In the debate about coal exports in the Pacific Northwest, we are subtly being reintroduced to a familiar Oregon quasi-political engine Brian Gard, who was formerly of the notorious ad agency Gard & Gerber. Now president of PR firm Gard Communications, he currently serves as one of the spokespersons for Ambre Energy’s Morrow-Pacific Project, which is an export proposal for the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon.
This port expansion is designed to receive 8.8 million tons of Powder River Basin coal per year by rail to be transferred onto barges for transport on the Columbia river. The barges would then stage at Port Westward, in the Bradbury Slough off of Crim’s Island, where the coal will be transloaded to larger ships for export across the Pacific. With the addition of 2,500 barges per year, this will increase barge traffic on the Columbia river by 94%.
For those who are familiar with Gard, it will be no surprise that he is representing Ambre Energy. He has a history of taking on the role of spokesperson and consultant for some of the more controversial issues, figures, and campaigns in Portland and the State of Oregon. When examining this history, it is abundantly clear that Brian Gard’s job has been precisely to help corporate money shout over the public and advocate against measures that would empower them.
In 2003, Gard formed an organization called ‘Citizens Against the Government Takeover’ which was primarily funded by executives of PGE (owned by Enron ’97-’06), Pacific Power (Pacificorp), and attorneys that had strong ties to those companies. Masquerading as a citizens’ group, they would launch a ballot campaign to defeat measures 26-51 and 26-52, which would have created a Public Utility District in Multnomah County.
It was a campaign of misinformation that even required a Federal Judge to order Multnomah County to warn voters about misleading information in the voters’ pamphlet. After spending 60 times the measures’ proponents, in what would be the most expensive campaign ever conducted in the county at the time at $1.9 Million, the measures were defeated.
In 2005, Gard & Gerber would form the ‘First Things First Committee’, with the backing of PGE, NW Natural and Qwest, and lead a failed campaign to defeat Voter Owned Elections by ballot vote. After failing to get enough signatures for the ballot, his firm propagated unsubstantiated conspiracy claims against the League of Women Voters and other reform groups, proposing that they worked to get signatures tossed out by seeking multiple signings.
Later in 2006, with the returned support of PGE, NW Natural, Qwest and other financial backers, Gard and the Portland Business Alliance would strengthen this crusade by putting up senator Ginny Burdick, former vice president of Gard & Gerber, as a challenger to Portland city commissioner Erik Sten’s seat. The campaign ran primarily in opposition to Voter-Owned Elections and attacked Sten’s advocacy of publicly owned power. It was a campaign that prided itself on being funded without the use public tax dollars, unlike Sten, despite that technically, through tax deductable contributions, she was utilizing public dollars.
Burdicks campaign would then go on to apparently ‘game’ the Voter-Owned Elections system by filing expenditures on the day of and before the primary election, which through this delay, deprived Sten’s campaign of matching funds. Aside from receiving large contribution sums the day before election, her campaign paid out $55,805 to Gard & Gerber the day of election. Her campaign manager Ed Grosswiler would claim this was due to receiving Gard’s invoice only the day before the election. Burdick’s campaign would lose the primary.
And so, to keep in the spirit of things, we find Gard presently representing Ambre Energy. This is the company that in 2010 lied to the people of Cowlitz County about the size of its coal export terminal project at the Port of Longview to receive lease approval. Leaked internal company emails revealed that instead of the original 5.7 million tons of coal per year, executives had designs for a project that instead involved 60 million tons of coal per year, 10 times the amount of coal originally permitted for. More recently, Ambre conducted secret meetings with officials at the Port of St. Helens to receive lease option agreements. Gard’s partner in representing Ambre, Liz Fuller defended this in saying, “…it would be confusing and misleading for the public to tell them about a project so far in its infancy.”
If there is a common thread to be found in much of Gard’s work, it’s the use of powerful monied interests to disempower public process both in actual policy and in the framing of public debate.
So in the case of coal exports, it is instructive to see that when even basic evaluations on health and environmental impacts are advocated for, they are painted as mere impediments to the ‘decision-making process’. Instead the conducting of thorough comprehensive environmental analyses in the interest of the ‘public process’ are regarded as subservient and frustrations to the demands of corporate timelines.
According to Gard, “an environmental assessment on the scale that one Kitzhaber requests would take years and would significantly delay work.” Gard all but admits such ‘work’ would seriously harm public and environmental health. And the problem is that this sets the tone. Here is senator Ron Wyden in a recent forum in Portland: “My bottom line is Oregonians have an absolute right to know the environmental impacts of these projects, and I don’t believe it ought to take 3 to 5 years to tell them.” He would rather let the asthma speak for itself.
An extension of this framing is the idea that any challenges to entrenched power is a question of practicality. Earlier this year, Gard cited a government projection that 39% of the electricity in the U.S. will still be coming from coal by 2035 and that because of this he says: “… I think in practical terms we need to be working hard to handle and use coal in environmentally positive ways because we’re going to have to be using it for decades in the future.”
Much can be said on how we should actually utilize ‘economic projections’ as it relates to actual predictability of the future, where the present is held constant, and it becomes a tool to justify current policy. It creates a false imperative. As E.F. Schumacher had said, “Full predictability in principle exists only in the total absence of human freedom”. It really says nothing of the possibilities of ending fossil fuel subsidies, reinvesting in renewables, and the gains in economic activity and livelihood from shifting capital to these projects. Germany, now has 25% of its energy production coming from renewables. In Oregon, we’ve had a pilot of a similar program (Feed-in Tariff) which will be subject for extension and revision this coming year’s state legislative agenda. Anything can be written off as impractical if it is never attempted.
Other than keeping coal in the ground, the assertion that there are ‘clean and environmentally positive ways to handle coal’ is laughable, but it is on this idea that the Morrow-Pacific Project is being sold.
To be convinced of the myth that the export and burning of coal can somehow be ‘clean’ we have to ignore many things. Such as that coal will still be strip-mined from the Powder River Basin, that the many communities and ecosystems between here and the Port of Morrow will still be subject to the impacts of diesel particulate and coal dust from rail transport, and that in its final burning the pollution eventually drifts back across the Pacific and contaminates our soils and waters, which is evidenced by the fact that 1/5th of the mercury in the Willamette river comes from overseas sources and similarly sizeable portions of mercury have been found on our mountaintops.
Most importantly, increased CO2 emissions from burning will contribute to the further acidification of our water and expand the dead-zones that envelope the entire Oregon coast in the summer, and as well further the destabilization of our climate, which results in the extreme weather and conditions that are making the planet increasingly inhospitable to life.
The barges alone have an impact. In fact, Crim’s Island just recently finished a $2.2 million salmon habitat restoration project, just funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Ambre Energy’s own biological assessment acknowledges that the increased barge traffic, port construction, and activity will greatly impact protected species and critical habitats, including already long threatened salmon populations. It will also put those who fish or recreate on the Columbia river at significant risk for their health and safety. Notably this also tramples the treaty-protected fishing rights of Native Tribes. Of course there are also the known dangers of spontaneous combustion when coal is transported in enclosed environments.
Unfortunately the diligence to provide concrete answers to these concerns are provisioned with an anemic we-appreciate-it-but-we-got-it-covered attitude, and a vague assurance that Ambre is committed to meet the relatively ‘high environmental standards’ set by the State of Oregon, when they aren’t busy lying to regulators.
Although, in all honesty and practice, when the environment is protected by a regulatory process that has long been captured by corporate interest, we get standards that actually fall well short of meeting the needs for sustainable ecosystems and strong public health. Such standards should be regarded as a floor to be exceeded, but alas the market dictates in the end for it to be a ceiling.
Of course to help cause swift and uninformed decisions, it is always best to sell fear. Gard does not shy from evoking the market ‘competitive other’ which informs us that if we don’t act swiftly, our doddering will have us miss out on a great opportunity of gain and that the more cunning ‘competitive other’ will take it. As he had said in the Portland Tribune in May, “It’s awfully naive to assume that if Oregon doesn’t export coal that nobody else will…Ambre would simply ship its coal out of British Columbia ports instead.”
What is naive, is to just assume that there is an abundance of others willing and able to be a point of export. Even in the case of British Columbia, talked as the ‘if not here, then there’ alternative, their rail terminals are not setup to handle U.S. rail coal export at the capacity being proposed for this region and are not likely to make infrastructure concessions against the high-value steelmaking coal they already export. But of course this is not naivety, it is meant to produce anxiety.
Brian Gard never explicitly suggests that we should dismiss the concerns raised about our health, the environment, native people’s rights, and climate change. Though he might call some of these things ‘gross exaggerations’, he is a poet, and he knows how to say it through omission. But, he will tell you explicitly what your principal concern should be: Jobs.
What Gard utilizes is the hackneyed frame of job scarcity, which sets up an easy and toxic opposition: the opportunity to relieve anxieties about the economic security of a region and its people versus, well… everything else; everything else can be sold off in desperation of the short-term.
If you look at the jobs we’re talking about, from a Portland perspective, they may not look impressive,” Gard said. “Twenty-five jobs are a big deal in those counties.
What he likes to assert is that this is not a choice between jobs and the environment, climate, and health. Rather, the choice about coal exports is simply a choice about jobs; the higher principle we should be operating on. And what this frame demands is that somehow jobs are a more concrete indicator of well-being than anything else; public health be damned.
It is interesting to find how intertwined this is with Gard’s own self-narrative. Active involvement and background in the arts and humanities, children’s hunger, a poet, once board member of The Nature Conservancy, and at the same time has attended Harvard Business School and was once on the board of the Oregon Business Association. The Brian Gard he likes to sell is one of pragmatic compassion. Especially so, when he argues that denying coal to the developing world is also denying access to low-cost energy for places that are lacking basic services. He tells us we stand to improve the lives of many people, and when we fight against this in the name of the ‘high standards’ we hold for ourselves, he counters with, “It’s very difficult to enjoy Beethoven on an empty stomach”.
With the narrow fixation on job creation, Gard wants us to know that this is the real locus of concrete reality, because simply, wages are where the food comes from, jobs are where the wages come from, and coal is where the jobs come from. This is what conditions the hard realities of family kitchen table decisions and it is on this equivalence, that a denial of jobs is also a failure of empathy and to ignore hard reality as it impacts people at a personal level.
But to achieve this apparently moral high ground, one must ignore the hard realities of a family member developing asthma, cancer, pulmonary disorders, black lung, or cardiovascular disease; The suffocation of other productive livelihoods by coal dust, and increased rail and barge traffic. The increase of food and health insecurity from contaminated rivers and soils, and that all these problems are increased in magnitudes by the CO2 released from coal burning that destabilizes our climate and our ecosystems.
Funny that the Coal Export proposal for Grays Harbor was cancelled on the rationale that:
…we believe that there are other uses and other opportunities for that terminal that are much more likely to generate jobs, economic development, tax revenues, (and provide a) general increase in business for the Port…
This “It’s very difficult to enjoy Beethoven on an empty stomach”, commonly expressed as ‘Let them eat cake’ , is actually an echo from an older article penned by Gard, which he used to rail against the initiative process. Here’s an excerpt:
We can stop using the quality of life in our state as a mantra that pretends Oregon is somehow a better place to live than some other place. It’s not. Especially now. And this civic arrogance keeps us from focusing on legitimate problems and has become a ritual excuse and defense for any number of things. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of values can be summarized, somewhat simplistically, by saying that it is difficult to enjoy Beethoven on an empty stomach. It’s just as difficult to enjoy our beautiful state and all it offers if you don’t have a job.
We can stop the silly justification of new policies or programs by saying that it is another example of Oregon being first in the nation. I would think our fascination with being first is getting a little old now that we are “first” in hunger, unemployment and the shortest school year.
Gard argues that the initiative process, one he has abused repeatedly with corporate money, is symptom and creator for boondoggle projects and tax policy, and breeds a poverty of shared consensus. This though ignores how obstructive and ill-equipped the state legislature already is to the reception of public participation. It ignores how often the public voice is obstructed in procedural wrangling and drowned out by large corporate powers and their lobbyists which he so willingly calls his clients. Options for direct-democracy should never be closed.
Gard decries the lack of shared values in this state but yet the very project he is engaged with now is in direct opposition to one. The commonly held value that we have a right to a clean and healthy environment and to a sustainable future. Such an idea should not be viewed as some luxury value, or giving cake to the hungry. This is fundamental. It’s difficult to have a job, it’s difficult not to be hungry, it’s difficult to be healthy, it’s difficult to enjoy our beautiful state, if these rights are being treated with negligence.
All of this is the language of a huckster who cultivates and preys on anxieties. This is the kind of dialogue that seeks to disempower the public. It’s propaganda. The narrative that large corporate projects are predestined to take place, that the power and will for their realization is a matter of when and where, and that to even be offered as the host of such a proposal is a miraculous gift in desperate times. And we are to be shamed if we are to turn it down on the basis of any publicly shared set of values or standards and demand a comprehensive public process because its an exercise of foolhardy first-world elitism that impoverishes for the sake of symbolic gains.
What is real is the necessity to move away from fossil fuels. This is not symbolic, but a concrete necessity for the world.
Gard is often cited as being a strong advisor on ‘crisis communication’, of which he has given seminar lectures. He most famously demonstrated this skill in 2004 in handling long time friend Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse confession. Personally, I would rather like to avoid learning how well Gard might employ his crisis communication skills in the case of a barge accident or train derailment that leaves our waterways and/or communities hopelessly polluted. Instead, I hope that people look behind the PR curtain and know that the corporate campaigns, on which Brian Gard works, are always against the public interest while emphatically in Gard’s personal interest.
As long as Brian Gard holds the Ambre Energy account, people should look skeptically on every word spoken in favor of coal. Portland State and OHSU, who also pay Gard for representation, should reconsider whether their strong environmental and public health programs and institutional policies are consistent with a firm whose owner represents dirty energy against the interests of the residents of this city and the future of the planet. And for the rest of us, we should consider whether Gard is the type of resident we should ever hold with any credibility or esteem. If there exists, in the creative use of language, a fine line between poet and propagandist, Gard has long obscured it.