May 29, 2019

Time to Wake Up: Oil Trumps Cars

As-prepared for delivery

You just heard my colleague, Delaware’s senior senator and our ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, call on the auto industry to do its part to support strong fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for automobiles. I want to start by thanking him for his tireless leadership on this issue and for fighting for standards that protect the environment, public health, and American jobs in the fast-growing green technology sector.

I hope the auto industry is listening, because this is of critical importance to our future.

But I’d also like to pick up on one of the important things my colleague from Delaware touched upon in his remarks: the oil industry’s role in all this.

Our offices obtained a draft letter to the Deputy Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urging her to weaken the standards. According to the metadata on this document, it was written by one of Marathon Petroleum’s in-house lobbyists.

Marathon shopped this letter around to members of Congress, convincing several to send similar letters in favor of weakening the standards. We ran these letters through plagiarism software, and here’s what we got when we compared the Marathon letter with the letter sent by members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation: an 80 percent match. The red here is all language that’s identical. The black is where they added some local color like statistics on Pennsylvania’s auto industry. Members from Indiana and West Virginia sent similar letters also with text lifted directly from Marathon’s.

Marathon and the oil industry weren’t just recruiting members of Congress to plead their case with the Trump administration. They got their trade associations involved. For example, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers association lobbied to weaken the standards, according to lobbying disclosure reports. From a public relations perspective, it’s always better to have your trade association do your dirty work. After all, what company wants the public to know it lobbied to lower fuel economy standards so that consumers pay more at the pump? That’s a bad look.

In addition to its trade associations, the fossil fuel industry has developed and funded a constellation of front groups to kill laws and regulations designed to reduce the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, and it launched those front groups against the fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards.

These front groups provide a veneer of fake public support for the fossil fuel industry’s anti-climate campaign. Take Americans for Prosperity. What a benign sounding name! Who could possibly be opposed to prosperity?

In reality, Americans for Prosperity is a front group funded by the fossil fuel billionaire Koch brothers – whose company also lobbied against the standards, by the way. Americans for Prosperity doesn’t disclose its donors, so the little we know about its funders comes thanks to the hard work of a few muckraking investigative journalists. We know both ExxonMobil and the fossil fuel industry’s flagship trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, give AFP money. Since the Citizens United decision, AFP has spent about $70 million on federal elections.

To oppose the auto standards, AFP created an elaborate online deception campaign centered on a petition against the standards. Unfortunately for them, the public wasn’t buying it. Despite an onslaught of online advertising, only 231 people signed. No one wants to spend more on gas, and no amount of lies could convince them otherwise.

FreedomWorks, yet another front group that has received millions in funding from the Koch brothers and fossil fuel interests like the American Petroleum Institute, also started an online campaign against the standards. It, too, bombed.

There’s a word for this: astroturf. Real grassroots organizations don’t need tens of millions of dollars from fossil fuel front groups. Real grassroots organizations thrive on the engagement and passion of citizens, not millions in special interest dark money.

Having flopped at astroturfing, the oil industry organized its front groups to write directly to Trump administration officials, lobbying them to repeal the standards. One of the letters even argued – against all the evidence – that electric cars are bad for the environment. Here’s one of these letters. A dozen phony front groups signed it. Together, these groups have received a minimum of $196 million from fossil fuel industry interests, including the Koch brothers, API, ExxonMobil, and Chevron. $196 million does a lot of talking in this town.

The oil industry and its front groups found an eager audience in the Trump administration. The administration is stuffed with fossil fuel flunkies, who gave the oil industry exactly what it wanted: a proposal to freeze the standards and to challenge California and other states’ authority to set our own standards.

Here’s where it gets really strange: that proposal isn’t what the auto industry wanted. When the oil industry jumped into the fray, the auto industry got way more than it bargained for.

Now to be clear, the auto industry doesn’t have clean hands here. It asked the Trump administration to redo the standards after voluntarily promising the public to honor them. But the auto industry let Big Oil take over. Big Oil barged in and got exactly what it wanted—weakened standards that would allow it to sell up to $1 trillion in extra gasoline. That’s $1 trillion out of consumers’ pockets and into Big Oil’s coffers.

As my colleague from Delaware made clear, the auto industry needs to step up. In the press, unnamed auto industry lobbyists have complained that the proposed freeze isn’t what they asked for. That’s not good enough. I get that corporate America is afraid of enraging the Tweeter in Chief, but that’s not leadership. Auto industry executives need to stand up publicly and tell President Trump, Secretary Chao, and Administrator Wheeler that their oily proposal is unacceptable.

The car rule saga is a microcosm of the climate change problem. The fossil fuel industry through its front groups fights to defend its own massive sales and massive taxpayer subsidies. The IMF has estimated that fossil fuels receive a $700 billion annual subsidy in the U.S. alone, so it has every incentive to spend whatever it takes here in Washington to win. Like $196 million.

Meanwhile, the rest of corporate America, including car companies claiming to support reducing carbon pollution, just doesn’t show up. One side lobbies Congress against climate action; the other side doesn’t show up. One side spends tens of millions on attack ads against candidates who support climate action; the other side doesn’t show up. One side pours hundreds of millions of dollars into trade associations and phony front groups; the other side doesn’t show up.

The result is entirely predictable. Money talks; big money commands. Things will change around here when the rest of corporate America challenges fossil fuel industry money and influence.

Democracy and the free market are the twin pillars of America. What does it say for them as institutions when one industry can simultaneously capture our democracy and pervert the free market? Our strength has always been our example. Our inaction on climate change – one of the foremost challenges of our time – sullies that example.

For the good of our country, for the good of our institutions, for the good of our American example, it is time to wake up.