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Published on December 29th, 2012 | by Silvio Marcacci


Show Me The (Fossil Fuel) Money

December 29th, 2012 by  

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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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

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