Why the politicians are powerless against Big Oil and Gas


One of the reasons that I wanted to tell the story that is my new book — Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America — is to show that there’s only one way to fight the energy giants, and that’s in a courtroom, before a jury of 12 regular citizens. And there’s a reason for that. There are three branches of government, but two of them — the legislative and the executive — tend to be wholly owned subsidiaries of the powerful energy giants. It’s a simple matter of  dollars and cents. These large corporations spend tens of millions of dollars, not just on the basics — big-time campaign contributions — but also on lobbying and even on public relations, in order to influence the voters who elect the lawmakers, the governors and the presidents.

The award-winning Center for Public Integrity published a major investigation today that looked at this last piece of the puzzle. How much Big Oil spends on polishing its image, which usually comes down to bamboozling the American people. What they found out is fascinating:

Forget lobbying. When Washington, D.C.’s biggest trade associations want to wield influence, they often put far more of their money into advertising and public relations, according to a new Center for Public Integrity investigation.

Take, for example, the American Petroleum Institute. The oil and gas industry trade group spent more than $7 million lobbying federal officials in 2012. But that sum was dwarfed by the $85.5 million it paid to four public relations and advertising firms to, in effect, lobby the American public — including $51.9 million just to global PR giant Edelman.

From 2008 through 2012, annual tax filings show, the API paid Edelman a staggering $327.4 million for advertising and public relations services, more than any other contractor. 

It’s been well-publicized how much industry spends on lobbying the government, but little is known about how much money goes toward influencing the public. In an effort to find out more, Center for Public Integrity reporters examined the tax returns for trade associations that spent more than $1 million on lobbying in 2012. The IRS requires the groups to report their top five contractors.

Overall, these groups spent about twice as much on wooing the general public than on lobbying, according to the study by CPI. This is significant because while at least there are some good-government laws that require corporations and trade groups to report what is spent on lobbying, as well as campaign contributions, there PR dollars are much more difficult to track.

If the issue of sleazy PR work for Big Oil rings a bell, you’re probably thinking of this scoop by the New York Times just last year:

WASHINGTON — If the oil and gas industry wants to prevent its opponents from slowing its efforts to drill in more places, it must be prepared to employ tactics like digging up embarrassing tidbits about environmentalists and liberal celebrities, a veteran Washington political consultant told a room full of industry executives in a speech that was secretly recorded.

The blunt advice from the consultant, Richard Berman, the founder and chief executive of the Washington-based Berman & Company consulting firm, came as Mr. Berman solicited up to $3 million from oil and gas industry executives to finance an advertising and public relations campaign called Big Green Radicals.

The company executives, Mr. Berman said in his speech, must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups. And major corporations secretly financing such a campaign should not worry about offending the general public because “you can either win ugly or lose pretty,” he said.

They will do anything to win. But yet many average folks know this. I was reminded of this fact when I had an opportunity to bring a case of radioactive dumping involving ExxonMobil a few years back. The jury listened to the evidence and awarded our client more than $1 billion for the damage — the kind of crude justice that you just don’t get in the political process. These were folks who lived in communities where the oil companies had run amok, and so they were receptive to the truth. That’s why the legal system is the last line of defense for the everyday citizen against the big corporation, and I’m proud to be a part of that.

Here’s more information about my new book, Crude Justice: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

Read the CPI report about Big Oil and other corporate spending on public relations: http://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/01/15/16596/who-needs-lobbyists-see-what-big-business-spends-win-american-minds

Check out the New York Times from last year on the underhanded tactics of oil industry PR: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/31/us/politics/pr-executives-western-energy-alliance-speech-taped.html?_r=0

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