Keystone PipeLIES Exposed: The Facts on Petroleum Politicians, Crude Money and Media Spin

-- by Dave Saldana, Director, Writer, and Producer of "Keystone PipeLIES Exposed," a new short film that is a production of the Center for Media and Democracy Investigative Fund. (An excerpt of this article is featured in the April issue of The Progressive.)

U.S. Representative Joe Barton - Texas"TransCanada set out to build this pipeline five years ago, and they still haven't. That's saying something about the efforts of activists throughout the country, in spite of all of the money invested in seeing it happen," Natural Resources Defense Council analyst Anthony Swift says.

"In the southern portion of the pipeline, we saw ranchers, we saw longtime Texas farmers joining with the climate justice activists from Tar Sands Blockade, working to block the tar sands," says Kevin Zeese, co-director of It's Our Economy. "And they did a good job. They slowed it down and made it more difficult and more expensive. And they're effective; a big French investor pulled out because it was getting too expensive."

The effort that goes into street-level organizing is as much a matter of necessity as it is anything else. Facing one of the most profitable industries in the world, KXL opponents know they can't compete in the Washington arena using the traditional weapons of choice: campaign contributions and lobbying budgets.

"Our opposition is quite formidable," says Jason Kowalski of "The fossil fuel industry has made more money in the history of money in recent years. If we win, it's because of our bodies and our spirits and our courage and our numbers. We know we have the moral high ground, and that's how we are going win this thing."

The American Petroleum Institute Is the "Fourth Branch of Government"

Moral high ground and strength in numbers are going to have to when the day Keystone opponents, because there is no way -- no way -- that they could compete financially. In addition to the millions of dollars TransCanada has spent lobbying for the KXL project, the American Petroleum Institute (API) has spent millions more.

That kind of spending carries a lot of clout.

"You cannot move a piece of legislations through Congress in the year 2013 unless the American Petroleum Institute proposes it," says Public Citizen Energy Program director Tyson Slocum. "You cannot move legislation without their consent. They are a de facto fourth branch of government."

"They are one of the most profitable industries in the world, and they're throwing that money into Washington, DC," says Kate Colarulli of the Sierra Club. "They're buying politicians. When we see politicians that vote the oil the agenda, we see 500 times as much contributions coming from oil companies than we see going to politicians who don't vote the oil agenda."

For example, look to South Carolina, where Republican Senator Tim Scott, who sits on the Energy and Natural resources Committee, gave the GOP's weekly address and offered his full-throated support to KXL. Of course, he also decried opponents of the pipeline for killing jobs in favor of the environment.

Why was a newly appointed senator from South Carolina, a state not known for its thriving petroleum industry, stumping to build a foreign corporation's pipeline that doesn't come anywhere near his home state? Possibly because the oil and gas industry is among his largest sources of campaign contributions.

The $153,000 Scott has received from oil and gas contributors is a comparatively low take for a legislator willing to do the industry's bidding. In Washington, DC, a city where climate denial is something of a cottage industry, those who are willing to toe the corporate line can make out very well indeed.

The list of climate deniers in Congress is not a short one, but looking at the top achievers in the field shows a strong correlation between vehemence and campaign cash, just as Colarulli describes.

Take the grand poobah of climate deniers, Senator James Inhofe. The Oklahoma Republican is widely recognized as a leading light in benighted views on climate change, having authored a book claiming that climate change is a vast global hoax. (As a measure of its credibility, consider that the book's publisher is WorldNetDaily, a media outlet known for its dogged attachment to Birtherism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia.)

Not content to "debunk" mountains of peer-reviewed climate science, Inhofe also enjoys spreading unsubstantiated theories on how the climate works.

Though this might be a chicken-and-egg matter -- does he say crazy things because he gets money, or does he get money because he says crazy things? -- it's well worth noting that Inhofe has pocketed more than $1.5 million from the oil and gas industry in his congressional career.

Consider also Senator Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who recently made headlines with his heartfelt plea for understanding. "I think it's time for some tolerance in the public discourse regarding the many scientific viewpoints on climate change. Respect should be shown to those who have done the research and come to a different conclusion," he said.

He was not speaking of the 97 percent of global climate scientists who have sounded the alarm on the ongoing global crisis, whom his colleagues routinely deride as swindlers, incompetents, and one-government co-conspirators, but for the relentless minority whose delusional tenacity threatens the rest of us.

Witter's career haul from the oil and gas industry? Just shy of $650,000.

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) famously quipped in a July 2013 hearing on climate change that President Obama and the Democrats "are willing to bet the economy today on an uncertain [prediction] about the future." Which is easy for him to say, considering he's gambling with $530,000 in oil-industry house money.

Lest you believe that pay-for-play is a game for senators only, U.S. Representative Joe Barton of Texas has 1.76 million reasons to convince you otherwise. A water carrier for the oil industry for the bulk of his 30 years in the House, Barton is remembered for apologizing to British Petroleum for the fines they would face for the Deepwater Horizon spill. He also claims that the Flood story in the Bible is evidence that climate change is not caused by fossil fuels.

See also Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska, who describes himself as "light green" and calls himself "a renewable Republican." But that doesn't mean he is willing to accept facts as they are on climate science. "Is it really 97 to 3?" Terry asked Esquire. "I don't think so."

While Terry has collected more than $330,000 in oil industry cash, his constituents at Bold Nebraska celebrated his receipt of the "#1 Climate Denier Award."

Terry isn't the only member of Congress whose position on KXL is at odds with his constituents. In South Dakota, Senator John Thune and Representative Kristi Noem, both Republicans, have been backing the project, which will run through thousands of acres a valuable ranch land. The ranchers they represent in Washington are disappointed that families in South Dakota may suffer to advance someone else's cause.

"They want to push this agenda with these jobs and look good," rancher Dwayne Vig told the Rapid City Journal. "But they are not ranchers. I know John [Thune] comes from a ranching family, but he's not a rancher."

He's also not a scientist, but that doesn't stop soon from pushing a project that research indicates will result in catastrophic climate change.

"It's dismaying to see that there are still so many members of the House of Representatives who actually denied that climate change is happening, and then even more who may say, 'oh it's happening, but we shouldn't do anything about it,'" says Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters. "That is in our view absolutely outrageous -- people out of touch with basic facts, with science, with reality."

In fairness, one must point out that politicians don't merely parrot industry claims and spout junk-science rationalizations purely for the campaign cash it brings in. Some, like Iowa Representative Steve King, who gets little campaign money from Big Oil, do it just because it's a cheap sop to constituents who might be persuaded that climate change could do them some good, in that "we'd probably raise a little more corn."

Even those who are not "true believers" in climate denial find it best to remain agnostic, even in the face of staggeringly compelling evidence. To wit, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R), who saw his state's coast get pounded into rubble by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, has maintained steadfast refusal to acknowledge that climate change may have contributed to the destruction his constituents suffered. Although Christie rarely shies from controversy, he contends that human-caused climate change is "a scientific discussion and debate that I'm simply not engaged in."

(American politicians haven't cornered the market on head-in-the-sand climate obliviousness: Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, the parliamentarian pushing the KXL project from the other side of the border, said NASA scientist Hansen's warning of "game over for the climate" was "nonsense" and that Hansen "should be ashamed.")

It's hard to ignore the fact that climate deniers in Congress uniformly come from one political party (although support for KXL is more bipartisan). It's troubling to recognize that many of them are on particularly powerful committees. But it wasn't always this way.

The Bipartisanship that Has Sailed

For much of America's history with environmentalism, the Republican Party plays a very prominent role. Recall that president Abraham Lincoln signed the law that preserved Yosemite Valley for public use; Pres. Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act that would allow later presidents to protect natural resources by declaring them national monuments; and it was Pres. Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act.

America's bipartisan concern for the environment has an even more recent history. Remember that former House Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sat together in 2008 for a public service announcement on climate change, proclaiming that putting a stop to the crisis reached beyond party politics.

It's telling that three years later, while in the midst of a run for the GOP presidential nomination, Gingrich denounced the ad. He called it "the dumbest thing I've done in the last four years."

What was behind Gingrich's change of heart? Could it be his position was "misconstrued," as he suggested as he furiously backpedaled from the idea that climate change should not be a partisan issue?

More likely, the Republican base veered sharply to the right, reflexively rejecting anything Democrats might support even though it could hurt them long term. Perhaps also, others suggest, Republicans' close ties to corporations make them more likely to curry favor through favorable legislation.

"We have seen some members of Congress who are likely to side with big oil over or to vote for various legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline," says Sittenfeld. "Clearly they're getting their contributions from the Koch brothers or Karl Rove or the Chamber [of Commerce], or they've had runs ads run on their behalf. ... We've seen corporate profits really influencing the decisions that get made."

Politicians Make for a Great Return on Investment

From a purely economic standpoint, political contributions are an astonishingly good investment for oil companies.

"One of the most profitable investments they make, one of the biggest returns they get on their money is the money that they pay into campaign contributions to politicians -- pay a few million dollars and they get back billions on those investments," says Oil Change International research director Lorne Stockman.

The Center for American Progress backs up Stockman's assertion. Its research finds that for every dollar the top five oil companies spent lobbying in Washington, they got back $30 in tax breaks. That translates to a 3000-percent return on investment.

Of course, they don't limit their contributions to the federal level. If the pipeline is approved, state governments will have much to say about how it's routed, how construction will take place, and how landowners will be compensated when their property is seized. Many states are willing to pay for that privilege.

"States offer property tax breaks for pipeline companies to build pipelines through their states. So we see very favorable property tax terms on the state level for these kind of projects," says Stockton.

Of Course ALEC Is Involved in the Keystone Cash

Not willing to leave anything to chance, the oil industry is taking action to make sure state legislators see things their way. As the Center for Media and Democracy (which publishes PRWatch) reported, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sent nine state legislators on an industry-paid field trip to the Alberta tar sands in 2012.

ALEC, which receives funding from TransCanada, the Koch brothers (whose Canadian subsidiary has tar sands investments), and other fossil fuel corporations, set up the event to put legislators in the same room as the industry lobbyists who paid for the lavish private-jet travel and fine dining. ALEC also prompted each of the nine legislators to send their corporate sponsors a thank you note, with a reminder of what the lobbyists had paid for the tour.

CMD also uncovered emails between TransCanada's lobbyist and Ohio state Rep. John Adams in which the lobbyist provided Adams with a model bill in support of KXL, with Adams swiftly introduced in the legislature. The bill was co-sponsored by another participant in ALEC's Alberta field trip.

Politicians Prey on the Poor's Jobs Hopes

Big Oil's influence extends even to, and perhaps most powerfully in, local politics. Port Arthur, Texas, where the KXL pipeline is slated to terminate, is essentially a one-industry town. What few jobs there are, are in the refineries that dominate the city's landscape, or in the small businesses that serve them. And with one in five people unemployed, and one in four living in poverty, those with jobs are unwilling to put their livelihoods at risk. Activists say that includes elected officials.

Community organizer and environmental activist Hilton Kelley says what success his organization has had has come with little help from local politicians.

"A lot of times local government stands as a stumbling block in the way of local activists that are pushing for clean air and clean water, because they get the biggest part of their tax base from these industries," he says. "Maybe one or two council members had the heart to stand up in city council in Port Arthur say something but they're soon ousted. They don't get reelected the following year."

Kelley recognizes that his independence from the refineries is a rare luxury in Port Arthur, and it allows him to take the lead. "I have no connections to the plants," he says, "therefore they can't really hurt me like they could someone who retired from the plant someone who has a kid who works at the plant."

"They could possibly lose their job and all they'd tell them is, 'We don't need you anymore,' or, 'We cut that position.' But the reason they're letting them go is because their mother or dad was seen on TV protesting with me. I don't hold any animosity toward those who are really intimidated to stand with me, because I understand the dilemma."

American Dreams Denied in American "Sacrifice Zones"

That dilemma is often exploited by industries that use economic desperation in the communities they occupy. In exchange for a few jobs, the companies get to pollute. It's a phenomenon called "sacrifice zones."

"Oftentimes front-line communities, which tend to be low-income and minority communities, are left out of the conversation, ignored, and they bear the brunt," says Colarulli of the Sierra Club. "They're often called 'sacrifice zones' these places where people are living in [squalid] conditions. This is not the American dream. This is not the way we should have people living in America."

Of course none of this could happen without the media's acquiescence. We're not even talking about right-wing talkers like Rush Limbaugh, 2011 winner of Media Matters' "Climate Change Misinformer of the Year" award who recently told his listeners that they cannot concurrently believe in God and climate change. We're talking about the mainstream media that have given very little time to the issue of climate change and how KXL could impact it.

Where's the Media?

The mainstream media's failure to confront climate change is more a sin of omission then one of commission. The Daily Climate, an online publication that monitors news coverage of climate issues, has been tracking total coverage of climate change for the past several years. What they have found is shrinking coverage as the crisis has escalated.

Despite the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, a drought that wrought havoc on more than half of the US, California's current epochal drought, and the fact that 2012 was the hottest year on record, total reporting on climate change dropped two percent from 2011. And climate coverage in 2011 was 20 percent less than in 2010, and just over half the amount of reportage in 2009, the year when the issue got the most attention in the mainstream media.

Last year, the New York Times, "the paper of record," and "All the news that's fit to print," shut down its environmental reporting desk and its Green blog. Though the editors offered assurances that the paper would cover environmental issues with just as much vigor, reassigning the reporters and terminating two editorial positions makes that difficult to believe.

Evidence indicates skepticism about those promises is well founded. On August 5, the American Geophysical Union and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration each released major climate report. Neither garnered a mention in the Gray Lady.

The Times is not alone in cutting back on specialized environmental reporting. Inside Climate News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning online news outlet, reports that among the top five US newspapers by circulation, there are approximately a dozen reporters on the environment beat.

(To its credit, the recently launched and unjustly attacked cable network Al Jazeera America dedicated a half-hour of its inaugural day to climate change, which propelled it to the fore of media outlets paying attention to the issue, topping Fox News' and CNN's combined total for the preceding four months.)

When activist organizations can't get their issues covered in the mainstream media, they sometimes turn to the old-fashioned alternative: buying publicity. But for Green organizations, it appears that their money is not green enough to buy a seat at the table for the debate on KXL.

Think Progress reports that the NBC television station in Washington DC rejected an advertisement by a group opposing KXL, despite the organization's assurance that its ad complied with all station policies. A station spokesman said it violated the policy against personal attacks.

The group, NextGen Climate Action, wanted the ad to run in conjunction with President Obama's August 2013 appearance on "The Tonight Show." It parodies the specious and suspect claims made by TransCanada in its ads, such as the one that aired during the preceding Sunday's "Meet the Press" on the very same NBC station that rejected the parody.

All the News That's Fit to Print, on One Side?

The result in this case is a debate in which only one side gets to make its case.

"If you have a large enough bank account you can create a multifaceted campaign that involves buying politicians, influence peddling, and writing the story of energy policy from your perspective," says Public Citizen's Slocum. "That is invaluable if you get to tell the story on your terms about climate change, if you don't have to have a rebuttal, and you don't have to have a fact check."

TransCanada and the API have very large bank accounts. And they've been willing to open their checkbooks (to the tune of $153 million leading up to the 2012 election, or nearly four times what clean-energy groups spent) to tell the story their way. According to their adversaries, that story has what Slocum politely calls "credibility problems." Others offer a more blunt assessment.

"TransCanada has lied repeatedly throughout this process, and unfortunately, some of their lies have been printed," LCV's Sittenfeld says.

(Nation of Change has compiled a lengthy, but not exhaustive, list of misleading and/or unethical conduct on behalf of the KXL project.)

NEXT: Tar Sands, corporate profits, and stopping "game over" for the climate.

Tell the State Department what you think about Keystone XL by taking action here.


The author listed as "PRwatch Editors" is for reports attributable to CMD's editors or guest authors.