Show Me The (Fossil Fuel) Money

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Have you ever read news coverage of an energy or climate issue and thought to yourself, “Why is that spokesperson defending fossil fuels, slamming clean energy, and denying climate change?” As you may suspect, it’s because they receive financial support from pro-fossil fuel interests – a fact rarely mentioned in media coverage.

Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page,” a new report from the Checks and Balances Project, reveals financial ties between pro–fossil fuel think tanks and the world’s biggest fossil fuel interests, with a transactional relationship of funding for national media coverage.

According to the report, fossil fuel interests gave at least $16.3 million dollars in direct funding to the ten most-quoted pro–fossil fuel advocacy organizations from 2006-2010. Internal materials suggest a strategy of targeting funds from those with the most to lose by a shift toward the clean energy economy.

“Contributions will be pursued for this work, especially from corporations whose interests are threatened by climate (change) policies.” -Heartland Institute fundraising document

Fossil Fuel Funds Buy Fossil-Friendly Quotes

So what does all that cash buy? Media coverage – and quite a lot of it.

From 2007-2011, Checks and Balances found these funded groups and their policy experts were mentioned at least 1,010 times in coverage of energy issues in America’s 58 most-read newspapers, plus the Associated Press and Politico. That averages four mentions per week during on some of the most high-stakes clean energy and climate policy issues of our time.

These organizations also enjoyed heavier coverage in some of America’s most influential newspapers. 31% of all coverage came in six outlets – the Associated Press, Politico, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and Christian Science Monitor. (The Wall Street Journal was not included because its articles are not publicly searchable).

Unsurprisingly, a majority of their quotes supported fossil fuel sources while attacking clean energy or environmental support, often using similar messaging:

  • 43% attacked environmental or energy regulations
  • 18% attacked clean energy technologies
  • 17% promoted fossil fuels

Context is Key, Disclosure is Not

While this may not seem like an overwhelming amount of media mentions, a little context puts the situation into perspective. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a decades-old federally funded entity created to advance energy technology, was only mentioned 236 times in the same publications that mentioned the fossil-fuel interests 1,010 over the same period.

But the large amount of pro-fossil coverage wouldn’t be unfair except for one major fact – the quoted spokespeople or media outlets only disclosed financial ties to fossil fuel interests 6% of the time. In more than half of all coverage (53%), media outlets only mentioned the organization by name, with another third of mentions only including vague ideology (conservative, 17%; free market, 8%; libertarian, 6%).

Difficult Problem, Simple Solution

Add it all up, and a sinister picture becomes clear: the fossil fuel industry provides direct funding to select policy analysts, who use similar messaging to promote fossil fuels while attacking clean energy, across the most influential newspapers in America, without disclosing funding sources that compel their positions.

And the worst part is, it’s working. Credible estimates of federal fossil fuel subsidies approach $52 billion annually (a big reason why coal is considered cheap), while clean energy funding mechanisms like the Production Tax Credit are left to wither on the vine. Media coverage isn’t solely to blame — lobbying absolutely plays a role — but it’s a big aspect in how policymakers determine positions, despite the obvious breakdowns in free market capitalism when one considers externalized costs and information asymmetry.

Fortunately, one simple solution to this problem exists – transparent disclosure of funding sources from spokespeople. Checks and Balances advocates media ask one question for quoted sources: “Do you get money, directly or indirectly, from interests that stand to benefit from what you are saying?”

That’s a question worth asking. But my money’s on these fossil-funded spokespeople avoiding the answer.

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6 thoughts on “Show Me The (Fossil Fuel) Money

  • Very depressing.

    Are these guys also behind the inflated “soft costs” on home solar installs which results in US solar prices double that of Germany?

    • They’ve thrown enough sand in to the gears to keep us from installing faster.

      They’ve probably helped sour local officials to helping soft costs from falling faster.

  • Bashing the oil sipping Chevy Volt is another obvious example. Driving an American made and American grid powered car should be a good thing right?


  • Proper article, but the last sentence was unnecessary. The author surrendered before the fight.
    Hey, we got the internet – build a database where media can drop information, who and when they asked about funding and what answers they got. Make it public and you get transparency.

  • I think at some point the traditional mass media will be irrelevant in terms of influencing public opinion. Instead, social media, word-of-mouth and the effect of seeing the neighbors install PV will do the necessary job of spreading the good news of renewables, energy efficiency and more electrified transport like the Volt. What worries me more is the influence of lobbyists on our politicians, who are clearly willing to ignore the greater good while enriching the entrenched special interests who bankroll their campaigns. I can only see one thing helping on this count and that is to name and shame the worst offenders through the blogosphere, social media and letters to the editor type channels. Make sure they lose the next election to a candidate that is NOT in the pocket of fossil fuel interests.

  • In reading this report (great one, by the way, Silvio) and the comments I’m moved by the fact that the real cost to humanity that this , now criminal, activity by the fossil fuel interests and the “institutes” and media that prop them up is not realized by many folks. We have been warned by scientists for decades now that there would be serious consequences to warming the planet and altering the PH of the oceans. Because of the continued burning of fossil fuels we (humanity) are now faced with extinction in as few as 18 years. { }. {} So simply having transparency will not solve the dilemma that we face. There is a slim hope of salvation but it will require a global concerted effort. Considering the idiotic divisions in this country I’m not sanguine about that possibility. However, it everyone knew the threat maybe we could get past the infantile greed and stupidity that has brought us to deaths door.

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