Internal documents and conversations from the fracking lobby, revealed this week in HuffPost, shine new light on a ten year old public relations campaign front group called Energy In Depth. Documents show this front group is designed explicitly to exist without the fingerprints of its fossil fuel funders, giving the oil industry the “ability to say, do and write things that individual company employees cannot and should not.”
This reporting reveals how climate denial remains a key oil industry strategy in spite of their efforts to clean up their image. These shrouded attacks on climate science and solutions, attacks on lawmakers, scientists, lawyers and advocates stand in stark contrast to the seemingly desperate efforts of Exxon and their brethren to retain ‘social license’, gain credibility on climate change and distance themselves from their legacy of climate science denial.
Let’s define “climate denial” up front, as we did years ago in a Guardian interview for a story about Edelman PR: “Our definition of denial is anyone who is obstructing, delaying or trying to derail policy steps that are in line with the scientific consensus that says we need to take rapid steps to decarbonize the economy.” Simple enough. It goes beyond just denying that global warming exists.
HuffPost’s reporting shows that Exxon is a member of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), an oil and gas industry trade association whose online assets include “news” sites like Energy In Depth (EID) that spew climate denial and attacks on scientists, journalists, advocates, and lawyers. IPAA acts as a pass through, bundling corporate members’ cash that’s funneled to the firm FTI Consulting, which created and manages sites like EID. An ExxonMobil spokesperson, responding to questions from the HuffPost reporter, tried valiantly to keep the veil in place, saying, “Your questions are better addressed to EID or IPAA.”
IPAA’s long history of denial
The IPAA has a long history of funding and proliferating misinformation on climate change, a legacy that continues to the this day. IPAA was named as a potential funder of the infamous multi-million dollar “uncertainty” campaign detailed in the 1998 Global Climate Science Communications Plan, an effort organized by API, Exxon, Chevron, Southern Company and assorted libertarian extremists. You can find that file and others in our ClimateFiles collection.
The IPAA fact sheet on Climate Change released that same year has some pretty alarming climate denial claims — some even more extreme than the Global Climate Coalition was pushing at the time, and includes references to Fred Singer’s Leipzig Declaration and the Imperial Oil DRI/McGraw Hill study on carbon taxes. IPAA also blame termites and volcanoes — basically everything but fossil fuels — for altering the atmosphere more than fossil fuels:
“Consider this: the largest source of greenhouse gas may be termites, whose digestive activities are responsible for 10 times more production of CO2 than burning fossil fuels.”
“So, since human-related CO2 is only a small portion of total atmospheric CO2, measures taken to limit it will have little or no measurable effect on overall emissions into the atmosphere. More importantly, there is still no evidence that CO2 emissions are warming the earth’s atmosphere. And we have no proof that man’s impact makes a difference at all.”
By 2008, the IPAA had a more nuanced fact sheet on climate change, but still emphasized uncertainty and denial,
“…no climate change policy action should discard the question of science. Too often, recent arguments for action discard the uncertainties of today’s understanding of global climate science. Global climate science is an emerging field, one that changes as the tools to model it improve.”
They know better…
The Washington Post revealed that in a June, 2019 presentation at an IPAA meeting, influential energy lawyer Mark Barron said the “ship has sailed” on using climate science denial as the first line of defense. Instead, Barron advocated lobbying Congress for climate legislation that benefits the oil and gas industry. He drew a sharp contrast between the industry’s former attacks on climate science and a more recent nuanced approach. He told the oil and gas executives and lobbyists gathered at the meeting sponsored by fracking giants Halliburton, Schlumberger and Oxy that they should be ready to talk about global warming, as long as they position fossil fuels as the solution. Despite this, HuffPost reporting shows that Barron’s audience, the IPAA and its members, are still deploying on climate denial and attacks on scientists through projects like EID and other web organs.
Funding Front Groups – FTI and Energy In Depth
IPAA describes Energy in Depth as the industry’s lead “rapid response platform” for the fracking industry. IPAA created Energy in Depth (EID) shortly after the environmental impacts from the fracking boom began to make national headlines. IPAA member Exxon/XTO was one of EID’s first funders.
Internal IPAA Board documents, published by HuffPost, describe the purpose of the project:
“The main focus of EID has evolved into addressing the “Keep It In The Ground” movement.” (Keep it In The Ground refers to activists and scientists working to keep new fossil fuels from being extracted and burned, commensurate with the conclusion by international scientists that we simply cannot burn even a percentage of known and potential fossil fuel reserves if we want to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels.)
Funding for EID comes directly from unnamed oil and gas corporations like Exxon, Halliburton, Schlumberger, Oxy, Marathon Oil, and is funneled through IPAA, which funds the Energy in Depth project on an annual basis.
According IPAA budget documents, the EID campaign costs more than $2 million dollars per year, representing about one fifth of IPAA’s total budget, second only to “Salaries and Benefits” in scale.
BIG QUESTION: What puzzles us is how IPAA is classifying this expense to the IRS. This $2M plus annual payment to FTI does not appear, as required by law, on the IRS 990 form filed by IPAA under “Independent Contractors” “that received more than $100,000 in compensation from the organization.” (see Part VII Section B on page 8 of 2017 990). Perhaps IPAA can provide an explanation.
The real story of Energy In Depth
Colleagues at DeSmog have been watching Energy in Depth from the beginning, when it was launched to blunt attention to the rapid spread of fracking ten years ago and concerns from community members, lawmakers, journalists and activists.
IPAA’s Jeff Eshelman, described the genesis and purpose of the group in a 2017 IPAA retreat:
The IPAA funding of over $2M a year to FTI/Energy in Depth is spent on five sub-campaigns, meant to undermine the public’s understanding and support of climate and environmental protections:
- EID Climate exists “to counteract the “Keep it in the Ground” movement’s newsiest strategy to use climate change as a weapon to silence dissent and shut down American energy production”. The website pushes back on litigation against oil and gas companies.
- EID Health is a “rapid response program” to counter studies linking oil and gas drilling and production to health impacts.
- Endangered Species Watch is meant to blunt the Federal Endangered Species Act and is described as “disseminating news, regulations and issue alerts to member companies, affiliated industries and policy makers.”
- Energy Tax Facts defends tax subsidies for the fossil fuel industry
- Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign advocates against movements asking Universities and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels.
FTI has carved out a specialty in aggressive attacks on foes of the oil and gas industry, doing the dirty work that oil corporations would not want their brands tied to in public. An FTI “Techical Paper” report presented at a 2014 Brazilian oil industry conference describes Energy in Depth’s purpose pretty bluntly, stating that the web asset provides the “ability to say, do and write things that individual company employees cannot and should not.” (emphasis added)
The actual work of running EID is contracted out by IPAA to FTI Consulting, a massive global PR and consulting firm. Here are a few individuals we know are connected to the Energy In Depth project and have written themselves into the wrong side of history:
Matt Dempsey, a Managing Director at FTI, manages Energy in Depth and lists himself as an editorial editor WesternWire, another front group run for Western Energy Alliance, another oil trade association like IPAA. Dempsey and a colleague were recently recorded by a lawyer for EarthRights International who called them out for being agents of Exxon, and pretending to be journalists. Exxon is a defendant in the Boulder Colorado lawsuit that EID and WesternWire have tried hard to malign. Dempsey used to work for Senator James Inhofe.
Steve Everley, is an FTI Managing Director of Strategic Communications and a senior advisor on the Energy In Depth project. Inside Climate News ran a lengthy rebuttal to the work Everley did to trash their actual journalism on fracking in 2014.
Spencer Walrath, who is actually an FTI employee (Director, Energy & Natural Resources at FTI Consulting Inc) but pretends to be an journalist on Energy In Depth. He graduated University of Northern Iowa in 2012. Spencer’s FTI job was announced in his college newsletter.
Katie Brown, PhD, who now works for FTI out of Belgium was a major part of Energy in Depth while working for FTI in Washington DC until a couple years ago. This archived 45 slide Powerpoint presentation from 2014 by Brown lays out the IPAA-FTI-EID connection and details all their work to undermine regulations on ozone, groundwater protection, methane emissions and more. (Brown’s PhD is in English, btw and she is or was working on a book on James Joyce…congratulations, but how does that PhD apply to an energy front group website besides using good grammar?)
More EID denial
- FTI’s Energy in Depth Climate front group spends most of its pixels trying to trash climate lawsuits, promoting natural gas as a climate solution, and attacking science implicating methane’s role in climate change. Methane, a super greenhouse gas and the main component of “natural gas”, leaks from fracking fields in vast quantities making the current natural gas supply much dirtier fuel than it used to be before fracking became a thing. This point was recently illustrated nicely with FLIR images by the New York Times, and news of this Exxon gas well leak which released more methane in a few weeks than many countries emit in a year.
- Each of the EID sub-campaigns employ tactics common to climate deniers, like attacking climate models, denying the impact of methane from fracking, repeating debunked myths about a global pause in warming, and claiming that “one in six climate and earth scientists” think human’s impact on climate change is “little or none.”
- Most recently, Spencer Walrath wrote a piece in EID going after a peer reviewed scientific study on ocean acidification and the companies connected to the carbon dioxide that has acidified the ocean, the science of which is even harder to deny than climate change.
- And this post by Katie Brown, PhD at EID uses sham science and Wikipedia links to attack calls for accountability for companies like Exxon.
On the EID Climate website, the list of experts includes people like Craig Richardson, president of the coal-funded, climate-denying Energy and Environment Legal Institute. Richardson has called climate change a communist plot.
Other experts include Horace Cooper, who is listed as a senior fellow the National Center for Public Policy Research an organization that has received $445,000 in grants from Exxon over the past two decades including several grants earmarked for climate work.
Cooper is also a Fellow with the preeminent climate science denial group the Heartland Institute. Heartland has held a number of gatherings dedicated to outright climate science denial. Heartland was also heavily funded by Exxon until they dropped them after 2006. The Mercer Family stepped in in 2008 and has given Heartland upwards of $6.7M from 2008-2017. In 2018, this grant appears to have been moved through Donors Trust.
FTI work for other industries with legal and political problems
In 2019, court documents revealed FTI was running opportunities for Monsanto on RoundUp and GMO fights, alternately posing as journalists and attacking journalists, complete with an FTI campaign spreadsheet of steps taken to undermine and intimidate journalist Carey Gillam.
Most recently, FTI produced a report on health care for a front group attacking “Medicare for All” proposals by politicians.
IPAA Lobbying With Climate Denial Under Trump
IPAA is a significant lobbying arm of the oil industry, spending 1.4 million on lobbying in 2018. Freedom of Information Act requests have revealed emails from IPAA lobbyists to key political appointees in the Department of Interior, showing an ignorance of basic climate change information and a willingness to disregard climate science when it gets in the way of oil and gas production.
In one set of emails, IPAA lobbyist Samantha McDonald asked DOI appointees to reduce protections on an endangered species of beetle. A key reason IPAA protested the beetle’s protected status? – because its projected decline was based in part on climate change science. McDonald directly questioned the viability of climate change models, but not before admitting she is “not too familiar” with the 30 year old UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As proof that the preeminent scientific body studying climate change in the world could not be trusted, she cited a Google search and a random Forbes article. MacDonald wrote to DOI appointee Vincent DeVito in 2017:
“All modeling is done using the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While I am not too familiar with this organization or their work, I did some searching and found this Forbes article discrediting the IPCC, citing irresponsible science practices (intentionally manipulating data, suppressing legitimate opposing arguments, etc.). This may be something to look into and push back on, since most of the climate changes threat analysis in the SSA is based on this work.”
In spite of her lack of science background, IPAA’s McDonald would go on to testify on endangered species law, and the beetle would eventually be “downlisted” by the Trump administration as reported by the Washington Post.
In sum, the Energy In Depth project is entirely consistent with the 30 year campaign (or back to the 1940s…see CIEL’s Smoke and Fumes) by the oil industry to avoid being regulated for environmental harm caused by their products – climate change, air and water pollution. This covert effort contradicts oil industry leaders’ anxious attempts to portray a greener, climate friendly business model in recent years. We can see right through it, but the aim is clear. Between Barron, the lawyer’s comments and IPAA’s front group Energy In Depth, the fossil fuel industry clearly is trying to play it both ways – opposing climate action while pushing natural gas as a solution and trying to benefit from whatever climate policies do come to pass and keep drilling away unchecked. All the while refusing to treat the global climate crisis like the real and present danger that it is. While IPAA lobbyists may try to play good cop in meetings on the Hill, they are actually leaning on old fashioned attacks on science to delay and distort any serious attempt to address climate change.