How Fossil Fuel Lobbyists Used “Astroturf” Front Groups to Confuse the Public

Published Oct 11, 2017

The top lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry in the western United States secretly ran more than a dozen front groups in an attempt to undermine forward-looking policy on climate change and clean technologies.

What Happened

“California Drivers Alliance” sounds like a perfectly innocuous name. So does “Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy.” After all, who doesn’t want sound fuel policy?

These groups and coalitions, however, were not what they seemed. Although made to sound like real grassroots consumer movements, these groups—and at least thirteen more like them—were actually “astroturf” front organizations secretly run by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the top lobbyist for the oil industry in the western United States. WSPA, which counts BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Occidental among its members, used these fake consumer groups as part of a campaign to exaggerate public support for the lobbying goals of its member companies.

As a leaked 2014 presentation by WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd revealed, WSPA’s strategy was to use these fabricated organizations to falsely represent grassroots opposition to forward-looking policy on climate change and clean technologies. WSPA and its member companies oppose science-based climate policies that are critically needed to mitigate the damaging impacts of global warming.

Several of the astroturf groups showcased in Reheis-Boyd’s presentation were targeting state-level policies, particularly a California proposal to place transportation fuels under the state’s carbon cap. At least two of WSPA’s front groups—the California Drivers Alliance and another called Fed Up at the Pump—launched an aggressive public relations campaign in 2014, running radio ads and placing billboards around the state. Although their efforts ultimately failed, their actions are credited with helping convince 15 Democrats in the California Assembly to argue for postponing the policy. California Drivers Alliance returned in 2015—this time identifying its relationship to WSPA in fine print—in a highly dishonest and ultimately successful campaign to kill a provision in a bill that would have required a 50% cut in oil use in California by 2030.

WSPA’s leaked presentation was hardly the first time the fossil fuel industry’s plans to manufacture uncertainty about climate science and science-based policies were exposed. These efforts have a very long history. For instance, as a later leaked memo reveals, in 1998, the American Petroleum Institute—the county’s largest oil trade association—convened a team of major oil producers to create the “Global Climate Science Communications Plan.” This plan set the roadmap for deceiving the public about climate change by overplaying uncertainties in the science.

By this point, internal memos at ExxonMobil had alerted the industry that “the scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect […] cannot be denied,” so the Plan can’t be interpreted as a legitimate call for balance. Some companies were even publicly acknowledging that global warming was “possibly due in part to greenhouse emissions caused by human activity” while they privately worked through this Plan to promote uncertainty about climate science.

The Plan was created to keep the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international treaty to mandate country-by-country greenhouse gas emissions reductions. According to the Plan, “victory” would be achieved when, among other goals, “average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science” and “those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.” All of the major “strategies and tactics” listed in the document aimed to undermine the overwhelming scientific evidence behind the Kyoto treaty—while keeping industry’s role hidden.

To “develop and implement a national media relations program to inform the media about uncertainties in climate science,” the document proposed to “train a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach…who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate.” Understanding that fossil fuel-affiliated scientists lack credibility, the industry wanted to cultivate seemingly “independent” scientists. The industry ultimately formed this type of relationship with Dr. Wei-Hock Soon, a prominent climate change denier whose own climate science—secretly funded by fossil fuel companies for decades—has been repeatedly shown to be faulty.

In light of this history, WSPA’s astroturf efforts were merely one of the latest revelations in a long history of fossil fuel disinformation about climate change.

Why it Matters

Fossil fuel companies’ attempts to promote uncertainty about climate science have been remarkably successful. Despite the fact that some 97 percent of all climate scientists agree that global warming trends are extremely likely to be due to human activities, the voices of exaggerated uncertainty continue to get disproportionate attention. Significant numbers of current members of Congress—232 out of 435 Representatives and 53 out of 100 Senators, by an April 2017 count—deny the existence of human-made climate change.

Meanwhile, global warming is already having significant—and costly—effects on our communities, health, and climate. Without immediate action to reduce global warming emissions, these impacts will only intensify. And while all communities will feel effects from climate change, it is disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities, those with the least resources to cope with the coming changes.

One of the myriad problems linked to climate change is rising sea levels, which in turn increase tidal floods. One study found that by 2045—within the lifetime of a 30-year mortgage—one-third of the 52 East and Gulf coast communities studied would start to face tidal flooding more than 180 times a year. Higher seas also mean that high tides can reach farther inland, creating longer-lasting and more disruptive flood conditions.

Similarly, increasing heat waves will create more serious health risks. Heat is the biggest weather-related killer in the United States, claiming, on average, more lives each year than floods, lightning, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined. Urban residents, the elderly, children, agricultural and other outdoor workers, and people with impaired health and limited mobility are particularly susceptible to heat-related illness and death.

Other problems linked to climate change include increased wildfire risk, forest death in the Rocky Mountains, severe drought, increased pressure on groundwater supplies, disruption to food supplies, coral reef destruction, and more.

More and more people are demanding accountability from fossil fuel companies, who not only produced the coal, oil, and gas whose unchecked emissions have led to global warming, but who for decades actively underwrote a massive deception campaign to confuse the public about the dangers climate change presents to our environment and our health.

Further Reading

Related resources