I started down the wayward path of this kind of fact-checking because of an incredibly sloppy article appearing on Politico's new Capital New York outlet Dec. 6, 2013.
There they reported that just two anti-fracking green groups spent only $43,094 on lobbying in New York during the first half of 2013. That paltry figure was set against the mammoth, $667,159 spent on lobbying during the same period by four different arms of industry (three definitely pro-fracking organizations, and the fourth just a power seller that got unfairly thrown into the mosh pit, for some reason).
This was done by the reporter in order to "prove" the headline: "Fracking industry out-lobbies opponents, still loses ground."
But — if you actually check, as I did — pressure groups with anti-fracking positions spent $352,569 during just the first half of 2013 — pushing elected, appointed, and professional-class officials at many layers of government in New York.
At least, that's according to the tallies of those organizations which actually complied with state-mandated disclosure reports on lobbying, as maintained by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, commonly referenced by Albany insiders as JCOPE.
But before we get too far into this, let me just ask a question here — is there any fundamental, underlying unreliability to this kind of back-of-the-envelope, journalistic math?
Yes, lots, actually.
THE FIRST ISSUE: SOME REPORTERS IN NEW YORK FRANKLY SUCK AT DOING THEIR JOBS
Right off the bat, the first problem with math performed by journalists is that most young, drama-inculcated reporters — working on deadline, writing two or three news stories a day — don't have the time, inclination, or social/professional rewards to even do a proper job of polling JCOPE's data.
As I said, by my assessment, ten different presumably anti-drilling green groups reported spending $352,569 — not two organizations, spending $43,094, an instance where the reporter can be shown to have referenced only about 12% of what's fully transparent and accessible of record.
On the mostly-but-probably-not-all, pro-drilling industry side, 18 different companies or trade associations reported spending $1,721,739 — not four entities, spending $667,159, a case where the reporter (even with an error of over-reach) managed to capture just about 39% of what's on the open record.
Also missed — from the known-to-be pro-drilling landowner perspective — two organizations spent $168,723. These groups represent the often-ignored resource owners, legitimate stakeholders who take the position of pleading to re-legalize opportunity regarding what turns out to be their valuable shale gas.
Also missed — from the presumably pro-drilling trade union outlook — two labor unions spent $196,701. These groups represent the even-more-often ignored skilled tradespeople, also legitimate stakeholders who are pushing for more work.
What if you extrapolate the total total across the whole of 2013, on the basis of records which so far show expenditures in just first half of the year? That would suggest that pressure groups — each with at least some kind of position one way or another on the fracking question — are on track to spend nearly $5 million in on-the-record lobbying in New York. What they all spent lobbying in prior years — since at least 2008, when the whole fracking question exploded to become such a big issue in New York — could also be examined. But I'll have to look into that, some time later.
THE SECOND ISSUE: WHO GETS MEASURED?
Next, note that my analysis leaves out groups that refrained from using — in their free-form description of lobbying topics — such explicit key words or phrases as, say, hydraulic, frack, moratorium, oil and gas, natural gas, shale, drilling, SGEIS, or HVHF. Or another way of saying this is that my analysis leaves out groups that described their interests much more vaguely.
Right away, for instance, I can already see that the Business Council of New York — which has routinely taken a decidedly pro-fracking stand on its well-worth-it Capital Business Blog — escapes my round-up. That's because they spent $230,757 during the first half of 2013, working on topics they chose to describe as:
"ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEDURES, BUDGET, BUSINESS REGULATIONS IN NYS, CONSTRUCTION, CONSUMER AFFAIRS, CONTRACT PROCUREMENT, E-COMMERCE, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, EDUCATION, ENERGY, ENVIRONMENT, FEDERAL ISSUES THAT IMPACT NYS, FINANCIAL SERVICES, GENERAL COUNSELS, HEALTH, INNOVATION, INSURANCE, LABOR/HUMAN RESOURCE, LEGAL REFORM, LIABILITY REFORM, MEDICAID, OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY & HEALTH, OUTSOURCING, SMALL BUSINESS, STATE SPENDING, TAX, TELECOMMUNICATIONS, TORT REFORM, TRANSPORTATION, TRAVEL & TOURISM, UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE, WAGE THEFT ACT REVISIONS, WORKERS' COMPENSATION, WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT"
Also escaping notice is the Environmental Defense Fund, which — though you sure don't hear much about this, at least within the echoey confines of New York State — actually comes down on the pro side of regulated shale gas development as a national platform. EDF has two reporting lines for the first half of 2013, spending $191,979, but it was on "ENVIRONMENTAL AND TRANSPORTATION ISSUES." I guess they're thinking that ought to cover it.
NYPIRG's another one. They were there on fracking in prior years, but must be they stopped lobbying this year, if the database can be trusted for their absence.
How many others — pro, con, or somewhere in between — are missing or disguise their pressure on the fracking question by hiding behind similar veils of vagueness, that's anybody's guess. You wanna take a crack at it, as I said, the data's all online here.
Furthermore, one can even raise questions about those that I have included: Is everybody in "industry" pro-fracking? In this grouping, for instance, my list lumps in GE, waste haulers, Hudson Valley real estate people, and the small-spending Ecology & Environment (a consultant that does business with whomever's hiring, having even done some work for the NYS DEC on the SGEIS, and the federal EPA on its ongoing shale gas study). For each of these, their official interest in fracking is likely to be a lot more nuanced than just pro or con.
THE THIRD ISSUE: WHAT ARE ALL THESE LOBBYISTS REALLY WORKING ON?
Even more crucially, journalistic math also glosses over the fact that each pressure group reports all lobbying on all their issues of interest. There's no line item for fracking, and this is fundamentally an equal-opportunity distortion.
So, on the pro side, just as a for instance, we have the American Petroleum Institute spending a whopping $503,903, but it was on any of these things:
"ALL MATTERS AFFECTING THE PETROLEUM INDUSTRY, BIOFUELS, ZONE PRICING, PRICE GOUGING AND OTHER MARKETING ISSUES, HYDRAULIC FRACTURING IN THE MARCELLUS SHALE, NAAQS STATE IMPLEMENTATION PLANS, REGIONAL GREENHOUSE GAS ISSUES, UNDERGROUND AND ABOVE GROUND STORAGE TANK RULES, LOW CARBON FUEL, OIL SPILL REMEDIATION, GENERATORS, STRATEGIC FUEL RESERVE"
That undoubtedly represents a long list of kinda complicated positions for the API to present, year-round, on behalf of its membership, to any number of state and local law-making and rule-making branches. I have not been paying attention to this sort of thing my whole life, but I think it's fair to say that much of the API's expensive effort has gone on and on for years in New York, and similarly would have gone on since 2008, whether or not this state's boundaries were thought to even contain any shale gas worth fighting about.
Similarly, on the anti side, just as an equal time example, we have the Citizens Campaign for the Environment spending $83,035 on any number of these things:
"WIND ENERGY CLIMATE CHANGE GREAT LAKES PROTECTION ESTUARY PROTECTION MARCELLUS SHALE DESALINATION PLASTIC BAGS OCEAN PROTECTION RENEWABLE ENERGY TECHNOLOGY ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION FUND SSER PROTECTION ONODAGA LAKE CLEAN UP SEWAGE TREATMENT FUNDING WESTERN BAYS PROTECTION - TMDL BAY PARK STP LAND PRESERVATION MARCELLUS SHALE DRILLING DRINKING WATER PROTECTION WETLANDS CARMANS RIVER PROTECTION HYDROFRACKING SEWAGE POLLUTION RIGHT TO KNOW AQUATIC INVASIVE SPECIES CLAM RESTORATION FORGE RIVER GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE LI PESTICIDE USE MANAGEMT PLAN OCEAN PROTECTIONS BROOKHAVEN RAIL TERMINAL TOXIC IN CHILDRENS CLOTHES SOLAR POWER SAFE DISPOSAL OF MERCURY SHARK FINNING BV7 ONONDAGA LAKE RESTORATION SAFE DISPOSAL OF PHARMECEUTICAL DRUGS HYRDROFRACKING CHILD SAFE PRODUCTS COMBINED ANIMAL FEED OPERATIONS PAHRMACEUTICAL SAFE DISPOSAL NORTHPORT HARBOR WATER QUALITY PROTECTION RECYCLING CLOSED CYCLE COOLING FOR POWER PLANTS - BTA LONG ISLAND COMPOST BROOKHAVEN LANDFILL LONG ISLAND SOUND DRINKING WATER PROTECTION PLASTIC BAGS MARINE DEBRIS AQUATIC INVASIVE SPECIES LAND PRESERVATION"
Quite a list, eh? (And it looks like they could really use a spell-checker.) But, again, much of this green agenda would go on and on, regardless of shale gas. The Citizens Campaign is one of New York's regularly encountered, door-to-door money seekers, using (or abusing) idealistic youngsters to carry out its fund-raising scheme in well-off, well-meaning, left-of-center, can't-say-no neighborhoods, such as where I live and make a living in Syracuse, NY.
There are probably only two entities on my list which can be off-handedly summed-up as exclusively focused on shale gas as a single issue — the anti group Frack Action, and the landowners' coalition JLCNY, representing the pro side. Though I haven't yet actually checked, all of the rest are likely to have been working in New York on all kinds of issues prior to 2008, and that's still pretty much a lot of what they're still up to.
So the bottom line on this is that these JCOPE records are a highly imperfect measure of everything that certain, selected pressure groups care about, that's being used by simple-minded journalists to measure just fracking pressure (pun not intended, but I'll just leave it).
OTHER ISSUES: THIS IS AN APPLES-TO-APPLES COMPARISON?
Any other issues? Yes, in fact, there are.
For one, not every organization actually diligently follows the law and files these reports with JCOPE, which I'm given to understand is required twice annually.
And, for two, it's unlikely that those which do report have been equally diligent in reporting all their pressure expenditures as lobbying. For this second issue, you'd need a team of sober-but-hungry accountants — with access to not just the tax forms, but the actual books — to forensically determine how much any of these groups are wiggling within the generous leeway provided by this entire reporting scheme.
Pro or con, it doesn't matter — the Average Joe has little assurance whatsoever that anybody's really checking, though all this does raise a fair question: Is it possible that some groups sleep very well at night, comfortable in the knowledge that they'll get a pass with their routine under-reporting, while other groups are too freaked out by the prospect of official or media exposure to take a chance on this? I'd like to pointedly suggest that — right now, in New York, other than maybe banks, hedge funds, or Wall Street in general — there are few fatter political targets than the likes of the API.
But let's go back to my earlier point: Who is illegally not reporting their lobbying expenditures as lobbying?
Christ, you'd need an intern to figure all that out! It would be like shooting ducks in a barrel, but you'd still need an intern. In fact, this could be a very long list — and maybe I'll come back and add to it another time. But, just off the top of my head, by way of getting things started:
Artists Against Fracking. This is Yoko Ono and company. They get fans to "take action" and write letters to the governor from this web site, and presumably through other media. The AP surprisingly busted them a while back for unregistered lobbying, but they still haven't gone legit since.
A Million Fracking Letters Dot Com. Pretty self-explanatory, but they're not on JCOPE's list. It doesn't look like they're even organized as a not-for-profit.
Community Environmental Defense Council. This is the wife-and-husband duo of lawyers, Helen and David Slottje, out of Ithaca. For some many months now, they've received quite a bit of money from the Park Foundation, also out of Ithaca, to basically go full-time, driving from town to town, putting on "pro bono educational workshops," which essentially pressure municipal jurisdictions to either permanently zone out local drilling, or else temporarily put it under a moratorium. Sometimes, it's real; other times, it's just symbolic. But, apparently, the Slottje's don't think their work is lobbying within the purview of JCOPE, as their group is a no show on the official record since 2007. And everybody just let's them get away with this self-serving re-definition of what it is they do for a living, probably because it would just be can't-win, bad PR to challenge such activists.
(I later learned there is a public ethics law exemption from reporting for lobbyist efforts before municpalities with fewer than 50,000 in population. That's a loophole which likely covers most of the CEDC's rounds.)
The Park Foundation. This is where the Duncan Hines cake mix fortune is slowly getting spent by the family's succeeding generations, none apparently making a living as businesspeople anymore. Park has been shown — even, on at least one notable occasion, by mainstream media — to be the behind-the-scenes bankroll for literally a dozen or more pro-environment, anti-fracking campaigns in New York. Anybody can comb Park's 2013 and prior grant-making on their web site here, and collate more than $1.6 million spread around just this year on environmental issues — maybe not all of it in NY, and not all of it just on fracking. But, either way, JCOPE is deaf, dumb, and blind to it; Park doesn't show up anywhere since 2007.
The state's media is also largely deaf, dumb, and blind to the machinations of Park or its army of "grassroots" operators and allies. In New York, the watchdogs in the press are going to quietly slink away from this kind of equal opportunity investigative reporting, and it's because they get pressure, too. As pro-drilling firebrand Tom Shepstone recently noted on his Natural Gas Now outlet, former Albany Times-Union scribe Jimmy Vielkind — now Albany bureau chief at Capital New York, and therefore in something of a position of authority over the former TU colleague who wrote the piece that originally set me off — is married to Environmental Advocates' Katherine Nadeau. And Nadeau is somebody whom this and many other media outlets quote regularly on the fracking issue (in the case of Politico, without any disclosure of the connection) — at least when they're not all busy playing together, scribes and greens, in the same summer softball league. It's just another reincarnation of the Old Boys Network, but everybody's younger, and not everybody's male, and the status quo they work to protect is something entirely different from what formerly ranked as establishment principles.
Then you've got a possibly even larger swath of Even Grayer Pressure Group Activity that's been costing somebody, somewhere, a boatload of money in an attempt to influence politics in this state, going on for more than five years now. It may be pressure, but none of it technically ranks as lobbying. In fact, for all anybody knows, this might be where the lion's share of the money should be followed, if it could be followed.
On the pro side, just as a for instance, Energy in Depth Marcellus, has always disclosed itself as an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. At one time, but apparently not so much anymore, IPAA was paying a small staff of generally young persuaders in both NY and PA, working under Shepstone, to regularly make the pro-frack case on blogs and other new media, tied into in-person reporting at a myriad of local frack battle happenings in the Marcellus zone. But neither IPAA or E-in-D has ever shown up as a lobbyist in New York since 2007.
Their argument is that their work is free speech, public education, or propaganda — depending on how you want to phrase it — rather than lobbying.
And, of course, both sides can and do play that game — in fact, very well. On the anti side, the number of organizations spending money to use in-person public meetings, old media, web sites, and other new media to similarly "educate" the general public, including policy makers, toward the anti-frack side — well, it would just make your head spin.
How much have I spent so far on free speech, public education, or propaganda — depending on how you want to phrase it — through this blog? Expenses: Probably less than $100, transferring some digital video on a SUNY-censored lecture on the geology of black shales by the since-pushed-out New York State Geologist Taury Smith, and every once in awhile paying for downloads of various court documents through PACER. Compensation: $0 (though I did once enjoy a sub and a beer with some plumbers and pipefitters, riding a union-rented bus, back from a pro-drilling rally at Albany).