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Fossil-fuel firms spend freely to defeat Obama

Published: Friday, Sep. 14, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 7A

WASHINGTON – When Barack Obama first ran for president, being green was so popular that oil companies like Chevron were boasting about their commitment to renewable energy, and his Republican opponent, John McCain, supported action on global warming.

As Obama seeks re-election, that world is a distant memory. Some of the mightiest players in the oil, gas and coal industries are financing an aggressive effort to defeat him, or at least press him to adopt policies that are friendlier to fossil fuels.

And the president's former allies in promoting wind and solar power and caps on greenhouse gases? They are disenchanted and sitting on their wallets.

This year's campaign on behalf of fossil fuels includes a surge in political contributions to Mitt Romney, attack ads questioning Obama's clean-energy agenda, and television spots that are not overtly partisan but criticize administration actions like new air pollution rules and the delay of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.

"Since Obama became president, gas prices have nearly doubled," said one advertisement by the American Energy Alliance, a group financed in part by oil executives. "Tell Obama we can't afford his failing energy policies."

With nearly two months before Election Day on Nov. 6, estimated spending on television ads promoting coal and more oil and gas drilling or criticizing clean energy has exceeded $153 million this year, according to an analysis by the New York Times of 138 ads on energy issues broadcast this year by the presidential campaigns, political parties, energy companies, trade associations and third-party spenders.

That tally is nearly four times the $41 million spent by clean-energy advocates, the Obama campaign and Democratic groups to defend the president's energy record or raise concerns about global warming and air pollution. The Times rated presidential campaign and national policy ads by whether they promoted fossil fuels or pushed clean energy and conservation, regardless of their sponsors, using ad and spending data compiled by Kantar Media, a company that tracks television advertising.

The lopsided nature of the energy messages this year contrasts sharply with 2008. Back then, global warming was a top public concern, and green ads greatly outnumbered those for fossil fuels, $152 million to $109 million, according to the analysis by the Times, which looked at 184 energy-related ads.

In 2008, Chevron, one of the nation's leading oil companies, trumpeted its investments in geothermal power, and McCain spent millions of dollars on ads featuring solar panels and wind farms as part of a solution to global warming.

But climate-change legislation died in Congress, Republicans gained a majority in the House, and pocketbook issues like the price of gasoline began dominating public discussion. After imposing a yearlong oil and gas drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico in response to the disastrous BP spill in 2010, Obama recast himself as favoring an "all of the above" energy strategy, allowing the industry to drill offshore as deep as ever and moving to open up new regions like Alaska's Arctic waters.

The shift left many fossil-fuel critics disillusioned and unwilling to do much to support the president.

"It's hard to think of any environmental activist who is enthused about anything Obama does these days," said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, which challenges the industry on drilling plans. "Obama's explicit embrace of fossil fuels and implicit embrace of all the environmental degradation that entails are almost indistinguishable from the policies of the Bush administration."

Energy first emerged as a major advertising topic during the last presidential election. Back then, one of the biggest spenders was the Alliance for Climate Protection, an environmental group backed by former Vice President Al Gore that spent an estimated $32 million on ads urging legislation to combat global warming.

This year, the alliance, now called the Climate Reality Project, is not buying television ads at all, focusing instead on social media, training and organizing.

"Whatever we would spend, it would just be washed away in this sea of fossil-fuel money," said Maggie Fox, the group's chief executive.

Other clean-energy players, particularly from the solar industry, are also keeping a low profile after Solyndra, the Fremont solar module manufacturer that received half a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees, filed for bankruptcy protection and became a favorite Republican target.

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