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The Climate 202

How Big Oil relies on some PR firms to block climate action

The Climate 202

Good morning! We want to wish a warm welcome to Anna Phillips, who started yesterday as The Washington Post's national climate reporter. 🥳 But first:

The role of public relations firms in climate politics

Public relations firms have played a significant — and often overlooked — role in helping fossil fuel companies improve their environmental image and block action on climate change, according to a new paper on climate change politics published today.

The peer-reviewed paper by Brown University researchers, published in the journal Climatic Change, found that the fossil fuel industry has relied heavily on PR firms for more than three decades. (Disclosure: Your Climate 202 host went to Brown University.)

  • PR firms have run hundreds of campaigns for oil and gas companies that often relied on third-party groups — sometimes called "front groups" by climate activists.
  • These PR campaigns have helped shape public discourse about climate change by popularizing phrases such as "clean coal," "renewable natural gas" and "carbon footprint," according to the study.
  • Yet the role of PR companies in preventing climate action has flown under the radar, in large part because "the work of PR firms requires that they 'remain invisible,'" the authors write.

Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown and co-author of the paper, told The Climate 202 that the role of conservative think tanks in opposing climate action has received far greater attention from policymakers and the news media.

"Everybody knows about the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Koch brothers. That's not really news anymore," Brulle said. "But the other 95 percent of these companies' efforts to greenwash their reputations and shift public opinion are being ignored."

Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming book "Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism," told The Climate 202 that PR firms have helped fossil fuel companies engage in “climate obstruction," rather than outright denial of climate science.

"It's not okay anymore to be an outright climate denialist. No one's going to listen to you," Aronczyk said. “So instead, PR firms are changing the context in which climate communications take place. It's even more insidious."

In its supplementary materials, the paper points out certain PR firms that have helped the fossil fuel industry with key campaigns:

Burson Cohn & Wolfe (formerly Burson-Marsteller)

  • In 1995, the American Petroleum Institute hired Burson-Marsteller to create the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a third-party group that opposed stricter air pollution regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • In 2014, BM subsidiary Proof Communications created a campaign for Peabody Energy, the world's largest private-sector coal company, which targeted President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan and touted the concept of “clean coal.”

Ogilvy (formerly Ogilvy & Mather)

  • In 2000, Ogilvy began working on BP's $200 million "Beyond Petroleum" campaign, which promoted the idea that individuals could reduce their personal carbon footprints.
  • The Beyond Petroleum campaign "sought to divert attention from the fossil fuel industry to reframe climate change as an issue of individual responsibility," the paper says.
  • After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Ogilvy also launched the "Possibilities Everywhere" campaign, which highlighted BP's investment in solar energy, despite the company's much larger investment in oil and gas at the time.

An Ogilvy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. But BP spokesman JP Fielder rejected the notion that BP has not made strides toward renewable energy.

BP “could invest $2 billion this year in low-carbon energy and aims for these investments to reach a third of our overall capital expenditures annually by the end of this decade,” Fielder said in an email to The Climate 202, noting that the company made a $1.1 billion investment in an offshore wind partnership with Equinor this year.

To be fair, environmental groups have also relied on PR firms for their own campaigns for climate action, the paper says. The firm Caplan Communications has worked for a number of leading green groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and Greenpeace.

All eyes on Edelman

The paper saves some of its sharpest scrutiny for Edelman, the world's largest PR firm — and the firm most frequently used by the U.S. oil and gas industry.

Several fossil fuel industry trade groups have paid Edelman large sums to influence climate politics, including the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers ($21 million between 2012 and 2018) and the American Petroleum Institute ($439.7 million since 2008).

In 2015, six Edelman employees resigned from the firm to protest its work with the fossil fuel industry, the Guardian reported at the time. One of those employees, Christine Arena, was an executive vice president in Edelman's corporate responsibility practice. 

Arena, who has since founded the firm Generous Films, told The Climate 202 that the new paper exposes the full scope of Edelman's work for the major polluters.

"As you can see from this data, there are some agencies that have done business with a few fossil fuel clients here and there," she said. "And then there are other agencies that are absolutely central to the climate obstruction operation, so to speak. And Edelman is the biggest dot."

After Arena and her colleagues left in 2015, Edelman said it would no longer work with coal producers and climate deniers. And earlier this month, the firm unveiled principles to guide its work on climate change. But the firm has resisted activist pressure to cut ties with Big Oil. 

An Edelman spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. But CEO Richard Edelman told Axios this month that he is "proud" to work with oil majors as they transition toward renewable energy.

Extreme events

States aren’t prepared for the damage climate change is causing to America’s roads

Roads nationwide are buckling under intense heat or being washed away by floods, but most state transportation agencies are only beginning to grapple with the effects of climate change, The Washington Post’s Ian Duncan reports. 

The Post asked transportation departments in each state how they were preparing for the effects of global warming. Only a handful of the two dozen that responded pointed to projects developed with climate-driven extreme weather events in mind.

The federal government has sought to ramp up investment in maintaining the nation’s roads and bridges. And Congress just approved a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which includes provisions prompting states to take on more resilience projects. 

But that money is only a fraction of the long-term investment that will be required. By the end of the century, the risks from climate change could cost $20 billion a year, or about 40 percent of the nation's annual budget for roads, according to a 2018 federal climate change assessment.

On the Hill

The Senate could still make changes to the climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act

The version of the Build Back Better legislation that passed the House this month had several climate provisions, including a fee on methane emissions and tax credits for buying electric vehicles. But some of those provisions will almost certainly be changed or whittled down as the Senate takes up the legislation this week, E&E News's Geof Koss, Nick Sobczyk, Emma Dumain and Manuel Quiñones report.

  • EV tax credits: Democrats have no room to lose even a single vote from their caucus, but Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has said he opposes an additional $4,500 credit for consumers who purchase EVs made in the United States by unionized workers. Canada and Mexico have also criticized the extra credit, arguing that it violates the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
  • Methane fee: House Democrats struck a compromise on the methane fee last month, pairing the fee with grants to help the oil and gas industry comply. But it's still a difficult prospect for some Texas moderates, and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) has said he plans to lobby Manchin to kill the provision.
  • Arctic drilling: The bill includes language that would repeal a provision in Republicans' 2017 tax law opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. Manchin opposed the ANWR provision in 2017, but it's unclear where he stands on the issue today.

Global climate

Omicron variant coronavirus cases in Scotland raise questions about COP26

After Scotland reported six cases of the omicron coronavirus variant on Monday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the timeframe of the cases suggested it was unlikely — but not impossible — that they were linked to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this month, Alistair Smout of Reuters reports.

The conference brought together officials from around the world, including from southern Africa, where the omicron variant was first detected. But Sturgeon said at a news conference that not all of the six cases are linked to travel to southern Africa, raising concerns about community transmission.

Climate in the courts

The Supreme Court is hearing a case today that could affect environmental regulations

The case that the justices will hear oral arguments on today may seem like it couldn’t be further away from climate issues: American Hospital Association v. Becerra centers on a messy dispute over how the federal government reimburses hospitals for certain drugs. 

But it raises key questions about how much deference courts should give to federal agencies, and environmental lawyers say it could provide an opportunity for the conservative justices to limit the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to issue sweeping climate regulations, E&E News's Pamela King reports.

In a 1984 case, Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the Supreme Court established the precedent that courts should defer to agencies if they make reasonable interpretations of statutes such as the Clean Air Act. But some conservative justices have indicated that they might be open to rethinking that precedent — a move that could sharply curtail the power of the executive branch to interpret the nation's environmental laws.


Thanks for reading!