Conflict of interest: State Department contractor on Keystone XL study lied about ties to TransCanada & oil industry

ERM employee tried to cover up deceit online

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The company hired by the State Department to review the environmental impact of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline lied on its conflict of interest disclosure form about its work for pipeline builder TransCanada and other oil companies, according to research released today by Friends of the Earth and The Checks & Balances Project.

Friends of the Earth’s investigation of the business connections of Environmental Resources  Management — the London-based international consulting firm that conducted a study for the State Department claiming the pipeline will not cause significant environmental harm — uncovered an extensive dossier of publicly available documents that show:

  • On its conflict of interest disclosure forms, ERM lied to the State Department about not working with TransCanada. In fact, ERM and TransCanada have worked together at least since 2011 on another pipeline project in Alaska.
  • ERM lied again when it said it had no relationship with any business that would be affected by construction of the Keystone XL, which would carry tar sands oil from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. In fact, ERM’s own publicly available documents show that the firm has business with over a dozen companies with operating stakes in the Alberta tar sands.
  • In recent weeks, as calls grew louder for an investigation of the numerous conflicts of interest tainting the State Department’s handling of the Keystone proposal, an ERM employee tried to cover up his work for the Alaska Pipeline Project, a partnership between ExxonMobil and TransCanada.

“From the beginning, the State Department’s review of Keystone has been plagued by influence peddling and conflicts of interest,” said Ross Hammond, senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth. “This is more serious: If ERM lied about its relationship with TransCanada, how can Secretary Kerry, President Obama or the American people believe anything the company says about the pipeline’s environmental impact?”

Hammond said ERM’s lies call into question the entire Keystone XL environmental review process. Friends of the Earth and The Checks & Balances Project have called for an investigation by the State Department’s Inspector General into how ERM was hired given these conflicts of interest. In the wake of the new evidence that ERM lied on State Department disclosure forms, the groups are asking Secretary of State John Kerry to throw out the ERM study and not allow it to determine the Obama Administration’s decision on whether to issue a pipeline permit.

In papers filed with the State Department in June 2012, ERM certified that it had “no existing contract or working relationship with TransCanada” for at least three years. But public records show that TransCanada, ERM and an ERM subsidiary, Oasis Environmental, have worked together at least since 2011 on the Alaska pipeline project.

On its conflict of interest form, ERM also certified that it had no “direct or indirect relationship … with any business entity that could be affected in any way by the proposed work.” But ERM’s own publicly available documents show that in the period 2009-2012 the firm was working for over a dozen of the largest energy companies involved in the Canadian tar sands which stand to benefit if Keystone is built, including Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Total and Syncrude.

More recently, on May 14 the LinkedIn profile for Mark Jennings listed him as Socioeconomic Advisor for ERM. Among his roles for the company were since 2011, “Consultant to ExxonMobil Development Company for the Alaska Pipeline Project,” for which Exxon and TransCanada are partners. But less than a month later, his LinkedIn profile made no mention of his work for ERM.

The State Department’s review of Keystone XL has been sharply criticized by the EPA and the scientific community for failing to consider the climate and other impacts of the pipeline. The Checks and Balances Project and Friends of the Earth said it is impossible for the State Department to fairly evaluate whether the pipeline is in the national interest when its environmental review was conducted by a company with deep ties to the oil industry.

“Secretary Kerry must halt this flawed review process and direct the State Department to conduct a full, unbiased review of the Keystone XL pipeline’s impact,” said Gabe Elsner, director of the Checks and Balances Project. “In addition, the State Department Inspector General should pursue a full investigation into how a contractor with clear conflicts of interest was allowed to write the U.S. government’s assessment of Keystone XL and why the State Department failed to bring those conflicts of interest to light. Finally, the State Department should determine appropriate disciplinary actions for ERM to discourage contractors from lying to the federal government in the future.”

Donors Trust: The Secret Group Funding Attacks on Clean Energy & Climate Science

New research shows almost $120 million flowed from two secretive groups, called “Donors Trust” and “Donors Capital” to 102 groups denying climate science and attacking clean energy. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reports that “the funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing ‘wedge issue’ for hardcore conservatives.”

Greenpeace research (.pdf) into the tax records of these organizations shows that publicly-disclosed funding for climate denial groups from foundations connected to the Koch Brothers began to decrease in 2006. But, funding from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund soared from less than $20 million per year to almost $35 million per year from 2006 to 2009. Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace said to the Guardian, “These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There’s no transparency, no accountability for the money. There is no way to tell who is funding them.”

Many of these organizations funded by Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund are also working to attack clean energy. Goldenberg notes in a companion article that recipients, including groups like the Heartland Institute and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), have received millions from the two secretive organizations.

AFP, which received $7.6 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund in 2010 (43% of its budget), drove anti-wind efforts last fall, leading a coalition of fossil fuel-funded groups to write a letter calling on Congress to block tax credits for wind energy. The Washington Post reported in November 2012 that the Heartland Institute, which received $1.6 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund in 2010 (27% of its budget), joined with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push model legislation to state legislators in an effort to eliminate state clean energy standards across the country. In addition, organizations that are part of the State Policy Network (SPN), which received $4.8 million from Donors Trust in 2010 (36% of its budget), published reports bashing clean energy standards that are now likely being used to attack clean energy policies in states across the country (like Kansas and Ohio).

Furthermore, the Guardian revealed in a third story that Donors Trust bankrolled the Franklin Centre for Government and Public Integrity, a newly established organization founded in 2009, which is running a campaign to “stop state governments moving towards renewable energy.” The Franklin Centre has strong ties to American’s for Prosperity and the Koch Brothers, including former staff members of both AFP and a Koch Family Foundation according to a PR Watch investigation.

Are these attacks ideological? Or are other fossil fuel interests like the Koch Brothers funding these efforts to stop a potential market threat? We know that fossil fuel corporations that have a financial incentive to stop the growth of the clean energy industry and their benefactors and foundations have funded many of these groups over the years. With an ability to hide the money trail through groups like Donors Trust, I would bet fossil fuel interests continue to fund fake grassroots campaigns and front groups to attack clean energy.

Report: Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page

Update: The report was covered in E&E News (subscription), Mother Jones, Think Progress and DeSmogBlog. Click-through for more on our groundbreaking research on fossil fuel-funded groups in the media.

Fossil fuel-funded front groups, commonly referred to as “think tanks” or “institutes”, have been secretly influencing the media and the public on energy issues by moving pro-fossil fuel messaging.

These groups, and their proponents, have been quoted on average every other day for the past five years in 60 of the largest mainstream newspapers and publications. Despite having received millions of dollars from fossil fuel interests, such as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, these groups’ financial ties to the fossil fuel industry are rarely mentioned.

The Checks and Balances Project’s report, “Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page,” uncovered the extent of this deception by focusing on the 10 most prominent fossil fuel front groups’ traction in 58 of the largest daily newspapers, the Associated Press and Politico. This analysis does not include mentions in broadcast, radio or online publications for these 10 advocacy groups.  As a result, this report only scratches the surface on these fossil fuel-funded groups’ influence on the energy debate.

Fossil fuel-funded advocacy groups’ failure to divulge their ties to the fossil fuel industry in one story is regrettable, but doing it in over 1,000 stories appears to be planned deception.

Here is a summary of the report findings (download a PDF of the report here):

1. Fossil fuel interests have provided at least $16.5 million to 10 organizations from 2006-2010.
Organizational Recipients of Funding

2. Fossil fuel-funded organizations used targeted, focused messaging to support fossil energy sources and attack clean energy.

Media Mentions by Topic

3. Within a five-year period, these groups and their personnel have been mentioned on energy issues at least 1,010 times in major daily newspapers, averaging four mentions a week – or more than once every other day.

Number of Energy Issue Placements for Each Organization 2007-2011
4. Media descriptions of these organizations (beyond their name) were not included in a majority of mentions. If described, descriptions typically focused on the organizations’ function (e.g., “think tank”) or location (e.g., “DC-based”), not their motivation. Almost all of the rare descriptions of motivation used self-identified ideology (i.e., “conservative,” “free market” or “libertarian”), not their financial ties to fossil fuel interests.

How Organizations Are Described

5. Media outlets routinely omitted any mention of the financial ties between the 10 organizations and the fossil fuel interests providing funding. The link between fossil fuel funders and organizations was described only 6% of the time.

Major Metropolitan Dailies with No Mention
6. These organizations received heavier coverage in influential newspapers that help shape the national agenda, including Politico, The Washington Post, USA Today and The New York Times.Appearances in National Newspapers

7. Despite being labeled as “free market” or “libertarian,” these organizations focus their criticism almost exclusively on clean energy policy investments. They make few – if any – references to government support for fossil fuels.

These findings will hopefully encourage more disclosure in our nation’s top media outlets. The Checks & Balances Project suggests a simple question to ask pundits and experts being quoted, cited or published in the media: “Do you get money, directly or indirectly, from interests that stand to benefit from what you are saying?”

With more transparency, members of the American public will know when an opinion may be biased and will be better informed on these critical questions about our energy future.

Anti-Clean Energy ‘Pundit’ Unhinged By Basic Question: Are You Bankrolled By Fossil Fuels?

By Gabe Elsner

The fossil fuel lobby aggressively uses lobbying and propaganda to block public health protections, manipulate the energy debate, defend their massive government handouts and attack clean energy sources that threaten to displace them.

No tool goes unused: Traditional lobbying, “Super PAC” donations, software that floods opinion websites with favorable comments, and a network of well-funded front groups and commentators who launder fossil fuel industry talking points.

Robert Bryce and his employer, The Manhattan Institute, are among the most aggressive of a growing class of talkers underwritten by fossil fuels to write commentary talking down clean energy and playing down the cost and public health problems of fossil fuel dependence.

Bryce has written four books and appeared in hundreds of articles and opinion pieces, from the conservative National Review, to mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio and PBS. Mr. Bryce is quickly securing the top position as the leading marketer for fossil fuels.

Bryce, a former journalist, has consistently been able to position himself as an intellectually independent energy expert. He has never acknowledged fossil fuel underwriting – though Manhattan Institute records show that since 1985, it has received $6.7 million from fossil fuel interests, including the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil.

I asked Bryce if he had financial ties to the fossil fuel industry after his debate appearance before the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners conference on Monday. Not only did Bryce refuse to answer the question, he also launched into an angry, finger-pointing tirade saying that I’d “made up” the amount of fossil fuel support documented by Manhattan Institute records.

I break it down here:


And the raw video is here.

As 50 current and former journalists told The New York Times in a petition we launched last year, it’s fine for Bryce to echo fossil fuel talking points. But it’s not acceptable for him to hide that he’s doing that for the fossil fuel industry and leave himself positioned in bylines as somehow intellectually honest. Based on records and Bryce’s response, it seems pretty clear that Bryce is functioning as a paid spokesman of the natural gas industry (and other fossil fuels). But wearing that on his sleeve would lose his “echo chamber” effect because he wouldn’t be the seemingly independent voice that fossil fuel industries need to say things they don’t have the credibility to say themselves.

Note: Based on our experience from last year’s True Ties petition, this will draw a pretty aggressive response from Bryce’s fellow travelers, such as Washington Examiner Editorial Page Editor, Mark Tapscott (CPAC “conservative journalist of the year”), and National Review Online Editor, Ed Craig, a former Manhattan Institute PR guy. To put their mind at ease, we do answer the funding question here. We’re unabashedly clean energy, and we’d love to get support from clean energy industries (potential funders – please consider!).

Announcing the Western Lands and Energy Dashboard!

The sheer scale of the Big Oil rhetoric-fest that was unleashed after President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address was tremendous. But as we read through clips and blogs, we realized there is a lot of poetry out there, but no prose. So we decided to create a one stop shop of easily accessed, easily read facts and figures about American oil and gas development and extraction on western lands. And so the Western Lands and Energy Dashboard was born.

President Obama spoke at length about our domestic energy resources and plan during his SOTU. He talked about how the federal government has opened millions of acres for oil and gas development over the last three years, how oil production is at its highest level in eight years. He informed Americans that in 2011, the U.S. relied less on foreign oil that in the last 16 years. This was all great news.

In fact, he said, “We’ve subsidized oil companies for a century.  That’s long enough.  (Applause.)  It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable…”

You could almost here the collective gasp from the executive offices of BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell. I’m sure that wherever Rep. Doug Lamborn was – he boycotted SOTU, but his absence didn’t negatively affect the evening – his cell phone started ringing. In fact, Big Oil’s entire spin machine went into overdrive.

Kathleen Sgamma at Western Energy Alliance talked about obstacles; API representatives called the President’s speech a smokescreen. Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, used the words “delay, obstruction and obfuscation” in a column in the Washington Examiner.

The new dashboard is an impartial counter to the rhetoric of industry lobby groups such as API and Western Energy Allaince, and the politicians who have deep industry ties as a result of major oil and gas contributions to their campaigns.

The facts and figures of the oil and gas industry and public lands development are presented in a simple and clear way for media and policymakers alike.

Last year, under the Obama administration, oil companies reported $104 billion in profits and benefited from the highest level of drilling activity since the Reagan era. This is the sort of information the oil and gas industry and their supporters in Congress neglect to mention. The goal of this project is to set the record straight.

Visit our dashboard and see for yourself. We intend for the it to be an unbiased source of facts and figures. And help yourself to any of the slides; you’ll notice we didn’t even brand them.

Watching the Gas Bubble?

In recent months, it appears that top national media outlets have started to cast a more skeptical eye at how “abundant” shale gas really is.

The New York Times led the charge last year by analyzing “hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents.” The Times concluded that shale gas has inherent risks, the geology varies, and that data is sparse. According to their report:

In the e-mails, energy executives, industry lawyers, state geologists and market analysts voice skepticism about lofty forecasts and question whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves. Many of these e-mails also suggest a view that is in stark contrast to more bullish public comments made by the industry, in much the same way that insiders have raised doubts about previous financial bubbles.

Despite attacks from the gas front group, Energy In Depth (EID), other outlets are beginning to confirm The New York Times original reporting. It’s far from clear that shale gas is magically “abundant.” Yesterday, Bloomberg reported similar conclusions in an article entitled, “Shale Bubble Inflates on Near-Record Prices”:

  • “Surging prices for oil and natural- gas shales…are raising concern of a bubble as valuations of drilling acreage approach the peak set before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.”
  • The “quirky nature of shale geology means the risks are high that an investment made in a sparsely drilled prospect will go bust.”
  • “[O]verseas investors are paying top dollar for fields where too few wells have been drilled to assess potential production.”
  • Hunt “has only drilled ‘a handful’ of wells in its Eagle Ford shale acreage, which means it doesn’t yet know how extensive or rich those holdings are.” The same problem exists in other shale formations around the country.

DeSmogBlog conducted a deeper comparison of the two reports showcasing the similarities between The New York Times and Bloomberg reports. It is clear now that EID lead mislead the public with unnecessary attacks on the Times’ Drilling Down series.

And, a new Reuters story quotes “public health professionals and advocates” arguing that the “public health effects of shale gas development need to be rigorously studied as production rapidly spreads in the United States.”

Here’s why this is important:  Without looking at the costs of contamination of public water supplies – as one industry study skipped altogether – it’s impossible to meaningfully evaluate the costs and benefits of shale gas. In other words, why talk about “abundance” without talking about cost?

Sen. Sanders takes on oil speculators

Mad Money’s Jim Cramer and Sen. Bernie Sanders take on oil speculators:

“These are some of the most powerful people in the world. They make huge amounts of campaign contributions. They have lobbyists running around all over this place,” [Sen. Saunders] said. “What they do not want is the American people to understand that the price that they’re paying at the gas pump is artificially inflated because of the excessive speculation.”

Read the full article here.

Disclosing the ‘true ties’ of op-ed writers

Today, 50 current and former journalists, media professors and media professionals joined The Checks and Balances Project to ask the New York Times to end the pervasive practice of industry-funded pundits placing opinion pieces that favors their funders, without these financial ties being disclosed to readers.

Through http://www.trueties.org, petitioners can ask the New York Times to end the masquerade of bought and biased pundits by ensuring that op-ed submission finalists disclose their financial ties – and reveal those conflicts to readers.

Here’s how this masquerade works. Earlier this summer, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Robert Bryce – an increasingly prominent proponent of fossil fuels and an aggressive critic of clean energy technologies – under the byline of “senior fellow” at the Manhattan Institute. Here’s the problem – Mr. Bryce’s employer, the Manhattan Institute, has received nearly three million dollars in funding from fossil fuel interests like ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. Nowhere was Bryce’s ties to fossil fuels told to readers.

The Trueties.org campaign asks the New York Times to set the industry standard and ensure their readers get the full story. By implementing better disclosure standards, the New York Times can stop the “Bryce Masquerade” and ensure better transparency.

Bought and biased pundits have the right to be heard; but we should know their true ties.

Go to www.trueties.org to see the full list of journalists who’ve signed the petition, to sign the petition and to learn more.

Andrew Morriss: Bought and Biased Pundit on MSNBC

On Monday, Andrew Morriss of the Mercatus Institute was a guest on the Dylan Ratigan Show. In a recent profile of the Industrial Wind Action Group, the Checks and Balances Project highlighted Mr. Morriss one of the many “experts” using disinformation to attack renewable energy.

The Mercatus Institute has received millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry, and like most front groups, uses folks like Mr. Morriss, a Mercatus senior fellow, to promote fossil fuel talking points while posing as unbiased experts.

In addition, Mr. Morriss’ most recent book, The False Promise of Green Energy, was published by the Cato Institute, which received over $15 million of fossil fuel funds. In the book, he bashes the clean energy industry, claiming he wants a “free market.” True to form, he is quiet on the fact that the fossil fuel industry not only receives billions of dollars more in direct subsidies every year, but total fossil fuel subsidies could be as high as $52 billion per year (.pdf).

Fortunately, Mr. Ratigan and his panel were able to hit back on the true cost of fossil fuel subsidies. Watch the excerpt below as Professor Morriss tries to dodge the question as Dylan Ratigan and his guests ask about subsidies for the dirty energy industry. Click here to watch the full video.

Obama: Oil and gas corporations are not people

Last night on CNN, President Obama responded to Mitt Romney’s position that “corporations are people,” and singled out oil and gas corporations – identifying them as companies and not people who deserve government handouts.

“Well, if you tell me that corporations are vital to American life, that the free-enterprise system has been the greatest wealth creator that we’ve ever seen, that their corporate CEOs and folks who are working in our large companies that are creating incredible products and services and that is all to the benefit of the United States of America, that I absolutely agree with,” the president said.

“If, on the other hand, you tell me that every corporate tax break that’s out there is somehow good for ordinary Americans, that we have a tax code that’s fair, that asking oil and gas companies, for example, not to get special exemptions that other folks don’t get, and that if we’re closing those tax loopholes somehow that that is going to hurt America, then that I disagree with. “

These are the same loopholes that Big Oil has been lobbying to protect. The industry has done a good job of influencing Congress to preserve the $15 billion in corporate welfare they get while programs that help everyday Americans, such as Medicare, are starving for government support.

Even as a deficit spending crisis loomed over the nation, closing tax loopholes and ending subsidies to Big Oil were a non-starter for Congress. As we previously reported, at the height of the deficit ceiling debate – when asked, Sen. Barrasso (R-WY) would not vote down government handouts to oil and gas. Instead, he called for mass overhaul of the United States tax code.

The market has demonstrated it is time for subsidies to end. Contrary to its claims of needing corporate welfare, Big Oil has enough cash to invest heavily in the newly formed Super Committee. According to OpenSecrets, the six Republicans on the committee have collected a total of $1,029,024 in oil and gas contributions in the 2010 and 2012 cycles. The six Democrats have taken in $308,950 in oil and gas money.

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