Fossil fuel and other corporate trade groups paid public relations and advertising firms at least $1.4 billion from 2008 to 2017 to help them win over the American public.
The total is drawn from new data that the nonprofit Climate Investigations Center compiled, which build on a 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation that found trade associations spent nearly twice as much on PR and advertising as they did on lobbying and legal services.
The data provide a “tiny peephole into the massive influence-peddling industry that hovers over Washington, D.C., and indeed the whole country,” Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, told HuffPost.
“And the oil industry,” he said via email, “leads the pack by a mile.”
While corporate lobbying gets a lot of attention, it is on these other influence services that business and energy trade groups often spend the big bucks.
Annual tax filings compiled by CIC show that the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association of the oil and natural gas industry that has worked for decades to sow doubt about the realities of climate change, spent an astonishing $663 million on PR and advertising, about 48 percent of the total, over the 10-year period. The figure dwarfs the combined $98.4 million that renewable energy trade groups, including the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industry Association, spent during the same period.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ― the corporate lobby that has aggressively fought regulations to address climate change ― spent $244 million, the second most of any energy or trade group. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity came in at No. 3, spending $121.7 million.
“Individual companies like ExxonMobil, push their political agenda through API, the National Association of Manufacturers or the Chamber of Commerce,” Davies said. “The companies can hide in the shadows and let these nonprofit charities be out front lobbying.”
Trade groups are required to report only their top five contractors to the Internal Revenue Service, so total spending is likely substantially higher. The money does not include what those associations spent on lobbying or in-house advertising paid for by individual companies.
Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University who tracks corporate spending and climate change denial groups, told HuffPost that these PR firms essentially serve as “proxy actors” for the industries that hire them, be it a coal-mining or solar company. They are the professionals that represent their clients in the court of public opinion, running what Brulle called “integrated influence campaigns” that often include creating and promoting advertising supporting the client’s position, arranging for think tanks to advocate that position, developing third-party editorials and monitoring their opposition, he said.
“I don’t think you can understand the opposition to climate action unless you take this massive amount of activity into account,” Brulle said. The PR campaigns, he added, are the “sinews of the political operations and the cultural operations surrounding climate politics.”
Chicago-based PR giant Edelman was by far the top-paid firm, raking in $358.9 million. That included $327.4 million from API between 2008 and 2012, as the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation highlighted, and an additional $16.5 million from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.
Reporting shows that Edelman’s work for API included helping to organize “Energy Citizens,” a fake grassroots campaign launched in 2009 to fight climate change legislation. Ahead of the 2012 election, API and Edelman kicked off a national ad campaign titled “I’m an Energy Voter,” which featured what look like everyday Americans calling for more domestic oil and gas production. An activist from environmental group Greenpeace famously infiltrated the “Vote4Energy” commercial shoot and exposed that the company was feeding volunteer participants their lines. Greenpeace later put out a parody of the API ad.
Edelman came under fire for its role in pushing climate change denial, and several executives and clients reportedly left the PR firm in 2015 over the company’s unwillingness to take a strong stand on climate change. Edelman and API parted ways that year. On its website, Edelman writes that it “fully recognizes the reality of, and science behind, climate change” and does “not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.”
API has also been a major client of Blue Advertising, a former subsidiary of Edelman PR, which it has paid $112.4 million since 2013. Blue was behind API’s Vote4Energy campaign ahead of the 2016 election, which included a TV ad that aired during the Olympics featuring two young “energy voters” who told viewers that America can produce more energy while protecting the environment. John Oliver did a spoof of the commercial on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”
On its website, Blue called it “an education campaign unprecedented in the industry’s history” that “focused on showcasing both the benefits oil and natural gas bring to all facets of American life as well as the industry’s innovation and technological prowess.”
API did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Wednesday.
More recently, in 2017, the American Gas Association signed a $4.9 million contract with PR firm Democracy Data & Communications, according to the CIC figures. That year, the AGA launched a fake grassroots group named Your Energy America to counter opposition to natural gas pipelines up and down the East Coast, including Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline, as HuffPost reported. Democracy Data & Communications was reportedly the PR firm behind the “astroturf” group.
For more information about public relations spending by business and energy trade associations, visit the Climate Investigations Center’s website here.