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Investigation Exposes Revolving Door Between Fossil Fuel Lobbyists and Politicians

Climate
Investigation Exposes Revolving Door Between Fossil Fuel Lobbyists and Politicians

There was much speculation about Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's motivation for pushing the first full Senate vote this week on approving the Keystone XL pipeline. Some revolved around her trying to improve her chances in the Dec. 6 Senate runoff against Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy (neither candidate got a majority on Nov. 4). Others say she's likely to lose anyway and that her grandstanding was directed at oil and gas companies that might provide a lucrative landing spot for her after she leaves the Senate in January.

Politicians and government staff become lobbyists and vice versa, and this new report follows their trails. Image credit: DeSmogBlog/Republic Report

That latter speculation isn't idle, as a new report from DeSmogBlog and Republic Report indicates. Natural Gas Exports: Washington's Revolving Door Fuels Climate Threat lays out how corporate lobbyists swap roles with politicians and government officials constantly, leading to excessive influence by corporations on lawmakers, the Obama administration and federal agencies. It describes how this revolving door eased the way for Big Oil to land four permits for liquified natural gas (LNG) export facilities from the Obama administration since 2012. And while the report, the first salvo in an ongoing investigation of what it calls "the LNG exports influence peddling machine," looks specifically at LNG export facilities, its conclusions could be applied to the entire machinery of climate denier influence in Washington DC.

"The 2014 U.S. congressional midterm elections are now complete, and the Republican Party controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate," says the report. "Some have forecasted that this could have catastrophic impacts for progress on climate change and environmental protection in general. But below the radar in Washington DC—little noticed by the media or public—a major change on energy policy has already been long in the making. Corporate lobbyists have helped to engineer a transformative shift with little scrutiny or meaningful debate: plans to extract U.S. natural gas and export the gas overseas to more lucrative markets. This shift—if fully realized—will continue to transition the U.S. into a resource colony, where our communities, homes, air and water are exploited and polluted so that large multinational corporations can pursue ever-higher profits by selling U.S. fossil fuels abroad."

Four permits for LNG export facilities have already been approved, with many more in the pipeline. To feed these facilities and as domestic gas prices rise as a result of export, there will likely be increased pressure to expand fracking dramatically.

"Big oil and gas companies have engineered this policy outcome through shrewd hiring of Washington insider lobbyists and public relations professionals: Obama and Bush Administration veterans, as well as former Capitol Hill staffers, who have moved through Washington’s revolving door to high-paying influence peddling jobs," the report authors write.

They go on to enumerate the officials who formerly served both administrations or as congressional staffers, then moved on to new jobs representing LNG companies where they now lobby their former colleagues. Conversely, the report calls out former fossil fuel industry lobbyists who are now elected officials chairing key congressional committees. It describes how many of those officials and lobbyists work specifically within the Democratic Party, often working with those who give lip service to addressing climate change while working behind the scenes to further the interests of fossil fuel companies."Natural gas interests and the LNG lobby have in fact gone on a hiring spree targeting Democratic officials and those close to the administration," they say.

The report includes an endless stream of revealing nuggets like this one: "When lawmakers convened for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity in July 2014, they were greeted with packets reminding them of the event’s sponsors: Cheniere119, the LNG firm that was the first to win an export license from the federal government, and ANGA, the lobbying association pushing for more exports."

These influence peddlers have greased the regulatory process that goes through the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), streamlining it with inadequate attention to citizen concerns about community safety, health and climate impacts, the report says. It cites Dominion's Cove Point facility in Maryland as an example. The proposed and now approved LNG export facility led to a wave of organizing, public testimony, protests and rallies by citizen and environmental advocacy groups like Calvert Citizens for a Health Community and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, charging FERC with ignoring their input in the rush to approve it. The report names former Democratic Congressman Lewis F. Payne, Jr. of Virginia and three former congressional staff members who lobbied for Dominion on behalf of Cove Point.

While activists said their input on Dominion's Cove Point LNG export facility was being ignored, lobbyists for Dominion were pushing to speed up the approval process. Photo Credit: Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Meanwhile, a bill was introduced in Congress called H.R. 6, which would have required the DOE to speed up the approval process for LNG export facilities. The report explains that two staff members of the House committee hearing the bill were former LNG lobbyists and that among the 57 corporate or corporate-backed entities lobbying for it were "Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Anadarko, Statoil, Eastman Chemical, FirstEnergy Corp, General Electric, Halliburton, Dominion Resources, Dow Chemical, Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, Sempra Energy, Marathon Oil and BP." The bill passed the House but not the Senate.

"Unfortunately, as lobbying and influence peddling heats up in Washington and elsewhere, so too does the planet," report authors Lee Fang of Republic Report and Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog conclude. "Relentless fracking and opening the export floodgates with U.S.—harvested shale gas can only make the planet hotter still."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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