At the DNC, Fossil Fuel Lobbyists Shack Up With the Fourth Estate

Corporations, politicians and the media get cozy in Philadelphia—and face pushback.

Kate Aronoff July 28, 2016

California condor at bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (L); an oil rig near the sespe Condor sanctuary (R).

PHILADEL­PHIA — At the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in Philadel­phia this week, it seems a stick­er is all it takes to keep you out of a room — at least the rooms brought to you by the fos­sil fuel industry.

"If it would be in poor taste for Marlboro to underwrite panels on cigarettes’ health impacts, is the American Petroleum Institute any better suited to host them on climate change and the future of energy policy?"

Collin Rees, a cam­paign­er with the cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty group Oil Change Inter­na­tion­al, tried to attend a forum on ener­gy and the envi­ron­ment Mon­day spon­sored by The Atlantic and the Amer­i­can Petro­le­um Insti­tute (API). He says he was denied entry and banned from future events after staff found stick­ers — bear­ing the words Sep­a­rate Oil and State” — in his back­pack. Min­utes lat­er, secu­ri­ty was escort­ing Rees off event property.

We’re com­mit­ted to con­duct­ing thought­ful and peace­ful con­ver­sa­tion,” Atlantic spokes­woman Anna Bross, who was on site Mon­day, told me lat­er. We were check­ing for things that might be dis­rup­tive to that.”

As the lob­by­ing arm and trade asso­ci­a­tion of the fos­sil fuel indus­try, API reli­ably out­spends their fos­sil fuel com­pa­ny mem­bers in lob­by­ing Con­gress for fos­sil fuel-friend­ly poli­cies. At this year’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can con­ven­tions, it teamed up with The Wash­ing­ton Post, The Atlantic and Politi­co to host a series of edu­ca­tion­al events.

If it would be in poor taste for Marl­boro to under­write pan­els on cig­a­rettes’ health impacts, is the Amer­i­can Petro­le­um Insti­tute any bet­ter suit­ed to host them on cli­mate change and the future of ener­gy pol­i­cy? Throw a stick in Philadel­phia this week and you’ll hit a con­flict of inter­est. In an elec­tion sea­son where mon­ey in pol­i­tics has risen to the top of the nation­al debate, the oil and gas lob­by is one of many grasp­ing on to main­tain its influ­ence on both sides of the aisle.

Accord­ing to its web­site, API rep­re­sents 650 mem­bers involved in all aspects of petro­le­um,” includ­ing Exxon­Mo­bil, BP Amer­i­ca Inc. and Chevron. Sen­ate Democ­rats recent­ly accused API of per­pe­trat­ing a sprawl­ing web of mis­di­rec­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion to block action on cli­mate change.” Doc­u­ments revealed by Wik­iLeaks found that the group, too, had paid pri­vate intel­li­gence firm Strat­for some $13,000 a month in 2010 for reports on how to under­mine and divide anti-extrac­tion activists in groups like Greenpeace.

In response to why the mag­a­zine decid­ed to work with API on this week’s talks, The Atlantic Wash­ing­ton edi­tor Steve Clemons said that, The spon­sor of this event had noth­ing to do with the con­tent,” and had zero to do with who was invit­ed or who was on stage,” which Bross con­firmed lat­er: Atlantic has full edi­to­r­i­al con­trol in terms of what’s on the stage. The under­writer plays no role in that process.” She declined to say how much mon­ey changes hands in under­writ­ing relationships.

Sign of desperation?’

I attend­ed two Atlantic-API events this week. Both were intro­duced by Louis Finkel, API’s vice pres­i­dent of gov­ern­ment affairs. His job involves inte­grat­ing API’s advo­ca­cy resources — fed­er­al affairs, state affairs, mobi­liza­tion, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions — in sup­port of the organization’s pri­or­i­ty pub­lic pol­i­cy objec­tives,” mak­ing its DNC and RNC series a nat­ur­al extension.

Dur­ing the con­ven­tions, news out­lets and oth­er com­pa­nies rent out spaces sur­round­ing par­ty venues for pol­i­cy talks on a range of sub­jects that bring togeth­er experts and offi­cials from dif­fer­ent fields. Oth­er Atlantic event spon­sors this week include the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and Maker’s Mark, a whisky pro­duc­er. For The Wash­ing­ton Post, Politi­co, The Atlantic and oth­ers, these kinds of spon­sor­ships and under­writ­ing agree­ments help cov­er the cost.

The price to the out­let, Bross says, is brand­ing and the abil­i­ty to say a few words as the events begin. Though staffers main­tain that their out­lets reserve total edi­to­r­i­al inde­pen­dence, these cor­po­rate back­ers quite lit­er­al­ly set the stage, with logos fea­tured promi­nent­ly on the event back­drop and lob­by­ists, like Finkel, left to frame the dis­cus­sion to the audi­ence. (API’s logo — Vote 4 Ener­gy,” from its polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion wing — popped up else­where on Philadel­phia streets this week, plas­tered onto news­stands downtown.)

In con­trast to par­al­lel pan­els API host­ed at the RNC, this week’s events are not stacked exclu­sive­ly with cli­mate deniers — though almost none of the con­ver­sa­tion orbit­ed around cli­mate change itself. Events this week include a num­ber of indi­vid­u­als with ties to the fos­sil fuel indus­try, but also a few earnest sup­port­ers of a tran­si­tion to clean ener­gy, like Rep. Jer­ry McN­er­ney (D‑Calif.) and Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee.

The group Cli­mate Hawks Vote has launched a peti­tion call­ing on Demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives to boy­cott API-spon­sored events dur­ing the con­ven­tion. Now boast­ing more than 12,000 sig­na­tures, the peti­tion states, We expect the mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to stand by their pro­fessed prin­ci­ples and boy­cott these events.”

When we spoke, Brad John­son, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cli­mate Hawks Vote Civic Action, empha­sized how proud he and his orga­ni­za­tion are of how far the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has come on climate.

Democ­rats have cre­at­ed their most ambi­tious cli­mate agen­da yet, call­ing for a com­plete tran­si­tion to clean ener­gy by 2050 and for the Unit­ed States to con­tribute ful­ly to meet­ing the Paris Agreement’s most ambi­tious cap on warm­ing at 1.5 degrees Cel­sius. And though ques­tions remain on how Hillary Clinton’s own stance on cli­mate could meet this goal, API’s agen­da — to go full tilt on fos­sil fuel extrac­tion and stymie reg­u­la­tion — stands direct­ly in its way.

Atten­dees to API-backed events this week have includ­ed high­er ups and con­fi­dants to the Clin­ton cam­paign, from Neera Tanden of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, to Hillary for Amer­i­ca (HFA) Chair­man and for­mer White House Chief of Staff John Podes­ta, to HFA ener­gy pol­i­cy advis­er Trevor Houser. As cam­paigns are being fought and won to keep big oil out of muse­ums and oth­er cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, the API’s role in the con­ven­tion has gone rel­a­tive­ly unno­ticed. Democ­rats’ par­tic­i­pa­tion, John­son says, serves to nor­mal­ize the fos­sil fuel industry’s role in pol­i­cy con­ver­sa­tions on cli­mate and energy.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is our nation’s only legit­i­mate shot here at fight­ing back the tremen­dous cor­rupt­ing influ­ence and pow­er of the fos­sil fuel indus­try in pol­i­tics,” John­son explains. We think this is a lapse in judgement.”

In Wash­ing­ton D.C., John­son notes, tides are start­ing to turn away from the fos­sil fuel indus­try and the cli­mate of denial­ism they helped build. I’m hope­ful that the bla­tan­cy of these events is a sign of des­per­a­tion,” he said.

Our Ener­gy Fortune’

Cli­mate Hawks Vote was­n’t the only one to take issue with API’s spon­sor­ship. At a Politi­co-API event on Wednes­day, activists dis­rupt­ed the pan­el over pan­elist and Col­orado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s sup­port for frack­ing. A ban­ner — hung out­side — read, Frack­en­loop­er Ban Fracking.”

We need every­one on this pan­el to take a strong stance against frack­ing,” one pro­test­er burst out at the panel’s end, joined by a hand­ful of oth­ers and not­ing the extrac­tive process’ impact on indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. You’re killing your constituency.”

In con­trast to the dis­cord on Wednes­day, the mood on an all-male pan­el Mon­day seemed to be one of con­sen­sus. All agreed that cli­mate change con­sti­tutes one of the most press­ing issues of our time, diverg­ing on how — and how quick­ly — to try and slow it. Finkel’s open­ing remarks point­ed out how cru­cial nat­ur­al gas pro­duc­tion has been to dri­ving down the Unit­ed States’ green­house gas emis­sions. (This, as Bill McK­ibben has point­ed out, is not true.)

Rep. Hen­ry Cuel­lar (D‑Texas) and Yale Envi­ron­men­tal Law and Pol­i­cy pro­fes­sor Daniel Esty, espe­cial­ly, were quick to denounce the utter­ly polar­ized” con­ver­sa­tion on cli­mate and ener­gy, lament­ing that the extreme sides have tak­en over. Tran­si­tion­ing off of fos­sil fuels, they said, would need to be a grad­ual process.

Why not involve the indus­try a lit­tle bit more?” Cuel­lar asked. I’m hop­ing the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion will be more prac­ti­cal in allow­ing the indus­try to have a say.” Cuel­lar has been a major advo­cate for frack­ing in his home state, and his cam­paign com­mit­tee has tak­en in more than $124,000 from the oil and gas indus­try — its top donor — in the last year.

Esty has served as a sus­tain­abil­i­ty con­sul­tant for com­pa­nies like Coca Cola and Unilever, and is the co-author of a series of books enti­tled Green to Gold,” on how cor­po­ra­tions can use sus­tain­abil­i­ty to go from bad guys who made good,” while con­tin­u­ing to turn a profit.

You can­not do a big thing in our soci­ety with a one-par­ty out­look,” Esty railed, in response to a prod­ding ques­tion from John­son on the ethics of API’s sponsorship.

The panel’s fram­ing offers a mir­ror — or exam­ple — of the fos­sil fuel industry’s new approach to talk­ing about a warm­ing world. As Politi­co itself report­ed, API — under threat of grass­roots pres­sure to keep fos­sil fuels buried — recent­ly cre­at­ed a task force to over­haul its mes­sag­ing around a host of cli­mate measures.

API mem­ber Exxon­Mo­bil has been read­ing the tea leaves, too. At the end of June, the com­pa­ny announced that it had dou­bled down on efforts to pass a car­bon tax. The dec­la­ra­tion coin­cid­ed with a New York Attor­ney Gen­er­al Office inves­ti­ga­tion into the oil giant’s attempt to deceive the pub­lic about the exis­tence of cli­mate change, unearthed by a lengthy inves­tiga­tive report released by Inside Cli­mate News last year.

To light­en the mood, per­haps, for­tune cook­ies were offered at the entrance of Monday’s pan­el, with mes­sages about Our Ener­gy For­tune.” Mine informed me that More than 99.999% of oil & prod­ucts shipped by pipeline arrive safely.”

Hand­outs placed on tables explored the poten­tial impacts of Pro-Ener­gy Poli­cies” and Reg­u­la­to­ry Con­straints,” with­out fur­ther detail on either cat­e­go­ry. The lat­ter, appar­ent­ly — accord­ing to an API hand­out — will suck $133 bil­lion from the Unit­ed States’ GDP and kill 830,000 jobs by 2035.

I want­ed to ask API about those num­bers, as well as a slew of oth­er ques­tions. But API has not respond­ed to mul­ti­ple requests for com­ment. Finkel, who was present at both pan­els I attend­ed, declined to com­ment in per­son. The com­mu­ni­ca­tions staffer I spoke with in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. said that get­ting a com­ment from API this week would be tough. The reason?

Every­one is in Philadel­phia,” and their sched­ules are packed.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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