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Correction: Burson-Marsteller and the Global Climate Coalition
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
Nearly four years ago, a report on global warming in the Fourth Quarter 1997 issue of PR Watch stated that the Burson-Marsteller PR firm created the Global Climate Coalition to help the oil and auto industries downplay the dangers of global warming. We based this statement on a source which we regarded as reliable. Burson-Marsteller made no attempt to deny this claim until July 2001. Following a recent denial from Burson-Marsteller, however, we have undertaken a thorough review of our files and have spoken with several sources, none of whom can substantiate this claim. We are therefore retracting our statement that Burson-Marsteller created the Global Climate Coalition.
We should point out that Burson-Marsteller has been subscribing to PR Watch since 1995, so they received our Fourth Quarter 1997 issue at the time of its publication. Since Burson-Marsteller is in the business of "reputation management," its failure to request a correction previously on this point is rather striking--particularly since our article was subsequently cited on this point in dozens of other published news stories.
The most important issue, however, is the question of whether Burson-Marsteller has participated in the petroleum industry's campaigns to block measures aimed at preventing global warming. B-M may not have actually created the GCC, but its work for the petroleum industry on this issue is beyond dispute.
In 1993, for example, Burson-Marsteller led a $1.8 million campaign to defeat President Clinton's proposed BTU tax on fossil fuels, the centerpiece of Clinton's plan to combat global warming. Journalist David Helvarg described this campaign as follows in the December 1996 issue of The Nation: "Clinton committed the United States 'to reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels by the year 2000.' The Administration's plan to accomplish this included a deficit-reducing energy tax and increased gasoline taxes of up to 25 cents a gallon. Then a computer-driven 'grass roots' letter and phone-in campaign orchestrated by the American Energy Alliance, along with an oil-funded push by PR giant Burson-Marsteller, helped undermine support for the energy tax. The Administration abandoned the tax in the Senate after House Democrats, braving the wrath of industry, had passed it. Relations between the White House and Congressional Democrats soured quickly after that. Congress also voted to keep the gas tax below 5 cents, guaranteeing that with the lowest fuel prices in the developed world, alternative energy sources would remain noncompetitive."
Burson-Marsteller's campaign against the BTU tax was also described in Time, which reported on June 21, 1993 that the National Association of Manufacturers (the original sponsor of the Global Climate Coalition) "got together with the American Petroleum Institute, 1,600 large companies, small businesses and farmers to form the American Energy Alliance (AEA), a group designed solely to defeat the BTU tax. The coalition paid more than $1 million to Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm, to deploy nearly 45 staff members in 23 states during the past two months. ... Burson's operatives drafted anti-BTU editorials and sent them to copy-hungry weekly newspapers. They helped school boards figure their estimated annual energy taxes. They commissioned local economists to produce studies about potential job loss and then organized rallies and press conferences to publicize the results. They bombarded TV and radio stations with feeds from local business owners angry about the BTU tax. 'It was unlike anything I've ever seen,' said Brent Stanghelle, farm-news director of radio station KMON in Great Falls, Montana. 'It was like spring planting--frantic, crazy. I couldn't begin to take all the calls.'"
Campaigns and Elections magazine noted in May 1994 that the campaign against Clinton's BTU proposal was run by a Burson-Marsteller division called the "Advocacy Communications Team," headed by James E. McAvoy, a former aide to Dan Quayle and Bob Dole. Burson-Marsteller's role in the campaign was also noted in the Legal Times (May 31, 1993), New York Times (June 14, 1993), Christian Science Monitor (June 15, 1993) and Political Finance and Lobby Reporter (June 25, 1993). It was also mentioned on May 4, 1993 in the Oil Daily, a petroleum industry trade publication, which stated, "Among the petroleum industry groups joining the multimillion-dollar campaign are the American Petroleum Institute, the National Petroleum Refiners Association and major oil companies, including Amoco Corp., Ashland Oil Inc., Chevron Corp., Diamond Shamrock Inc., Exxon Corp., Fina Inc., Phillips Petroleum Co. and Texaco Inc. The alliance is spearheaded by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). ... The alliance has hired the public relations powerhouse Burson-Marsteller and a direct-mail firm called Direct Impact Inc. to conduct the public relations campaign."
Finally, Burson-Marsteller itself has boasted about the success of this campaign. The February 1994 issue of O'Dwyer's PR Services Report carried a section titled "Profiles of Top Environmental PR Firms," submitted by the PR firms themselves. Burson-Marsteller's profile stated, "B-M's client the American Energy Alliance was credited by Treasury Secretary Lloyd-Bentsen in a Washington Post article as 'one of the most sophisticated jobs I've seen by lobbyists in a long time.'" The 1994 issue of Washington Representatives, a comprehensive directory of Washington lobbyists and PR firms, also lists the American Energy Alliance as one of Burson-Marsteller's clients.
We have been trying to determine how our source might have concluded that Burson-Marsteller created the Global Climate Coalition. It is hard to reconstruct what might have happened four years ago, but it is possible that confusion might have arisen about the difference between the GCC and the American Energy Alliance.
In any case, Burson-Marsteller continues to work closely with the petroleum and automobile industries. The 1997 issue of O'Dwyer's Directory of Public Relations Firms listed the American Petroleum Institute, British Petroleum, Chevron, Ford Motor Company, Mitsubishi, and Pennzoil among its clients. Other clients historically have included Occidental Petroleum, Caterpillar and the government of Saudi Arabia.
On November 3, 1998, the New York Times reported that Burson-Marsteller was behind a front group called "Californians for Realistic Vehicle Standards," formed to oppose restrictions on automobile emissions of nitrogen oxide and other polluting gases. "The address of the month-old lobbying group is the Sacramento headquarters of the California Chamber of Commerce, while the group's phone number is that of the Sacramento office of Burson-Marsteller, an international public relations firm often used by the auto industry. Detroit auto makers provided the bulk of the money for the new group," the New York Times stated.
Burson-Marsteller is also behind a deceptively-named group called the "Foundation for Clean Air Progress" (FCAP). Judging from its name, you might think that FCAP supports measures to control air pollution. In fact, it was formed specifically to pressure the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to adopt tougher air pollution controls. The Washington Post reported on June 17, 1997 that FCAP participates in a "multimillion-dollar campaign to turn back EPA regulations for smog and soot. ... The nerve center behind the attack is a coalition of more than 500 businesses and trade groups that calls itself the Air Quality Standards Coalition. Created specifically to battle the clean air proposals, the coalition operates out of the offices of the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group. Its leadership includes top managers of petroleum, automotive and utility companies as well as longtime Washington insiders such as C. Boyden Gray, a counsel to former president George Bush. The same industries would likely bear the brunt of the costs for the new regulations, which the EPA estimates at more than $ 6 billion a year. ... Exxon, a member of the coalition, recently sent notices to its credit card customers urging them to oppose the EPA regulations. Other companies helped pay for TV and newspapers ads produced by the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a nonprofit institute funded by energy, transportation and manufacturing companies that operates out of the offices of the public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller."
According to Frank O'Donnell, executive director of a genuine environmental group called the Clean Air Trust, FCAP "was formed to distract the public from the dangers of air pollution. It tries to ignore the fact that air pollution--much of it produced by the foundation's financial backers--is still linked to tens of thousands of premature deaths a year." O'Donnell noted that FCAP's members are also major sources of greenhouse gases (U.S. Newswire, March 16, 1998).
The Tennessean reported on July 14, 1996 that FCAP was "made up of 20 organizations" including "the American Petroleum Institute, Petroleum Marketers Association of America, American Trucking Associations, American Farm Bureau Federation and the Transportation Coalition for Clean Air. ... The foundation itself is not listed with Washington, D.C., telephone directory assistance. Burson-Marsteller staffers answer calls made to a number listed in a handout."