Coal's biggest lobbying group is launching a $1 million campaign to win support from Senate Democrats, an effort that employs the same public relations firm ensnared by a scandal over forged letters to Congress.
American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), an alliance of coal and utility companies, hired Alexandria, Va.-based Hawthorn Group for the new effort. Hawthorn worked for the coal group earlier this year, coordinating outreach on the House climate bill. During that project, Hawthorn subcontractor Bonner & Associates sent at least three members of Congress a total of 12 fraudulent letters purporting to be from groups opposed to the legislation.
"While the issue involving these falsified letters is a very serious matter, an outrageous matter, it still remains to be an isolated incident," said Joe Lucas, an ACCCE spokesman. "We're not going to throw the baby out with the bath water here."
The scandal continued to widen yesterday even as ACCCE sought to push the goal of its new campaign. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), an architect of the House bill, sent the coal lobbying group a letter asking it to explain its connection to Hawthorn and Bonner & Associates (E&ENews PM, Oct. 5, 2009).
The scandal broke after ACCCE hired Hawthorn for the newest campaign, Lucas said. But the coal alliance has worked with the firm for 10 years with good results, he said, and would have stayed with Hawthorn regardless.
Hawthorn in a statement said "we maintain the highest ethical and quality control standards for our work." Both the firm and ACCCE have said Bonner failed to abide by its protocol of vetting letters before sending.
A watchdog group, however, said both the forged letters and the fact that the coal group is using Hawthorn for its new campaign highlight the need for more disclosure about grass-roots efforts.
The new project will use 225,000 volunteers dubbed "America's Power Army." They will visit town hall meetings, fairs and other functions attended by members of Congress and ask questions about energy policy.
But much about the identity of the volunteers and how they operate is hidden from public view, said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a watchdog group.
"These public policy debates are too important to have the outcomes hinge on these fake AstroTurf campaigns" that employ "guerilla tactics," Slocum said. "We're all just left guessing what entities are doing and how lawmakers are influenced by what may be a very corporate-run campaign."
Lawmakers, as well, Slocum said, need to know whether concerns they are hearing in their districts and states are organic "or whether it's being orchestrated by hired guns working for the coal industry."
The forged letters from a Bonner & Associates employee were discovered because the person writing the letters used the names of actual organizations and a lawmaker made inquiries, said Craig Holman, government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. Otherwise, he said, they might have gone undetected.
It is impossible to know, Holman said, whether any of the citizen volunteers are compensated or what their connection is to corporate interests. Under congressional rules, lobbying efforts must be disclosed only when a person is paid more than $5,000 in a three-month period and 20 percent or more of his or her work time is dedicated to contacting Congress.
Environmental groups use the same kind of citizen campaigns, Lucas said. ACCCE already has "very tough standards in place" for such efforts, he said, but is looking now at adding additional safeguards.
"We're simply facilitating and raising public awareness of a public policy issue we think is important for citizens to know about," Lucas said of the campaign. "We're very proud of our grass-roots citizen-army program."
In addition to the "citizen army," the coal group is considering billboards and other advertisements for August that would highlight support for inexpensive electricity from coal and for the development of carbon capture technology for coal-burning power plants. No final decision has been made on that.
'Purest form of grass roots'
Coal received many provisions it sought in the House bill but is pressing for more in the Senate.
Coal interests want a provision in climate legislation that would limit how much businesses must pay for carbon dioxide emissions under a cap-and-trade program. Coal also wants financial support for research into ways to capture carbon emissions and sequester them underground. And the industry wants to slow down the pace of the cap, which in the House bill tightens over time.
In the new campaign pushing senators on those issues, Hawthorn will develop strategy and manage the budget, Lucas said.
"They're responsible for all those things that make the program go," Lucas added.
Hawthorn will supervise subcontractor Lincoln Strategies, which will manage the field staff.
The program will employ 39 people in key states, described by Lucas as those with low-cost electricity and senators interested in "a climate policy that reduces emissions and access to affordable electricity." Among those states are Michigan, Ohio and Virginia. The coal group sees its fuel as a key to inexpensive, domestically available electricity.
Volunteers in the program include company employees and people who live in communities where coal is mined and heavily used, ACCCE spokeswoman Lisa Miller said. There are also people who have expressed interest in helping the group or its predecessor, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices.
Paid staff will both call people already on the group's list and talk to other people at public events, asking them if they want information or T-shirts or would be interested in asking a question at a town hall meeting.
"This is the purest form of grassroots," Lucas said. "It's facilitating constituents to talk one-on-one with members of Congress."
'Heavy economic interests'
The problem with such approaches, said Slocum with Public Citizen, is that they allow corporate interests to drown out what might be the broader public interest. The citizen campaigns are well-funded, he said, and consumer advocates cannot compete.
"This is another in a long line of attempts by the coal industry to influence legislative outcomes," Slocum said. "The coal industry has a lot of money at stake in keeping Americans addicted to centralized power systems."
Corporate interests increasingly find citizen volunteers, have them attend town hall meetings and ask scripted questions, said Dave Hirsch, program and operations director at Friends of the Earth.
"This just sort of strikes me as one of the many campaigns that are going on like this," Hirsch said. "Each time, there are heavy economic interests that are behind the effort."
ACCCE, Lucas said, represents the business interests of companies tied to coal. But keeping coal as part of the country's energy mix also means low-cost electricity, with economic security and national security implications.
Climate legislation, Lucas said, should be about lowering carbon dioxide emissions.
"There are people who will not be satisfied with a climate bill unless that bill fundamentally changes the energy mix in our country," Lucas said. "That's not what this bill is intended to do."
ACCCE used Hawthorn and Lincoln Strategies for a project prior to the presidential election last year that was aimed at raising the issue of "clean coal" technology. During that effort, Lincoln workers staffed rallies for presidential candidates, debates and both Republican and Democratic conventions. They reached out to citizens at those events.
It was during a primary rally that a question about coal elicited a response from then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, giving support for research into "clean coal technology." ACCCE repackaged part of Obama's statement into a television ad this year.
"Based upon [Hawthorn and Lincoln Strategies'] track record on that project, we are very comfortable with them on this project," Lucas said. "They did an exceptional job of raising the visibility of the issue during that campaign."