DOE keeps hiring oil industry public relations firm

Source: By Kelsey Brugger, E&E News • Posted: Monday, June 27, 2022

Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, D.C., as photographed Sept. 17, 2021.

Department of Energy headquarters in Washington. Francis Chung/E&E News

The Department of Energy retained a global public relations firm with longstanding fossil fuel ties, continuing a practice that ramped up during the Trump administration.

The global firm Edelman in April signed a $500,000 contract to promote the new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, which the Biden administration established with infrastructure law funding and billed as “a turbocharger of our net-zero future.”

The Edelman deal has drawn scrutiny from critics who have long been skeptical of the prominent firm. DOE has paid the PR firm more than $14 million since 2018, according to USAspending.gov, a public database.

Edelman, meanwhile, has long trumpeted its commitment to climate action.

“Edelman works with a broad range of clients in many industries and global markets, including clients across the energy sector,” said a company spokesperson in 2015. “As previously reported, we do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.”

Such statements have made the firm a target of watchdogs and activists, who don’t hesitate to point out when they see Edelman being hypocritical. Working for the trade group American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers was one of the company’s recent infractions in the view of critics.

“Edelman is really leading the charge on protecting old energy at the same time they are promoting new energy,” said Duncan Meisel, director at Clean Creatives, a group that has petitioned public relations firms and ad agencies to cut ties with oil companies and their trade groups.

USAspending shows Edelman will promote the DOE office’s accomplishments to the media, Congress and “the American public.”

The firm will help plan events, design graphics, write copy, develop web content and help with rapid response during times of heightened need, according to a DOE official, who said the tasks would be supervised and require approval.

The new clean energy demonstrations office will help encourage clean hydrogen, carbon capture, grid-scale energy storage, small modular reactors and other emerging technologies.

Its launch has been slow-going. The office has to hire numerous employees and lacks a Senate-confirmed administrator.

The recent Edelman contract was completed under an existing deal between the firm and DOE, which accelerated the process.

David Mayorga, DOE’s public affairs director, said the department conducts “a transparent, fair, and competitive procurement process when seeking external support services that deliver the best product and value for the American taxpayer.”

“We will do the same when seeking new communications support in the future,” he wrote in an email.

Edelman review

In 2015, Edelman said it was parting ways with a proposed coal export terminal project (Greenwire, July 24, 2015).

Earlier this year, Edelman, still under fire, said it had reviewed hundreds of clients, including a closer look at 20 “emissions-intensive” companies. It said the analysis led the company to at least rethink its relationship with some interests.

“We found examples where Edelman has played a key role in helping organizations acknowledge the significance of climate change and start their journey towards action. This is the type of work we want to do, we should do, and will do more of in the future,” said a post summarizing comments from CEO Richard Edelman and Robert Casamento, the company’s climate chair.

Meisel at Clean Creatives claimed nothing has come of it — at least nothing publicly known. “They haven’t dropped any of their clients,” he said. “It appears they are sort of doing business as usual.”

In response to several questions, company spokesperson Kate Meissner wrote in an email, “We believe our industry and our firm have an essential role to play in fighting climate change.”

She declined to reveal their current clients, citing confidentiality agreements.

Meisel said Edelman’s lack of disclosure about company policies “is really hurting them and is essentially the opposite of the advice they give clients on crisis management, which is to get ahead of the story by showing how you’re changing.”

Even though the criticism goes back a decade, he said the firm has never given clear public commitments to what they are going to do differently.

“At this point there’s no reason to trust this kind of vague, secretive approach,” Meisel said.

History with DOE

During the Trump administration, Edelman was the preferred public relations outfit for DOE.

When a reporter on at least one occasion called DOE’s press office, they got a call back from the firm, which at the time had been hired to promote nuclear energy events targeted at millennials (Energywire, June 24, 2019).

DOE has since scaled back its use of Edelman, albeit only slightly, records show.

In fiscal 2022, DOE paid the firm $2.3 million. The prior fiscal years, the contracts amounted to somewhere between $1 million and $3 million. DOE spent $5.4 million in fiscal 2019.

DOE is not alone. The Department of Health and Human Services has paid Edelman $20 million since 2018 for a national education campaign and outreach.

Executives Casamento; Deanna Tallon, climate and sustainability managing director; and John Edelman, who spearheads the company’s corporate responsibility work, said in another post they were having conversations with clients “about our principles, the commitments we have made and the actions we are taking.”

They said the company incorporated climate principles into the client acceptance process and “have decided not to pursue certain new opportunities.”

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers may have been one of the casualties of Edelman’s review.

When Buzzfeed last year reported Edelman had $4 million in contracts with AFPM, critics pointed to the group’s opposition to certain climate action on Capitol Hill.

AFPM spokesperson Ericka Perryman told E&E News last month it “decided to let our Edelman contract expire at the end of last year.”

“We’re grateful for the support we received from Edelman over many years of work together and we wish them all the best,” she wrote.