Revealed: Big Oil’s war on climate

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Every day, it looks increasingly like the next couple of years are going to bring a pitched battle over the future of our environment — arguably the most pivotal time since the early 1970s, the era of the first Earth Day and the creation of the EPA. Industry is more determined than ever to keep U.S. fossil fuel production at its current historically high rate, to keep prices low and to keep the spigot of supply flowing freely. Environmental activists want the world to wake up to the dangers of greenhouse gas pollution, which mostly comes from burning those fossil fuels, and the ongoing crisis of climate change.

So something’s got to give, right? Big Oil is spending millions of dollars (out of its billions of dollars in profits) to make sure that it’s not them. And their efforts are going well. Earlier this month, America elected a GOP Senate majority that has pledged to force President Obama’s hand on the tar-sands-oil-carrying Keystone XL pipeline and roll back EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants. But even with that political ace in the hole, Big Oil still  wants to shoot down efforts on the state and on the local level to regulate greenhouse gases — efforts that could cut into their profits.

Consider the state of California, one of the more progressive entities when it comes to taking on environmental problems. There, activists recently got their hands on a PowerPoint presentation from a powerful lobbying group, the Western States Petroleum Association, that looks to use industry-funded think tanks, bogus “Astroturf” citizens’ groups, and other entities to mislead the public about the impact of climate legislation.

As Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported:

The deck also reveals how WSPA seized on a line from a California Air Resources Board memo that the cap-and-trade program for gas and diesel that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, may affect gas prices in order to launch an ad campaign warning of a “hidden” gas tax that devious Sacramento pols are sneaking through.

“The environmental community is used to sky-is-falling analysis from fossil fuel interests in response to clean energy initiatives, so that part isn’t surprising,” says Tim O’Connor, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, to whom I sent the deck for comment. “But it’s eye-opening to see the lengths [the WSPA] has gone to push back rather than move forward. I don’t think anybody knew how cross-jurisdictional, cross-border, and extensive their investment is in creating a false consumer backlash against [climate legislation].

In California, O’Connor points out, “we have 70 percent voter approval on clean energy alternatives, so it’s offensive and atrocious they’re using these supposed everyday citizens—who are really paid advertisers—to change the public discourse.”

Reheis-Boyd’s Powerpoint deck, entitled “WSPA Priority Issues,” starts by announcing that these are the “the best of times.” Crude oil production in the U.S. is higher than it has been since 1997, with imports subsequently reduced to a 20-year low, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The next six slides describe why these are also “the worst of times” and include images of demonstrators protesting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, demanding government action on climate change, and pictures of professor-cum-activist Bill McKibben and billionaire Tom Steyer, with the latter quoted as saying he wants to “destroy these people”—i.e., people like the members of WSPA.

Then there’s a slide with all the different groups that WSPA has funded to make it seem as if there’s a broad group in three states opposing a series of initiatives to reduce carbon pollution from fossil fuels. The most clever of these is the “Stop the Hidden Gas Tax!” campaign. Who, after all, wants that?

The truth, of course, is that most of the public wants the government to enact and carry out programs that will offset the impact of climate change — and ensure that the Earth will be left in good shape for their grandchildren. But that’s part of the issue here: The more that the public gets behind sound environmental legislation, the more that Big Oil is likely to resort to dirty tricks. Remember, it was just this fall that a secret tape recording leaked out in which public relations guru Richard Berman advised oil industry executives to dig up embarrassing “dirt” on environmentalists and use other sleazy tactics to thwart the climate change movement. And it’s no secret why they’re doing this: They can’t win on a level playing field.

Read the Bloomberg Businessweek article on the secret Big Oil Powerpoint presentation: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-11-25/revealed-the-oil-lobbys-playbook-against-californias-climate-law

Here’s the New York Times on Richard Berman’s plan for Big Oil to use smear tactics: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/31/us/politics/pr-executives-western-energy-alliance-speech-taped.html

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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