Merchants of Doubt – Those who lie for a living

I have written before about the public relations efforts of the fossil fuel industry to convince people everything they do is perfectly safe. The efforts also play on our minds and hearts that they create jobs and safer communities, at the same time they are stealing our lunch money. One in particular post plays off the five D’s of public relations – deny, discredit, disinform, diffuse and defray. A new documentary is out which highlights these efforts called “Merchants of Doubt” written by Robert Kenner and Kim Roberts and directed by Kenner.

The story focuses on those who mask science, use science out of context and in many cases distort the truth to tell consumers the products they are buying are not harmful. The public relations consultants use these folks to present an alternate truth which is fed hook, line and sinker to politicians funded by these industries. The documentary begins with the smoking industry to convey the message smoking is not addictive. The PR merchants had a unified campaign which led to several CEOs of the companies lying in front of Congress in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.

But, they did not stop there, as if you can sell cigarettes are safe, you can sell just about anything. They helped sell folks that the flame retardants in fabric would save lives using a scientific study taken out of context as evidence. When the scientist who led the study found out about this years later, he said that is not what the study found. The flame retardants actually caused cancer in owners of the sofas, caused cancers in the firemen and women who were putting out the fires while not really retarding flames. Yet, the industry staved off regulation, until it was discovered the industry was funding what appeared to be supportive charity to kids, but was really a PR sales engine to obfuscate the truth. There is another documentary on this subject called “Toxic Hotseat.”

Yet, the two biggest campaigns have unfolded in the last few years dating primarily back to the time of “An Inconvenient Truth” about global warming. The PR folks started with a campaign that “global warming is hoax,” and were (and are) so successful about it, Congress has had people to testify on these subject. And, the current Environmental Committee chair, Senator James Inhofe, is a denier who recently brought a snowball into the chambers to reiterate global warming is a hoax. Anytime you see one of these bumper stickers or hear the new party line of “I am not a scientist” to offer contradictory opinion, remember these merchants of doubt. The answer to this statement, by the way, is “neither am I , but I can read.”

The other is on how safe fracking is. The PR campaign has been equally robust on the safety of fracking and the significant number of jobs it creates. Yet, like the climate change deniers, this message is starting to break down with actual data piling up to the contrary. No process this hard and expensive is perfectly safe, yet that is what we are constantly told in commercials. Even if it were safe, it is only as safe as its worst operator and there are a lot of them. However, with the air and water pollution being caused by fracking, with the environmental degradation, with the earthquakes that have been proven to be causal with water disposal and correlated with the process itself and with the sheer volume of water used that cannot be reused, this is one Return on Investment that has been miscalculated.  The costs, especially the healthcare costs, are vastly understated.

Please understand why these merchants get paid a lot. They are very good at what they do. And, it is easier with the new information age, as everyone can have their own version of truth. It is critical for us consumers and citizens to question data sources, news sources and politicians. Trace the money. Who owns what and who funds what? Why should we get rid of all regulations? Do you stand to benefit from that change? We must be more skeptical of information as often it is opinion or advertisement conveyed as news. Some online sources look like news, but they are written by people to close to the action or in on the action. It makes it hard to get at the real truth. But, we have to.

Companies make money selling us things. They want our money. The will try to get it legitimately, they will distort the message and some will outright lie. The hard truth is climate change is here and causing problems already. We are late, but can still make a difference. A good truth is solar energy is one of the fastest growing employers in the country as the cost to produce continues to fall. Fracking will occur, but it is not as safe as it is portrayed and we need to move away from it primarily because of the vast use of water and the impact on our health. Chemicals are over used to grow things. The greatest threat to our civilization may be anti-bacterial resistant bugs that move beyond our bodies ability to withstand them.

These are real truths. So, do me a favor. If you hear the disclaimer, “I am not a scientist,” the next phrase should be taken with a grain of salt as it is like untrue. If anyone tells you something is “perfectly safe,” do not believe them. The only thing perfectly safe is the assurance you will die at some point. If anything sounds too good to be true, question it. And, look for cited and peer-reviewed data sources conveyed by people who have a track record of good journalism. A news organization that has been proven wrong on over half of their news stories by Politifacts would not qualify as a source of good journalism.

The sun shines in every state and country

I am constantly bemused how leaders will attempt to gain support for an investment in fossil fuel energy with the statement that it will create jobs. In the case of the Keystone pipeline, I have heard 40,000 jobs, which are largely temporary. But, let’s say the jobs are permanent for the sake of argument. Creating 40,000 jobs would be a good thing, yet we still need to look at the cost/ benefit of the investment. In essence, proponents are talking about piping oil derived from a horrible means of extraction across our country with the risk of leakage.

However, on the flip side is the growing elegance and cost effectiveness of the solar energy industry whose costs continue to fall and are on par in some places with other less environmentally friendly energy sources. * By 2018, the costs should be on par across the board. But, sticking with the jobs, there are now about twice as many solar energy jobs as coal industry jobs and the disparity continues to grow with double-digit job growth in solar and retrenchment in coal.

This next statement should be the clincher, in my simple view. The sun shines in every state in the United States and in every country. The Keystone pipeline would cross only a few states. Petroleum and coal are produced in only a few states. And, it should be noted that solar energy does not need to be large-scale to be introduced, which is one reason it scares the energy institutions. People like you and me can install solar energy to reduce or alleviate our energy costs. Companies like Apple, Google, IKEA, etc. have moved ahead and are moving further ahead with solar energy (and wind energy) to power their distribution centers and stores.

And, if that does not clinch the argument, the following should. Solar energy is renewable and does not cause environmental problems like fossil fuel retrieval and use. When the health cost/ benefit analysis is considered, the decision on where to invest becomes much easier, as evidenced by the State of New York banning fracking. So, even with leaders who are obviously heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry and want to do away with renewable tax credits and frack away on and offshore, this movement toward solar energy (and wind energy) is happening and is attracting a lot of capital investors.  Plus, there are jobs being created right and left, if leaders would look at what is happening rather than listen to the people saying to look the other way.

So, George Harrison and Bob Dylan told us the answers to our energy and climate change problems even back in the 1960s. “Here comes the sun,” sang George and “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind,” sang Bob. Remember those songs as they represent key parts of our energy future.


* Note: Please check out the link below to an article in The Charlotte Business Journal regarding the comparative cost of rooftop solar energy.


Something too good to be true usually is untrue

Whether watching television or YouTube or even reading posts from our fellow bloggers, we are hit with commercials. It will be interesting to see what commercial is tacked onto this post. As many of us know by now, most claims made by these commercials are usually too good to be true. I am reminded of an old Ziggy comic strip where he is seeing a company presentation on a new benefit package. His response is “Uh-oh. The nicer the communication material, the worse the message.” In a nutshell, Ziggy has summed up most commercials.

As I was cleaning up a mess this morning, I was once again reminded how the same brand of paper towel on a commercial, for some reason, is far more effective than the one in my hand. Or, the insurance companies with the cuter commercials tend to be the ones with the highest margins. If it quacks like a duck, you might want to do some comparison shopping. Or, the car commercials which are more on the attractiveness of the car and spokeswomen, than the elegance, reliability and cost effectiveness of the vehicle. If the car plays second fiddle to the spokeswoman, it is not a good deal.

On this last point, I understand all to well that sex sells. Clark Bar has some of the most evocative advertising using beautiful Italian women speaking something in Italian, I presume unrelated to a candy bar. The women close with a line in English about Clark candy bars. As an aside, I have seen these more on our WordPress posts. As I watch them, I keep visualizing a man being led down a hall with a sexy woman’s finger under his chin only to find out he is buying a candy bar. I must confess, they do get your attention, but are not successful in making me want to buy a Clark Bar.

Going back to something more boring, two supposedly strong financial service companies used to advertise that they gave you peace of mind – Washington Mutual (WaMu) and AIG. They were rock solid companies. During the financial crisis, WaMu was sold at a cut rate price before it went bankrupt and AIG had to be bailed out by the US government, as they reinsured many banks on risky mortgages packaged together and sold to investors. The rock solid image turned out to be smoke and mirrors.

The other commercials that give me concern are the empathetic, concerned young mothers that come off as very sincere as they tell you something that is largely untrue. The fossil fuel industry is using the same public relations people they used to convince everyone that global warming was a hoax to tell you how safe fracking is. The woman is quite convincing and you truly want to believe her. Yet, the truth is nothing as hard as fracking could be considered unsafe, even if the industry is doing their best to make it as safe as possible. The non-industry data is showing this time and again. But, even if it were safe, as BP showed in the Gulf of Mexico, it is only as safe as the worst operator.

Which brings me to campaign commercials. They have already started for an election that is over ten months away, some even began twelve months before the election. With the Supreme Court’s very poor decision throwing gasoline on a fire of unhindered campaign funding, we have been and will continue to be flooded with commercials making indicting comments most of which have untruths in them. To give you an example, did a study of the  2012 Presidential race and noted that Romney commercials had an accuracy rate of around 1/3 and Obama commercials had an accuracy rate of 1/2.

Saying this differently, about 67% of the Romney commercials had untruths in them with about 50% of the Obama commercials having untruths. This does not even get into the other races where large indictments can be made because so and so supported something that has been portrayed as bad. So, if you assume this track record will continue as I do, why does it make sense to even watch a campaign commercial which at best is only 50% totally accurate? If you were making a bet, the best use of your time (or the best bet), would be not to watch. Which is what I do. I mute the sound and read something or go elsewhere until the show returns.

So, my message to everyone is save yourself much anguish and give yourself the gift of time. Mute all campaign commercials, period. It is truly not worth it. And, any commercial that looks to good to be true is more than likely untrue. I am sorry guys, you will not get the hot babe, if you buy her a Clark Bar.

Inherit the Wind

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Inherit the Wind” about the Scopes Monkey Trials. Yet, I am only borrowing this title to emphasize that we are using the wind more so than ever to power our country at 5% of the nation’s production capacity per Trevor Graff of McClatchey’s Washington Bureau. Nationwide, we have 60 gigawatts of wind energy deployed, yet, we have a 135 more gigawatts of potential wind production awaiting development and connection to the electric grid.

Per Graff’s piece, the problem is the grid was designed for getting and distributing power based on older modes – coal, nuclear and hydropower plants – so the wind power production has to “idle” on occasion due to electric transmission congestion. “There hasn’t been a lot of investment in the grid for the last two decades,” said Michael Goggin, a senior analyst at the American Wind Energy Association. This is not unnoticed by the Department of Energy which notes that decision-makers must decide on funding these infrastructure improvements and deal with getting electricity from these more rural, windy areas such as Texas, Minnesota and Kansas where wind energy is in abundance.

As of last fall, wind energy was in 39 states and with the industry employing 75,000 workers. With the ability to triple our wind energy with infrastructure development in the electric grids, those activities would also create jobs. But, they would also increase our renewable energy use in a major way. Combined with the significant uptick in solar energy deployment, these infrastructure investments are key to our future. Given what is happening in Japan with nuclear reactor leakage into to ocean, Duke Energy shuttering a nuclear plant repair due to unrepairable cracks, and Germany’s decision to cease reliance on nuclear energy, the nuclear path forward seems to have challenges.

Fossil fuel retrieval is not as safe as portrayed by the industry and even if it were, it is only as good as the worst operator as being witnessed more and more often with leaks, explosions on water and on land. The cement casings around fracking piping fail 5% of the time immediately. With 10,000 fracking sites, that is 500 failures. And, per a fracking engineer, they are seeing more failures over time since the process has become more inventive adding even more stress to the man-made piping. Duke University’s Environmental Science group just completed its third study which shows clear evidence of groundwater contamination due to fracking.

So, it is clear to this independent voter who sees the Return on Investment (ROI) of treating our environment and its inhabitants well, our country needs to invest more in the electric transmission infrastructure to glean even more wind (and solar) energy. To his credit, the President is laying down the gauntlet admonishing global warming deniers and emphasizing the need to act. Yet, to his discredit, he has instructed his EPA to be less transparent on fracking taking a page from Dick Cheney’s playbook. The real data over the dangers of fracking is getting out – we just hope it is heard.

Let’s inherit the wind. Let’s harness it better, along with the sun’s energy, and distribute it more cleanly to our users. That is the cleaner path forward to our future. And, the ROI for clean energy in the long run dwarfs the ROI of going further down the rabbit hole of fossil fuel energy and repairing problems due to global warming which we are witnessing today with increased sea levels, more wildfires and greating flooding, not to mention cleaning up fossil fuel messes which impact humans and the environment.

Don’t Frack Us Over

My blogging friend Z at suggested we make fracking a new curse word, given what it does to the environment and people.

Don’t Frack Us Over….is a new slogan I would like to submit for your consideration.

Why is fracking a curse word when it provides access to all that natural gas?

  • Fracking takes 4 to 6 million gallons of water per frack. Each well has about ten fracks, so that is 40 to 60 million gallons per well. If you frack an area with 2,000 wells like they did Utah, that is 80 to 120 billion gallons of water.
  • Fracking water is loaded with chemicals to grease the skids and is highly toxic. Yet, the toxic water finds a way to get into the aquifers we drink from.
  • Fracking blasts arsenic, methane and mercury gases and particulates into the air. It cannot be fully contained given the intensity of water pressure.
  • Fracking destroys the infrastructure around an area with the heavy trucks, makeshift roads and degradation of surrounding property values.
  • Fracking water disposal underground has been proven as causing earthquakes in Arkansas, Ohio and England. In England, the fracker was shut down.
  • Fracking makes a huge amount of money for the fracker; a tidy sum for the landowner; and some local workers join many out-of-state workers. But, the problems are left for the community.
  • Fracking is not safe as portrayed by the industry when you read scientific reports and even the industry reports. See “Gasland,” a documentary movie.
  • Fracking received favored son status in the 2005 Energy Policy Act sidestepping the policing by the EPA under the Clean Air Act and Safe Water Drinking Act.  This provision was added by Vice President Dick Cheney, who is a former President of Halliburton, one of the largest frackers in the world. Why would he do this if fracking were safe?

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a biologist, ecologist, an expert who has testified in front of the UN, European Parliament and US Congress, mother of two, bladder cancer survivor, and author of “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah,” is writing a book on fracking. She said in her books and speeches that fracking is one of the worst things we could possibly do to the environment. Steven Solomon who wrote a definitive history on “Water” noted that water is one of our two dearest resources and we need to be very protective of its supply. Fracking uses a huge amount of water, so my question is this where we want to use our water? You may scoff, but the farmers and frackers were fighting over water in Kansas this summer.

Don’t Frack Us Over

I do not want to live in a state that fracks. And, the business side of me says companies will not want to move to a state where fracking is done. The fracking prize is not worth the chase and is dwarfed by the cost of the problems it creates.

Apparently, I am not the only one who feels this way. Please check out and you can see a video called “Don’t Frack My Mother” with cameos from various artists who are worried sick about the consideration of fracking in New York. As noted in my recent post a few days ago called “Anti-Environmental NIMBYism” fracking in New York is filled with even greater peril due to the proximity of the fracking sites to the aquifers that support the metro-New York area. This is tens of millions of people we are talking about.

But, let’s forget all that and go back to the very first point above. Fracking takes a huge amount of water. Water, we can ill-afford to lose to a process that does more harm than good. Even without global warming, we need to be concerned about our diminishing water supply. With global warming, it is even greater crisis we must deal with.

Don’t Frack Us Over