IMAGE BY Chris Goldberg

Ad blitz heats up climate change fight


The oil industry helped Democrat Jim Cooper win his first election to the Legislature last year. Now it’s seeking his help fighting Democratic leaders in the state Capitol.

Cooper is one of a handful of potential swing votes the oil industry is targeting as it tries to kill a controversial proposal to cut in half the amount of petroleum California vehicles use by 2030.

Chevron, Exxon Mobil and other oil and gas producers gave Cooper more than $34,000 during his campaign to represent an area south of Sacramento in the state Assembly. The industry teamed up with other interest groups on an independent campaign that spent another $1.2 million to benefit him.

In recent weeks, Cooper’s face has appeared on Internet ads asking voters to sign a petition to “help” him vote against Senate Bill 350, a high-stakes attempt by Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) to put California at the global forefront in fighting climate change. Though the bill has passed the state Senate, it faces a tougher challenge in the Assembly, where the oil industry is applying considerable pressure on a handful of legislators like Cooper who will vote on the bill by Sept. 11.

Cooper has not taken a position and declined an interview for this article. In a statement, however, he said he is concerned that the bill could “disproportionately impact low-income communities in my district.” 

Other legislators targeted with online advertisements from the California Drivers Alliance – an organization sponsored by the Western States Petroleum Association – include Democratic Assembly members Cheryl Brown from San Bernardino; Ken Cooley from the Sacramento area and Reggie Jones-Sawyer from Los Angeles, as well as Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, who represents an East Bay district that includes Chevron’s global headquarters and a voter base that leans Democratic.

Pressure is also coming from the other side. A group backed by billionaire climate change activist Tom Steyer has run ads in key markets thanking legislators who voted “yes” when the Senate passed the measure. Steyer’s group, NextGen Climate Action, paid Univision to host a special half-hour program about the dangers of climate change. Other environmental groups that support the bill have joined the publicity campaign. 

Ads for and against SB 350.

Assemblywoman Brown saw it as she drove home Saturday. Pulling onto her street, she was greeted by dozens of Sierra Club lawn signs supporting SB 350. That night, as her husband surfed around online, he came across the oil industry ad urging Brown to vote no.

Brown hasn’t decided how she’ll vote, but after the barrage of advertisements on Saturday, she went to church Sunday morning and asked congregants to pray for her to make the right decision.

“I know God wants us to have clean air, but I also know he wants people to go to work,” Brown said. “So I don’t know where that’s going to fall.” 

De León, the bill’s author, criticized the oil industry ads at a press conference this week as a “major campaign of fear mongering.” Spots are on TV and radio as well.

The ad blitz from both sides means that millions of dollars will likely be spent this summer to influence a landmark vote. How much? The state’s weak disclosure rules make it impossible for the public to get the complete picture.

Interest groups file reports each quarter stating how much they paid lobbyists, which bills they worked on, and how they entertained public officials. But the reports include a catch-all “other” category where lobbying groups can lump together numerous expenses without providing any details. Spending on paper clips and phone bills can legally be combined with ad buys and TV sponsorships. All the public sees is a total of the amount spent. 

For example, Steyer’s group paid lobbyists about $58,000 in the second quarter of this year. But it spent more than 10 times as much in the catch-all “other” category: $641,202. On what? NextGen spokeswoman Suzanne Henkels said it went toward “citizen engagement efforts… through a variety of mediums including field, paid media and direct mail.”

The Western States Petroleum Association spent nearly $8.9 million on lobbying in Sacramento last year. About 81 percent of that was reported in the “other” category. A spokeswoman declined to say how the money was spent. 

Timing also clouds transparency. Because lobbying groups report quarterly, money spent on the ads we’re seeing now won’t be made public until November 1, weeks after the Legislature has voted on the bill.

Contrast that with California’s rules for reporting the flow of campaign money during election time. In the three months leading up to an election, candidates have to report contributions of at least $1,000 every 24 hours so the public can follow the money. 

It’s a problem that’s being explored by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Jodi Remke, chair of the Commission, said in an interview that she’s working to overcome technical hurdles and hopes to bring her commission a plan in January. 

“We cannot stay at the status quo,” Remke said. “Without more detailed information, all we’ve really done is identify the big players in politics but we’re not seeing who or what they’re playing with.” 

Meanwhile, expect more ads.