Dirty Politics for Dirty Fuels

from Wildlife Promise

(as published in National Wildlife Federation’s National Wildlife, Aug/Sept. 2009)

Many of you wrote letters and placed phone calls to your members of Congress in support of the American Clean Energy and Security Act to protect wildlife from global warming, create clean-energy jobs and improve the nation’s energy security. As a result, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill on the eve of the 4th of July weekend. It was a close fight, and every letter and call counted.

While letters were pouring in from real voters like you who want a new energy future, a surprising number of calls and faxes were being sent to undecided lawmakers from phone numbers outside of their districts urging a vote against the bill. Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello received a letter that supposedly was sent from a local chapter of the NAACP, asking him to oppose the measure. On further investigation, Perriello discovered that this letter along with five others purportedly sent from different organizations were all forgeries. It was a fraud that corrupted the very heart of America’s democracy—the connection between members of Congress and their constituents.

In reality, the NAACP recently joined in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation to support passage of the legislation. During their Centennial Convention in July, NAACP delegates recognized the economic opportunities that will flow from global warming solutions, stating in a resolution that “solving the climate crisis can create 5 million ‘green’ jobs that will be in places where they are needed most.”

The fake NAACP letter and other phony messages sent to lawmakers were products of outright deception created by companies such as Bonner & Associates, a lobbying group known to create “strategic grassroots”—an artificial version of grassroots lobbying known in Washington, D.C., as “Astroturf.”

In recent years, large corporate interests have successfully deceived Congress and the public by paying for such Astroturf campaigns. Here is how it’s done: Corporations hire firms like Bonner & Associates, which in turn make up fake organizational names or borrow real organizations’ letterheads, hire professional callers who improperly identify themselves with made-up groups and urge unsuspecting residents to call their members of Congress to oppose important reform legislation that they misrepresent as bad. Bonner & Associates refused to reveal its corporate clients that funded their deception, but the firm has represented a number of big energy companies in the past. Congress is now investigating their activities.

This is merely the latest fraud by the major energy companies to mislead the public. On a recent visit to Prince William Sound in Alaska, I saw scientifically-collected samples that demonstrate much of the oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill remains where it went when it was washed off the surface of the rocks. It continues to damage fish and wildlife habitat and contaminate our food chain. The oiled sound is no longer the pristine place it once was and most of the canneries in the town of Cordova are gone.

When the pipeline and port in Prince William Sound were built, the oil industry promised President Nixon they would have a response team, oil booms and other equipment ready to address any spill that might occur. They didn’t.

In the days after the accident, as the oil spread more than 800 miles through the sound and along the Alaska Coast, Exxon promised to clean it up and make the 30,000 people living in the region’s fishing villages “whole.” They did neither. Instead, Exxon cheated innocent people of their livelihoods. For the next 20 years, the company fought bankrupt fishermen, cannery owners and other innocent victims all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the end, Exxon paid only pennies on the dollars lost. Many of the original victims died waiting; others lost everything dear to them.

There is an often-repeated quote, first attributed to President Abraham Lincoln, that says, “You may fool all of the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Well, the executives of big oil along with the dirty coal industry believe they can fool all Americans all the time.

Oil companies will do everything they can to stop the clean energy and climate legislation passed in the House from advancing in the Senate. Once again, we expect a close vote. Call your two U.S. Senators, tell them that you are a real constituent and urge them to pass the bill to protect our world, create millions of new jobs and restore a strong economy built on a domestic energy future. Let’s work together to prove President Lincoln right.