If ever an industry needed good PR, it’s coal.
The industry can’t hope to promote its own coal export schemes in the Northwest so instead it buys support from local consulting and PR firms willing to do coal’s dirty work. By taking money from Big Coal, these firms—many of which have carefully groomed reputations for sustainability and public-interest work—have themselves become a part of the coal industry.
Most of these firms might rather not have the public know about the work they do, with the blinds pulled down, on behalf of out-of-state coal giants. After all, their livelihoods depend on appealing to green-minded governments, nonprofits, and businesses in the Northwest. So as an exercise in letting in the sunlight—and as a sort of caveat emptor for clients—here is a look at the Northwest’s homegrown coal industry.
The world’s largest independent PR firm, Edelman operates with a dizzying hypocrisy that is on bold display in its Seattle office. Although CEO Richard Edelman says publicly: “I do not subscribe to the use of front groups to cover up the true intent of a client,” the firm is in fact the shadowy force behind the newly constituted front group Alliance for Northwest Jobs & Exports (ANJE). The Seattlepi.com calls ANJE an “astroturf” group for its work supporting the proposal to ship 48 million tons of coal each year from Cherry Point.
Edelman has a well-documented history of astroturf activities and although its name is mentioned nowhere on ANJE’s glossy website, multiple news agencies (here and here) report that the firm manages the group. In fact, Edelman vice-president Lauri Hennessey identifies herself in public—and is routinely cited in the media—as a spokesperson for ANJE (here, here, here, and here). (Hennessey also runs her own PR firm—Hennessey Communications—where she touts her environmental values.)
Seattle-based Berk Consulting takes coal money. The firm produced an economic analysis for Millennium Bulk Terminals, the company that wants to ship 44 million tons of coal annually from a site on the Columbia River. Opponents have disputed the Berk study, arguing that it fails to consider traffic impacts and economic costs, both public and private.
With offices in Seattle and Washington, DC, Nyhus Communications features a website with rotating photos of renewable energy projects and green hero Van Jones. Yet Nyhus also carries water for coal interests, working with Arch Coal (p73) to promote coal shipments from Longview. Nyhus is also actively involved with Move Forward Washington, a newly minted group that emphasizes coal among other exports. (One founding member of the group is Millennium Bulk Terminals.)
Gallatin Public Affairs
Gallatin is a natural fit with the coal industry. The firm has a history of pushing through controversial projects, including Monsanto’s Blackfoot Bridge phosphate mine and Formation Metals’ Cobalt Mine proposal. So it’s no surprise that Gallatin has gone to work for Millenium Bulk Terminals’ coal project in Longview, Washington.
The most troubling dimension to Gallatin’s role may be partner Bruce Gryniewiski. He’s the former head of Washington Conservation Voters and a current board member of the Mountains to Sound Greenway. He says that he joined Gallatin to “win support for even the most controversial projects.”
He’s trying to do just that. Gryniewiski is the prime mover in Gallatin’s efforts to put 44 million tons of coal on the Columbia River each year to be burned at power plants in Asia. He is listed as lobbyist and also as a spokesperson for the coal company.
A Portland-based economic consulting firm, ECONorthwest has a long history of work supporting conservation, so many were surprised to learn the firm took money from Ambre Energy to produce an economic impact analysis. ECONorthwest’s analysis has become a key piece of support for the Morrow Pacific Project, a complicated scheme to move as much as 8 million tons of coal annually in barges on the Columbia River for onward shipment to coal plants in Asia.
Headquartered in Portland, Gard Communications is the public face for Ambre Energy’s Morrow Pacific Project. The firm produces a range of publicity materials and president Brian Gard himself appears to be acting as Ambre’s press flak for the project. Gard has the distinction of being the only Northwest consulting firm so far to attract attention for its coal work when several Portland groups protested it.
Headquartered in Seattle, the Strategies 360 consulting group has done some worthy environmental work in the past, even sponsoring Ecotrust‘s annual leadership award in 2011. Less well known is the firm’s work in the coal industry. Matt Steuerwalt, former climate and energy adviser to Gov. Gregoire, was the lead lobbyist for RailAmerica’s plan to ship 5 million tons of coal from Gray’s Harbor to Asian power plants. After months of delay and confusion, the plan collapsed.
Drawing a line in the sky.
Climate activist Bill McKibben makes a forceful case for divestment—removing fossil fuel companies from big institutional portfolios, helping to starve them of the cash they require to continue damaging the global climate.
Yet divestment need not be all about multinational fossil fuel corporations. It could take the form of withholding support from the consultants and publicists who act as the Northwest front for coal exports. What if Portland State University stopped working with Gard Communications? What if Forterra backed away from Nyhus? What if the Seattle Parks Department severed ties with Berk, and King County fired ECONorthwest?
Imagine a Northwest where local governments, nonprofits, and farsighted corporations drew a sort of line in the sky, refusing to do business with the coal industry—including its local agents. Losing even a client or two might be enough to induce more local firms to refuse coal money. Denied Northwest connections and credible local advocates, the hugely destructive export plans would have more difficulty gaining traction in a region that has long prided itself on its growing clean-energy economy. Perhaps this form of divestment could speed the day when all of Cascadia says “no” to a dirty, climate-wrecking fuel whose highest and best use is to hold up the ground in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.