This is great: the redoubtable Joel Connelly, over at the Seattle P-I, is on the case. Take a look at his story: Seattle PR firms are doing “coal’s dirty work.”
If ever an industry needed good PR, it’s coal.
The industry can’t hope to promote its own coal export schemes in the Northwest so instead it buys support from local consulting and PR firms willing to do coal’s dirty work. By taking money from Big Coal, these firms—many of which have carefully groomed reputations for sustainability and public-interest work—have themselves become a part of the coal industry.
Most of these firms might rather not have the public know about the work they do, with the blinds pulled down, on behalf of out-of-state coal giants. After all, their livelihoods depend on appealing to green-minded governments, nonprofits, and businesses in the Northwest. So as an exercise in letting in the sunlight—and as a sort of caveat emptor for clients—here is a look at the Northwest’s homegrown coal industry.
The world’s largest independent PR firm, Edelman operates with a dizzying hypocrisy that is on bold display in its Seattle office. Although CEO Richard Edelman says publicly: “I do not subscribe to the use of front groups to cover up the true intent of a client,” the firm is in fact the shadowy force behind the newly constituted front group Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports (ANJE). The Seattlepi.com calls ANJE an “astroturf” group for its work supporting the proposal to ship 48 million tons of coal each year from Cherry Point.
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Edelman has a well-documented history of astroturf activities and although its name is mentioned nowhere on ANJE’s glossy website, multiple news agencies (here and here) report that the firm manages the group. In fact, Edelman vice-president Lauri Hennessey identifies herself in public—and is routinely cited in the media—as a spokesperson for ANJE (here, here, here, and here). (Hennessey also runs her own PR firm—Hennessey Communications—where she touts her environmental values.)
Seattle-based Berk Consulting takes coal money. The firm produced an economic analysis for Millennium Bulk Terminals, the company that wants to ship 44 million tons of coal annually from a site on the Columbia River. Opponents have disputed the Berk study, arguing that it fails to consider traffic impacts and economic costs, both public and private.
With offices in Seattle and Washington, DC, Nyhus Communications features a website with rotating photos of renewable energy projects and green hero Van Jones. Yet Nyhus also carries water for coal interests, working with Arch Coal (p73) to promote coal shipments from Longview. Nyhus is also actively involved with Move Forward Washington, a newly minted group that emphasizes coal among other exports. (One founding member of the group is Millennium Bulk Terminals.)
Gallatin Public Affairs
Gallatin is a natural fit with the coal industry. The firm has a history of pushing through controversial projects, including Monsanto’s Blackfoot Bridge phosphate mine and Formation Metals’ Cobalt Mine proposal. So it’s no surprise that Gallatin has gone to work for Millenium Bulk Terminals’ coal project in Longview, Washington.
The most troubling dimension to Gallatin’s role may be partner Bruce Gryniewiski. He’s the former head of Washington Conservation Voters and a current board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway. He says that he joined Gallatin to “win support for even the most controversial projects.”
He’s trying to do just that. Gryniewiski is the prime mover in Gallatin’s efforts to put 44 million tons of coal on the Columbia River each year to be burned at power plants in Asia. He is listed as lobbyist and also as a spokesperson for the coal company.
A Portland-based economic consulting firm, ECONorthwest has a long history of work supporting conservation, so many were surprised to learn the firm took money from Ambre Energy to produce an economic impact analysis. ECONorthwest’s analysis has become a key piece of support for the Morrow Pacific Project, a complicated scheme to move as much as 8 million tons of coal annually in barges on the Columbia River for onward shipment to coal plants in Asia.
Headquartered in Portland, Gard Communications is the public face for Ambre Energy’s Morrow Pacific Project. The firm produces a range of publicity materials and president Brian Gard himself appears to be acting as Ambre’s press flak for the project. Gard has the distinction of being the only Northwest consulting firm so far to attract attention for its coal work when several Portland groups protested it.
Headquartered in Seattle, the Strategies 360 consulting group has done some worthy environmental work in the past, even sponsoring Ecotrust‘s annual leadership award in 2011. Less well known is the firm’s work in the coal industry. Matt Steuerwalt, former climate and energy adviser to Gov. Gregoire, was the lead lobbyist for RailAmerica’s plan to ship 5 million tons of coal from Gray’s Harbor to Asian power plants. After months of delay and confusion, the plan collapsed.
Drawing a line in the sky.
Climate activist Bill McKibben makes a forceful case for divestment—removing fossil fuel companies from big institutional portfolios, helping to starve them of the cash they require to continue damaging the global climate.
Yet divestment need not be all about multinational fossil fuel corporations. It could take the form of withholding support from the consultants and publicists who act as the Northwest front for coal exports. What if Portland State University stopped working with Gard Communications? What if Forterra backed away from Nyhus? What if the Seattle Parks Department severed ties with Berk, and King County fired ECONorthwest?
Imagine a Northwest where local governments, nonprofits, and farsighted corporations drew a sort of line in the sky, refusing to do business with the coal industry—including its local agents. Losing even a client or two might be enough to induce more local firms to refuse coal money. Denied Northwest connections and credible local advocates, the hugely destructive export plans would have more difficulty gaining traction in a region that has long prided itself on its growing clean-energy economy. Perhaps this form of divestment could speed the day when all of Cascadia says “no” to a dirty, climate-wrecking fuel whose highest and best use is to hold up the ground in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
Another interesting note … state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, is a consultant for Ambre Energy.
Gallatin also represents members of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, all of whom seek to convert Washington’s precious intertidal zones into massive geoduck farms.
This is some of the best investigative journalism in the NW I’ve ever seen. Factual, detailed, not afraid to name names, the lines of control from coal to astroturf. This is timely and invaluable information, and deserves a hefty contribution to support more of. Thank you Eric.
This is the kind of work Sightline does every day. Please help them keep up the great analysis of regional issues! (Not a paid announcement, just a deeply held opinion.) Thanks.
Eric de Place
Thanks, Howard and Ann! Very kind of you to say.
We really do depend on support from our readers. The tip jar is here, by the way: https://donationpay.org/sightline/
Ditto what Howard Garrett said. I’m posting to FB on this and following up with folks I know that give these firms business. This is going to be a long, difficult, drawn out battle and every tool at our disposal will be needed. The work found in this report and practically everything Sightline does is critical for success. Thanks Eric!
Is this really a fair litmus test for a sustainability-minded business? That they can NEVER do work for a company that sells non-renewable fuels? Should they never work for a development company that builds on greenfields? We’ve evolved a lot since the 1990s when business and environmentalists couldn’t collaborate. Some of these firms just did an economic impact analysis, not PR through smoke and mirrors. I fail to see how that’s a cardinal sin and I don’t think it’s fair to persecute people for their associations.
Eric de Place
Fair questions, Kelly.
By my lights, the coal export plans are really something special. They represent by far the most environmentally destructive plans that the Northwest has considered in recent history. In aggregate, they would represent far more carbon emissions than the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that Jim Hansen calls “game over for the climate.” (See here: http://www.sightline.org/2011/11/16/coal-exports-are-bigger-threat-than-tar-sands-pipeline/)
To be clear, I’m not trying to “persecute people for their associations.” I’m trying to bring to light the firms that take coal money to do work supporting coal exports. And I’m suggesting one strategy for discouraging that kind of work.
Thanks for the thoughtful reply.
Kelly, the PR companies in question are exposed, not accused. If there’s no harm in what they’re doing — getting paid to work both sides of the environmental fight — then there’s no harm in reporting it.
There are two disappointing things going on here.
1) You are stirring the old enviro pot that says anyone who works with industry is bad, and then saying “well, I don’t mean too.” If you don’t mean to, then why don’t you say that instead of saying the coal industry ‘needs’ PR? You can see in the comments here that even though you don’t mean it, people still take assume that firms working with th coal industry are now the enemy.
2) It seems that Sightline is all about well done economic research. So attacking firms (sorry, just naming names) seems hypocritical in a meaningful way: what happens when we go to have the public conversation about coal port impacts? Well, we will know from sightline’s innuendos that any analysis done by the coal industry is biased AND any analysis done by environmental groups is biased. So instead of having a meaningful conversation about what we value, we just yell at each other that our information is biased. Isn’t that the opposite of what we all want and Sightline’s mission?
The saddest thing would be if this coal debate were to ruin the credibility of Sightline. I really value the work you do and hope you don’t get so emotional over this issue (which is very challenging!) that you resort to desperate character attacks.
I don’t think you can compare redevelopment of brownfields with any sort of coal development. Even what passes for for “reclamation” of strip mines is just used for greenwashing and justification for more destruction. And there rally can’t be any dispute about exports. This is an industry in decline in the US and our task is to accelerate that decline in any way that we can. Really making coal the pariah industry that it deserves to be is a good step in that direction. Every microsoft and other millionaire in this region should be drilling in to their stock holdings and publicly divesting.
Kelly, this is exactly the same argument made against Tim Burgess when he ran for Seattle City Council. His multi-million-dollar communications firm is his claim to be a small business owner. When it came to light that they represented a fundamentalist Christian group, and that he is a Presbyterian, opponents tried to tie him to that group. He claimed that he kept them at arms’ length as a client. Is this possible? Does this count? Should there be standards for clients within such firms? The public is once again asked to be the judge. Thank you, Eric.
it seems that Roger Nyhus has one foot firmly planted in coal, and the other with Tim Burgess.
My apologies to Tim! I had a “senior moment” there.
Nyhus is planted w Ed Murray. Equally disturbing…
This comment does not represent my opinion on the coal matter one way or another. I simply question why we question the fact that all sides to controversial issues such as this deserve fair and good representation. I’m not sure there’s value in calling them out here. Obviously, they are good at what they do and in this nation all views (we hope) continue to deserve to be heard, and if it takes representation to do so by these companies so be it.
I don’t think the coal industry is struggling to get fair representation. In fact, it has been a long and difficult slog to uncover the truth about their practices and the impact that their industry will have on our communities. The coal industry, and those seeking to build export terminals in the Northwest, don’t want things to be fair. In fact, they have gone to great lengths to mask the truth about the impacts they would have on our economies, health, and daily lives. Eric has researched and written extensively about this issue uncovering the fact that the jobs aren’t there as they purport, that this is a climate disaster in the making, and that having 145 million tons of coal flowing uncovered through the Northwest on an annual basis will have countless other negative impacts on our community’s ecosystems, commerce, and health. I agree with you that it’s important to tell all sides of a story—to look at data, uncover facts. But that is exactly what Eric and others have been working to do over the last few years. Public affairs agencies and PR companies have a choice. They choose their clients and the work they do. We all have choices and most people know that their choices have consequences. In this case, if we choose to allow coal exports to flow through the Northwest, the consequences will be dire. In my opinion, the value here in calling them out–naming names–is in people knowing who is on the side of “Big Coal”. Maybe drawing attention to them will impact choices they make in the future, or will make others stop and think about what’s important–another client, or the right side of an issue that could have catastrophic consequences on our communities.
I question why a corporation deserves representation at all. What we see here is corporate management spending shareholder money in an attempt to affect public policy. That is always wrong; corporations should stick to business, and leave policy debate to citizens.
Ah, the crux of our slide into corporatocracy. Despite what the supreme court ruled, I still think it is unconscionable to call money speech and corporations people. Letting corporations buy our government has undermined our democracy and is trashing our planet. We NEED a 28th amendment! Putting corporations back in their place as businesses that cannot set public policy is something I dearly hope to see in my lifetime.
Thanks, Eric, for this fine job of parsing the players. In fact, today’s pro-coal op-ed in the Seattle Times, written by two big players at ANJE, reads more like a slick PR sales job than an opinion piece.
If only our local media would even aspire to do this kind digging and analysis…
This is fantastic. Good job sightline! My contribution is in the tubes
Thank you for this. I’m familiar with Gard in Portland as one of the spokespeople for many of the causes we love to hate (although you won’t see these listed on their website). That said, at least they don’t wrap themselves in a green mantle (unless the green is a dollar bill.)
However, any of the other P.R. firms, in particular, that are taking Big Coal money with one hand while painting themselves with the brush of sustainability with the other hand are guilty as charged of greenwashing.
Brian Setzler, CPA
Enron used a similar strategy to buy Portland General Electric back in the late ’90s before declaring bankruptcy. The fiasco was a disaster on multiple levels – Business and residential rate skyrocketed, employees lost their pensions, PERS its single greatest loss, and much, much more.
Enron came to town and overcame resistance by throwing money everywhere – law firms, PR firms, and other service providers. They all had their hand out and so turned the other cheek.
The most disgusting thing was how Enron bought influence with the non-profit community that should have stood up to their buyout based on their track record of doing the same. Enron was coming here to USE this community, not make it better. Enron gave something like $1-2 million to area non-profits and in the end, only a couple of highly principled non-profits continued to oppose the deal.
Big coal has lots of money and the money they can throw at these firms is chump change to them while it may be the most highly profitable work these firms do.
Firms that take dirty coal money should be tainted with it and driven out of town.
Great article! Thank you. Brings to mind a quotation from the New Testament which stays with me (though I am a Buddhist) because of its profound common sense: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
As a follow-up, it would be nice to know which PR firms get it right in terms of walking their talk when it comes to sustainability and the green agenda.
Brian Setzler, CPA
We work with Brink Communications at http://www.BrinkComm.com. I highly recommend them and they operate with tremendous integrity. I asked them about coal clients and they said they had none and never will.
Those of us here at SmartMeme Studios, located in Washington, have been fighting these ‘black hat’ PR companies for over a decade now. Before co-founding the nonprofit smartMeme the center for story-based strategy in 2002 we have been on the front lines of direct action campaigns to shut down some of the biggest environmental polluters. We have worked nationally with Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and a number of others including small grassroot environmental and social justice groups.
We recently battled nuke giant Areva and Duke Energy’s plans to build a giant biomass incinerator here in Shelton and are very familiar with the PR games of these dirty energy companies and their PR brethren (they get a kick out of privately calling our clients “gang green”).
Frankly among the budget conscious nonprofit world it is difficult to argue for investing in developing a communications strategy, and justifiably you get more out of a paid organizer on the ground than you do any political ad. Thus our shop specializes in memetics and story-based strategies that put narrative at the center of an organizing campaign. Our record of environmental victories using this more cost effective communications approach has helped numerous causes on shoe string budgets. On our website is a new book for organizers that we helped put together with STIR, an activist magazine in the UK. Those fighting the coal train would find some of the strategy suggestions in it useful, the book is free to download.
I have been associated with Parsons PR in their pro bono work for the NW Eco-Building Guild. They do great work and live their values.
Brian Gard ran PGE’s PR defending the Trojan Nuclear Plant as well as their opposition to People’s Utility District creation in Oregon.
Thanks for all the great comments. Just glad the conversation is getting started and that at least the curtain has been pulled back for people to make an accurate decision of who they want to work with. Sightline has been tremendous at getting this type of information out there, and I think should be viewed as a public service!
Excellent journalism! Thank you and lets keep “exercising in letting in the sunlight”.
I implore you to do a similar article featuring consultants and firms based in Spokane or lobbying in Spokane. Spokane stands to see a staggering increase in coal train traffic and has very little to gain from this whole debacle. There are a lot of people here who would be glad to know who is involved and how to fight back.
Gallatin Public Affairs has an office in Spokane. The railroad and energy companies’ tentacles reach far and wide. The way to fight back is to get involved where you are. Visit http://www.CoalFreeWashington.org or call me at (509) 209-2395. I’m the Spokane organizer for the Beyond Coal campaign, Sierra Club.
I would also get in touch with Envision Spokane organizer, Kai Huschke. He is also working with Coal Free Bellingham, and Whatcom County, as well as No Coal Eugene (OR) to stop the coal trains and terminals in WA and OR by helping to get rights based community initiatives on the ballot that actually stop the corporations and the coal trains in their tracks ;). Over 140 communities have been able to stop corporate harms in their communities with these initiatives. You can also check out CELDF.org to find out more.
Paul Byron Crane
Good work Tim. The names do not surprise me. Divestment is but one option and a powerful one if we are, collectivly, very serious and committed.
OMG, what next? Is nothing sacred?
Great piece, very needed. Thank you, as always, Sightline and Eric. We do need a line in the sky. You cannot shill for the coal companies and then claim to be green. Coal export cannot be done in an “environmentally safe way” as it’s COAL and for anyone to think that is maybe enjoying I502 a little too much.
Thank you for this article Eric.
In Washington we have a strong history of open public process and being honest about who is taking money from the coal industry is important. At Cherry Point alone SSA plans to ship coal using more than 960 ship transits each year. These will be massive single-hulled vessels weaving through the San Juan Islands. They carry a lot of fuel. One accident and the Salish Sea, marine life and the good jobs that rely on a healthy environment will be damaged for years. The citizens of Washington have a lot at stake.
It’s no surprise to see Gallatin involved but I’m saddened to see Nyhus Communications doing this work. You just can’t greenwash coal.
Today is philanthropy day, after returning last week from 30 days of helping the disaster survivors in New Jersey. You just made my list of folks to support with some of the money I made with FEMA. Thanks to Denis Hayes for sharing this with me. Thank you for helping restore my respect for the journalism profession.
I went on ECONothwest’s website and not surprisingly the coal study was not one of their featured case studies. It would be interesting to know how they got to their conclusions – barging requires re-handling creating even more coal dust and sending fine particles into the river that are not good for fish.