The oil and gas industry can’t seem to kick the habit of hiring front groups to push dubious poll results that give the appearance of broad public support for fracking and the construction of new pipelines.
A new poll put out by the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) is yet another example of this: a survey conducted by an industry-friendly firm, promoted by a pro-fracking front group pushing the results — and leaving out data that goes against its case — in an attempt to shape the public narrative.
The poll pushers claim that the results show that people in New England and New York overwhelmingly support pipelines and that “majorities support expanding natural gas pipelines even when expansion is juxtaposed to a strong environmental argument.” However, the poll questionnaire used suspect methodology that invited responses that the fracking industry and its PR representatives could deploy in their own favor.
Even more, the CEA press release on the survey results withheld key pieces of data from the poll that undermine the case they are trying to make. When given a range of choices, the overwhelming majority of poll respondents “strongly” support clean and renewable energy, while less than a third strongly support expanding oil and gas pipelines, and less than a quarter strongly support generating electricity through nuclear plants or expanding offshore drilling. These results, which conflict with much of the energy industry’s goal of fracked oil and gas expansion, were left out of the industry’s spin of the survey.
Furthermore, the public deserves to know that the CEA — the main industry group promoting the poll — is entirely a front group crafted by a Houston-based consulting firm called HBW Resources. HBW management have longtime ties to the oil and gas industry and get millions of dollars channeled to them as “independent contractors” from the non-profit CEA. Because the public doesn’t know this, the CEA is able to paint itself as a grassroots group, as opposed to the top-down, consultant-driven astroturf PR front that it actually is.
Consumer Energy Alliance
CEA, who has aggressively pushed the poll, calls itself “the voice of the energy consumer.” A more accurate label would be “the voice of the fossil fuel industry and its corporate allies.”
CEA is a big business-backed astroturf group that functions as a PR wing for the industry, putting out polls and reports and spinning news to try to shape popular opinion and media narratives in ways that ease public consent for their own corporate prerogatives. Its members include a who’s-who list of industry giants, some of whom are linked to controversial pipeline projects.
Its 2016 Annual Report celebrates its “accomplishments” throughout the US, which mainly center around killing industry environmental regulations and fighting the growing movements against fracking, pipeline construction, and offshore drilling. (CEA puts all these movements under the umbrella label of “anti-development groups.”)
For example, some of its 2016 self-professed accomplishments included “organized a counter protest in Texas and press conference in Louisiana against anti-development groups opposed to offshore drilling” and “defeated efforts by anti-development groups to pass a 2,200-foot drilling setback in Stillwater, Oklahoma.”
CEA also lists its accomplishments in media spin, such as radio and TV commercials, print ads, and success in getting its press releases to news sites like Reuters, Yahoo!, and Bloomberg.
CEA board members include representatives from the fossil fuel and construction industries, including Caterpillar and Plaza Group (an international petrochemical marketing company). It also has board members from the airline industry (which has a vested interested in cheap gas), such as Airlines for America and Sabre Airline Solutions.
The board’s vice-chair represents the Virginia Manufacturers Association, a backer of the Dominion Energy-backed Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposal.
HBW Resources: The Consulting Firm Behind CEA
The most striking aspect of the CEA, though — and what exposes it most starkly as a top-down astroturf group — is that it is actually operated by a Houston-based consulting firm called HBW Resources. CEA funnels millions of dollars to HBW, and the longtime CEA president is a co-founder and managing partner of HBW. Other top HBW executives also have leadership roles in CEA.
David Holt has been President of CEA since 2006. According to his CEA page, Holt founded HBW Resources in 2005 “in order to provide counsel and guidance to companies regarding governmental and industry energy initiatives, including issues related to energy security, exploration and production, advanced technologies, air quality and refining.” He is currently a managing partner of HBW Resources.
As President of CEA, Holt has channeled big money to HBW Resources — nearly $5 million in total in from 2012 to 2014 and 2016 (the 2015 filing for CSEA is not available). CEA 990 filings show that it hired HBW as an independent contractor:
- CEA paid HBW $1,152,000 in 2016
- CEA paid HBW $1,051,384 in 2014
- CEA paid HBW $1,327,500 in 2013
- CEA paid HBW $1,240,000 in 2012
Holt isn’t the only HBW executive and top employee with a CEA leadership role. Others include:
- Kevin Doyle, HBW Strategic Partner, is the Executive Director for Consumer Energy Alliance of Florida.
- Michael Butler, HBW Strategic Partner, is the Mid-Atlantic Executive Director for the Consumer Energy Alliance since 2013.
- Tommy Foltz, HBW Executive Vice President, ”supports the firm’s management of Consumer Energy Alliance on issues related to onshore energy production and infrastructure in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and throughout the mid-continent region.”
- Emily Haggstrom, HBW Senior Director of Communications, “is responsible for managing relationships with strategic clients and stakeholders for Consumer Energy Alliance.”
- Chris Ventura, HBW State Affairs Director, is the Executive Director for Consumer Energy Alliance- Midwest.
Other HBW executives and employees include a former Shell manager, a Senior Advisor to the Trump-Pence Campaign and Transition Team, and a longtime member of the National Petroleum Council. HBW’s ranks are also filled with former government employees and officials — even a former senator and governor.
What this should all make abundantly clear is that the Consumer Energy Alliance is little else but a PR effort waged by high-powered, revolving door consultants with close ties to the oil and gas industry.
The poll that the CEA is currently pushing, whose results claim to show wide support for pipeline expansion, was conducted by Hickman Analytics, a Beltway-based “public opinion research and consulting firm” that has a long history of working with corporations and politicians. Some of its clients include major energy companies like Southern Company and Progress Energy (a subsidiary of Duke Energy), as well as the Buffalo-based Delaware North Corporation, whose CEO Jeremy Jacobs Sr. is a big backer of Donald Trump. Hickman Analytics has conducted a number of polls for the CEA in the past.
While polling data could potentially be useful amidst the ongoing debate over new fracked oil and gas pipelines, this is not what Hickman Analytics specializes in. They are paid the big bucks to help their corporate clients win. “We believe we are the best-qualified firm in to assist in building and executing a winning campaign,” they advertise on their page.
Hickman Analytics also has a steady pattern of conducting pro-industry polls prior to this one. For example, they put out a pro-Atlantic Coast Pipeline poll in May 2017, again backed by the CEA. It was also promoted by EnergySure, an oil and gas industry-backed astroturf group whose members include the four companies that are jointly proposing the ACP. (We’ve previously covered EnergySure’s history of pushing faulty polls on Eyes on the Ties).
Some of the first questions asked participants if they thought they paid more than other states for electricity, and why. Getting consumers cost conscious from the beginning sets up the later questions that ask about the desirability of “affordable” energy, which the poll questions assumes was largely fossil fuel and nuclear energy. Later questions are framed in such a way that assumes that continued dependence on fossil fuels is unavoidable, and are loaded up with language that suggests that fossil fuels are the most beneficial option for households and the larger economy.
But when poll respondents were able to comment on a range of different possible energy sources, independent of any loaded formulations, they clearly preferred clean and renewable energy sources to fossil fuel energy. This information was in the original poll conducted by Hickman Analytics, but was conveniently left out of the CEA’s press release.
According to the poll, 88% of respondents support “Generating electricity using renewable sources such as wind and solar,” and only 9% oppose this. Moreover, of that 88% support for renewables, 70% “strongly” support it.
In contrast, only 58% support “Expanding pipelines to deliver transportation fuels for consumers and markets,” and only 32% “strongly” support pipeline expansion. Only 23% strongly support “Generating electricity using nuclear power plants” and only 24% strongly support “Expanding offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters.” The latter two categories failed to obtain a majority even when those who “somewhat” support them are added.
A major finding of the poll, then, is that the overwhelming majority of respondents strongly support moving towards clean and renewable energy, while only a quarter to a third strongly support pipeline expansion, nuclear energy, and offshore drilling.
This conclusion, however, was left out of the CEA’s press spin.
At a time when intense debate exists over the future of our energy needs, economy, and planet, we need a transparent and honest discussion, not industry-backed front groups buying questable poll results to steer the media narrative in a direction that will bring more profits to the oil and gas industry.