Power plant accused of paying actors for support is latest in industry astroturfing trend

Fossil fuel companies stick with controversial campaigns to sway public opinion.

Entergy New Orleans wants to build a new natural gas-fired power plant at the site of its old Michoud power plant in New Orleans. CREDIT: screenshot/4WWLTV.com
Entergy New Orleans wants to build a new natural gas-fired power plant at the site of its old Michoud power plant in New Orleans. CREDIT: screenshot/4WWLTV.com

Paying Americans to speak out in favor of the energy industry, as a way of demonstrating grassroots support for their often-controversial projects, has reared its ugly head. In New Orleans, actors were paid to show up at city council meetings to demonstrate their support for a planned natural gas-fueled power plant.

The paid actors, who played the role of civic-minded residents, held signs about the power plant project’s job-creating potential at New Orleans City Council meetings. Some of the actors also gave speeches in favor of the proposed Entergy New Orleans LLC power plant during the public comment period.

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Roughly 50 people turned out to support a $210 million effort to build a power plant in the city during an October 2017 meeting. Several of them told the Lens, a local New Orleans news outlet, they were paid $60 to wear orange shirts. Others were paid more to speak in front of the city council members.

In a vote of 6-1, the New Orleans City Council in March ended up voting in favor of Entergy’s proposed power plant.

“The efforts to fake community support not only undermine the voices of real people, they confirm the worst fears of Louisianians who believe the big energy companies own our government. Unless the City Council takes a stand on this, people in this city hear loud and clear who has the power and who is important,” Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of Alliance for Affordable Energy, said Monday in an email to ThinkProgress. The alliance, a New Orleans-based nonprofit group, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the New Orleans City Council’s decision to approve the power plant.

Paying real people to attend meetings, protests, and campaign events or appear in advertisements remains a go-to practice for energy companies. Known as astroturfing, this is the longtime corporate practice of funding initiatives that mimic grassroots support for an issue. The fossil fuel industry has employed such tactics for years. The American Petroleum Institute (API), the Koch brothers, and others, for example, have funded astroturf rallies to spread anti-climate-action platforms.

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Digital communications are another avenue to also allow energy companies to create online “personas” as a way to manufacture support for their industry.

In February, for example, emails were sent to state lawmakers in support of a mega-merger between Dominion Energy and utility company SCANA Corp. Many of these emails — all based on the same template — used the names and addresses of people without their knowledge. The industry group that encouraged customers to tell state lawmakers they supported the merger says it had nothing to do with the falsified emails, despite a history of deceptive letter campaigns.

The Consumer Energy Alliance, a group with dozens of energy industry members including Dominion Energy, admitted the form letters in support of Dominion’s proposed acquisition of SCANA came from the group’s website. But David Holt, the president of the group, told The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, that his group was not involved with sending out the fraudulent emails.

And back in 2011, the American Petroleum Institute (API) was revealed to be creating a television campaign showing similar fake grassroots support. Greenpeace USA disrupted the API “astroturf” television advertising campaign by having its activists agree to playing regular Americans in the filming of the advertisements. But when it came time for them to read their lines, the activists went off script, declaring support for a clean energy future and demanding an end to political interference by the oil industry’s lobbyists and public relations firms.

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That same year, Greenpeace obtained a memo from the API, the nation’s leading oil and gas lobbying group, detailing plans to launch a nationwide astroturf campaign attacking climate legislation at public events scheduled throughout the final weeks of recess before the Senate returned to debate the issue in September.

The email memo asked API’s member companies to recruit employees, retirees, vendors, and contractors to attend “Energy Citizen” rallies in key congressional districts nationwide in the closing weeks of the August recess, the Huffington Post reported.

The API also organized astroturf rallies in 2009. At this time, about 3,500 people attended a rally in downtown Houston wearing yellow T-shirts that were being handed out that read “I’m an energy citizen.” The event was part of a series of rallies organized by the API. Anadarko Petroleum, Chevron, and other Houston-based oil and gas companies provided transportation for employees to attend the Houston event.

That same year, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal industry lobbying group, gained notoriety around the same time a cap-and-trade carbon bill had passed the U.S. House of Representatives and was getting debated in the Senate.

A subcontractor for the lobbying group allegedly forged anti-climate-bill letters that were sent to members of Congress. ACCCE claimed the letters were “an isolated incident,” Grist reported.

Like ACCCE, Entergy claimed on Sunday that it had no knowledge of the paid actors attending the city council meetings to support its proposed 128-megawatt plant. Unlike most jurisdictions where utilities are regulated by state public service commissions, the New Orleans City Council oversees the Entergy Corp. subsidiary.

In a statement, Entergy said it wasn’t involved in paying the actors. “The recent allegations that some supporters of the New Orleans Power Station may have been paid to attend or speak at certain public meetings are troubling and run counter to the values of our company,” the company said.

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Entergy said it did not pay or authorize any other person or entity to pay actors to attend or speak at city council meetings. The company said it is now in the process of completing an investigation to determine if “anyone retained by the company has acted in any way inconsistent with these values.”

This is not the first time either that Entergy has been accused of paying for the appearance of grassroots support. In early April, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups sued to reverse approval of the plant. One of their suits alleged that opponents of the plant were turned away from public meetings because of a lack of space, while supporters — possibly including paid supporters — were allowed to enter early.

The lawsuit also said a man attended a church meeting and informed the other attendees that he and others had been paid $125 to wear shirts supporting Entergy and fill up the room. “He apologized to us for doing so, saying he did not understand the full situation at the time,” said an affidavit for one of the complainants included in the lawsuit.

In another affidavit, a plaintiff said information he had discovered raises “strong questions” as to whether Entergy “supporters paid actors to attend and provide comments at the October public hearing or to sit in the audience, with the practical effect, whether intended or not, of preventing other persons from entering the room and commenting.”

The plaintiffs contend the plant will be built within two miles of homes, churches, and schools.  “The communities directly harmed will face billions of pounds of toxic air pollution and increased flood risk. Opponents emphasize that dumping a polluting industry in a Vietnamese, Black and Latinx neighborhood is environmental racism,” the plaintiffs contend.

The Alliance for Affordable Energy’s Atkinson Burke called on New Orleans’ Office of the Inspector General or another independent agency to conduct an investigation into the case. “These kinds of efforts to subvert democracy are only made by those who stand to gain from it. Our question is: who stood to gain, financially, politically, or otherwise?” she said.

Entergy New Orleans’ parent company, Entergy, came under similar scrutiny for the public relations tactics it used to keep its Indian Point nuclear plant open. Common Cause, a public interest group, released a report that found Entergy had worked with public relations firm Burson Marsteller on an astroturfing campaign designed to create the appearance of public support for the Indian Point nuclear plant in Westchester County, New York.

Entergy established two groups — NY Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance (AREA) and Safe Healthy Affordable Reliable Energy (SHARE) — to promote the nuclear plant amidst calls to shut it down. NY AREA focused on developing policy arguments to the media and public and coordinating support among business lobbies. SHARE was used by Entergy to adopt the rhetoric of the environmental justice movement to target support among communities of color by framing nuclear energy as a “green” alternative to polluting fossil fuel plants, according to the report.

In the eight-year period from 2005 to 2012, Entergy and the two groups spent about $4 million on lobbying at the New York state level and made $573,225 in state and local campaign contributions, the report said. But the spending wasn’t enough to convince policymakers to keep Indian Point open. Entergy ultimately agreed to shut down the two generating units at the plant in 2021 in the face of pressure from the state government and environmental groups.

With its future looking bleak, the coal industry has also been taking drastic measure to shore up support. In 2012, Murray Energy reportedly required its employees to attend a campaign rally in Ohio for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The rally was meant to show that “Coal Country Stands With Mitt,” as the campaign signs touted. But the mine told workers they were required to attend the rally, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Murray Energy claimed at the time that participation in the Romney rally was completely voluntary. But Murray Energy workers said they felt that they were intimidated into attending Romney’s appearance. To cap it off, the workers didn’t get paid for missing work that day and weren’t paid for attending the rally.

This article was updated at 3:30 p.m. ET on Monday, May 7, 2018 to include more information about Entergy’s public relations efforts and a comment from the Alliance for Affordable Energy.