In Washington, D.C., special interests spend millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions. But the influence infrastructure reaches far beyond Capitol Hill, according to a new report by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) that calculates that the biggest trade associations have spent $1.2 billion on public relations (PR) and advertising between 2008 and 2012, to shift public opinion and pressure lawmakers.
Over the past couple of decades, special interests from the coal, oil, utilities, and other energy industries have routinely used lobbying, public relations, and other means to impact decisions that could affect their businesses. Most Americans already know that lobbying and influence play a big role in the legislative process, especially in Washington, D.C. However, this new report reveals that a large portion of trade association spending goes to PR firms and advertising.
According to the report, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry trade group:
“…spent more than $7 million lobbying federal officials in 2012. But that sum was dwarfed by the $85.5 million it paid to four public relations and advertising firms to, in effect, lobby the American public — including $51.9 million just to global PR giant Edelman.
From 2008 through 2012, annual tax filings show, the API paid Edelman a staggering $327.4 million for advertising and public relations services, more than any other contractor.”
API spent the most on public relations and advertising, but other energy-related spending brings the total for energy and natural resources associations tracked by the report to $430 million between 2008 to 2012.
In the electricity industry, the Energy and Policy Institute has tracked the utility industry’s campaign to stop solar net metering over the past two years. The Center for Public Integrity’s latest report documents that Edison Electric Institute has spent $2.8 million on public relations and advertising between 2008 through 2012. However, according to EEI’s latest filings from 2013 (not included in the CPI report), the trade association paid Edelman nearly $1.1 million for public relations or advertising support.
Furthermore, EEI spent a total of $74 million on independent contractors (including Edelman) from 2008 through 2013. EEI’s spending on contractors includes:
- R&R Partners, which received a contract worth $500,000, is an advertising, marketing, public relations, and public affairs firm that also has Arizona Public Service, which attacked distributed solar last year, as a client.
- Democracy, Data, & Communications, a public affairs firm that’s been exposed for astroturfing (setting up fake grassroots groups including in New York to support fracking), received over $500,000 and also had a contract of nearly $300,000 from API in 2012 and 2013.
- GC Strategic Advocacy (now known as Goddard Gunster), a public relations firm that claims to be “the most successful issue advocacy firm in America”, had a contract totaling $1.6 million in 2008 and 2009.
As the spending exemplifies, EEI is working to influence public opinion and policy through public relations and public affairs campaigns. In 2013, we uncovered that EEI worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to distribute a model bill targeting net metering and distributed solar energy as the first assault in EEI’s long-term strategy to address business competition from solar. EEI’s Vice President for Political and External Affairs, Brian McCormick, “worked with [ALEC] on the resolution” attacking net metering while EEI sponsored ALEC’s 2012 States and Policy Summit for $20,000 and spent an additional $39,667 on ALEC in 2013.
EEI is also pursuing an advocacy strategy that seeks to influence key political groups across the spectrum. According to our analysis of the trade associations tax forms, EEI spent $570,000 to fund Governors’ Associations and other political associations of state government leaders from both political parties.
And, EEI funded over 150 non-profits and political groups, many (but not all) of which work with specific constituencies. In total, the organization spent nearly $5 million dollars in the six years tracked by the Energy and Policy Institute. However, spending on these non-profit and constituency groups has increased in recent years, from an average of $500,000 in 2008-2011 to $1 million in 2012 and $1.8 million in 2013. The list of organizations that EEI has contributed to includes the American Legislative Exchange Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Coal Utilization Research Council. See the full breakdown of spending below.
EEI’s public relations and advocacy playbook looks a lot like the actions taken by tobacco companies to deny the health impacts of smoking or fossil fuel companies to deny that climate change is a problem. Since the utility trade association released their report, “Disruptive Challenges”, on the threat of distributed solar energy in January 2013, EEI has launched a full-scale campaign against solar power. The utility trade group has spread misinformation that solar energy will cost non-solar users, despite reports in California, Mississippi, and Nevada showing that solar energy saves money for all ratepayers by avoiding the costs of building big power plants and additional transmission lines.
In the upcoming documentary, Merchants of Doubt, inspired by the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Robert Kenner (Director of Food Inc.) details a familiar story of special interests injecting uncertainty into the public debate to protect their markets. The tobacco, chemical, and fossil fuel industries have all used the “doubt playbook” to delay action on public health and environmental issues like second hand smoke, the ozone hole, and climate change. Now the utility industry seems to be using similar PR and public affairs tactics to attack solar as expensive or bad for ratepayers when the evidence shows that solar energy delivers economic benefits across the board.
See a detailed breakdown of EEI's political and PR spending at the Energy and Policy Institute's website.