Inside Big Oil’s ‘Conspiracy’ to Kill West Coast Climate Laws

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A rig pumps oil in the unincorporated Windsor Hills area of Los Angeles adjacent to homes Friday, Feb. 12, 2010.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

A rig pumps oil in the unincorporated Windsor Hills area of Los Angeles adjacent to homes Friday, Feb. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

What do Oregonians for Sound Fuel Policy, Californians for Energy Independence and Save Our Jobs all have in common? They’re all astroturf organizations that were “activated” by one fossil fuel lobbying group to derail green initiatives in West Coast states. Bloomberg Businessweek, which is usually not prone to hyperbole, called it a “conspiracy.”

In all, there are 16 of these supposedly grassroots groups that are actually part of a coordinated and well-funded campaign to make sure Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Nevada water down current environmental initiatives and hold off on implementing new ones. This revelation comes from a PowerPoint presentation put together by a major oil lobbying group, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), that was obtained by environmental activists and passed on to Businessweek and Northwest Public Radio. (WSPA says that those of us who think this is news are “gullible.”)

“In 2014, WSPA has activated a significant number of campaigns and coalitions that have contributed to WSPA’s advocacy goals and continue to respond to aggressive anti-oil initiatives in the West,” the PowerPoint explains. “Each campaign was structured to address specific state and local issues and provide an excellent opportunity for the petroleum industry to educate consumers and voters in all of WSPA’s five Western states.”

The PowerPoint provided visuals for a presentation made by the group’s president, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, to the Washington Research Council, a conservative Seattle-area business group, last month. The presentation revealed how comprehensive WSPA’s plan is, taking on many issues — and purporting to represent various constituencies — across the five states. The efforts were largely focused in three of them — California, Oregon and Washington — that have been making some of the biggest strides in North America toward tackling climate change.

Precisely what the trade association means when it says it “activated” these 16 groups depends on whom you ask. WSPA told Businessweek that (in reporter Brad Wieners’s words) it “has not created any opposition groups but has funded those that share its sincere concerns.” But a spokesperson for one of the groups, Oregonians for Sound Fuel Policy, acknowledged to The Oregonian that the fossil fuel industry was “the convener of this group.”

In any event, the fossil fuel lobby, by WSPA’s own admission, is playing a key role in these groups’ activities.

There’s nothing new about business interests working through an array of front groups to push policy change. “Time and time again, we’ve seen the desperation of the fossil fuel industry manifest itself in baseless attacks launched by faceless corporate PR entities,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an email to Moyers & Company. “In fact, there is a cottage industry that has developed to do the dirty work for dirty fuels by smearing public health and climate advocates and trying to pass off big spending as public support.”

But the 16 WSPA-affiliated groups reflect the idea that sometimes it isn’t necessary to win voters over to your side. Instead, all it takes to affect policy is to confuse them about the nature of a given law or piece of legislation — that is, to present enough conflicting information that they don’t know where they stand.

Consider what industry-backed groups are calling California’s cap-and-trade market, which on January 1, 2015, will be extended to cover vehicle fuel: a “hidden gas tax.” One group, California Drivers Alliance, delivered 115,000 signatures opposing the “tax.” It’s a clever bit of marketing: It conjures the image of government bureaucrats trying to take your money without telling you via a tax on something you buy every week.

In fact, the $0.09 or $0.10 more per gallon that drivers will face is designed to function like a tax — that part is true. But it is neither “hidden” nor specifically designed to punch the average Californian in the gut. In fact, in 2010, the average Californian voted to keep the program in place when the fossil fuel industry mounted a campaign against it.

We tax behaviors that do societal harm, and driving big gas-guzzlers is one of them — vehicle emissions account for 28 percent of the US contribution to global warming.
California’s carbon pricing scheme, which until recently has only affected carbon-intensive industries (and which has not seemed to have a negative effect on the state’s economy), is a market mechanism of the sort favored by the Reagan administration — and of the sort that companies like ExxonMobile assume is inevitable nationwide, and are already planning for. It’s the same idea behind taxing cigarettes: We tax behaviors that do societal harm, and driving big gas-guzzlers is one of them — vehicle emissions account for 28 percent of the US contribution to global warming.

Climate change, as we know, will do all sorts of bad things like submerge low-lying island nations in the sea and cause more elderly people to die in heat waves here at home. Regardless of whether we confront it now or later, it will cost money — and the science is clear that confronting it earlier will mean a less volatile planet in the future. That’s not to say that policies to address climate change should be exempt from nuanced debate. But schemes like California’s, to tax (i.e., price carbon) for the greater good, are embraced by economists across the political spectrum and around the world.

But they’re often opposed by big businesses whose products are to be phased out (again, remember cigarettes?). “When we took the lead out of gasoline, when we took the sulfur out of diesel … there were always, I will call them, either predictions or threats by the oil companies that the price at the pump would go up and people would be hurt,” Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the board that oversees the cap-and-trade market, told The Sacramento Bee. “Gasoline is cheap relative to other things you can buy and relative to overall inflation in the economy.” She also pointed out that all kinds of things affect the price of gas (including, for instance, the whims of OPEC). The cost of the carbon trading program will get “hidden in the noise.”

But if it doesn’t — well, that’s the point. Over time, as smoking became cost prohibitive and the health effects become more widely known, fewer people did it. And over time, as spewing CO2 from your tailpipe becomes more costly, fewer people will buy Hummers and industries will find more sustainable ways to move their goods. The “tax,” affirmed by California voters, acknowledges that we all must play our part in averting climate change’s worst effects.

But doing so will hurt the profits of fossil fuel companies, and for those comparatively small gains for a relatively small number of investors, they’re fighting tooth-and-nail with a campaign made to resemble grassroots consumer advocacy.

John Light is a reporter and digital producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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