Dr. Evil’s latest target is the Obama Administration’s effort to rein in air pollution.
At a moment when the ties between money and climate science are under Congress’ microscope, Richard Berman, the bald-headed founder and chief executive of the Washington-based consulting firm Berman and Company, is intent on obscuring these links. Dubbed Dr. Evil almost a decade ago for his similarity in appearance and alleged lack of a moral compass to the Austin Powers archvillain, Berman is known for masterminding public relations campaigns against animal rights, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and labor unions.
The newest revelations show Berman, a former lobbyist, deeply entrenched in a highly coordinated state-level effort to derail the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed regulations on existing coal-fired power plants. As part of this, Berman-affiliated nonprofits have recently lashed out against federally-owned lands, sportsmen and fishermen, and even green buildings in this latest chapter in Berman’s long and storied career of warlike campaigns.
“Berman’s a hired gun, he goes where the money is,” John Dunbar, Deputy Executive Editor of the Center for Public Integrity, told ThinkProgress. “Nothing he does surprises me.”
Dunbar, who is director of Consider the Source, the Center’s ongoing investigation of the impact of money on state and federal politics, said what never ceases to amaze him is how Berman continues to be taken seriously.
“It’s ridiculous to spend so much energy fighting the attacks of an organization that won’t say who it is working for,” he said. According to Dunbar, who recently co-wrote an exposé on Berman and Co.’s PR efforts to undermine the Humane Society, Berman’s strategy is to go to the masses and persuade them to pressure officeholders.
“By creating the nonprofit front groups, he creates an air of credibility, even though their positions are more about the goals of his clients than any sort of ideology,” said Dunbar.
As the Guardian recently reported, over the last year Berman has secretly routed funding for at least 16 studies and launched at least five front groups attacking the EPA’s proposed rule to limit carbon emissions from existing and modified power plants.
With the final version of the rule expected to be released later this year, the fossil fuel industry and its political allies are lining up to blockade the government’s effort to limit power plants’ carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Republican leaders have already pledged to strip the EPA of its regulatory power and roll back the rules. Meanwhile at least a dozen states have filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the regulations.
A hallmark of Berman’s career has been his willingness to take the minority, and often highly controversial, viewpoint. In the 1990s, he was the president of Beverage Retailers Against Drunk Driving (BRADD), an organization formed to combat Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) — a position he used to argue for “tolerance of social drinking.”
Berman and Co. was founded in 1986 as a consulting firm largely working with restaurant industry to oppose things like minimum wage increases, breath alcohol ignition interlock devices, and drinking restrictions. In the early 1990s Berman started formalizing his operations into the current setup in which a number of non-profits are run out of the same address and use the same 990s as Berman and Co.
As part of this transition, Berman started the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), one of the non-profits operating out of his office, in the early 1990s. After publishing an op-ed opposing green building last year, the USA Today ran a correction stating that they subsequently discovered that the author, Anastasia Swearingen, was “employed by public relations firm Berman and Co., not the Environmental Policy Alliance.”
“The Environmental Policy Alliance, a tax-exempt group, has no employees and is housed at the same address as Berman, which controls the recently created group,” the correction noted.
Recently EPI has funded a number of environmentally-targeted reports by the Beacon Hill Institute, a free market, conservative research group based in the economics department of Suffolk University. The reports claim the EPA’s proposed power plant rules would be economically devastating and would cause major spikes in electricity prices and even rolling blackouts. So far in 2015, seven BHI studies attacking the EPA Clean Power Plan have been released — a national report and six state versions in Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. Berman and Co. did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
BHI, which has published a number of anti-renewable energy studies at the state level, is an “ideological front group against clean energy and climate change,” Gabe Elsner, the Executive Director of the Energy & Policy Institute, told ThinkProgress.
As ThinkProgress has reported on multiple occasions, lambasting the EPA regulations as expensive, job-killing overreach is somewhat of a cottage industry for groups aligned with business interests and conservative politics. It’s also one with a long, failed history: more or less since the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, these interests have wrongly predicted that new regulations would not just raise electricity costs for consumers but would damage the economy as a whole.
A 2014 analysis by the Center For American Progress looked into previous rate forecasts by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which is the lobbying outfit for investor owned utilities. It found that EEI incorrectly predicted huge electricity rates in ten big coal states in the case of the 1990 sulfur dioxide rules specifically. The predictions also generally overlook any benefits environmental regulations bring for health, which can often be parlayed into cost savings.
“BHI blows the costs of out the water and ignores the benefits of regulating coal plants,” said Elsner of the group’s EPA studies. According to Elsner, the attacks of Berman’s PR machine on the EPA power plans indicates a new level of collaboration — one likely funded by the same fossil fuel interests that have been trying to roll back state-level renewable energy targets for the last several years.
“The attack on the EPA seems to be more coordinated among state policy network groups, BHI, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, and I think Berman is at the heart of it,” said Elsner.
This is where the true cynicism comes in: Berman and Co. is both funding BHI reports and then using them as evidence that the EPA is up to no good with the Clean Power Plan. Meanwhile the linkages are left absent from published materials — obscuring them from the average citizen in search of a trustworthy source. It is not a new tactic, but it is one with increasing prominence in the polarized debate around human-caused climate change and environmental regulations protecting air and water. And it is reaching a fever pitch.
The fever may have broken somewhat with the recent news that Dr. Willie Soon, a go-to climate denier who has both published papers and testified in Congress supporting this view, has received at least $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry to fund his research and salary. According to documents obtained by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center, Soon received hundreds of thousands of dollars each from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, coal utility Southern Company, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and other conservative groups. He failed to disclose this funding in at least 11 of his scientific papers, likely violating ethical guidelines in eight of those cases.
This revelation appears to have reverberated in the halls of Congress, and three Democratic Senators — Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) — sent letters to 100 fossil fuel companies and industry groups in an effort to determine whether they are funding studies with the intention of confusing the public and making mitigating carbon pollution even harder than it already is.
“This investigation will help to determine who is funding these denial-for-hire operations and whether those who are funded by these fossil fuel interests are keeping their funders’ identities secret from the public and legislators,” said Sen. Markey. “Corporate special interests shouldn’t be able to secretly peddle the best junk science money can buy.”
Nick Surgey, research director for the Center For Media and Democracy’s PR Watch, told ThinkProgress that these “fake academics” are held up as experts not just by groups with ill intent, but also often by reporters and legislators who buy into the propaganda.
“Major polluters have learned from the tobacco industry playbook, funding a smokescreen of fake research and dozens of groups to promote their lies, hoping to stall action on climate change,” said Surgey. “They are buying themselves an entire political infrastructure.”
Any doubts about Berman’s ruthless, no-holds-barred, mercenary approach to swaying public opinion were put to rest last fall when a private speech he gave to energy executives was leaked to the New York Times by an executive who felt it “left a bad taste” in his mouth.
Speaking in Colorado with Jack Hubbard, a vice president at Berman and Co., Berman candidly expounded on a wide range of issues, including the PR groups he helped create to attack environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Food and Water Watch. These groups include Big Green Radicals, EPA Facts, LEED Exposed, and Green Decoys.
EPA Facts promotes ads stating things like “The Environmental Protection Agency is a joke.” On the website there is an interactive graphic where Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA, uses a trash can to dispose of evidence like emails and text messages. LEED Exposed is trying to do just that: expose efficient, “Leadership in Energy Environmental Design”-certified buildings as wasting taxpayer money. The website states that while LEED certified buildings cost more than non-certified buildings, studies show they “are not necessarily more energy- or water- efficient than regular buildings.”
Green Decoys takes on sportsmen, hunters, and fishermen-affiliated groups that support the EPA’s efforts to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions. It says that “environmental and left-wing foundations” are using these groups as “cover to push their pet causes.”
Chris Hunt, national director of communications for Trout Unlimited, a prime target of Green Decoys, told ThinkProgress he’s “not really sure what specifically they are after.”
“Their claims are so far-fetched and their tool more than anything else is misinformation,” he said.
Hunt said that Trout Unlimited first became aware of Green Decoys about a year ago. At that time, Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood responded to the group’s accusations with an op-ed in the Hill, in which he states that “99 percent of Trout Unlimited members fish, and a significant majority hunt. Saying we are not sportsmen and women belies reality.”
Wood says that what Green Decoys doesn’t mention is that the organization takes contributions from the right and the left of the political spectrum, including the timber industry, the mining industry, the oil and gas industry, and the agriculture industry.
“TU is an equal opportunity recipient of funding to protect and restore trout and salmon habitat, and make fishing better for everyone,” he states.
According to Hunt, in the year since, Trout Unlimited hasn’t lost much sleep over Green Decoys’ attacks.
“We have nothing to hide,” he said. “The simple answer is that we’ve got members to serve and volunteers to work with, and I guess we have better things to worry about than a crackpot in D.C. going off on sportsmen for reasons that aren’t clear.”
Hunt said he found it ironic that Berman has targeted a bunch of hunters and anglers as putting forth a radical left-wing agenda, when “we all know that if you want to have good fishing or hunting you’ve got to have good habitat. It just seems like a pointless exercise with a lot of false information.”
In his leaked speech from October, Berman said “factual debates” often leave people “overwhelmed by the science” but if you can get “enough people on your side you get people into a position of paralysis about the issue.”
For Berman, this confusion represents a win.
“If you put enough information out there … you get in people’s mind a tie,” Berman said speaking to the group of energy executives in October. “They don’t know who is right … people are not prepared to get aggressive in moving one way or another. I’ll take a tie any day if I’m trying to preserve the status quo.”
In the leaked speech, Hubbard explained why they started going after environmental groups:
“Prior to us getting involved in Colorado … we received some support from some companies and foundations who had seen a lot of these past ads and campaigns that we ran, going after the Humane Society and other people, and they said, ‘My god, we need this for our industry. For our cause right now because these anti-energy groups are getting a free pass and no one is going on offense against them and hitting back hard.’”
Now Berman has moved strongly into the environmental and climate space — which has both entrenched, well-financed interests and a general public already full of discord and with great potential to feel even more confused. And the opportunities go far beyond just attacking the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The Interstate Policy Alliance (IPA), a project of Berman’s Employment Policies Institute, is a free market think tank working to oppose regulations across the country at the state and national level. The IPA has recently published reports in support of transferring federal lands to states as well as the economic benefits of offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast.
“Berman’s strategy is to go to the masses and persuade them to pressure office-holders,” said Dunbar. “Since he’s not contacting lawmakers he doesn’t have to register as a lobbyist and say who he’s working for or how much he’s getting paid. It’s tricky, the First Amendment applies to Berman too, the onus is really on the journalists and the public. People need to consider the source of the information before they take it seriously.”