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ACE, Climate Education, and the Issue of Energy Executives
Note: A prior version of this story previously appeared in PRWatch earlier this summer, and it is being re-posted with some adjustments. For more information, please see the note at the end of the article.)
In May, PRWatch reported on a new group, "Balanced Education for Everyone" (BEE), that is trying to stop public schools from teaching kids about climate change science. BEE argues that teaching climate change is too scary for kids and "unnecessary." BEE's efforts have also raised other questions: what are kids learning about climate change in school, anyway, and who is influencing it?
It turns out that the issue of who is influencing climate change education has been flying under the radar screen. Especially now, as school budgets are being slashed and schools are increasingly desperate for resources, it is also an area ripe for corporate exploitation or corporate-minded influence.
In July of 2008, a new nonprofit organization, the "Alliance for Climate Education, Inc." (ACE), Inc., zoomed onto the scene and suddenly became a huge player in the much-overlooked field of climate education. ACE offers high schools free multimedia assemblies on climate change that utilize "cutting-edge animation, music and video." In short, this is not the usual low-budget presentation that school assemblies are known for.
On the surface, ACE's effort seems laudable, but questions remain about the messages ACE is crafting with its free access to the nation's youth on school time. ACE's featured web content on BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which has since been removed (after our initial criticism of it), did not even mention "BP," although it conceded the unimpeachable fact that the spill is a "disaster." ACE also featured positive images connected to the disaster such as a swimming dolphin and a rescued pelican, alongside a clean-up worker and a photo of the well fire being extinguished.
ACE's site also suggested a list of lukewarm activities young people can engage in to address their feelings of helplessness about the spill. "Get your hair cut," ACE urged, and donate the hair to a group that makes hair-filled booms to soak up oil. Another suggestion was: "Find a beach and participate in Hands Across the Sand -- a big demonstration in favor of protection of our coastal economies, oceans, marine wildlife and fishing industries." Other ideas included "Write a letter to Congress and ask them to fully fund larger coastal restoration projects," and "share info online." None of these activities would seem to interfere with the goals or sensibilities of big energy companies, including BP.
ACE's website has also been sprinkled with corporate names, logos, and subtle, green-themed cross-promotions. ACE recommends a climate change curriculum, for example, called "Facing the Future" that was funded by Hewlett-Packard. Most people know about HP due to their printers, but HP is also in the oil and gas business. HP has worked closely with BP and other companies in oil exploration.
ACE's site has also sported logos from soft drink and snack food companies that are eager to ensure their brands have maximum exposure to teens. The site has had large Pepsi logos, and urged people to visit a cross-promotional Pepsi-related website to "vote" for a $250,000 grant to ACE. Another page has urged kids to participate in an environmentally-themed bicycle ride promotion for Clif Bars. In contrast, other web portals to climate change education are essentially devoid of for-profit company logos and cross-promotions.
Massive National Reach -- and a Bus
ACE's website boasts that as of July 15, 2010, it had reached 421,571 students at 891 schools -- a massive achievement for a new nonprofit group. In just two short years, ACE managed to set up offices throughout the country, in Oakland, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, New England, Denver, Atlanta, Houston, and Austin. The group employs a marketing expert (Matt Stewart) and a national campaigns manager (Michael LaFemina). In 2009 -- its first year of existence -- ACE also awarded $130,000 to students in the form of grants and scholarships. It presented at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado, the Earth Day Celebration on the national Mall, in Washington, D.C., and at the Governor's Conference on Climate Change. The organization also has a retrofitted school bus, complete with corporate logos, that it has funded for a "BioBus" concert tour -- stopping in places like skate parks, beaches, and summer camps, where kids congregate in summer. Thus, in a remarkably short time, ACE has managed to turned itself into one of the most powerful, well-funded organizations teaching high-school students about climate change in America today. How did this come about, and why?
ACE's Leadership and Funding
ACE was founded with an initial donation of $2.675 million in "private funding," the source of which was undisclosed on ACE's website, as of our initial report. However, a September 30, 2009 article about an ACE school presentation says all of money to start ACE came from one person: Michael Haas, the group's founder and the president of its board of directors. A second article posted on Grist.com in July 2009 confirms this. So why has ACE been so cagey about reporting it on its website?
Mr. Haas made his career in wind power. In 1998, Mr. Haas founded "Orion Energy, LLC," a company that develops large-scale wind power projects. In December 2006, Haas sold Orion Energy, LLC to BP Alternative Energy for an undisclosed sum. The price has not been publicly disclosed, but what is known is that BP acquired two companies in 2006, Orion Energy, LLC, and Greenlight Energy, Inc., paying a combined total of $688 million (pdf) for both. The announcement of BP's acquisition of Orion Energy listed Haas as the President and noted that "Orion's staff and management will join BP Alternative Energy." Numerous other sources, including business credit reporting firm Dun and Bradstreet listed Haas as the leader of Orion Energy LLC, as of July 2010.
However, Mr. Haas has indicated that he agreed to work for BP for free part-time for two years following the December 2006 sale but that he is not a leader of Orion Energy LLC and instead is the president of "Orion Energy Group LLC," which was created in 2006. At the time of the sale of Orion Energy LLC to BP, Mr. Haas' colleague Jim Eisen and other staff became part of BP Alternative Energy, and Mr. Eisen continued to work as an exec for BP from late 2006 until some time in 2010.
While serving as the president of a multi-million dollar energy firm, Orion Energy Group LLC, Mr. Haas has played an active role in ACE, spending more than half of a full-time work week helping the non-profit, at least initially. According to ACE's tax records, Mr. Haas spent 25 hours a week working at ACE in its first year. (The second year filings are not yet publicly available.) He also serves as Chairman of ACE's Board of Directors, which has three members in all.
The two other board members are Mr. Haas' father, Robert Haas, and Jim Eisen, who served as Vice President of Policy and Regulatory Affairs for BP Alternative Energy, prior to the creation of ACE until earlier this year (2008, 2009 and into 2010). "Regulatory Affairs" departments of corporations typically work to assure that government regulations minimally affect corporate activities, and that any new regulations put in place favor the corporation as much as possible. Mr. Haas has indicated that Mr. Eisen was not a lobbyist but rather was a promoter of wind energy, even though regulatory affairs departments are typically lobbying offices, which usually bill a lot of time and expense to the corporations they serve. (At least one publicly available document signed by Mr. Eisen and addressed to the Governor of Michigan is about BP's lobbying agenda and is entitled "Michigan Senate Needs a Fresh Start with Renewable Energy Legislation.")
At just three people, as of July 2010, ACE's board is small for an organization of its size, but Mr. Haas has indicated that the board will be doubled in size in the near term. At present, two of its three board members previously worked for BP -- for free or for compensation. Thus, one of its three board members (Eisen) had a financial interest in BP through his work for the company, while serving on ACE's board for most of the non-profit's existence. And, its board president (Haas) previously had a significant stint as an advisor to BP, although uncompensated, after selling his company to BP.
With the amount of hours that Orion Energy Group's head has put in at ACE, perhaps it is a good thing for Mr. Haas that his commute to work is so short. ACE is conveniently located down one flight of stairs from the offices of Orion Energy Group, where Mr. Haas works. ACE's physical address -- 360 22nd Street, Oakland, California -- is the same address as BP Alternative Energy and Orion Energy. The commute is also easy for Mr. Eisen, who now works upstairs for Orion Energy Group, and it was similarly close when Mr. Eisen worked for BP's Alternative Energy regulatory affairs just down the hall. BP is in Suite 850, Orion Energy Group is in Suite 800, and ACE is in Suite 730.
Mr. Haas has indicated that this proximity between Orion Energy Group and BP should not be surprising because 360 22nd Street is one of only a few LEED-certified buildings in Oakland. Prior to the move to 22nd Street, the corporate entities, and these two men and their colleagues, occupied space at 1611 Telegraph Road in Oakland, Suite 1515. ACE was downstairs in that building, in Suite 726.
A prospective employee also reported that at an interview with ACE in their offices "she saw lots of BP coffee mugs in the cubicles, she asked about the source of funding ACE receives. The ACE employees became very quiet, and only wanted to discuss it in general terms. 'We're a non-profit, with some individual major funders.'" ACE has also been very quiet about its funders.
Given its physical proximity to BP and its past connections to a BP exec (who worked for pay) and a BP advisor (who worked for free), it seemed suspicious that although two out of three ACE board members had worked with BP, their bios on ACE's website failed to mention these relationships, as of July 2010.
Concerns About BP
The lack of transparency about ACE's ties to BP employees or volunteers through its board and its remarkably well-funded nationwide reach into public schools raised eyebrows among climate change educators. It also raised questions about what is really behind ACE's turbo-charged efforts to gain access to teens and influence these consumers and future voters. Mr. Haas has indicated that there is nothing behind this effort other than a genuinely heartfelt desire to help educate kids about climate change. This is a very laudable desire.
It was a surprise though that, in the midst of the biggest environmental disaster to strike the US through BP's exploding deep sea oil well, a Google search of ACE's entire website (BP site:acespace.org) yielded only three references to the oil giant. One was a statement applauding BP and other companies on climate change, with no mention of the fact that some of the fiduciary leaders of ACE had worked with BP. Another was a quick reference by a teacher to applying for a grant from BP to help her science club. Finally, there was a note from ACE's Executive Director, Pic Walker issued in June in response to concerns raised about ACE's being linked to BP.
That denial appeared to be very carefully framed. It stated that "information claiming ACE is intimately tied to BP, in that all our funding and organizational oversight comes from BP" is "false" (emphasis added). By defining the claim as "all" funding "and" oversight come from BP, ACE could easily state the purported claim is untrue. This denial left room for much or some funding or oversight from Mr. Eisen who worked as an exec for BP until earlier this year or from Mr. Haas who aided BP without pay after selling Orion Energy LLC to BP. Mr. Walker also stated that ACE has "no connections financially or otherwise with BP," which means the corporation does not directly fund ACE and neglected to mention that for most of ACE's history one of its three board members worked as a VP for BP for pay and its board president previously agreed to work for BP for free for two years after selling his company to BP.
The statement also noted that ACE is "an independent 501c3 with a diversity of funders," which did not address whether any former or current BP executives donate any funding; in response to a question since our original story, Mr. Haas has stated that no current or former managerial employees of BP have donated to ACE. ACE also did not previously disclose what portion of its multi-million dollar budget for the past two years has been made possible by BP's purchase of Orion Energy. ACE also took pains to state that it "will always develop our programs and manage the organization free from influence from outside," without mentioning the influence on the inside that may be exerted by its board, which is made up of energy executives and a family member. And while there is no reason to conclude that ACE employees take orders from BP headquarters, the assertion that there are "no connections" between ACE and BP simply defies the facts, particularly Mr. Eisen's former job as a BP exec while serving on the board. It only adds to the discomfort that ACE seemed to have been obscuring those connections, and had refused to fully disclose its funders. Mr. Haas has indicated that his company and BP are competitors in the alternative energy field. We do remain concerned that given the prior roles some of ACE's board members had working with BP that those connections quite naturally affect how they view that company. And, we were especially concerned about the omission of the name BP from ACE's website coverage about the disaster in the Gulf and the weak actions ACE suggested to teens in response to BP's disaster, as noted above.
Why This All Matters
Admittedly, there are far worse messages being sent on climate change by entities other than the array of ACE's messages on its website. In California, some climate educators have complained that coal companies are writing energy textbooks that try to hide climate science from America's youth. (And, recently, we have criticized the state of California for buying into BP's greenwashing and putting BP on a committee shaping environmental curriculum, despite its poor safety record.)
ACE does not deny that climate change is both real and the result of human activity, unlike some corporate interests and public figures. Arguably, ACE overemphasizes small-scale and, some would say "slacktivist" solutions to climate change, like household energy efficiency and recycling, instead of broad policy solutions that might affect corporations. But this may be a valid strategy when attempting to engage and empower high school students. Right now, ACE offers a decent program on climate change. But ACE can alter its messages at any time.
ACE has managed to achieve far greater prominence, in a very short period, than other climate change education programs using its wealth and its connections. It may ultimately displace other climate education programs that call for bolder responses to things like the BP disaster than cutting hair and hand-holding. Not all programs can afford to provide free multimedia assemblies or hire paid marketing experts to help them get cozy with budget-strapped schools. Groups like the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Climate Change Education have long track records of providing strong educational programs on climate change for students, but without the kind of ties to corporate execs that ACE has.
The schools that choose ACE and the students who listen to ACE may give them enormous power without knowing that two of ACE's three Board Members currently have "day jobs" at an energy company, albeit one that promotes wind energy rather than fossil fuels, or knowing their past work for BP (for compensation or for free). Nor do they know how much of the ACE enterprise was seeded by, and may continue to be funded by, energy company leadership in their spare time.
Who Is Interested in Climate Change Education?
It is fair to say that in recent years, the environmental community has failed to invest enough time and energy in climate change education, instead choosing to focus much of their funding and attention on policy and legal battles. Meanwhile, oil and coal companies have not skimped on getting their message into the schools. And, now ACE has arrived on the scene as a new non-profit that is becoming a dominant source of climate change information for U.S. schools. This puts a lot of influence into the hands of people who have worked closely with BP (for compensation or for free): Mr. Eisen and Mr. Haas.
So we took a closer look at ACE itself, beyond its board. Pic Walker, ACE's Executive Director, does not appear to have a degree in science education, even though ACE's stated mandate is science education. Instead, he last worked for Blu Skye Sustainability Consultants. Blu Skye's main client? Wal-Mart and while Wal-Mart has been making an effort (pdf) to adopt eco-friendly products and practices, is far from being the poster child for a green economy. Wal-Mart and other companies have been eager, however, to capitalize on the American consumer's desire to "go green," which has resulted in a wide-array of marketing pitches to tout some of the relatively small investments a company makes in green technology, a practice PRWatch calls "greenwashing." And of course, BP has its own prolific history of greenwashing. To be fair, as we noted in our original story, Mr. Walker does have a long background in working on environmental conservation issues in the Bay area. But in this new job, it seemed Mr. Walker was working to keep ACE's links to BP out of public view, even before the BP's disaster in the Gulf -- which ACE managed somehow to highlight without ever mentioning BP. Mr. Haas has indicated that Mr. Walker did teach "environmental studies" for two years at a private school in Connecticut, although a full-time job as an educator at the Canterbury school was not listed on his bio, as of July 2010, or on the school's website.
ACE is under no legal obligation to reveal the resumes of its Board of Directors, but describing the companies they have worked for in the recent past would be the right thing to do. We do think it is fair to point out the reality that for-profit energy execs were spending time during the week supporting an aggressive campaign to teach children about some responses to climate change via this non-profit and that one of those execs was working as a BP exec (as a VP of policy and regulatory affairs) while advising ACE and another previously worked for BP for free. ACE's donor policy does require that significant donations from corporations be disclosed but, like many organizations, it does allow some donors to request anonymity. Mr. Haas has emphasized that no current BP managerial staff have made donations to ACE and that no prior ones have done so. (A VP for BP, Eisen, however did work for the company while also serving on the board of ACE and the board president did previously work for BP for free.) We do think that for organizations with access to students, more disclosure of who is funding and who is shaping messages is needed, compared with other organizations, to help protect against any conflicts of interest.
If we fail to insist on greater transparency and answers to important questions about ACE's funding and the corporate connections of its board at this early juncture, we may find years from now that ACE is no longer an ally in the fight against climate change, but instead is an out-of-control corporate promotional vehicle with its own agenda, shaping young minds to address this enormous problem in corporate-friendly, but ineffective ways. And, meanwhile groups without corporate ties may have been squeezed out of the educational arena.
At present, however, ACE appears to be making significant strides in reaching out to teens to help them understand that climate change is real, and we do applaud that effort. But we hope that future calls to action on climate and environmental issues by ACE will be stronger than calling for kids to cut their hair or hold hands by the seashore. Just imagine if ACE had called on kids to urge BP to stop deep-sea drilling for oil what a huge impact ACE might have had on the public discourse over the disaster and energy policies that contribute to climate change.
Note from the Center for Media and Democracy:
On July 22, 2010, PRWatch posted a special report, "Does BP Have an ACE Up Its Sleeve on Climate Change," regarding the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE). That report was based on publicly available information connecting two of ACE's three board members, Michael Haas and Jim Eisen, to BP and referring to them as "BP Execs." Mr. Haas wrote to request a correction, and we removed the story pending a review. We are now re-posting an amended story, above.
Mr. Haas indicated that he is the President of "Orion Energy Group L.L.C.," which is not affiliated with "Orion Energy L.L.C." -- which he sold to BP Alternative Energy in late 2006 and with whom he agreed to work, for free, for two years. He also stated that earlier this year, Mr. Eisen left his post as a Vice President of BP's alternative energy operations in the US to join Orion Energy Group. Accordingly, neither he nor Mr. Eisen currently work as executives for BP.
However, it is correct that for most of ACE's history, one of its three board members was a BP exec (Eisen), and two of its three board members are energy company execs (Eisen and Haas). It is also true that ACE's board president previously agreed to work for free for two years for BP.
PRWatch ran the initial story because we found strong evidence of a connection between BP and ACE:
- In the public announcement of the sale of Orion Energy to BP Alternative Energy, Mr. Haas was listed as the "President" of "Orion Energy";
- BP's statement noted that "Orion's staff and management will join BP Alternative Energy and will continue to operate from their offices in Oakland, California";
- Jim Eisen was listed as the point of contact for "BP Alternative Energy";
- Orion Energy, Orion Energy Group, and BP Alternative Energy were all listed in numerous public records as occupying the same suite of offices, "1611 Telegraph Avenue, Suite 1515," and then all subsequently moved to the same floor of a different building, "360 22nd Street" in Oakland, California, and ACE's address was listed just one floor below;
- Numerous public sources checked listed Jim Eisen as the Vice President of Policy and Regulatory Affairs for BP Alternative Energy with an @bp.com email address as of the date of our initial report;
- Even the trusted business reporting service Dun and Bradstreet listed Mr. Haas as the leader of "Orion Energy L.L.C.," as of July 2010.
Despite all of the public information PRWatch relied upon indicating that both Mr. Haas and Mr. Eisen were working in executive roles with BP, Mr. Haas has stated emphatically that he never worked for BP for pay, that Mr. Eisen previously did work for BP Alternative Energy but no longer does, and that even though Orion Energy Group and Orion Energy/BP Alternative Energy have worked side by side on the same floor for the past three-plus years they are separate legal entities. We accept these statements as true.
It is clear the companies have had long relationship with one another in the pursuit of wind farm contracts and are now competitors. Mr. Haas has noted that the two companies have no financial relationship with one another; and that in 2009 Orion Energy Group LLC "re-purchased a small wind development project that BP Wind Energy decided not to pursue."
As noted above, the two companies have had some of the same principle staff. Mr. Eisen worked closely with Mr. Haas at Orion Energy LLC and then he worked at as an executive for BP Alternatively Energy at the same address, and now he works again at Orion Energy Group LLC with Mr. Haas on the same floor as BP. It is also true that Mr. Eisen's service on the Board of ACE overlaps with the lengthy period of his work as a VP with BP Alternative Energy, and that at the time of our story, ACE did not make any reference to his prior three-plus years of work as a VP at BP on its site.
Mr. Haas also suggested that we should have noted that ACE's Executive Director, Mr. Walker, previously taught environmental studies at the Canterbury School, a private school in Connecticut. There was no mention of him teaching full-time for two years in his ACE bio or on the school's site, as of July 2010, but we accept Mr. Haas' statement.
Based on our review of the information available, PRWatch was right to raise concerns about energy execs shaping educational outreach, especially with ACE's carefully-worded denials of any connection to BP, despite Mr. Eisen's prior lengthy tenure as a BP exec and Mr. Haas' prior work for BP for free. Mr. Haas has indicated that Mr. Eisen's role with BP was fully disclosed on ACE's site during 2008, 2009 and 2010 when he worked there, but as of the date of our initial story, there was no mention of his prior role with BP. There are also no records we can locate of the prior information that was on the website.
PRWatch's reliance on Dun and Bradstreet and other public information indicating that Mr. Haas continued to work for BP through Orion Energy L.L.C. to the present was not unreasonable, but was misplaced. We accept Mr. Haas' statement that as part of the sale of his company he agreed to work part-time without pay as an advisor to BP Alternative energy for two years following the sale of Orion Energy L.L.C. to BP in December 2006.
The heart of PRWatch's concern was whether for-profit businessmen were getting too much influence over educating teens in public schools through a new non-profit that had not fully disclosed its funding or the BP connections of its fiduciary leadership. We were also concerned that a for-profit company was, in effect, subsidizing Mr. Haas' work for a non-profit. We remain concerned about the potential conflict of interest between the board members' day jobs and their work downstairs with ACE, although both entities' missions include the growth of wind energy as part of the solution to the climate change crisis. We also do applaud the commitment of Mr. Haas and Mr. Eisen to volunteer to help address climate change, which is not something many energy executives do.
To be clear, as we indicated in our initial story, ACE's efforts to help educate young people about climate change are indeed laudable. We are sincerely concerned, however, that ACE was pulling its punches regarding BP by inexplicably not mentioning the company by name in discussing BP's disaster in the Gulf, and by featuring a response to the disaster that urged teens to take up activities such as helping to create human hair booms, which, as a scientific matter, had been dismissed as an ineffective response to the disaster. These factors underscored our concerns. (After the initial PRWatch story, ACE removed its featured item on the disaster. BP also removed the link we initially cited about the likely price BP paid Mr. Haas to purchase Orion Energy.)
We do applaud ACE's effort to engage young people in responding to the climate crisis, and we hope their recommendations for action will be stronger going forward than their recommendations were regarding BP's Gulf disaster.
We do hope that ACE will fully disclose its funding in the past and in the future. We hope, too, that it will make clear that two of its three board members previously worked for BP, for compensation or for free. We are also hopeful that Orion Energy Group LLC. will make clear on its website that it has no legal affiliation with Orion Energy LLC, despite their close names, and BP Alternative Energy next door and ensure that Orion Energy's business report on Dun and Bradstreet is corrected.
We also do plan to take up ACE's invitation to attend one of their assemblies, and we promise to report back and give praise where praise is due.