By Larry Coble, Chicago 350
Opposition to Fossil Fuel divestment campaigns developed a new front in April of 2015. In an effort to delegitimize groups such as those affiliated with 350.org on college campuses and active in American cities seeking the elimination of fossil fuel assets from university endowments, city operational budgets, and municipal and state pension funds respectively, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) launched a multi-faceted project to blunt the momentum of the divestiture movement in the United States.1
Over the last three years, the IPAA has hired consulting firms; authorized surveys designed to “guide” pensioners into an answer the survey creators (and the IPAA) desire; employed credentialed academics to produce white papers with arguments designed to convince fiduciaries of the illegitimate aims of divestment campaigners; engaged and disseminated to willing writers and publications information and arguments to be included in editorials and articles often disguised as legitimate journalism; deployed think tanks and their employees to argue against and delegitimize the case for divestment.
Having launched the above known and varied strategies for diminishing the effectiveness or outright defeating the divestment movement, the IPAA clearly intends to fund and marshal a number of companies, political operatives, and supporting organizations to derail the divestment movement before it gains further strength.
At this time, the messaging strategy of the IPAA deploys two main arguments aimed at two audiences:
Audience 1: Financial and technical arguments directed at fiduciaries and fund managers.
Audience 2: Emotional, fear based arguments targeted at pensioners, and the general public, regarding future financial well-being due to divestiture.
Astro-Turf and the Independent Petroleum Association of America(IPAA)
During the 1990’s, authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton documented the rise of Astro-turf organizing developed by public relations firms. In their 1995 book, Toxic Sludge is Good for You!, subtitled Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, the authors outlined the efforts of paid public relations professionals to direct what appears like a “grass roots” endeavor designed to deflect, discourage, and defeat real grass roots activists’ efforts to influence public opinion and shift policies enacted by various levels of government.2 The professional PR representatives appear to be activists or objective experts, but are actually representatives of the industry potentially affected by an alteration of governmental policy. The strategy developed by the IPAA and their hired consulting firms seems to be following a model similar to the version as outlined by Stauber and Rampton while also clearly and openly engaging in a public relations campaign by hiring academics to create jargon laced “White Papers” replete with complex financial arguments designed to mislead fiduciaries and establish credibility in the general public.3
In the final pages of this paper, a case study is presented, discussing the approach of the IPAA to marshal interested groups and individuals through the Divestment Facts platform to successfully defeat the divestment campaign on the University of Denver campus.4 The methods utilized by the IPAA often mirror those outlined by Rampton and Stauber in Toxic Sludge is Good for You.
As developments occur in the divestment movement, the IPAA and the public relations companies they have retained will assuredly deploy further, yet to be revealed strategies and tactics in reaction, creating obstacles and challenges for divestment campaigns.
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Image by Alisa Singer; see more at Environmental Graphiti here.