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New Report: Funding of Fossil Fuel-Sponsored Groups, Spokespeople Rarely Revealed by Media

3 min. read

These days, if you open a newspaper, turn on a radio or TV set, it's highly likely that you'll come across an energy-related discussion, analysis, op-ed, etc.  In fact, given the centrality of energy and energy-related environmental, economic, and national security issues in today's world, it's almost impossible to miss discussion of this subject. That's a good thing, as long as the discussion is above board, with full disclosure by everyone regarding where their economic interests lie.  Unfortunately, as a groundbreaking new study by the Checks and Balances reveals, such disclosure is actually rare.

In the research detailed below, The Checks & Balances Project looks at 10 fossil fuel-funded think tanks that are prominent in their criticism of clean energy policy support. We found that these groups were mentioned over 1,010 times on energy issues in 60 mainstream print outlets, including major daily newspapers, the Associated Press and Politico from 2007-2011. These organizations’ ties to fossil fuel interests are mentioned only 6% of the time in the five-year period studied despite receiving at least $16 million from fossil fuel lobbying interests – both directly from companies and from fossil fuel-connected foundations.

These think tanks include well-known ones like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute; to lesser-known organizations like the Institute for Energy Research, the Hudson Institute, the Marshall Institute, and the Mercatus Center. What they all have in common, according to the Checks and Balances Project, is that they've repeatedly "attacked clean energy, solutions to climate change and other environmental issues while advocating for fossil fuels."

The problem is that, despite these groups' strong financial backing by the fossil fuel industry, it is rare that they are identified in their major media appearances as speaking on oil, coal, and natural gas' behalf. Instead, these groups and their spokespeople are much more frequently identified by neutral terms like "Washington, DC-based," "free market," "libertarian," and "think tank." In the end, the result is that "these 10 advocacy organizations were able to provide pro-fossil fuel points of view to tens of millions of Americans with practically no mention of their financial relationship to the fossil fuel lobby."

Also interesting from the Checks and Balances Project report is the scope and degree of fossil fuel funding to these "think tanks" - a whopping $16.5 million to just the 10 organizations examined in this study, looking only at the years 2006-2010.  Where the money came from is also highly revealing: millions of dollars from ExxonMobil, the Charles G. Koch foundation, the Koch-controlled Claude R. Lambe Foundation, White Star Oil Company-funded Earhart Foundation. What did these groups do with the fossil fuel industry's largesse? According to the Checks and Balances Project analysis, 43% of articles contained attacks on environmental regulations, 18% attacked clean energy technologies, and 17% promoted fossil fuels.

In stark contrast, the Checks and Balances Project compared the fossil fuel-funded "think tanks'" citations in the major media to the number of times the highly-respected, federally-funded National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) "was mentioned by these same publications on energy."  The finding: "fossil fuel-funded advocacy groups generated more than four times the media mentions on energy issues than NREL over the same five-year period...NREL was mentioned 236 times in the same publications that mentioned the 10 fossil-fuel-funded organizations more than 1,000 times over the same time period."

The bottom line is that the media is doing a disservice to the public by failing to reveal the sources and motivations behind the "experts" and "think tanks" cited in their pages. To remedy this serious problem, we strongly agree with the Checks and Balances Project's recommendation that "whether it’s for a quote, background information, a citation or a byline, 'think tank' sources should be asked a simple, step-and-repeat question: 'Do you get money, directly or indirectly, for interests that stand to benefit from what you are saying?'” The answer to that question should then be prominently mentioned in the article or op-ed, so that " consumers of news more completely understand the points of view they are reading."  Then, and only then, can we engage in a fully-informed debate on the crucially important issue of our country's energy future.