Donors Trust: The Secret Group Funding Attacks on Clean Energy & Climate Science

New research shows almost $120 million flowed from two secretive groups, called “Donors Trust” and “Donors Capital” to 102 groups denying climate science and attacking clean energy. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reports that “the funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing ‘wedge issue’ for hardcore conservatives.”

Greenpeace research (.pdf) into the tax records of these organizations shows that publicly-disclosed funding for climate denial groups from foundations connected to the Koch Brothers began to decrease in 2006. But, funding from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund soared from less than $20 million per year to almost $35 million per year from 2006 to 2009. Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace said to the Guardian, “These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There’s no transparency, no accountability for the money. There is no way to tell who is funding them.”

Many of these organizations funded by Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund are also working to attack clean energy. Goldenberg notes in a companion article that recipients, including groups like the Heartland Institute and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), have received millions from the two secretive organizations.

AFP, which received $7.6 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund in 2010 (43% of its budget), drove anti-wind efforts last fall, leading a coalition of fossil fuel-funded groups to write a letter calling on Congress to block tax credits for wind energy. The Washington Post reported in November 2012 that the Heartland Institute, which received $1.6 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund in 2010 (27% of its budget), joined with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push model legislation to state legislators in an effort to eliminate state clean energy standards across the country. In addition, organizations that are part of the State Policy Network (SPN), which received $4.8 million from Donors Trust in 2010 (36% of its budget), published reports bashing clean energy standards that are now likely being used to attack clean energy policies in states across the country (like Kansas and Ohio).

Furthermore, the Guardian revealed in a third story that Donors Trust bankrolled the Franklin Centre for Government and Public Integrity, a newly established organization founded in 2009, which is running a campaign to “stop state governments moving towards renewable energy.” The Franklin Centre has strong ties to American’s for Prosperity and the Koch Brothers, including former staff members of both AFP and a Koch Family Foundation according to a PR Watch investigation.

Are these attacks ideological? Or are other fossil fuel interests like the Koch Brothers funding these efforts to stop a potential market threat? We know that fossil fuel corporations that have a financial incentive to stop the growth of the clean energy industry and their benefactors and foundations have funded many of these groups over the years. With an ability to hide the money trail through groups like Donors Trust, I would bet fossil fuel interests continue to fund fake grassroots campaigns and front groups to attack clean energy.

Industry-funded oil shale expert conceded higher water use estimates for commercial oil shale production are credible

Over the past year, Dr. Jeremy Boak, Director of the industry-funded Center for Oil Shale Technology and Research at the Colorado School of Mines, has stated that commercial oil shale extraction would use one to three barrels of water per barrel of oil shale produced.

In situ extraction, source: California Department of Transportation.

In situ extraction. Source: California Department of Transportation.

However, the independent, non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that commercial oil shale production could take five barrels of water per barrel of oil shale produced – especially for in situ technologies being tested in Colorado which melt the rock thousands of feet below ground requiring lots of energy and water for extraction. In more illustrative terms, GAO projected that large-scale oil shale development could require as much as 123 billion gallons of water, or 140 percent the amount that Denver Water provides annually.

Boak has been a vocal critic of the five barrel estimate, but at a Denver City Council committee meeting last month, he conceded that estimates of oil shale requiring as much as five barrels of water for each barrel of oil shale produced are credible. In the meeting, Boak said:

“…There is no credible analysis out there that actually says anything greater than, than, than three actually, five [barrels] at the outside.” [Emphasis added]

So while he dismissed concerns over western water supplies, at the same he actually affirmed these same concerns.

This isn’t the first time that Dr. Boak, who at heart appears to be an academic, has slipped-up and conceded flaws in the rhetoric of oil shale boosters. In 2011, when asked about Rep. Lamborn’s oil shale boondoggle bill (H.R. 3408), Dr. Boak said (subscription):

“It isn’t obvious to me yet that we need to be putting a bunch of commercial leases out there because no one has a commercial process yet. And [industry] admits that. I don’t see anybody eager to go out and lease land now when they’re still running experiments.”

Let us be clear, even if we accept Dr. Boak’s assertion that oil shale development would require a 3-to-1 ratio of water to barrel of oil produced, that too would have considerable impacts to western water supplies requiring 69 billion gallons of water, or 48 percent the amount that Denver Water provides annually.

Colorado and the West are grappling with drought, historic wildfires and growing water demand. In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed meeting water demand by piping water from the Missouri River across Kansas to Denver.

Water providers, local governments, ranchers, sportsmen, and residents have all voiced concerns over how much water large-scale oil shale production would require. While no one is sure of just how much water commercial oil shale would require, many experts believe that it would be a lot.

Given that water is a critical, if not the most critical, resource in the West, we can’t afford to gamble it away on oil shale speculation.

Advisory: Udall and Grijalva Ask for a Price Check on Behalf of American Families

Update: Read Rep. Grijalva and Sen. Udall’s letter to the Comptroller General.

Rep. Raùl Grijalva and Sen. Tom Udall are announcing proactive steps they’ve taken to determine if American families are receiving what they deserve from the oil and gas companies that lease public lands. Grijalva and Udall have officially requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct an, “investigation of corporate profits and public financial benefits from mineral and oil extraction on federal lands.”

At a time when the five largest oil and gas companies are reporting $67 billion in profits over six months, while collecting $15 billion per year in government handouts, it’s fair to ask whether or not the industry owes their landlords – the American people – a little more rent.

“A GAO report is a great step in finding out how much the American public is losing in fair returns on the lands they’ve lent to oil and gas and mining companies,” said Checks and Balances Project Deputy Director Matt Garrington. “Americans are already paying oil companies near-record high prices at the pump, and then paying again through billions in taxpayer-funded corporate welfare. I commend Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Raùl Grijalva for working to protect the American taxpayer by making sure some of the wealthiest corporations are paying their fair share.”

Thursday morning, Grijalva and Udall will hold a press conference to publicly release their request and explain why they’re concerned that Americans aren’t being fairly compensated for the billions in resources that oil and gas companies pull out of publicly owned land.

The Checks and Balances Project will continue to cover this story. For now, here’s the press conference information:

Grijalva Press Conference Details

Where: 1629 Longworth House Office Building

When: Thursday, Sept. 22, 9:00 a.m.

What: Public release of Grijalva/Udall GAO study request letter and media Q & A

Click to read Rep. Grijalva’s media advisory.

Yes. $77 billion.

Think Progress has a new report on corporate welfare for Big Oil. The next time you watch the dollar figure at the pump increase a lot faster than the gallons pumped amount, think $77 billion. Read more to find out what we mean.

Small Time Landowners Continue to Clash With Big Frackers in Colorado

Home loss, sickness, fines and big corporate profits are now part of the western landscape

Colorado seems to be a hotbed for high-profile concerns about water contamination near natural gas drilling sites.

The western slope of Colorado is becoming one of the most common sites in the nation for hydraulic fracturing, the practice of injecting toxic chemicals underground to get at natural gas.  As the natural gas drilling in the area has ramped up, so to have instances of water contamination and sickness.

Bill and Beth Sturdley are now looking for a new place to live, reports the Glennwood Springs Post Independent, after the couple’s sons began “suffering from severe rashes, nose bleeds and blackouts.” Dr. Joseph Wezensky, who practices medicine at Grand Junction Kokopelli Heath and Wellness Center is said to have told the family to “Get out of the house now!” The Sturdley family is now said to be looking to relocate outside of the small town of Silt, Colorado, which the Colorado Independent reports is now struggling with a “rotten egg smell,” that is the result of fracking.

The Sturdley story is far from the only example of private landowners’ quality of life being damaged by large frackers in Colorado.

In 2008, Cathy Behr, an emergency room nurse in Durango, Colorado almost lost her life when she treated an energy service worker who had been caught in a “fracturing-fluid spill.” Behr told Newsweek that when the worker, Clinton Marshall, came into the emergency room, the stench coming from Marshall’s boots was “bucking.”  While the emergency room went into its highest precaution mode, requiring all employees and patients to wear protective masks and gowns, Behr had been treating Marshall for 10 minutes before she was able to break away to put her mask and gown on.

Flash-forward a few days and Behr’s life had drastically deteriorated. Behr found herself back at the hospital. However, this time, instead of treating patients, she was one. The nurse of 20 years began vomiting, her skin turned yellow, her lungs filled with fluid and she had trouble breathing. Behr was admitted to the intensive care unit of her hospital with a swollen liver, erratic blood counts and lungs rapidly filling with fluids. She told Newsweek “I couldn’t breath, I was drowning from the inside out.”

Behr, who was diagnosed with chemical poisoning, was so sick that in the small communities of western Colorado, she became known as the “half dead nurse.”  Behr eventually recovered from being “half dead,” and is now fully alive after her ordeal. Following Behr’s near-death experience, the company that manufactured the fracking chemicals she was exposed to, Weatherford International, reportedly said the company wasn’t sure if their brand of fracking fluid could be blamed for Behr’s illness.

While Weatherford wasn’t so sure of its ties to the “half dead nurse” situation, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was sure to fine Williams Production RMT Co. in the summer of 2010 after another fracking poisoning.

This time the victim was Ned Prather, an outfitter who owns 1,800 acres of land north of Parachute, Colorado. Prather was in a cabin on his property when he grabbed a glass of what he thought was water and chugged it to quench his thirst. It turns out his tap water was laced with benzene, a colorless, highly flammable carcinogen that is even limited in its use in gasoline. Williams Production RMT Co. has since agreed to pay a $423,300 fine issued by the COGCC. The suit filed by Prather claims that “the company set up an earthen pit in the same spot as a previously-built ‘unlined reserve mud pit,’ and used the newer pit to hold up to 5,500 gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluids, ‘flow-back water’ and ‘production water,’ all used in the drilling process.

Shortly after Williams paid the fine, a Colorado Independent story quoted a spokesperson from the company saying, “While Williams does not agree with the findings of the COGCC, we have mutually agreed with the COGCC to settle this and move on. With the area’s difficult geologic conditions and additional time and expense required to prove a source, Williams has agreed to pay the fine in lieu of paying legal expenses to fight the allegation.”

This was hardly the first time a major fracking company denied the possibility of fracking fluid leading to drinking water contamination.  When lobbying against Wyoming’s new disclosure laws regarding fracking fluid, the Casper Star Tribune explained, “In response to a comment about concerns that hydraulic fracturing might cause industrial chemicals to migrate to drinking water sources, Scot A. Donato of Bill Barrett Corp. said, ‘Wouldn’t you see the hydrocarbons first?’” The Bill Barrett Corporation is major player in the natural gas industry. According to the company’s most recent annual report, the company continues to thrive. The report states, “[T]he recession reduced demand for natural gas, driving the average price to a level not seen since 2002. During 2009, our stock increased 47%.” The same report states that operating with a reduced capital budget allowed the company to earn $50 million dollars.

Barrett is hardly alone with its profits. Williams operates out of several locations. In Oklahoma where the natural gas company is registered as a P.O. box, the company reports bringing in $20 to $50 million dollars in annual sales. In Gillette, Wyoming, Williams Production RMT CO, reports its estimated annual sales to be in the $10 to $20 million-dollar range.   The company’s Fort Worth, Texas branch adds up to another $5 million a year. Still, these numbers pale in comparison to the revenues of the largest drilling companies operating in the west.

Oxy USA, which operates many wells in the west, and is the number one natural gas producer in California, reported third quarter profits in 2010 of $1.2 billion. Like Williams, Oxy seemed to be doing quite well in the oil and natural gas sector. “Oil and gas segment earnings were $5.4 billion for the (first) nine months of 2010, compared with $3.1 billion for the same period of 2009. The $2.3 billion increase in the 2010 results reflected higher crude oil and natural gas prices and higher volumes,” revealed one company report. As for Canadian operated Encana, its 2009 annual report showed the company had net royalty revenues of $6.7 billion.

The huge numbers are noteworthy, because of the stark size differential between the companies’ revenues and the record-breaking fines designed to keep them from continuing to contaminate water supplies. While the natural gas companies’ profits are measured in billions and millions, the fines are measured in the hundreds of thousands.

The aforementioned $423,300 fine against Williams tops the previous record from the COGCC, which just months before, levied fines of $390,000 against Oxy USA for contamination in the Cascade Canyon area and $371,000 against EnCana Inc. for a gas seep in the West Divide Creek near Silt. Oxy USA is also the recipient of a $257,000 fine for leaks in a fracking pit where the company operated without a permit for nearly 10 years.

So, this is the landscape private landowners are trying to navigate in the American west. It’s one where water has been contaminated, chemicals ingested and families up-rooted while the deterrents for continuing to do so seem insufficient.