The controversy over citizen activist groups and whether they are sponsored by industry has ensnared the Environmental Defense Action Fund, which was accused in North Dakota this week of paying activists to rally support for a climate and energy bill.
A blogger based in Minot, N.D., who picked up on a Craigslist ad seeking "progressive activists" who would be paid $90 a day, charged the Environmental Defense Action Fund with "astroturfing," or running a fake grass-roots campaign. Television news reported the story. Environmental Defense Action Fund said it was simply hiring workers to talk to voters.
But the accusations underscored the difficulty of determining the motivations of people in citizens' groups protesting or supporting energy legislation.
"When someone else does it, it's astroturfing; when you do it, it's community organizing," said Kenneth Green, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Both sides do this kind of thing."
While trade groups and companies tied to oil and coal might be acting on behalf of shareholders when they bus workers to rallies, Green said, "if you look at the size of the environmental industry, it's a big industry."
Bill Petty, field director of the National Climate Campaign in North Dakota and 12 other states for Environmental Defense Action Fund, said there's a difference between what his group is doing and the campaigns backed by American Petroleum Institute, the trade group of oil and gas companies that launched a citizens' campaign. In API's case, Petty said, member oil companies are busing workers to rallies, encouraging retired workers to go, and opening up company cafeterias for events.
Environmental Defense Action Fund -- the political arm of the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund -- was using its ads to hire people to contact voters and ask them if they would be willing to sign a petition or call a senator, Petty said. The group is not paying people to attend town halls or rallies.
"That's astroturfing; that's not what we're doing," Petty said. "The other side is trying to make a tempest in a teapot because they realize they're losing this issue on the facts."
But Rob Port, the North Dakota blogger, who runs what he described as a conservative blog and radio program, said he sees hypocrisy. Port has organized citizens' rallies there opposing policies on everything from the economic stimulus bill to energy to health care. He's angry, he said, that "the left" of the political spectrum has described those rallies as astroturfing.
"When you see some of them on the other side of the political spectrum paying activists, it's pretty interesting," Port said.
Key N.D. role in Senate climate bill
The controversy erupted in North Dakota, a major hot spot for debate about congressional proposals to cap greenhouse gases and require industry to pay for its emissions.
The state's two U.S. senators, Democrats Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, are considered key votes in a Senate cap-and-trade bill.
"The issue's pretty radioactive up here," blogger Port said. "We're a coal state. It creates a heck of a lot of jobs here. You're going to have hard time convincing people whose livelihoods depend on shoveling coal that murdering the coal industry is a good idea."
Petty, with the environmental action group, said he wouldn't be in North Dakota if he didn't think it was possible to have an impact there and that "we're not talking about shutting down the coal industry," but rather about adding new power sources like wind.
In Fargo, N.D., Environmental Defense Fund ran an ad on Craigslist with the headline "Progressive activists" wanted. In another ad, it said "Campaign for Climate Change."
"Be a part of the campaign to pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act!" the ad said. "This is a serious effort to limit greenhouse gasses and promote the development of clean, domestic energy. Ask supporters in the Fargo community to sign postcards and make phone calls to their Senators. Join the campaign and remind our Senators that delay is not an option!" The ad said workers would be paid $90 a day. There's a phone number to contact a woman named Sarah for more information.
Port, the conservative blogger and radio host, said a listener saw that posting and passed it along.
Port posted it on his blog, sayanythingblog.com, with the comment, "Nothing says 'grassroots' like paying people to do your advocacy for you."
He then wrote, "I called that phone number this morning to see what organization was behind this and all I got was some sleepy, incoherent girl (presumably Sarah) who sounded like she'd maybe had one too many last night." He also flagged the ad on a Twitter post.
A television station, CBS affiliate KXMB in Bismarck, picked up Port's item and ran a story Tuesday, which quoted Paul Sorenson, executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, saying "frankly what it comes down to is Democrats on an issue like Cap and Trade in North Dakota they couldn't excite people in a burning room and that is what it comes down to. So they can't excite people for their issue so they are going to pay them to appear excited."
For his part, Petty accuses the blogger of twisting one word and misinterpreting what Environmental Defense Action Fund is doing.
"We were not having to pay people to be political activists," Petty said. The blogger and others in North Dakota, Petty said, are trying to equate "big oil" opening cafeterias for rallies and busing in people with Environmental Defense Action Fund paying workers to contact voters.
"I'm happy to let people look at those two things and see whether those two things are legitimate on the scale of grass-roots activity," Petty said.
Hostile reactions elsewhere
The controversy comes amid a greater fury over cap and trade and citizen activity, blogger Port said, when asked if he had misinterpreted the Craigslist ad.
"The Craigslist ad said 'activist.' I don't know if they used the wrong word," Port said. "If we weren't operating within the context of [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi saying we're astroturfing, I don't think this would be news."
Environmental Defense Action Fund ads on Craigslist also have elicited hostile reactions in Kansas City, Mo., and Ohio. In Missouri, a blogger posted the ad with criticism similar to that seen in North Dakota. In Cincinnati, someone responded to the ad with an e-mail that used profanity and threatened violence.
"Only $90 a day to push your 'shaft the [expletive] out of America' agenda?" he wrote. "Please go [expletive] yourself and die at the hands of real Americans when you push just ONE too many wrong buttons."