This is a guest post by Eric de Place and Nick Abraham, originally published by The Sightline Institute as part of their series Look Who’s Taking Oil and Coal Money.
Consulting firm EnviroIssues is a longstanding fixture of the Northwest’s sustainability community. Known mostly for its work with local governments, the company is generally well respected and considered “a white hat” in a field liberally populated with unscrupulous characters. Of themselves, EnviroIssues says: “Our names says it all—we help make the natural and built communities where we live, work, and play better places by tackling some of the thorniest public policy and environmental issues of our day.”
Unfortunately, EnviroIssues’ green reputation is undeserved. The firm in fact works for several controversial oil and petrochemical companies, shepherding them through the environmental reviews that communities and decision makers depend on to assess projects’ local impacts. These include the highly controversial Tacoma methanol proposal and major oil-by-rail projects at Vancouver and Grays Harbor, Washington.
What’s more, Sightline’s research uncovered a troubling pattern of potential conflicts of interest. The firm’s unusual access to government agencies could allow it to grease the skids for some of the Northwest’s most controversial fossil fuel projects.
Petrochemicals on Puget Sound
The first serious stirrings of discontent with EnviroIssues emerged in Tacoma, where the firm was backing a now-defunct proposal to build the world’s largest methanol refinery—a project that had fast become enormously unpopular with local residents—along with two companion refinery proposals on the Columbia River, which are still advancing. The Chinese government-led project at Tacoma would have refined huge quantities of fracked natural gas into methanol and then shipped the petrochemical through Puget Sound to China, where it would be used to manufacture plastics. (Methanol may also be used in China as a fuel for cars and trucks.)
Although the precise nature of EnviroIssues’ contractual agreement is murky, the firm clearly handles at least communications and public relations for Northwest Innovation Works, the backer of the methanol projects. EnviroIssues Senior Associate Charla Skaggs, who has been with the firm since 2012, has been quoted as a spokesperson for Northwest Innovation Works on numerous occasions. In February 2015, she fielded questions from the Portland Tribune about the methanol refinery proposal in Kalama, Washington. In November 2015, she spoke with the Tacoma News Tribune, emphasizing the project’s environmental benefits. In February 2016, after the project backers had asked to pause the environmental review process for the Tacoma facility (but before they actually withdrew the proposal) in the face of increasingly heated opposition, Skaggs was again quoted in the press, saying the company would “continue to engage the community.”
Oil trains on the Columbia River
EnviroIssues is also promoting huge oil industry projects. In Vancouver, Washington, EnviroIssues has partnered with Tesoro, a Texas-based oil company with an egregious history of labor and environmental violationsand a reputation for spending big on right-wing politics in the Northwest. Though you won’t find Tesoro’s name among the list of clients on EnviroIssues’ website, the Vancouver project is enormously consequential.
Tesoro aims to build the largest rail-to-ship oil terminal in North America on the banks of the Columbia River near downtown Vancouver. The proposal to move 360,000 barrels of a notoriously dangerous type of crude oil through town every day is easily one of the most contentious fossil fuel projects in the region, detested by the environmental community, dock workers, local business owners, and many others. Yet EnviroIssues has supported Tesoro’s oil shipment ambitions from the beginning.
EnviroIssues Associate Ray Outlaw was listed as the primary media contact on Tesoro’s press release announcing the venture in April 2013. As recently as May 2015, an investigation by the Columbian newspaper identified EnviroIssues as “a company hired by the Tesoro-Savage joint venture for public relations purposes.” According to this same investigation, EnviroIssues was so integral to the project’s process that during initial negotiations, the Port of Vancouver reported to EnviroIssues conversations it had with local environmental groups.
Oil trains at Grays Harbor
EnviroIssues’ oil train work is not limited to the Columbia River. The firm has also represented at least one oil-by-rail project in Hoquiam, Washington, on the shores of Grays Harbor. EnviroIssues provided services to US Development in its plans to build a facility that would have unloaded 45,000 barrels of oil per day, brought in on notoriously rickety railroad tracks and then shipped out of the harbor. Notably, the facility would have been sited on an ecologically sensitive and economically critical section of Washington’s coast that is largely unprepared to deal with a spill. The Quinault Indian Nation, local fishermen, the statewide environmental community, and others oppose US Development’s oil-by-rail proposal.
EnviroIssues has worked in support of the oil project at Grays Harbor since at least 2013
Despite community opposition, EnviroIssues has worked in support of the oil project at Grays Harbor since at least 2013. Senior associate with the firm Charla Skaggs was acting as the project’s lead spokesperson when she was asked about the Lac-Megantic oil train disaster that killed 47 people and leveled several blocks of that small Canadian town. She told the local Grays Harbor newspaper, “I think once the details are known, once the cause is known, I think the entire industry will be looking at that and saying ‘how can we prevent this from ever happening again.’” She spoke to the press on behalf of the company numerous times during 2013 and 2014, including quotes with the local Daily World newspaper and the Olympian, touting US Development’s safety record.
Even with EnviroIssues’ network and its experience pushing controversial projects, the Grays Harbor oil-by-rail proposal flopped. In March 2016, US Development stopped renewing its “option-to-lease” agreement with the Port, effectively killing the project.
Conflict of interest in Skagit County?
EnviroIssues’ public client list reads like a roster of local governments, permitting agencies, and environmental organizations. Yet the firm’s allegiances at times appear suspect.
Consider EnviroIssues’ relationship with Tesoro, the oil company that pays the firm to advocate for a large oil-by-rail facility in Vancouver. Yet at the same time, EnviroIssues is also charged with overseeing the public’s review process for a separate Tesoro proposal, an oil refinery development at Anacortes, Washington, in Skagit County. That project would allow Tesoro to produce 15,000 barrels per day of xylene (a petrochemical used to make plastics) and ship it through the Salish Sea to Asia. According to Skagit County’s Department of Planning, EnviroIssues is supposed to act on behalf of Skagit County, gathering and vetting criticisms of Tesoro’s project and explaining to the public the risks and benefits of the project.
Sightline was unable to identify any instance where EnviroIssues has disclosed that it takes money from the same company it has been hired to evaluate on behalf of Skagit County.
Conflicting allegiances in Tacoma?
A similar dynamic seems to have been at work in Tacoma, where EnviroIssues was working for the proponents of the methanol refinery. On October 12, 2015, the Washington Department of Ecology sent emails to several government agencies, including the City of Tacoma, to begin conferring responsibility for the facility’s public review process. Ecology officially transferred authority to Tacoma on November 18.
Yet according to City contract bid results, Tacoma was paying EnviroIssues for work on an unrelated project at least as late as August 2015. And in September 2015, the city brought the firm on to help develop the City’s Sustainable Action Plan. (One member of the Action Plan’s Committee, the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, resigned over lack of transparency for the methanol project’s process.) In other words, EnviroIssues was either working both for the methanol project backers and the project’s overseeing government agency simultaneously, or at most, a few weeks passed between its work for the two entities. Although working for both entities may not constitute a legal conflict of interest, it does raise questions about EnviroIssues’ unusual degree of access to decision makers.
EnviroIssues had also previously worked with the Port of Tacoma, the agency that was leasing land for the methanol refinery and that would have been central to the permitting process for building the facility.
Other conflicting allegiances
EnviroIssues has several other relationships that should call its client loyalties into question. The firm has worked with the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, the high-level agency that will decide the fate of Tesoro’s oil-by-rail project in Vancouver, for which EnviroIssues provides PR.
Or consider Grays Harbor, where an EnviroIssues staffer was quoted as spokesperson for US Development’s oil train project just 26 days after the firm ran an unrelated meeting for the Washington Department of Ecology. Yet Ecology was the permitting agency tasked with reviewing US Development’s proposal. And EnviroIssues is currently a member of Ecology’s Water Quality Partnerships, an affiliation that highlights the firm’s continued close relationship with regulators. EnviroIssues is also aconsultant for the Grays Harbor Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Council.
These incongruous relationships should raise eyebrows, not least among the firm’s clients. EnviroIssues boasts as its founding belief “that it was not only possible but absolutely critical to effectively engage the public in conversations about the policies and projects that would change their everyday lives.” Yet the firm’s work for the oil and petrochemical industries in some of the Northwest’s most consequential projects should make members of the public skeptical about the firm’s ability to be an honest broker of conversations with the communities that would bear the public health and safety, financial, and environmental impacts of these projects.
EnviroIssues has groomed its green reputation, touting a long list of environmentally focused clients while omitting its less savory partnerships. The firm is as well connected as any PR shop could hope to be. Have the local governments, permitting agencies, environmental groups, and others who have sought out the company’s guidance known about its work for fossil fuel companies?
Clients considering hiring the firm would do well to consider the tangled web that EnviroIssues has woven in the Northwest.
Image credit: Derailed Bakken oil train by EcologyWA via Flickr CC