Energy and climate rallies – real or astroturf?

Energy rallies organized by coal and oil industry.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Thousands rallied at a Houston theater yesterday to protest a new energy-climate bill pending in Congress. But was that "energy citizens" rally for real -- or just a bought-and-paid-for "astroturf" public relations event in the city that made the faux grass famous?

"Astroturf"campaigns that aim to mimic spontaneous grassroots public reactions -- rallies and public gatherings -- to public policy are on the rise in the late August muggy heat, many say.

Astroturf questions lurk behind news coverage of a spate of rallies often portrayed as spontaneous citizen outpourings about pending energy and climate legislation, but which may actually have much more to do with corporate PR muscle aimed at influencing policy.

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During the healthcare debate, angry citizens shouting at US Senators made some speculate that some showing up for the town hall-style meetings reflected not broad public sentiment but perhaps corporate interests.

Now, even as the heated healthcare debate holds center stage, some analysts say the energy industry is taking a page from the healthcare debate playbook and creating or mobbing rallies, parades, and other events pretending to be a spectrum of concerned citizens.

Target: US senators returning home for their late-August congressional recess.

Despite signs and T-shirts, the Houston rally of more than 3,000 people – which was sponsored by a group calling itself Energy Citizens -- actually had a boatload of funding and logistical support from the oil and gas industry, according to an American Petroleum Institute (API) memo leaked late last week by the environmental group Greenpeace.

Jack Gerard, API's president and CEO, said in the copy of the memo [PDF] released by Greenpeace:

The objective of these rallies is to put a human face on the impacts of unsound energy policy and to aim a loud message at those states' US Senators to avoid the mistakes embodied in the House climate bill and the Obama Administration's tax increases on our industry.

The memo was addressed to chief executives whose companies are members of API. It touted the use of a major event planning firm and identified 11 states where rallies could be held for maximum impact on the senators, who will vote on the climate-energy legislation in September.

One key, Mr. Gerard wrote, would be ensuring that company employees show up:

The measure of success for these events will be the diversity of the participants expressing the same message as well as the turnouts of several hundred attendees. In the 11 states with an industry core, our member company local leadership -- including your facility manager's commitment to provide significant attendance -- is essential to achieving the participation level that Senators cannot ignore. In addition, please include all vendors, suppliers, contractors, retirees, and others who have an interest in our success.

Some analysts say they've seen all this before -- and add that it will likely continue in the near  future because it's effective.

"What we're seeing here [with API's push] is an inherently deceptive campaign," says Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy, an independent watchdog group in Madison, Wis. "Why organize these rallies that appropriate the tactics and appearance of a shoestring grassroots organization? It's inherently deceptive because it pretends it is not a top-down effort when it's now clear that it is a very intensively funded top-down effort."

"This is not a community bake sale," Michael Crocker, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for Greenpeace told Bloomberg News of the API event in Houston. "This is a multimillion-dollar PR machine of the most powerful companies in the world, and there is a long history of this instrument, API, misleading the public about global warming."

Kevin Grandia, managing editor of DeSmogBlog.com, a site that attempts to expose energy industry front groups, was first to reveal the API memo.

"One great technique for amplifying a controversy or creating the impression of a major controversy is by manufacturing rallies or large events," he says. "But busing your employees over for a lunch would not be my definition of a citizen-driven rally -- especially when it's paid for by oil companies who have a very large interest in not seeing a trade bill or more costs put onto their product."

The technique of organizing rallies that appear to express broad public sentiment favoring corporate ends is hardly new.

In the 1930s, Mr. Grandia notes, corporate organizers crafted public demonstrations called "torches of liberty" rallies. Women marched through the streets of New York smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes, he says. "That whole thing was paid for by the tobacco industry. What we're seeing today is not a new tactic -- it's an old tactic that works just as well today."

But energy industry spokesmen say that environmentalists and critics are trying to have it both ways by arguing that corporate-level organizing of events somehow delegitimizes the events or views expressed at them.

"Groups that don't like opponents ideas describe these kinds of activities as contrived -- and yet if you look at say, Al Gore's group, they're doing same thing," says Cathy Landry, a spokeswoman for API.

Mr. Gore's group, she says, is rallying supporters and claiming that the energy climate bill will create green jobs. "Well, we're for oil sector, trucking, and farming jobs," she says. "We need a real dialogue about the climate bill -- and that should be both sides. But those with opposing views see it as somehow wrong for us to express that."

API is hardly the only group organizing events. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), which opposes the climate-energy bill, is launching a $1 million campaign that will deploy its 225,000-member "America's Power Army," to "townhall meetings, fairs, and other functions" in Michigan, Ohio, and Virgnia, Greenwire reported.

Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Mass. is investigating one of ACCCE's public relations firms Bonner & Associates, to determine whether it sent faked public letters on energy issues sent to several members of Congress. (Here's our earlier post about these letters.)

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), another group that receives much funding from an ideologically driven foundation with ties to the oil refinery industry, has been touring key states in the Midwest on a "Hot Air Tour" offering free balloon rides.

For those showing up to view them in Indiana, Ohio, and Virginia, the message is focused on the congressional push to cap carbon emissions and trade emissions. Written on the side of one of the huge red balloons: "Cap-and-trade means: lost jobs, higher taxes, less freedom."

A key problem, critics say, is that such events are often covered by news media outlets, especially television news, although it may never become clear who sponsors them.

"We don't have any issue with folks wanting to attend rallies or speak their mind," says Michael Oko, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington environmental group. "What we're concerned about is that it seems these groups are intent on spreading misinformation and fear to the public. It's not being made clear who is funding and supporting these events."

But Mary Ellen Burke, state communications manager for AFP, says such events are not "astroturf." "These are people who live in the community of the region, and bring their own signs," she says. "They talk about upcoming tea parties, town hall meetings. It's all organized among themselves. We just provide an event where they can come together."

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