Dark Money Is Fueling Climate Denial and Delaying Action, Watchdogs Warn

Recent investigations found ratepayer money being used to influence elections and policies that fossil fuel companies view as a threat to their bottom line.

Participant seen holding a sign at a climate protest in midtown Manhattan. Credit: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Participant seen holding a sign at a climate protest in midtown Manhattan. Credit: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

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Dark money groups have become a critical roadblock to meaningful climate action by propagating misinformation about climate science and clean energy, while propping up politicians who support fossil fuels through massive donations, according to a series of recent investigations and reports.

Dark money refers to spending meant to influence elections or policy where the source of the money isn’t disclosed. In many cases, the money is hidden from the public by being channeled through politically active nonprofits such as 501(c)(4)s, which generally aren’t required to disclose donors, or through the use of shell companies.

Spanning from last May to as recently as this week, a slew of news investigations and watchdog reports have revealed a bevy of dark money campaigns aimed at safeguarding the finances of fossil fuel energy companies. Most of the campaigns focused on spreading misleading information about the benefits of fossil fuels and the potential harms of clean energy, as well as funding campaigns for politicians that are friendly to oil and gas development, the reports found.

Two particularly alarming revelations sprang from a joint-investigation by NPR and Floodlight, published in December, and another investigation by The Washington Post published Thursday. The December investigation found that at least $900,000 tied to utility company Alabama Power had been funneled to news websites that wrote articles that promoted the utility’s business interests. Thursday’s report found that a nonprofit created by a half-dozen gas companies was hiring prominent Democratic politicians and pollsters for the purpose of improving the reputation of natural gas among liberal voters.

The investigations suggest that, at least to some degree, money collected from ratepayers is being used to influence public debate surrounding elections and policies that fossil fuel companies view as a threat to their bottom line, such as recent speculation over a nationwide natural gas ban in new construction.

“America’s monopoly electric and gas utilities are using the money that they collect from customers’ monthly bills to fund political machines that push legislation, curry favor with regulators and alter the outcomes of elections, sometimes even breaking laws in the process,” David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, wrote in a new report released last week.

The San Francisco-based watchdog and clean energy advocacy group has released several reports over the last year connecting fossil fuel money to ad campaigns that downplayed or denied the threats of climate change, as well as efforts to thwart the United Kingdom’s net zero emissions policy. Its latest report, “Getting Politics Out of Utility Bills,” summarizes how dark money from energy companies has pervaded the political arena and emerged as a major obstacle for meaningful climate action—specifically the rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“A combination of vague and outdated rules ridden with loopholes, a lack of visibility into utility political influence activities for regulators and the public, and an abdication of enforcement by regulators has meant that utilities have had free reign to use their customers’ money toward their political operations,” the report said.

The report also suggests three things that policymakers could do to help address those issues, namely by adopting new rules or passing legislation that:

  • Explicitly prohibits utilities from using ratepayer money for any political activity, including through nonprofits; 
  • Requires utilities to disclose all spending in relation to political spending to ensure ratepayer money isn’t involved; 
  • Establishes new offices or other regulatory bodies to enforce compliance and issue penalties for infractions.

In fact, the Energy and Policy Institute released those recommendations the same week former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder began his federal racketeering trial. The former state lawmaker, along with four other men, were charged last year with accepting some $61 million in bribes from Ohio-based utility FirstEnergy in exchange for a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout of two struggling nuclear power plants controlled by the energy company.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors began laying out key details of their case, including how money involved in the alleged scheme was funneled through dark money groups and into political action committees and limited liability companies that then supported Householder’s political campaigns.

The Householder scandal also represents the type of misuse of public money that Energy and Policy Institute’s recommendations aim to address. Many climate advocates even believe that special interests are, above all else, the largest hurdle to the international effort to curb the planet’s rising greenhouse gas emissions.

“The fundamental actions to address climate change are not being taken, and the reason they aren’t has a lot to do with a basic underlying problem: the role of money in government,” James Hansen, the prominent climate scientist who elevated the issue of global warming when he famously testified in front of Congress in the 1980s, wrote in a blog post last year. “Young people, indeed, all people, need to understand that they cannot solve the energy and climate problem without addressing the special interest problem in Washington.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday—but before you go:

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