Enbridge Defends Its Astroturf Playbook as it Pushes Line 3 Oil Pipeline

As Enbridge, the Canadian power house energy company, seeks to build a 337-mile portion of its proposed Line 3 replacement pipeline across Minnesota, the company and other pipeline backers have resorted to questionable public relations efforts to gain support for the pipeline, as several investigative reports and articles have pointed out.

When a leader in the movement against the Line 3 pipeline – Winona LaDuke, the well-known activist, writer and political candidate who is the Executive Director of Honor the Earth – recently pointed this out in the op-ed pages of the Duluth News Tribune, the company felt compelled to call on its Vice President of U.S. Operations, Brad Shamla, to respond.

Enbridge may have reason to worry about further bad press around Line 3. The pipeline – Enbridge’s most expensive project ever –  has encountered significant opposition and faces the prospect of continued delays as state courts and regulators deem Enbridge’s permitting application materials inadequate.

Enbridge’s response to LaDuke tries to downplay the extent to which the company’s Line 3 strategy has come straight out of the fossil fuel industry’s playbook of astroturf tactics that promote new oil and gas infrastructure while appearing as neutral or “grassroots.” But it is Enbridge, not LaDuke, who stretches the facts.

As a study in corporate dissembling, and in how the opaque network of fossil fuel industry front groups can hide the truth around industry manipulation of public opinion, it’s worth responding  in some detail to Enbridge’s claims. We’ll focus on three aspects of Shamla’s response that fudge the truth on Enbridge’s role in pushing the Line 3 pipeline through sketchy front groups.

Number 1: Shamla conveniently omits the fact, cited by LaDuke, that an Enbridge-backed business organization paid the University of Minnesota Duluth to publish an economic impact study on Line 3 – which Enbridge itself provided the data inputs for – and which Line 3 pipeline proponents, including elected officials, then passed off as a UMD study that they used to argue for the pipeline in the mainstream press.

Backers of the Line 3 have long cited – including in op-eds in papers across Minnesota – an April 2017 economic impact study released by the University of Minnesota Duluth in their arguments for the pipeline. But as we reported, an Enbridge-funded business group – the Duluth-based Area Partnership for Economic Expansion, or APEX – actually paid UMD to do the study and publish it with its legitimizing university imprimatur. Moreover, the study that UMD released was based on a previous study that an Enbridge-hired consulting firm produced on behalf of Enbridge. Enbridge also provided the data inputs that the report was based on.

But the conflicts around the report didn’t stop there. Enbridge’s US Director of Public Affairs sits on the board of APEX, and UMD is a dues-paying member of APEX. At the time of the study, both UMD Chancellor Lendley Black and UMD Natural Resources Research Institute Director Rolf Weberg sat on the APEX board alongside Enbridge – and all this, as APEX channeled payments to UMD to publish its Enbridge-tied report that was released as a UMD report.

The conflicts of interest of involved in the UMD study were so egregious that, after PAI’s report came out, a key UMD faculty member who was on board of APEX resigned from that board. The faculty member, Rolf Weberg, is director of the UMD Natural Resources Research Institute, and he also withdrew this Institute’s membership from APEX. Weberg told Minnesota Native News that he “doesn’t want his department to be involved in any organization that advocates for specific projects.

The conflicted and flawed paid-for UMD study went on to be a key pillar in the Line 3 media campaign across Minnesota even as it misled the public. Though LaDuke brought up the UMD study, Shamla conveniently failed to mention it. (The story was reported on in the Twin Cities’ City Pages, with the title: “Watchdog: UMD’s pipeline study was polluted by Enbridge money.”)

Here is a visual slideshow map that lays out the enormous conflicts involved in the Enbridge-backed UMD study:

Number 2: Shamla downplays the extent to which the Consumer Energy Alliance, which has been pushing Line 3 on Minnesota’s airwaves, is indeed a pure-and-simple industry astroturf PR outfit even as it poses otherwise.

In late 2017, a group called the Consumer Energy Alliance aired pro-Line 3 pipeline ads under the name of “Modernizing Minnesota.” At the time, we pointed out that the CEA was in fact an out-of-state fossil fuel industry front group that cited Enbridge’s faulty, paid-for UMD study to support Line 3. Enbridge is also a “member” of the CEA.

When LaDuke made the point that the CEA is an Enbridge-backed front run by a Houston consulting firm, Shamla (without denying that Enbridge funds the CEA) responded: “Fact: Enbridge is one of 220 organizations that are members of the Consumer Energy Alliance, an organization that includes consumer, business, agricultural, academic, and private-industry representatives who advocate for safe and reliable energy.”

Shamla really mischaracterizes the CEA in his description.

First of all, the CEA isn’t an actual organization of any kind. As we’ve reported on, it is merely a PR effort maintained by a Houston-based consulting firm called HBW Resources, with ties to the fossil fuel industry. HBW has raked in millions from the CEA as a passthrough – for example, CEA paid HBW over $2.8 million in just one year according to its most recent tax filing from 2017.

Even more, most of CEA’s “staff” are in fact employees of HBW. For example, HBW’s Vice President of Federal Affairs, Michael Zehr, is also CEA’s Federal Policy Advisor. Zehr has been a fossil fuel lobbyist for clients such as Noble Energy and the Association of Energy Service Companies.

The CEA’s Midwest regional director (presumably covering Minnesota) is Chris Ventura – who also happens to be HBW’s State Affairs Director, and who is based in Columbia, Ohio, hundreds of miles away from Minnesota.

Here is a map that shows some interlocks between HBW Resources and CEA:

Moreover, to claim the CEA is a broad coalition that represents the “voice of the energy consumer” is, at best, disingenuous. The overwhelming bulk of its membership list consists of major oil and gas companies and business trade organizations. Here’s a snapshot of part of its membership list, which you can see for yourself here:

Some of the “consumers” of the CEA (Source: CEA membership list)

To top it off, CEA hosted top fossil fuel executives and the now-disgraced former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to speak at one of its recent summits. 

That Shamla tries to pass off the CEA as something other than an industry front group speaks to the exact purpose of these kinds of corporate PR tactics – funded by oil and gas companies and their trade groups, they help obfuscate the industry’s attempt to manipulate public opinion to profit from the advancement of new fossil fuel projects in a time of intensifying climate crisis.

Number 3: Shamla misrepresents the findings of a reporter around Enbridge’s documented relationship to Minnesotans for Line 3, the supposed “coalition of real people from across Minnesota” who support the pipeline. 

Finally, Shamla writes: “Fact: No executive of Enbridge sits on the board of the group Minnesotans for Line 3. The assertion that three of our executives do was patently false.” 

Again, this is an extremely disingenuous assertion by Shamla. He is responding to a recent investigation published by journalist Itai Vardi at DeSmog that reveals that, according to official filings with the Federal Communications Commission, Enbridge was behind Minnesotans for Line 3, a front group promoting the pipeline.

Nowhere in his article does Vardi assert that any Enbridge executives sit on the board of Minnesotans for Line 3. He simply makes transparent a Minnesotans for Line 3 FCC filing. It is the organization’s own filing that names three Enbridge executives, including CEO Al Monaco, as “executive officers, or members of the executive or the board of directors” of the sponsor, which is filed as “Minnesotans for Line 3 – Enbridge.” You can see the official FCC filings for yourself:

Source: Desmogblog.com

Vardi’s article also reveals the astounding extent to which Minnesotans for Line 3 was promoting the Line 3 pipeline over social media in late 2018. Read Vardi’s full account here.

In closing, despite Shamla’s omissions and dissembling, LaDuke does a service in trying to bring more transparency to fossil fuel industry front group activity around Line 3 in Minnesota. As our climate crisis intensifies, and as Minnesotans intensely debate the pipeline, they deserve to have accurate information about who is actually funding and backing the pro-pipeline information they are consuming.