telford.
Telford isn't the only scientist baffled by Soon's awkward presentations. University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank details his "depressing" encounter with Willie Soon, at an event and a personal encounter, from NPR:
When it was announced that Soon was giving a talk at the University of Rochester, I knew it would be interesting. I was more than willing to hear what the man had to say. The whole point of being a scientist is, after all, to try to leave your preconceptions at the door and let the work speak for itself. I also wanted to understand Soon's own thinking about the role he was playing as a public skeptic.
On all counts I was disappointed.
Taken as nothing more than a scientific talk, Dr. Soon's presentation was, in my opinion, pretty bad. I watch a lot of these things. It's part of my job. If Soon had been giving a Ph.D defense, he would have been skewered. I was left without a clear line of argument or clear justifications for his claims. More importantly, for a topic this contentious there was insufficient discussion of the voluminous and highly detailed response critics have offered to his claims that solar activity accounts for most observed climate variability. Many of my colleagues listening to the talk said they felt the same way. I came away thinking, "Is that the best they have?"
The presentation that Prof. Adam Frank found depressing was focused on Soon's long-since-discredited thesis that the Sun, not industrial pollution, is responsible for climate change. Citing peer-reviewed material on Skeptical Science, science reporter Chris Mooney re-examines how Soon's primary argument is debunked, for the Washington Post:
[T]he idea that the sun is currently driving climate change is strongly rejected by the world’s leading authority on climate science, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found in its latest (2013) report that “There is high confidence that changes in total solar irradiance have not contributed to the increase in global mean surface temperature over the period 1986 to 2008, based on direct satellite measurements of total solar irradiance.”
The IPCC “basically says that global warming is not caused by the sun,” says Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “The strongest evidence for this is the record of satellite measurements of solar output since the late 1970s that show no increasing trend in solar output during a period of rapid global warming.” [...]
A recent scientific review article on climate and the sun similarly notes “the lack of detection of an underlying irradiance trend in the past three decades,” and concludes, in rather strong terms, that:
Claims that the Sun has caused as much as 70% of the recent global warming … presents fundamental puzzles. It requires that the Sun’s brightness increased more in the past century than at any time in the past millennium, including over the past 30 years, contrary to the direct space-based observations. And it requires, as well, that Earth’s climate be insensitive to well-measured increases in greenhouse gases at the same time that it is excessively sensitive to poorly known solar brightness changes. Both scenarios are far less plausible than the simple attribution of most (90%) industrial global warming to anthropogenic effects, rather than to the Sun.
So in sum: It’s not that the sun can’t influence climate. It can, and it does. And climate scientists have accordingly been studying the influence of the sun for many years.
Discover Magazine has a similar rundown of Soon's debunked "it's the sun" thesis, based on a video of a presentation Soon gave to a Koch-funded student group.
Even Koch-funded scientist Richard Muller has abandoned Soon's solar theories in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, as Brad Friedman reminds us, in a study that Charles Koch Foundation itself helped finance (oops).
While most scientists may agree that Soon's work is nothing to bat an eyelash at, Soon's corporate funders aren't trying to influence scientists - they're trying to influence policymakers, and the people who vote for them. The Scientist quotes Harvard's Naomi Oreskes, author of Merchants of Doubt, a book documenting corporate manipulation of science that is now being released as a critically-acclaimed movie (trailer here):
Though the vast majority of climate scientists agree that the Earth’s climate is changing as a result of human activities that increase the amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, researchers like Soon foment debate by publishing alternate hypotheses or denials. “The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate,” Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard, told the Times. “Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.”
And the implications for this? Jay Michaelson at the Daily Beast has a brilliant summary of why these climate deniers matter, when their work is so discredited and marginalized in the scientific community:
Yet unlike 9/11 trutherism, and Obama-is-a-Muslim trutherism, the Climate Truther campaign has an air of respectability, a unanimous adherence among Republican presidential candidates. How is that possible?The answer is money. Lots of money. Billions of dollars, in fact, spent to create an entire industry of scientists, publicists, think tanks, and legislative organizations.Willie Soon, for example, should never have been given much credence in the first place. Like nearly all of the Climate Truthers’ scientists, he is not a climate expert. He’s not even an astrophysicist, as he is often presented. As the New York Times revealed, “He is a part-time employee of the Smithsonian Institution with a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering.”
“Willie Soon (as amply documented in my book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”) was instrumental in the early attacks on the Hockey Stick by James Inhofe and other fossil fuel industry-funded politicians. Now we know for certain that his efforts were a quid pro quo with special interests looking to discredit my work as a means of calling into question the reality and threat of climate change.”
Written by Greenpeace's Bonnie Barclay with input from Connor Gibson.
It might surprise quite a few who know me, but I'm actually quite a shy and introverted person. So what exactly moved me to show up at a Congressional hearing and put on a tin foil hat? Two words: Climate Deniers.
Denying climate change is as bizarre and out-of-touch as tin foil hat conspiracies. Congressional climate deniers need to accept the science and bolster the President's actions with a tax on carbon pollution. That's why we brought our tin foil hats to yesterday's hearing, called together by the U.S. House of Representatives Energy & Power subcommittee chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY). It focused on the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan, with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Earnest Moniz testifying.
Whenever the members of Congress started saying false things about climate change, we tossed on the tin foil hats. By the end of the three-hour hearing, the silly tin hats were on our heads for almost half of the entire event.
Of all the politicians in yesterday's hearing who are known climate change deniers, West Virginia Rep. David McKinley gets the tin foil hat award for his completely false assertions about climate change science. Check out this CSPAN clip, starting at 2:01:26.
First, Rep. McKinley said, "Over the last forty years, there's been almost no increase in temperature." He was attempting to undermine the reliability of climate models, which in reality have underestimated climate change.
Worse, my jaw dropped when I heard Rep. McKinley claim that Arctic sea ice increased by 60% from last year to this year, a false figure he apparently got from a typo in a bad newspaper article! H/T @RLMiller--see NASA for the facts on how consistently and rapidly the ice cap has melted in recent years.
Finally, McKinley completely misrepresented the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), saying, "Most experts believe by 2083--in 70 years--the benefits of climate change could outweigh will still outweigh the harm."
Ummm...that is completely wrong. The IPCC has made it crystal clear that global warming is a very serious problem that demands immediate policy action if we have any chance of solving it. Perhaps the $391,000 McKinley has received from the coal industry explains some of his scientifically-irrelevant opinions--McKinley wrapped his speech up by promoting the coal industry.
My first Congressional hearing....
- Climate deniers in Congress make their points not by stating factual information from peer-reviewed studies, but by quoting newspaper headlines. I'm pretty sure those were meant to sell newspapers, not settle a debate.
- The hearing was packed. People do care about what Congress is OR isn't doing on climate change.
- It's actually not the "do-nothing Congress," as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) pointed out, it's much worse! "On Climate we're doing worse than nothing--we are affirmatively obstructing progress." [CSPAN, 38:25].
Luckily there were a few members of Congress who seem to get it, including these three:
Representative Waxman called out his elected peers for their obstruction and no serious proposals to solve the problems posed by global warming:
- "What's your plan? It's easy to criticize other people's solutions, but if all you did is criticize you're either a climate denier because you don't think anything needs to be done--'the science doesn't warrent it, it's not happening'--or, they're [sic] ignoring the warning of scientists." [CSPAN, 42:35]
Representative Eliot Engle (D-NY):
- "It's time for us to act and Congress has been ducking this issue, even going so far as to deny the basic science behind climate change. I've seen the devastating effects right in my area when hurricane Sandy hit New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. My district suffered huge devastation. Rising seas, stronger storms and flooding will only increase if we choose to do nothing[...]." [CSPAN, 2:55:35]
Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) pointed out the key logical disconnect with the naysayers who try to scare us into inaction:
- "My Republican colleagues are quick to argue that tackling climate change will hurt the economy. But in reality, climate change itself poses an enormous economic risk and failure to address it could be disaster to the global economy." [CSPAN, 1:59:43]
Climate Change Denial and Extreme Weather
In a week where we're seeing people's lives lost and communities devastated in Colorado by extreme flooding, the type of disaster we can expect more frequently thanks to climate change, one would think the urgency to act to avoid future economic devastation and loss of life would become crystal clear to those who we elected to represent us. Unfortunately, nothing seems to cause Congress to take action. It's like they missed the last year of weather events!
You can see the distortion of climate denial in Greenpeace's recent report, "Dealing in Doubt", which summarized how industrialists like the Koch brothers have funding fake science and sheer misinformation to make us question the hard truth about climate change. So it comes as no surprise that Koch Industries is the second highest donor this election cycle to the chairman of yesterday's hearing, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), as well as other Representatives on the subcommittee, like Koch's hometown favorite Mike Pompeo, and Texas politicians Joe Barton and Pete Olson.
I'm tired of seeing members of Congress put their head in the sand and deny climate change. It's an appalling manipulation of our future potential by people who are meant to represent us and do the right thing.
So why'd I show up for the hearing yesterday? People's lives and livelihoods are on the line. The strength and future resilience of our country and our communities and all we've built as a nation are at risk if we don't do anything. We're not do-nothing people. We're Americans. We lead. We work. We improve. We build. We innovate.
Written by Cindy Baxter, crossposted from Greenpeace: Dealing in Doubt.
Who likes being lied to by people paid by the oil industry who pose as “experts” on climate change?
Did you know it’s been going on for 25 years?
In a couple of weeks, the UN’s official advisors on climate change science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will update its global assessment on the issue. Yet in the background, more attacks on the climate science are underway
For the last quarter century, the climate science denial machine, its cogs oiled by fossil fuel money, has been attacking climate science, climate scientists and every official US report on climate change, along with State and local efforts – with the aim of undermining action on climate change.
Our new report, Dealing in Doubt, sets out the history of these attacks going back to the early 90s. These are attacks based on anti-regulatory, so called “free market” ideology, not legitimate scientific debate, using a wide range of dirty tricks: from faked science, attacks on scientists, fake credentials, cherry-picking scientific conclusions: a campaign based on the old tobacco industry mantra: “doubt is our product”.
We give special attention to perhaps today’s poster child of the climate denial machine’s free market think tanks, the Heartland Institute, which is about to launch a new version of its “NIPCC” or “climate change reconsidered” report next week in Chicago.
Unlike the real IPCC, with thousands of scientists involved from around the world, the Heartland Institute’s handful of authors is paid. Several of them claim fake scientific credentials. They start with a premise of proving the overwhelming consensus on climate science wrong, whereas the real IPCC simply summarizes the best science to date on climate change.
More recently, less visible channels of funding have been revealed such as the Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, organization that that has been called the “ATM of the conservative movement”, distributing funds from those who don’t want to be publicly associated with the anti-environmental work product of organizations like the Heartland Institute.
In the last week we’ve seen new peer-reviewed science published, linking at least half of 2012’s extreme weather events to a human carbon footprint in the atmosphere and on the weather and climate.
As the scientific consensus strengthens by the day that climate change is happening now, that carbon pollution is causing it and must be regulated, the denial machine is getting increasingly shrill. But today, while they are being increasingly ignored by a majority of the public, their mouthpieces in the US House of Representatives, for instance, have increased in number.
They’re still fighting the science – and they’re still being funded, to the tune of millions of dollars each year, to do it.
Dealing in Doubt sets out a history of these attacks. We show how the tactics of the tobacco industry’s campaign for “sound science” led to the formation of front groups who, as they lost the battle to deny smoking’s health hazards and keep warning labels off of cigarettes, turned their argumentative skills to the denial of climate change science in order to slow government action.
What we don’t cover is the fact that these organizations and deniers are also working on another front, attacking solutions to climate change. They go after any form of government incentive to promote renewable energy, while cheering for coal, fracking and the Keystone pipeline.
They attack any piece of legislation the US EPA puts forward to curb pollution. Decrying President Obama’s “war on coal” is a common drumbeat of these anti-regulation groups. One key member of the denial machine, astrophysicist Willie Soon from the Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics, has portrayed himself as an “expert” on mercury and public health in order to attack legislation curbing mercury emissions from coal plants.
This recent history, as well as the prior history of denial by the tobacco companies and chemical, asbestos and other manufacturing industries, is important to remember because the fossil fuel industry has never admitted that it was misguided or wrong in its early efforts to delay the policy reaction to the climate crisis. To this day, it continues to obstruct solutions.
The individuals, organizations and corporate interests who comprise the ‘climate denial machine’ have caused harm and have slowed our response time. As a result, we will all ultimately pay a much higher cost as we deal with the impacts, both economic and ecological.
Eventually, these interests will be held accountable for their actions.
Political satirists Andy Cobb and Mike Damanskis recently began a new video project to document the tar sands of Canada. But a law firm who represents Exxon and other tar sands interests has begun filing complaints, and had their video pulled off youtube.
Comedians and activists, the duo has become known for biting commentary on the oil industry, like their response to Exxon’s tar sands pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, which was featured on the Rachel Maddow Show.
Their new project sends the team up to Alberta, Canada, on a “vacation” to document tar sands mining operations and its effects on the ecosystems and public health. The project also wants to expose the hypocrisy of the claims of environmental stewardship made by oil corporations involved in tar sands mining, as well as the Albertan government, which touts Alberta’s ecotourism options while promoting tar sands mines.
"The original inspiration for our project is that industry PR around the tar sands seems like a cross between a travel ad and oil company ad, inviting us to 'come to Alberta' and see for ourselves," Mike Damanskis told DeSmogBlog.
The complaints against Andy and Mike were filed by the law firm Denton, on behalf of “Travel Alberta,” the tourism bureau of Alberta, Canada. An investigation by DeSmogBlog’s Steve Horn found that Denton has serious and substantial ties to the tar sands oil industry, and represents ExxonMobil’s tar sands project, as well as several other oil corporations tied to tar sands development.
To support Andy and Mike’s project, check out their pitch video and fundraising page.
Since it was first proposed in 2008 the argument for building the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pump tar sands crude oil from Canada to the Gulf coast for refining and export to foreign countries, has had some major holes. Literally.
Sunlight is visible through a faulty weld in the Keystone XL pipeline. Picture taken from inside a section of pipe by activists with Tar Sands Blockade
If approved, Keystone will pump a super-heated mixture of tar, sand, and chemicals from the most carbon polluting oil development on earth, while the effects of global warming manifest themselves across the country and the world. In order to mine and refine tar sands the oil industry must burn 1 barrel of oil for every 3 barrels of oil produced, a marvel of inefficiency. The potential builders of the Keystone XL have been caught in scandal after scandal in their attempts to get government and popular approval for the pipeline. The last few months have revealed the lengths that TransCanada (the company building the pipeline) and other Keystone proponents will go to secure approval for Keystone.
A tar sands mining pit in what was once boreal forest
Here are 3 of the most important Keystone XL Scandals that have been revealed since April:
1) The State Department doesn't know where the Keystone XL pipeline will be located
A year and a half ago, Thomas Bachand, a researcher mapping the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, asked the State Department - the agency responsible for approving the pipeline - for the coordinates of the Keystone XL. He hoped to accurately map the pipeline route so that people would know which waterways, neighborhoods, and back yards would be affected. After 14 months of waiting and haggling for what should have been an easy answer, the State Department admitted in June that they did not possess the GIS coordinates of the pipeline, and therefore did not know its exact route. Yet the State Department has promised that the Keystone XL would be environmentally safe and does not threaten water supplies in its path. From the Environmental Impact Study used by the State Department:
“A limited number of public water supply wells are located within one mile of the proposed pipeline area (39 along the entire route; Montana-1, South Dakota-0, Nebraska-38), and a very limited number of private water supply wells are located within 100 feet of the pipeline (Montana-6; South Dakota-0, Nebraska-14).”
A tar sands spill from Exxon's pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas
2) The private contractors hired to gauge the environmental impact of the Keystone XL for the State Department work for TransCanada and other oil companies that would benefit from building the pipeline, a major conflict of interest that the State Department tried to hide.
The most recent Environmental Impact Study (EIS) of the Keystone XL was conducted by the oil industry contractor Environmental Resource Management (ERM). Since it's release, the study has been widely criticized for both its glaring oversights and questionable findings. For instance, the EIS claims that building the Keystone XL, a giant among pipelines, would not have any effect on greenhouse gas emissions or the development of the Athabasca tar sands, even though the entire purpose of building the KXL is to increase tar sands development. Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has questioned the trustworthiness of the study. As it turns out, ERM works for Transcanada, Koch Industries, Shell Oil, and other oil corporations that stand to benefit from building the Keystone XL. ERM is also a dues paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, which spent $22 million lobbying for the pipeline. Not only did the State Department know about these conflicts of interest, they redacted this information from public filings in an attempt to conceal the truth. ERM has a history of producing environmental studies that seem skewed toward befitting the oil companies that hire them. In March of this year, ERM released a study claiming that a tar sands refinery in Delaware made the air around the plant cleaner. The study, which was funded by the tar sands refinery in question, was challenged by independent air quality studies that found Benzene and other cancer-causing compounds far in excess of EPA standards. As the News Journal explains:
"Air-quality tests commissioned by a Delaware City citizens group show a jump in local chemical, soot and sulfur levels after the opening of the Delaware City refinery, with at least three toxic pollutants exceeding some public health limits in one spot a mile from the plant"
3) Obama Administration insiders have significant ties to TransCanada, which the company has tried to exploit.
As was recently reported by Steve Horn at DeSmog Blog, President Obama’s personal attorney, former White House Counsel Robert Bauer, has direct ties to TransCanada. Bauer works for Perkins Coie LLP, a major corporate law firm which represents TransCanada’s South Central LNG project. Furthermore, Robert Baur's wife, Anita Dunn, is the co-owner of the PR firm SDKnickerbocker, which handles public relations work for TransCanada. Dunn, who was a Communications Director for Obama and Senior Adviser for Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, has met with top Obama administration officials more than 100 times since leaving in 2009, according to a recent New York Times investigation. However, Robert Bauer and Anita Dunn are just the latest tie between TransCanada and US regulators to be uncovered. TransCanada and the government of Alberta, Canada have purposefully stacked their ranks with lobbyists that have ties to the Obama administration and/or John Kerry, who is now in charge of the State Department. From Friends of the Earth:
The Financial Times has found that Alberta made a point to hire former Obama officials and Kerry staff in order to win approval from the State Department instead of focusing on Congress like most lobby groups. TransCanada and Alberta’s lobbyists have been trying to convince the administration that the pipeline will create jobs and pose no threats to the environment, in the hopes that they can get the pipeline approved.
TransCanada also snapped up people leaving the State Department to help grease the wheels of approval for Keystone XL within the State Department. From Businessweek:
David Goldwyn, an aide to Hillary Clinton, was something of a mole for TransCanada, coaching the company’s executives on how to win favor at State with “better messaging.” After leaving the State Department, Goldwyn testified before Congress in favor of Keystone XL.
These latest 3 scandals are just the most recent examples of the extent to which TransCanada and other Keystone XL boosters have manipulated the approval system in favor of the pipeline. Help stop the Keystone XL and protect the families and water sources in it's path by telling President Obama not to approve pipeline. Sign the petition here.
Written by Nick Surgey, crossposted with permission from PR Watch.
In October 2012, nine U.S. state legislators went on an industry paid trip to explore the Alberta tar sands. Publicly described as an "ALEC Academy," documents obtained by CMD show the legislators were accompanied on a chartered flight by a gaggle of oil-industry lobbyists, were served lunch by Shell Oil, dinner by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and that the expenses of the trip were paid for by TransCanada and other corporations and groups with a direct financial interest in the Alberta tar sands and the proposed Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline.
Among the nine legislators on the tour was the new ALEC national chairman, Representative John Piscopo from Connecticut, and Senator Jim Smith from Nebraska who has sponsored legislation in his state to speed up the building of the Nebraska segment of KXL. Email records obtained by CMD show that after the trip, legislators were asked by ALEC to send “thank you notes” to the lobbyists for their generosity in Alberta.
Far better than a mere "thank you," Rep. John Adams from Ohio returned from the trip and sponsored a bill given to him by a TransCanada lobbyist calling for the approval of KXL. As previously reported by CMD, similar legislation, reflecting both an ALEC “model” bill and language taken from a TransCanada set of talking points, has been introduced in seven states in 2013.
The tar sands of Alberta are estimated to be the third largest reserve of crude oil on the planet. But the process of turning the tar-like bitumen into a refined product that can be used as fuel is extremely energy intensive and highly polluting. The former NASA scientist James Hansen, warned that the extraction and use of Canadian tar sands would mean "game over" for the climate. TransCanada is the operator of the proposed KXL pipeline, which would carry the tar sands to Texas for processing and likely for exports to markets abroad.
In Private Jets and "Petroleum Club" Dinners, U.S Politicians Get the Dirt on Canadian Tar Sands
Officially, ALEC organized the Alberta tour as an "ALEC Academy." In ALEC’s description of corporate sponsorship opportunities, this type of event is described as being "an intensive, two--day program for legislators that focus on a specific area of policy." It comes with an $80,000 fee to sponsor. Unofficially however, and made clear to legislators on the trip in emails from ALEC obtained by CMD, the expenses were paid for by lobbyists from the oil-industry and by the government of Alberta. In an email sent to Ohio representative John Adams ahead of the trip, ALEC staffer Karla Jones reassured participants that all transportation, accommodation costs and meals would be paid for.
According to a copy of the trip itinerary obtained via a public records request, legislators flew into Alberta on Tuesday October 16, 2012, and were met by TransCanada lobbyists who took them on a tour of their facilities in Calgary.
TransCanada, which is a member of ALEC, sponsored ALEC’s Spring Task Force Summit in Oklahoma City in May 2013, alongside other corporations with tar sands interests including BP, Devon Energy and Koch Industries. TransCanada’s Vice President Corey Goulet presented to legislators at the conference during a session called "Embracing American Energy Opportunities."
Dinner on the first night was at the up-market Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in downtown Calgary, paid for by American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM). The dinner included a presentation to the captive audience of lawmakers from AFPM about Low-Carbon Fuel Standards (LCFS), a mechanism designed to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. As CMD has reported recently, LCFS is considered a real threat to the tar sands industry, because it might restrict the U.S. market for fuels derived from the tar sands. AFPM, which has funded one of the other groups on the tour – the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) – to work to oppose LCFS legislation, would successfully sponsor an ALEC "model" bill on this issue just weeks after the trip, called "Restrictions on Participation in Low-Carbon Fuel Standards Programs."
On Wednesday morning, after breakfast at the hotel, legislators were taken to the airport where a private charted plane was waiting to fly them around a number of different tar sands operations. Accompanying the legislators and ALEC staffer Karla Jones, were lobbyists from AFPM, TransCanada, Devon Energy, CEA, Shell Oil, and the Government of Alberta. The flight was chartered by the Alberta Government, at a cost of $22,000, with the costs split evenly between them and another unknown entity.
During the day, legislators toured facilities owned by Shell – which also provided lunch – and Devon Energy, where they viewed the massive "Jackfish" tar sands projects. At these facilities, Devon utilizes Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), an energy intensive process that injects steam into the dirty bitumen to access otherwise inaccessible deposits too deep for mining. This process is expected to open up further areas of Alberta for tar sands extraction, including by Koch Industries subsidiary Koch Exploration Canada which has a pending permit request in Alberta to utilize SAGD.
Dinner on Wednesday night was served at the Petroleum Club, sponsored by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. On the Thursday morning, just before their return flight, legislators did have a brief meeting with a representative from the Pembina Institute, an Alberta environmental group that calls for responsible exploitation of the tar sands. According to the ALEC trip itinerary, this was to "provide the opposing point of view."
Although Pembina does represent a different view from those that want completely unrestrained extraction of the tar sands, the group is not representative of those that oppose tar sands extraction. There are plenty of organizations that could have provided alternative viewpoints, particularly first nation tribes who are campaigning vigorously on this issue, but perhaps unsurprisingly they were not included. Even Pembina’s - somewhat limited - opposing voice was not wanted during the tour of the oil sands facilities, and they were not invited to the lobbyist-sponsored dinners.
ALEC as Emily Post
A month after the trip, the Director of International and Federal Relations at ALEC, Karla Jones, sent participants an email helpfully reminding them of what each industry lobbyist had paid for on the tour. CMD obtained a copy of that communication via a public records request, which included a spreadsheet containing the names, telephone numbers and mailing addresses of each of the lobbyists on the trip. The ALEC email also prompted legislators to send each of the sponsoring corporations a "thank you note."
The phenomenon of ALEC legislators sending such letters to lobbyists is something CMD has previously reported on. Ohio Rep. Adams, for example, sent at least a dozen letters to corporate lobbyists in 2010, thanking them for writing checks to the ALEC scholarship fund, which paid his and his colleagues way to an ALEC conference.
"Because of your help and others like you, the trip to ALEC was made possible for our legislators," Adams wrote to AT&T lobbyist Bob Blazer.
“Rather than sending thank you notes to their corporate lobbyist sponsors, these legislators should instead consider an apology to their constituents,” Stephen Spaulding, Staff Counsel for the good government group Common Cause told CMD. "I doubt lobbyists want thank you notes in return for bankrolling legislators' international vacations – they would rather a bright, shiny souvenir in the form of corporate-drafted legislation."
Better Than a Thank You Note, Payback in Ohio
After the trip to Alberta, Rep. Adams, the Assistant Majority Floor Leader and Ohio ALEC state chair, led the calls in Ohio for the approval of the KXL pipeline, sponsoring a bill (HCR 9) and talking publicly about the proposed pipeline. "It is of the upmost importance that we strongly urge the U.S. government to take the necessary steps towards operation of the Keystone Pipeline," Adams wrote in March 2013 while promoting his bill. Rep. Rosenberger, the other Ohio legislator on the ALEC trip to Alberta, accordingly co-sponsored the Adams bill.
According to documents CMD obtained from public record requests in Ohio, a draft bill was sent to Adams on January 23, from Steve Dimon of 21 Consulting LLC, who represents TransCanada. The bill was sent as an attachment to the Dimon email.
The email message itself simply read, "Thank you so much!"
Dimon stayed in touch with Adams' office over the proceeding months, providing his staff with further materials about Keystone XL, including a set of talking points stamped with the TransCanada logo.
By February 14, Adams had an updated draft that had been reviewed by the Ohio legislative service commission, the non-partisan body that assists legislators with drafting legislation. Adams staffer Ryan Crawford sent this language to Rob Eshenbaugh, a lobbyist with Ohio Petroleum Council, the state affiliate of the American Petroleum Institute. "Please let me know if I can be of further assistance," Crawford wrote to the lobbyist. Eshenbaugh responded with some requested changes, which Crawford then incorporated into the bill.
All this occurred prior to Adams sharing the bill with his fellow legislators, which didn't happen until February 20. Adams finally introduced his bill in the Ohio Assembly on March 9, without any public statement about his involvement with the ALEC Academy or that the source of the bill was a tar sands lobbyist.
The route of the proposed KXL pipeline takes it through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. This is a long way from Ohio, but the debate over the KXL project has become a national issue. The ALEC Academy, and subsequent lobbying from the oil-industry, demonstrates that TransCanada sees value in developing a list of states supportive of the project to influence the federal debate over KXL approval.
The precise details of the ALEC tour, including the trip being part-sponsored by TransCanada, are not mentioned in Adams’ financial disclosures, which only reports his expenses as being from ALEC and the Alberta Government. Adams is not breaking the law here. This is because of the way ALEC works to fund legislator travel. Its scholarship system allows corporations to “sponsor” legislator’s expenses, which are then simply disclosed as being a payment from "ALEC" and not from the sponsoring corporations or groups. CMD documented the ALEC scholarship fund in a 2012 report released jointly with Common Cause: "How the American Legislative Exchange Council Uses Corporate-Funded “Scholarships” to Send Lawmakers on Trips with Corporate Lobbyists."
Graduates of the Keystone Academy appear to be learning a lot about how ALEC works behind the scenes to promote special interest legislation while keeping the public entirely in the dark.
Rarely do we meet those who have made careers selling us lies. Consider the oddball doctors who took tobacco money to deny a link between cigarette smoking and cancer, or the handful of scientists who take oil and coal money to discredit global warming science, or the people who have done both.
Last week, students in Wisconsin and Michigan stepped up to such an opportunity when CFACT Campus, the student arm of a well-known cabal of fossil fuel apologists, hosted climate change denier Willie Soon at several campus events around the country.
Dr. Willie Soon is a Smithsonian Institution astrophysicist paid by Charles Koch, ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and coal utility Southern Company to write papers dismissing climate change, publish op-eds saying coal pollution won't affect our health, refute the seriousness of ocean acidification, and apparently anything else he can be paid to deny. Dr. Soon has misrepresented himself by repeatedly claiming affiliation with Harvard University and using his credentials as an astrophysicist to make people believe he's a climate expert, and he shows no sign of stopping. Indeed, he told students in Madison, "I am as as qualified as anyone on the planet on this topic."
In both Madison, Wisconsin and East Lansing, Michigan, Dr. Soon was caught with his pants down. As the Michigan State News documented in its article and accompanying audio interview, Soon claims that all the scientists around the world who study and recognize the seriousness of climate change are motivated by money, yet somehow his funding from coal and oil companies for his extremely marginalized viewpoints doesn't matter.
Here is the dialog with Willie Soon at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with direct links to key clips below:
1) Willie Soon insinuates ExxonMobil will no longer fund him (emphasis added):
"I have been receiving money from whoever that wants to give me money. I write my scientific proposal. I have received money from ExxonMobil, but ExxonMobil will no longer give me any money for a long time. American Petroleum Institute, anything you wish for, from Southern Company, from all these companies. I write proposal and let them judge whether they will fund me or not, always for a very small amount. If they choose to fund me, I'm happy to receive it." Click to watch (starts @ 1:52).
2) Dr. Soon stands behind his attempts to discredit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with help from ExxonMobil lobbyists:
"I was trying to bring down IPCC--is that what you imply?! [...] Let it be known that I do not like IPCC, because IPCC does not stand for science, it is corrupting science." Click to watch (starts @ 3:32).
After a question referencing emails with ExxonMobil lobbyists to undermine climate research at the United Nations before it even hit publication, Dr. Soon quickly loses his cool over his record of global warming denial, peppering the student with mild insults before owning up to his actions.
3) Dr. Soon thanks anyone who uses petroleum products or electricity from coal for supporting his work:
"I really want to thank her, because she's receiving the electricity used for her house, she's driving cars, she's doing all of these things because you are funding me. It's not an oil or coal company. They are a company that provides a service to humanity--to people who want to use electricity." Click to watch (starts @ 5:14)
Anyone looking at Southern Company's record of pollution and political interference would be skeptical about its commitment to serve humanity. Soon continues with an aggressive rant claiming that the student isn't qualified to question his fossil fuel payments until she stops driving, using electricity, and wearing nylon.
4) Willie Soon states "I don't like to claim that I am an expert on anything," despite listing himself as an "expert in mercury and public health" for a discredited Wall Street Journal op-ed dismissing health concerns over mercury pollution from coal plants. Soon invented similar credentials for another opinion piece in the Washington Times, before he swapped back to being a 22-year veteran of "researching the relationship of solar radiation and the Earth's climate," research Dr. Soon did on the dime of oil and coal companies.
Basically, Willie Soon is an expert in whatever problems vested industries will pay him to deny. Michigan State students note how Willie Soon now refutes research indicating adverse impacts from ocean acidification, a global crisis that is married to climate change (both problems stem from humans burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere).
That's effed up. This man makes a career lying to the public, not to mention our lawmakers, about some of the most serious issues of our time. Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of 400,000 people each year and costing global GDP about $1.2 trillion, according to a report commissioned by multiple nations. 98% of actual climate scientists (a distinction Dr. Willie Soon does not earn) agree that global warming is real and primarily drive by humans burning fossil fuels like coal and oil.
Not only has Dr. Soon lied to us and our lawmakers about the seriousness of global warming--he even lied directly to Congress in 2003 about his sources of funding at a time when he was promoting his study funded by the American Petroleum Institute, the $200 million/year oil and gas lobbying group. The Guardian wrote last year:
"In 2003 Soon said at a US senate hearing that he had "not knowingly been hired by, nor employed by, nor received grants from any organisation that had taken advocacy positions with respect to the Kyoto Protocol or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change."
This is why it's crucial to demand accountability of people like Willie Soon. He is a public relations tool of oil and coal companies, and as a scientist attempting to publish in fields well outside of his expertise, that oil and coal money is crucial to recognize.
Here are some of the best examples of Soon's pseudo-science paid for by Big Oil and King Coal:
- 2003: An American Petroleum Institute-funded study claiming that the earth's global temperature hasn't risen. Three editors of the publishing journal resigned in protest over low scientific standards demonstrated by publishing Soon's work.
- 2005: A paper mis-attributing arctic temperature changes to solar variability, a thoroughly debunked notion that was funded by the American Petroleum Institute (API).
- 2007: A non-peer-reviewed paper refuting concerns over global warming's impact on polar bears, funded by API and the Charles G. Koch Foundation.
- 2009: A paper building upon Soon's 2005 research attempting to claim the sun is mostly responsible for temperature changes. This work was funded by API, ExxonMobil and Southern Company.
- 2013: Soon's ongoing "research" funding is now hidden through Donors Trust, a network used by the Kochs and other secretive interests who don't want their financial influence to be traced. Donors Trust is the sole source of almost half of recent budgets for CFACT, which paid for Soon's campus tour.
Dr. Soon's work is like a joke, but not the type you'd laugh at. While he cracks these fossil-funded zingers, reputable scientists warn that humanity is running out of time to stop climate change from self-reinforcing to the point that it spirals out of human control. As quoted by the Michigan State News, young conservatives on campus had trouble taking Dr. Willie Soon's presentation seriously:
“I’m not a science major, but I think (Soon’s presentation) has got valid points, but also other scientists who disagree with him have valid points,” Sobecki said. “I’m not crazy enough to think that six billion people don’t have an effect on climate in the world we live in.”
Science majors attending the MSU event didn't agree that Soon's points were particularly valid. See this account from a MSU Greenpeace student activist on PolluterWatch for more details.
Willie Soon’s fossil fuel-funded career
Questionable Climate ‘Science’
Dr. Soon adds Ocean Acidification Denial to his Growing list of Specialties
Soon’s Limited Audience