A pumpjack sits on the outskirts of town at dawn in the Permian Basin oil field near Midland, Texas. (Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON – Public relations firms aligned with oil and gas companies have tested the limits of their industry ethics and caused major slowdowns to federal climate change policy, Democrats on a U.S. House panel said at a Wednesday hearing.
The firms’ conduct went beyond the bounds of ethical public relations work, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee and industry experts said. Oil and gas groups have spent exorbitant sums to promote their agenda and drown out opposing views, resulting in energy policy that has deterred action on climate, they said.
“The fossil fuel industry is strategically misleading members of all of our constituencies to line their own pockets, stymie climate action and disrupt the democratic process,” New York Democrat Paul Tonko said.
Climate activists have also faced harassment as they worked on campaigns opposed by fossil fuel companies, Anne Lee Foster, a former spokeswoman for environmental group Colorado Rising, told the committee.
No representatives from public relations firms testified at the hearing. But several Republican members, and an expert from the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina-based nonpartisan conservative think tank, defended the oil and gas industry’s right to broadcast their views.
Foster described being followed and harassed by protesters while working on a campaign in favor of a 2018 Colorado ballot measure to establish buffer zones between homes and other sensitive areas and oil and gas operations.
On one occasion, a man she did not know persisted in following her around the state Capitol, she said. Others started appearing at cafes she and her group frequented. One volunteer was followed home, she said.
“I was harassed during the first week of signature-gathering when men carrying signs targeted me, yelling at potential signers and standing between the individual and myself,” she testified to the committee. “There are many accounts of particularly women being followed around by multiple protesters for extended periods. Many folks reported being intimidated and scared.”
The oil and gas industry was linked to the harassment, she said.
A leaked document from Anadarko Petroleum showed the company was soliciting text messages to report the location of activists collecting signatures, Foster said Wednesday. A Colorado Public Radio reporter tested the number and found that protesters against the initiative appeared within 15 minutes of learning canvassers’ reports.
Public relations firms were not linked to the harassment campaign described by Foster in her testimony.
But the firms otherwise overstepped accepted practices to give a false impression that oil and gas operations were less destructive for the climate, Christine Arena, the founder of strategy and design firm Generous Ventures and researcher on greenwashing, told the panel. That practice is sometimes known as greenwashing.
“Most of these ads, they don’t contain blatant lies,” she said. “They contain a blend of factual omissions and distortions.”
The industry has long relied on public relations campaigns to boost its image and advocate for its interests, she said.
“But what’s new is the intensity of its pursuits, the complexity of its operations and the vast resources it deploys to bulldoze regulatory obstacles and its path,” Arena said.
“Ordinary citizens possess neither the specialized knowledge needed to detect the myriad of factual omissions and distortions included in greenwashed ads, nor the financial resources needed to make their voices heard over the industry’s extensive lobbying and public relations efforts.”
Republicans call hypocrisy
Republicans on the panel dismissed the hearing as an election-year attempt to score political points at the expense of the oil and gas industry and accused Democrats of hypocrisy for seeking to limit fossil-fuel industry public relations but not pro-climate action groups.
“This hearing is just another attempt to vilify the nation’s most significant energy sector,” ranking Republican Blake Moore of Utah said.
The committee should instead be focused on developing more energy sources to bring costs down, Moore said.
Moore and other Republicans also objected to what he said was the hearing’s premise that environmental groups could run aggressive public relations campaigns, but that fossil-fuel companies who did the same were engaged in misinformation or disinformation.
“It’s extremely concerning to me and hypocritical that we’re even having this hearing today,” Georgia Republican Jody Hice said. “This is totally bogus, totally hypocritical.”
John Locke Foundation CEO Amy O. Cooke said there are tradeoffs involved in working to lower carbon dioxide emissions. People are concerned, for example, about the potential that renewable energy could lead to less reliable energy for consumers, she said.
“I’ve been on the ground working with those who have concerns and stories to tell regarding these tradeoffs,” Cooke said. “They have a right to tell their story, and the public has a right to hear them. But they’re often shut out or marginalized by legacy media, big tech and government.”
The committee also published a report Wednesday, mostly made up of primary documents showing oil and gas companies’ public relations strategies.
They included campaigns to highlight energy companies’ efforts to cut emissions through biofuels, for example. Arena testified that such campaigns overstate those efforts.
Subcommittee Chair Katie Porter, a California Democrat, said at the close of the hearing that the panel was unable to obtain documents from FTI Consulting, whose work includes strategic communications according to its website.
The panel has “initiated the subpoena process” for FTI, Porter said. Negotiations over document sharing are ongoing, she said.
FTI spokesman Matthew Bashalany said in an email that the company is cooperating with the committee.
“The work FTI Consulting’s strategic communications professionals provide for clients in all sectors of the economy is consistent with our company’s climate and net-zero commitments,” he wrote. “We continue to cooperate with Committee, just as we have since receiving its initial request.”
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