Category Archives: Nielsen Merksamer

Big Oil (yes, including Valero) enters race to target Climate Dems like State Senate candidate Jackie Elward

[Note from BenIndy: Same old dog, same old tricks. The only things that seem to change over the years are the euphemistic PAC names used to attack Climate Dems. This PAC, funded by Chevron, Valero, and Marathon (among others), is called the “Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class” in short, but it’s the whole name that gives you the whole picture: “Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class…Including Energy Manufacturing and Technology Companies Who Produce Gas Oil Jobs and Pay Taxes.” So folks, don’t forget to check the fine print on all political mailers before elections. Top funders are often noted in the fine print, but it’s worth some Google sleuthing to see who else is paying for these glossy hit pieces. The nastier they are, the deeper you should look – to assess both truthfulness and your personal alignment with the statements for or against a candidate or measure.]


An oil pumpjack in Kern County, California. Climate News / Harika Maddala.

Politico, by Blanca Begert, Camille Von Keen, and Ariel Gans, with help from Jeremy B. White and Wes Venteicher, February 15, 2024 

BLUE OIL: Like crude from a derrick, oil money is gushing into legislative races as the industry looks to elect its favored Democrats.

The principal industry PAC — funded by Chevron, Valero and Marathon — has spent nearly $1.4 million to influence voters in a handful of races this week, according to the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class’ campaign filings. The spending surge is concentrated on safe blue seats. It’s a familiar tactic: with Republicans sidelined in Sacramento, businesses often look to recruit sympathetic Democrats.

That dynamic is most evident in a Stockton-area state Senate race that’s absorbed the majority of the PAC’s spending so far. The battle to succeed outgoing Sen. Susan Eggman in SD-5 has become a proxy for the larger struggle between business-backed moderate Democrats and more liberal members supported by labor and environmentalists.

The oil PAC has spent $700,000 so far to promote Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua — one of the Legislature’s most conservative Democrats — and to suppress former Rep. Jerry McNerney, who came out of retirement to challenge Villapudua. Meanwhile, a pro-McNerney committee funded by unions, consumer attorneys and green groups has spent more than $400,000.

Beyond SD-5, the industry is spending to boost Adam Perez in the 50th Assembly District; Assemblymember Tim Grayson in the 9th Senate District; Jose Solache in the 62nd Assembly District; Ed Han in the 44th Assembly District; and Karen Mitchoff in the 15th Assembly District, while attacking Jackie Elward in the 3rd Senate District. All are open, blue seats. — JW

Why do CA policymakers keep turning to Big Oil for climate solutions? It’s simple: Money.

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Kathy Kerridge: The fossil fuel industry is everywhere and their lies are leading to the destruction of a habitable planet for billions of people. One of the false solutions mentioned in this OpEd is carbon capture and storage. It sounds great until you learn it has never worked, it’s frequently used for drilling more oil,  and storage may only last for 50 years. Worst of all is that if pipelines leak they can spread carbon dioxide which is heavier than oxygen. It forces the oxygen out leaving nothing for us to breathe and internal combustion engines to work, so there may be no way to flee. We need to learn about this since there is a carbon capture and storage project being proposed to capture carbon in Antioch and pipe it under the Straits to dispose of in Solano. The section related to this is bolded below.]

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: I regret having two intro notes here but please recall that Steven Lucas, the attorney The Climate Center names here as a key architect of a ‘phony coalition’ some say was manufactured to oppose refinery regulations and penalties, is an associate of Nielsen Merksamer, the firm a Valero-funded PAC has used throughout allegedly misleading efforts to influence Benicia elections. (This PAC was previously known as ‘Working Families’ and more recently ‘Progress for Benicia.’) Nielsen Merksamer’s clients include Big Tobacco AND Big Oil giants Valero Energy Corporation, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Exxon. That’s one big, happy family.]

SacBee, by Ellie Cohen, July 27, 2023

Why do policymakers in California and other states continue to turn to the architects of the climate crisis for climate solutions?

The reason is simple: money.

Fossil fuel corporations spend millions of dollars every year to paint themselves as part of the solution to climate change. In reality, they spend far more on advertising, lobbying and public relations to appear climate-friendly than they do on actual investments in clean, renewable energy.

In the first quarter of 2023, oil companies spent $9.4 million trying to influence lawmakers in Sacramento — $5.2 million of which was funneled to just three front groups created to give the impression of grassroots support for Big Oil’s agenda. All three of these front groups were registered by a single attorney, Nielsen Merksamer’s Steven Lucas.

The firm, which has long-standing ties to Big Tobacco, manipulated voters through inaccurate comments by initiative signature gatherers to overturn a key public health law prohibiting oil drilling near homes, schools and hospitals. Lucas signed off as the registrant for another Big Oil-tied front group, the California Carbon Solutions Committee, which has lobbied for (and only for) SB 438 using a lobbyist, Virgil Welch, who was formerly a top aide at the California Air Resources Board.

These comments — and the front groups, the deceitful signature-gathering and massive lobbying budgets — offer a glimpse into something familiar to political insiders but not the public. Major polluters will always disguise their intentions and invest in misleading public relations plays as they seek to dismantle our democracy and stall climate action. Oil corporations work overtime, disguising their true intentions behind lobbying and PR, to kill bold climate policies while pushing false solutions like carbon capture, all to continue lining their pockets with pollution-soaked profits.

Some even feel emboldened enough to admit that deception is a big part of what they do.

Sacramento lobbyist, Theo Pahos, went on the record recently with Capital & Main to discuss a bill related to carbon capture and sequestration, stating, “We don’t want the environmentalists to see what we’re really up to.”

A non-profit publication that covers environmental issues in California, Capital & Main then wrote this: “Pahos was talking about plans by lobbyists to change a bill meant to regulate the industry’s handling of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, in a way that would mislead lawmakers and environmentalists.”

The bill Pahos was referencing was Senate Bill 438, which on its face was attempting to provide more clarity for regulating future carbon capture projects. But Pahos was saying that his plan, and that of other lobbyists, was to roll back rules about dangerous carbon pipelines at the eleventh hour.

“We (were) misadvertising (sic) what the bill does, what our intention is,” Pahol told Capital & Main.

Carbon capture and storage is one of the oil and gas industry’s favorite false solutions. According to the industry, this technology captures carbon dioxide emissions at fossil-fueled power plants before they reach the atmosphere. Yet there is growing evidence this simply doesn’t work. One study found that the technology can only reduce a power plant’s net emissions by 10 to 11 percent. This is no solution to depend on.

The bill has since been shelved by its author, Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Merced), until 2024.

Lies, public manipulation and underhanded tactics have been a part of the fossil fuel industry’s playbook for decades — and they are only getting worse as public support for action on climate change grows.

It’s time for Gov. Gavin Newsom and California leaders to wise up to the industry’s dirty tricks and put a stop to them.

Ellie Cohen is the CEO of The Climate Center, a climate and energy policy nonprofit working to rapidly reduce climate pollution at scale, starting in California.

SF Chron: Attorney associated with Valero-funded PAC connected to ‘faux-ilition’ scheme targeting oil refinery regulations and penalties

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: An attorney associated with the firm a Valero-funded PAC has used throughout allegedly misleading campaign efforts in Benicia elections has been exposed as a key figure behind a ‘phony coalition’ some say was manufactured to oppose refinery regulations and penalties. Watchdog and advocacy organizations describe the coalition – dubbed a ‘faux-ilition’ by Calpeek – as a Big Oil–funded scheme to make industry opposition to a proposal to cap oil company profits appear grassroots-driven. (Industry leaders deny the allegation.) Benicians may recognize the name of the firm – Nielsen Merksamer – as well as the name of the attorney in question from Roger Straw’s reporting on the Valero-funded PAC’s efforts to influence local elections. (This PAC was previously known as ‘Working Families’ and more recently as ‘Progress for Benicia.’) Nielsen Merksamer was also behind a letter threatening litigation over a Benicia Open Government Commission’s candidate forum in 2018. Nielsen Merksamer’s clients include Valero Energy Corporation of course, as well as other Big Oil giants BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Exxon.]

How a network of ‘phony’ groups sprung up to fight Newsom’s oil regulations

San Francisco Chronicle, by Dustin Gardiner, June 19, 2023 (Updated June 20)

Groups with names like Californians Against Higher Taxes sprung up to oppose Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to penalize oil companies. Advocates say one man is behind three of them.

California lawmakers were on the verge of passing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to allow the state to cap the profits of oil companies when a trio of advocacy groups with innocuous-sounding names went on an advertising blitz.

The groups — nonprofits that call themselves Californians Against Higher Taxes, Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy and Californians for Energy Independence — campaigned against Newsom’s measure in a blizzard of social media posts and television ads. The groups said that further regulation of oil refineries would make the state more dependent on foreign crude oil imports or would raise the cost of gas for consumers, dubbing the proposal “Gavin’s gas tax.”

Those groups also billed themselves as coalitions of thousands of concerned taxpayers or small-business owners. Their ads and websites are rife with stock images of everyday-looking people.

But the organizations, according to corporate and lobbyist filings, weren’t created by average Californians or small businesses. One attorney from the North Bay, who has a long history of working with oil companies and trade associations, was central in organizing all three groups.

Steven Lucas, a San Rafael attorney who specializes in political law, is listed as the CFO and secretary for two of the groups, Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy and Californians for Energy Independence. He also held the same roles with Californians Against Higher Taxes until last year.

Lucas did not respond to emails and voicemails requesting comment. The groups he operated were heavily funded by oil refineries and the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry trade group.

Environmentalists and consumer advocates said the advertising campaign is an example of how the oil industry used “astroturf” or “front” groups to try to kill Newsom’s proposal using misleading tactics.

It’s designed to create the perception that there’s a grassroots movement that’s against oil industry accountability. These are not real groups; these are phony groups created for the purpose of preventing the oil industry from facing accountability for its high prices and environmental crimes.” Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog

“It’s designed to create the perception that there’s a grassroots movement that’s against oil industry accountability,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that pushed to cap soaring gas profits. “These are not real groups; these are phony groups created for the purpose of preventing the oil industry from facing accountability for its high prices and environmental crimes.”

Lawmakers ultimately passed Newsom’s proposal, though it was significantly scaled back after he got a lukewarm response from some moderate Democrats amid the oil industry’s ad push.

The bill Newsom signed into law gives state energy regulators the authority to place a cap on oil refiners’ profits in California — and to set the amount. They also now have the authority to fine companies that exceed the cap and require them to disclose information about their operations and prices.

The Democratic governor’s original proposal would have gone further by requiring legislators to set the amount of the profit cap. Still, the bill that passed was a major victory for environmentalists and consumer advocates who had failed, for decades, to pass measures designed to combat California’s highest-in-the-nation gas prices.

As lawmakers considered Newsom’s measure, the oil industry spent more than $9.4 million in the first quarter of 2023 on lobbying and public-influence campaigning, largely centered on Newsom’s oil profit proposal. About $5.2 million of that money was funneled into the three advocacy groups with ties to Lucas.

Combined, the oil-industry affiliated groups have run 568 social media ads on Facebook and Instagram since December, according to data from parent company Meta.

The ad tsunami started in late 2022, quickly after Newsom called a special session for lawmakers to consider measures to combat skyrocketing gas prices consumers were paying at the pump. He accused the oil refiners of “price gouging” Californians as the price of a gallon of regular gasoline soared to a statewide average of $6.42 last fall.

But opponents of the measure said the accusation that they used “astroturf” or deceptive tactics to stoke a perception of opposition is unfair and negates the concerns of a broad coalition of groups.

They said many business interests, including the California Chamber of Commerce and agricultural companies, also had concerns that Newsom’s approach, including the proposal that lawmakers ultimately adopted and his more aggressive earlier pitch, could have the unintended consequence of driving prices up if it causes oil companies to produce less gas in California.

In addition to Lucas, the three advocacy groups are headed by business association executives. Californians for Energy Independence listed Allan Zaremberg, the former leader of the state Chamber of Commerce who died this year, as its CEO. Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy lists its CEO as Robert Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, another association of business groups that includes oil companies.

Californians Against Higher Taxes, which was organized by Lucas and the law firm where he works, is now led by Jennifer Barrera, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce; and Thomas Hiltachk, a political attorney. Hiltachk did not respond to a request for comment.

Kevin Slagle, a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association, said the notion that the opposition campaign cloaked its efforts is laughable. He said the groups had to report their spending, and that the effort through third-party groups was combined with ads directly funded and managed by oil companies and WSPA.

“It’s disingenuous to call these efforts fake. They’re very real and they’re based on legitimate policy concerns,” Slagle said. “Our political system has so much transparency built into it.”

Of the two dozen oil companies and trade associations that poured more than $9.4 million into California lobbying and influence campaigns, Chevron contributed more than half of that total. The company, the largest oil refiner in California, spent $4.9 million, including $3.63 million it contributed to Californians for Energy Independence.

Ross Allen, a Chevron spokesperson, defended the company’s lobbying efforts and suggested “attacks” on oil refining in the state are putting the supply at risk. He said California has volatile energy markets, in part, due to its clean-fuel standards that cut off its gas supply from the rest of the country.

“Chevron works hard to educate policymakers and the public about how fragile California’s energy markets really are,” Allen wrote in an email.

But Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who studies the impact of public-relations campaigns on climate change policy, said the playbook that oil companies used by deploying “astroturf” groups in California is hardly new. She said the difference is that environmentalists have become more adept at uncloaking such tactics.

“People have much more awareness about greenwashing than they did ever before,” she said, using a term for marketing that’s intended to mislead the public about environmental impacts.

“[…] the tactic of using outside groups with seemingly innocuous names is designed to trick voters who might be more skeptical of advertising if they could see it’s paid for by oil companies.”

Aronczyk said the tactic of using outside groups with seemingly innocuous names is designed to trick voters who might be more skeptical of advertising if they could see it’s paid for by oil companies. In California, candidates and ballot measure campaigns must disclose their major donors in fine print at the bottom of ads. But that same disclosure requirement doesn’t apply to ads for issue-based campaigns that aren’t tied to an election.

She likened the “puppet campaign” strategy to the marketing tactics employed by other embattled industries, including tobacco companies and prescription drug firms, which bankrolled third-party advocacy groups to fight regulations targeting cigarettes and the proliferation of opioid drugs, respectively.

“They really are running scared, and that’s why they’re resorting to these tactics,” Aronczyk said. “It is a very short playbook, and it has been used for many decades.”

Indeed, Lucas, the attorney behind oil-industry-funded advocacy groups, is a partner at a law firm, Nielsen Merksamer, which also has a long history of working with tobacco companies to fight restrictions in California.

In 2017, two other attorneys from the firm were the treasurers of an advocacy group dubbed “Let’s Be Real” that worked with the tobacco industry in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn San Francisco’s law banning the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products. Similarly, the firm played a major role in coordinating a failed referendum to repeal a 2020 statewide law that banned most flavored tobacco products.


Benicia isn’t the only one – big oil money inserts itself in Petaluma & Santa Rosa races

Repost from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat
[Editor: note some of the same unfriendly giants as in Benicia: Valero Energy of course, and the law firm Nielsen Merksamer (“Bay Area-based law and lobbying firm that specializes in political and public-sector cases”).  – R.S.]

Oil and real estate interests pour money into Petaluma and Santa Rosa races

By Will Schmitt & Hannah Beausang, November 2, 2018, 8:57PM
Candidates for Petaluma Mayor include, from left, Mike Harris, Teresa Barrett, and Brian Powell.

More than $100,000 from oil and real estate interests has been funneled into city council races in Sonoma County’s two largest cities, highlighting how outside groups have ponied up to influence voters in the Nov. 6 election.

Of the pair of independent expenditure campaigns, the most visible has been in Petaluma, where a committee backed by several large oil companies has poured more than $78,000 into the race for mayor, according to campaign finance records.

The second spending effort is by a national real estate group that has spent more than $31,000 in favor of several city council candidates in Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

In Petaluma especially, the rush of outside spending has caused a stir. The two campaigns there have separately generated mailers supporting two mayoral candidates — Mike Harris and Brian Powell — and online ads and mailers supporting Harris and two others running for council seats, incumbent Dave King and candidate Michael Regan.

Brian Sobel, a Petaluma- based political analyst and former city councilman, called the level of outside spending in the city election unprecedented.

“It’s not been in Petaluma’s tradition or history to have independent expenditures committees singling out individual candidates and supporting them,” Sobel said.

Campaign finance rules limit individual donations directly to candidate campaigns to $200 in Petaluma and $500 in Santa Rosa per donor per election cycle. But there is no cap on how much money individuals or organizations can dole out through independent expenditure committees. The committees must report their spending to election authorities and are barred from coordinating with candidates.

Independent expenditures to sway elections are not new, though their prevalence and power has increased since the 2010 Citizens United case before the U.S. Supreme Court. It did away with independent political spending limits for corporations, labor groups and other entities on free-speech grounds.

The group responsible for the largest amount of spending in Petaluma this year goes by the name Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, Including Energy Companies who Produce Gas, Oil, Jobs and Pay Taxes. The committee has received millions of dollars from oil giants Chevron, Valero Energy and Phillips 66, according to campaign finance documents filed with the California Secretary of State.

The committee reported spending about $62,300 as of Friday to support Harris, a former councilman who is making his second bid for the mayor’s post. The oil-backed group also reported spending $15,800 in favor of Powell, a political newcomer and environmentalist who has embraced a strong anti-growth platform for the city.

Powell, Harris and Councilwoman Teresa Barrett are vying to replace Mayor David Glass, who is retiring.

The oil-backed coalition’s motives were not immediately obvious.

The phone number listed on the filings is associated with the San Rafael office of Nielsen Merksamer, a Bay Area-based law and lobbying firm that specializes in political and public-sector cases. Chevron Corp., Valero Energy and Philips 66 are listed as clients on the firm’s website.

Steven Lucas, the coalition’s registered agent, did not respond to requests for comment.

Barrett said she believed the outside spending was an attempt to bolster the chances of her rivals for the mayor’s post and deny her a public platform. Barrett is a strong pro-environment voice who serves on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates regional refineries. The district’s leadership comprises local elected officials, and Barrett would have to step down if she came up short in the mayor’s race, she noted.