The time is ripe for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Although we usually think about divestment as reallocating long-term financial holdings, it can take a much more direct form. If your business or organization objects to the outrageous harm caused by coal, you can vote with your pocketbook: you can choose not to do business with coal agents in the Northwest.
Among those agents is WA2 Advocates, a Northwest-focused public relations firm with offices in Bellevue, Portland, and Washington, DC. On its website, the company says that one of its core values is “making the Northwest a wonderful place to live and work” and it prominently features their work with renewable energy projects, shellfish growers, and Puget Sound tribes.
It’s an ideal that the firm apparently thinks plays well with the public, but it is inconsistent with their work supporting large-scale coal exports on Puget Sound.
Scarcely mentioned is its work promoting Cloud Peak Energy, a major player in Northwest coal exports. Cloud Peak is the largest US coal company moving their commodity out of British Columbia ports; they have secured a 16 million ton annual option at the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham; and the firm was the single largest contributor to pro-coal candidates in Whatcom County’s recent election.
According to lobbying disclosure reports, WA2 Advocates took $120,000 from Cloud Peak in 2013 (Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4). The firm’s pro-coal work is led by two lobbyists with deep political connections in the Northwest: partner and chairman of WA2 Advocates, Tony Williams, a former chief of staff to US Senator Slade Gorton, and Jeff Bjornstad, a former chief of staff to US Senator Patty Murray, as well as Congressmen Rick Larsen and Adam Smith, both of whom enjoy exemplary environmental records.
Bjornstad appears to be earning his money. On several occasions Rep. Larsen has demonstrated a troubling refusal to acknowledge basic facts about the Gateway Pacific coal export project.
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The staff members of WA2 Advocates do not rely solely on their Rolodexes though. According to InfluenceExplorer.com, a website database that tracks money in politics, the firm’s employees spread around more than $28,000 in political contributions to support US Senators and Congressional representatives from the Northwest in the first three quarters of 2013, with most of that money going to Democrats. In the two years before that, InfluenceExplorer.com reports show that they wrote checks to federal candidates from the Northwest to the tune of nearly $70,000, with about three-quarters supporting Democrats.
Curiously, many of WA2 Advocates’ other clients stand to lose if the firm is successful in advancing Northwest coal export plans, including:
- King County, which is on record as a staunch opponent of the plans
- Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission*
- The City of Mukilteo
- Puget Sound Shellfish Growers
Then there are other clients who may be also troubled enough by WA2 Advocates’ role in the coal industry that they may decide to redirect their spending toward PR firms with cleaner records. In addition to those who will be directly harmed by coal exports, other clients may simply want to avoid the reputational risks that arise from doing business with the coal industry. These include:
- Sound Transit
- Russell Investments
- Whatcom Transportation Authority
- University of Washington
It’s high time for leading Northwest firms to start divesting from WA2 Advocates. Who will lead the way?
* Update: Via Twitter, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission says it hasn’t worked with WA2 Advocates in at least seven years.
Nick Abraham specializes in environmental communications. He lives in Seattle.
Wouldn’t it be great if some advertising/marketing people started an “Advertisers for a Stable Climate” kind of organization…and designed materials to sell the idea of a federal carbon tax. (i.e. big carbon polluters pay, and the rest of us get a fair share of the money collected in the form of an annual check, or lower taxes or more clean energy infrastructure). At the same time the advertisers could remind people that roughly 4.8 billion of their tax dollars was handed over to the fossil-fuel industry last year alone, in the form of subsidies.