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Keystone Academy: Where Legislators Learn the Etiquette of Serving Special Interests

  • Posted on: 2 July 2013
  • By: Connor Gibson

2012 ALEC Academy attendees. Photo via twitter

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.

Industry: 

PR Watch on the Election's Fossil Fuel Advertising: Hurricane Sandy Endorses Obama

  • Posted on: 5 November 2012
  • By: Connor Gibson

Hurricane Sandy as seen from Space. From The Guardian.

This guest article was written by Mary Bottari and Sara Jerving of the Center for Media and Democracy, crossposted from PR Watch.

The fossil fuel industry has paid a hefty price for the privilege of framing the political discourse about America's energy future. Hundreds of millions have flowed into campaign coffers from energy companies attempting to purchase complete freedom to drill, frack, and burn. Huge "dark money" groups, the Koch's, Karl Rove, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, join dozens of oil and gas industry associations in pouring money into television ad campaigns demanding "energy independence," while trashing wind and solar.

Things were going great. Even though hurricanes had slammed into two Republican National Conventions in a row, no one seemed to notice, and Romney's only mention of climate changes was as a punchline. No reporter asked a single climate change question of Romney or Obama during the debates. Even though the U.S. now had 175,000 wind and solar jobs, pro-green energy forces were disappointed in Obama and were less active. For big oil and gas the White House and the Senate were within reach. Critically, they had to move fast before the majority of voters started to not only notice the changing climate patterns, but really started to worry about them.

Then something happened that completely scrambled the board.

Hurricane Sandy blew New Jersey out of the water and inundated New York. The massive storm threw the Romney campaign completely off-message. Not only did they have nothing to say about the serious issue of climate change and the potential for more frequent and more devastating monster storms, the Romney-Ryan message of "smaller government" and "fewer first responders" sank in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

In an unprecedented, last-minute move, Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg threw his support behind Obama yesterday. His statement "A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change" lays out the seriousness of the situation. "In just 14 months, two hurricanes have forced us to evacuate neighborhoods -- something our city government had never done before. If this is a trend, it is simply not sustainable," Bloomberg states.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Polluting High Rollers Dominated the Airwaves

Until Sandy rolled in, the airwaves were completely dominated by the fossil fuel industry.

According to The New York Times, by mid-September there had already been a $153 million spent on TV ads that promoted the fossil fuel industry. The analysis showed that energy topics were mentioned more frequently than any other issue besides jobs and the economy. This figure is four times what clean energy advocates were spending.

The numbers stand in sharp contrast to the last presidential election in which the green energy industry and other forces spent $152 million compared to $109 million spent on fossil fuel interests.

Broadly, the ads promote fossil fuels in the context of jobs, domestic security, and energy prices. Combined, they try to convince Americans that "energy independence" should be the nation's top priority. Yet they neglect to point out that solar and wind also create high-wage jobs and energy independence too. According to Open Secrets, oil and gas campaign contributions are at historic highs and are more lopsided than ever before with 90 percent of the funds going to Republican candidates. Top contributors include William Koch's Oxbow Corp, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Koch Industries, who have already contributed $59 million to federal candidates. Leading coal mining corporations, such as Alliance Resource Partners, Cumberland Development, and Murray Energy, have kicked in $11.6 million to federal candidates.

But the money does not stop there. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision has opened the door to unprecedented spending by "dark money" nonprofits, SuperPACs and new constellations of trade associations that are on track to spend over $1 billion to "educate" voters about the issues, including the urgent need to extract and burn every last bit of fossil fuel.

  • Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, a "dark money" group and his American Crossroads SuperPAC, pledged to spend $300 million in this election, a large percentage on fossil fuel spin. There are dozens of ads in the presidential race and in Congressional races. One Crossroads ad blames Obama for higher gas prices. Another slams Obama for putting the Keystone Pipeline on hold. While Crossroads GPS does not disclose its donors, American Crossroads PAC does and it is loaded with fossil fuel contributors, including Alliance Resources Partners CEO Joe Craft who has given the group $1.25 million, Petco Petroleum which has given the group $1 million, and over $2 million from TRT holdings, which controls Tana Exploration, a Texas-based oil and gas company.
  • David Koch's Americans for Prosperity "dark money" group, pledged to spend over $100 million this year in support of Republican candidates. The group's ads also attack Obama and clean energy when talking about Solyndra and the stimulus bill which allegedly sent some clean energy jobs overseas. More recently they have pushed pro-coal "Stand with Coal" ads in Ohio and Virginia.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an industry association and dark money group, has pledged to spend more than $50 million on the election and has fielded energy ads in key races such as Ohio with a messages like "Shale Works for Us," in promotion of expanding drilling for shale oil and gas.
  • The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal industry front group, has pledged to spend some $40 million on coal related ads. One ad, targeting Ohio's Sherrod Brown, criticizes the Senator for endorsing "higher energy taxes" linking him to "Washington's costly energy policies."
  • The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade association, has pledged some $40 million this campaign season on efforts to push the expansion of oil and gas drilling. Two of their primary campaigns, "Vote 4 Energy" and "Energy Citizens" attempt to exert the aura of a grassroots base pushing for fossil fuel development. Their ads feature "energy voters" parroting fossil fuel talking points.
  • The American Energy Alliance, a "dark money" group run by former Koch Industries lobbyist Tom Pyle, is spending millions alleging that Obama's policies would lead to $9 a gallon of gas and a recent ad airing in Ohio and Virginia harps on Obama for comments he made about coal industry in 2008.

Rarely are voters seeing any counter-narrative. Alternative energy forces have spent only $2 million, and some environmental groups are weighing in with modest resources. New ads by the League of Conservation Voters saying U.S. Senate Candidate Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) will stop the offshoring of U.S. jobs and "will end big oil subsidies" -- with cheerful Wisconsin windmills and pumpkins in the background -- started only in the final days of the campaign. Is it any wonder that candidates have been able to ignore the serious issues?

"To ignore a global crisis that has been fully understood for over 15 years and is quickly slipping out of control shows just how far coal and oil money have drowned out constituents all the way from the Statehouse to the White House," said Greenpeace's Connor Gibson.

What Does the Fossil Fuel Industry Want?

Although environmentalists are not happy with what they perceive as Obama's timidity, the fossil fuel industry is apoplectic about the steps he did take as president. They have leveled blistering criticism about Obama's efforts to slow down the Keystone Pipeline; they don't like his new auto emissions standards; they are unhappy with new EPA mercury emissions rules for boilers; and they don't like the fact that permits for drilling and fracking on federal lands have slowed.

The industry is looking for a victory in the battle over TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline project, which would carry heavy tar-sands crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, exporting some portion of the oil overseas. Construction of the pipeline was confronted by an active movement of citizens concerned about the impact that the pipeline would have on communities and on the threat burning the tar sands posed to the planet. Burning all the available tar sands would be "game over" for the climate, according to NASA scientist Jim Hansen, one of the nation's most respected climate change experts. Romney has vowed to give the project clearance on his first day in office, while Obama has approved a portion of the segment, and has allowed for further environmental impact study of the northern portion.

The industry also wants carte blanche to use federal lands for the highly controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" for shale oil and gas. Fracking has the documented potential to contaminate drinking water sources and foul both air and land -- in addition to spoiling millions of gallons of fresh water as part of the drilling process.

The industry is calling for a streamline on the permitting process for fossil fuel development on all lands. While industry's ads have argued that increased drilling will decrease gas prices, global gas prices largely follow international trends.

The industry is also keen to hold onto to the billions of fossil fuel subsidies it receives each year from the federal government. According to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuel subsidies from the government are 12 times greater than renewable energy.

No matter who wins the presidency, there will be major battles on each of these issues. The question is, after years of fossil fuel propaganda, how engaged will the American public be in the effort to save the planet from the fossil fuel industry?

The Price of Fossil Fuel Propaganda

According to author and activist Bill McKibben, "This will be the warmest year in American history. It came with the warmest month in American history, July. It featured a statistically almost-impossible summer-in-March heat wave. It brought us a drought so deep that food prices have gone up 40 percent around the world. It brought us this completely unprecedented mega-storm, the biggest storm, as one weatherman put it yesterday, to hit New York since its founding in 1624," McKibben told Time.

The problem according to McKibben is that "there's been a 20-year bipartisan effort in Washington to accomplish nothing, and it reached its comedic height this summer when our presidential candidates, despite barnstorming through the warmest summer in American history, seemed not to notice. The reason is the incredible power of the fossil fuel industry. Until we can diminish that power, I imagine nothing very large will be done to deal with climate."

Hurricane Sandy has launched a full frontal attack on fossil fuel industry propaganda.

It is up to us to follow in her path.


Will Dooling contributed to this article.