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The oil and gas industry is paying PR firms to create the appearance of “grassroots” campaigns that back the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

Aerial footage of the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline (Nolafilms/Youtube)

A key public relations tactic that the fossil fuel industry uses to advance its interests is the creation of fake grassroots campaigns that support its oil and gas projects. The way this often works is that companies or industry associations pay communications firms to run commercials, publish op-eds, commission reports, and prop up so-called “consumer” groups. All this creates the appearance of popular backing of controversial fossil fuel projects. These efforts are a problem because, even as they distort the truth and lack transparency, they shape media narratives and offer cover to industry-backed elected officials who are trying to advance corporate interests.

These oil and gas industry PR efforts – some call them “astroturf” efforts – are thriving in Louisiana right now, as the battle around Bayou Bridge, the controversial 163-mile oil pipeline being constructed across the state, heats up.

For example, in July a letter appeared in the Advocate, the largest newspaper in Louisiana, that applauded a new law that criminalizes civil disobedience that targets “critical infrastructure” – a loose term for just about anything – tied to fossil fuel projects in the state. The law, which went into effect on August 1st, is a response to rising protests around Bayou Bridge and mirrors similar moves in other states.

The supportive letter in the Advocate was written by Link Browder, who claimed to be the executive director of the Consumer Energy Alliance. Browder praised the Bayou Bridge Pipeline and criticized the “anti-energy activists” who have “thrown every wrench they can” to prevent its construction “through increasingly aggressive protests, harassment and sometimes even criminal acts of vandalism and trespassing.” He defended the constitutionality of the new law by equating civil disobedience against new fossil fuel infrastructure with violence. “Some claim the legislation is a violation of First Amendment rights,” he wrote, “but such rights should not be based on or rooted in violence.”

But what, exactly, is the Consumer Energy Alliance?  As we’ve reported on before (here and here), the CEA poses as a grassroots organization with different “regional directors” that supports oil and gas projects. But in reality it is merely a PR campaign run by a communications and lobbying firm and financed by the fossil fuel industry.

The CEA members and funders include a who’s who list of fossil fuel industry bigwigs. Its 2017 annual report highlights its efforts to promote oil and gas interests and defend new fossil fuel projects through a host of branded campaigns that include names like “Pipelines for America” and “Modernizing Minnesota” (which ran commercials during the Super Bowl promoting Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipelines). In Louisiana, it even claimed to be “a national advocate for families and consumers of energy,” in a press release that endorsed the April 2018 “Oil & Natural Gas Industry Day” organized by Grow Louisiana, a fossil fuel business coalition.

But far from a grassroots organization of energy consumers, the CEA is actually just an ongoing media blitz run by an industry communications firm based in Houston called HBW Resources. CEA has paid nearly $5 million to HBW to orchestrate its PR campaigns (CEA has likely paid HBW more – we only have records from 2012, 20132014, and 2016).

It appears that every “leader” of the CEA is an HBW Resources employee or executive. CEA pretends to have regional chapters with different regional directors, but these chapters are PR creations run by people at HBW. Here is a slideshow map that shows how HBW employees and executives fill the ranks of the CEA:

Even CEA’s mailing address is actually just the office address of HBW Resources.

Michael Zehr, HBW’s Vice President of Federal Affairs and its key DC lobbyist, has lobbied heavily for CEA since 2012. Zehr has lobbied for a range of other fossil fuel industry companies and associations, including Noble Energy and the Association of Energy Service Companies. CEA has paid Zehr and HBW nearly $1 million to lobby over the past seven years.   

Both owners of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline – Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66  – are CEA members (i.e., funders). In addition to Link Browder’s letter defending the pipeline protester criminalization law, he has published other pro-oil and gas industry op-eds and letters in the Louisiana press over the past year. For example, on November 12, 2017, he defended a state constitutional amendment that prevents property tax assessments on fossil fuel projects during their construction, and on March 15 of this year he published an op-ed in support of the Bayou Bridge.

What’s really interesting, though, is a letter that Browder published in the Advocate on January 2, 2018. Titled “Great Strides for Energy,” the letter surveys positive developments for the fossil fuel industry in Louisiana in 2017, including the expansion of offshore drilling. Browder, in fact, published the exact same letter template in Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger on December 10, 2017, with the only differences being that he replaced “Louisiana” with “Mississippi” and substituted some different state-specific information. Here is a screenshot of the two letters side by side:

All this lends credence to the argument that the CEA is another expression of a coordinated plan by the fossil fuel industry to use astroturf messaging, that gives the appearance of being “grassroots” and “local,” to advance its interests.

Browder himself started working for HBW in 2014 but took a hiatus from working with HBW from February 2017 to August 2017 to serve as “director” (official records show his title as “clerk”) of the House Committee on Energy Resources for Texas House of Representatives. (This 2013 expose highlights the close ties between the energy industry and the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources). Browder’s journey from working for the oil and gas lobby, then to dealing with energy issues in state government, and back to working for the same fossil fuel front group, reflects the revolving door problem between government and industry.

CEA isn’t the only industry-backed effort to portray grassroots support for fossil fuel projects. A few others include:

  • Louisianans for Energy says it’s a “a grassroots effort to defend Louisiana’s oil and gas economy and jobs” – but, for good reason, it doesn’t list any of its funders, who are almost certainly fossil fuel companies and business associations (one, for example, is the Louisiana Propane Gas Association, whose board is dominated by gas company executives). It’s “Latest News” page celebrates the oil and gas industry while criticizing protesters; it’s “Resources” page contains just two links, and one of them is an LSU Center for Energy Studies report co-authored by David Dismukes. As we’ve written, Dismukes has a long history with the fossil fuel industry – among other things, he runs a private consulting group that works with oil and gas clients – while the LSU Center for Energy Studies is advised by a 25 person council almost entirely made up of oil and gas executives and lobbyists.
  • Grow Louisiana is an oil and gas industry group that postures as a defender of Louisiana’s “children” and “families.” It has a slew of funders that include, among others, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (whose board includes Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and over a dozen more major fossil fuel companies) and the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (whose board contains dozens of representatives from the state’s oil and gas companies). It’s function as a PR wing for the state’s oil and gas industry is revealed in its blog posts, which contain stories about Chevron supporting music festivals and Shell providing school supplies. As with CEA, Grow Louisiana’s 990 forms show that it is run by a group of consulting firms – the Wolf Group and the Ehrhardt Group, for example, raked in over $1.9 million in 2016 and over $1.2 million in 2015 –  that create the facade of a grassroots organization of “consumers”. Grow Louisiana’s leadership is just consultants – its board members are PR and marketing employees of the Ehrhardt Group.  
  • Entergy’s astroturf antics are perhaps the most widely known and most egregious in Louisiana. In October 2017, the energy company literally paid dozens of actors to show up at hearings in New Orleans for a proposed power plant. The actors wore bright orange shirts that read “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power.” Some even made comments. “They paid us to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power,” said one of the actors.

These industry astroturf efforts around Bayou Bridge come against the backdrop of intensifying opposition to the project and legal challenges to its construction. Among the range of protest actions against the pipeline recently: L’eau Est La Vie has staged tree sit-ins on the pipeline’s path; activists have attached themselves to construction equipment; one landowner is suing Energy Transfer Partners to try to keep the pipeline off of his property; and solidarity rallies attacking the pipeline’s financiers have been occurring – for example, an action in Providence, Rhode Island targeting Bank of America. Last week, police arrested four water protectors – even tasering one – who were protesting against the pipeline.

Moreover, construction continues on the pipeline even after a judge ruled that “the state erred when it issued a permit to Bayou Bridge” because it “did not adequately consider protocol in case of a pipeline emergency that could affect residents who live along the pipeline route” (a federal judge subsequently overruled the Louisiana judge).

Multi-million dollar PR efforts like the Consumer Energy Alliance astroturf campaign are ways that the fossil fuel industry attempts to influence public opinion and provide cover to pro-corporate politicians to advance its interests. For this reason, it’s important that researchers, journalists, and organizers try to make the reality of these campaigns as top-down, industry funded efforts as transparent as possible.