Chilling and Gassing with the Environmental Defense Fund

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This review was first published as "Chilling and Gassing with the Environmental Defense Fund", PR Watch, Volume 6, No. 1, First Quarter 1999. The original article was authored by Bob Burton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

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Peter Sandman and EDF

Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), has maintained a relationship with Peter Sandman since his days as a student at the University of Michigan, where Sandman used to teach. With a budget of $27 million and 170 staff people, EDF is one of the "big ten" environmental organizations in the United States, and in the forefront of promoting big-business policies. Krupp himself receives a salary of well over a quarter million dollars per year.

Sandman has been on retainer as a consultant to EDF since the early 1980s. His role shows the potential and the pitfalls that come when activists "engage" with corporations.

"Fred Krupp calls when he thinks I might be helpful, as do his communications and project staff people," Sandman says. "It isn't unusual for me to have just one or two telephone conversations about a particular project. There are relatively few projects over the years that I worked on as a major day-in-and-day-out player."

EDF prides itself on "devising solutions that work--both environmentally and economically" and its willingness to "seek out industry leaders to help solve problems. We must enter into new alliances with new partners," it says. "Environmentalists must cooperate as well as oppose, listen as well as preach." This philosophy, which resembles the ideology of right-wing anti-environmental groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, helps explain why EDF has received funding from the far-right Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

A famous--and infamous--example of EDF's pro-business approach occurred in 1990, when McDonald's corporation faced a growing campaign, coordinated by the Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Wastes (CCHW), against its of ozone-destroying styrofoam clamshell packaging.

Where other environmental organizations saw a corporate polluter, EDF saw an opportunity. It approached McDonald's with a proposal to devise a joint "waste reduction plan," and Sandman was one of the people who helped with the details. The result was a highly touted deal that gave McDonald's a reputation as a "socially responsible" business and effectively cut the heart out of CCHW's campaign.

Sandman says he advised EDF on "the communication aspects" of its several agreements with McDonalds, "but it wouldn't be accurate to suggest that I initiated the contact or masterminded the agreement."

EDF Deputy Director Marcia Aranoff said part of Sandman's involvement in the McDonalds project was based on concern about how "our environmental supporters would deal with the notion of EDF partnering with the poster child of waste and wasteful corporate behaviour."

Aranoff said that Sandman had also advised EDF on "risk communication" aspects of their work such as the searchable toxics database on the EDF website. "He mostly does consulting in the sense of helping us to refine our own communication strategy," she said. Aranoff says that EDF is aware of Sandman's other clients and does not use him "in any cases where there may be a conflict."

EDF is unrepentant about its role in undercutting the campaign of CCHW. "Their campaign on the clamshell was an effective campaign, but it didn't produce change," Aranoff said. Sitting down with McDonalds "to make something happen was something that no one else was willing to do." EDF Media Director Allan Margolin declined to elaborate on what EDF had learned from the McDonalds campaign and what, if anything, the organization would do differently.

Dealing with Diversity

EDF's current strategic plan, which appears on their website, acknowledges that there is "sometimes considerable divergence regarding methods" within the environment movement. It also decries the impact of the "wise use" movement and the campaigns of "special interests that seek to weaken environmental legislation" which are also "big funders of politicians and political parties." Yet EDF has fostered a "partnership" with companies that have funded wise use groups and participated in campaigns against environmental regulations.

Aranoff explained this seeming contradiction by saying, "You don't make change with people who are already doing everything right. There is a presumption that if you are trying to change somebody's behaviour, that you are dealing with someone who has got a problem. We wouldn't work with somebody unless we thought there was the opportunity to make some significant progress in an important area."

Chilling Out

Apparently, "significant progress" even includes assisting with the launch of a new product that has significant potential to worsen the greenhouse effect. The Alice-in-Wonderland-like tale of how this happened surfaced in a leaked memo obtained by Bernado Issel, author of The PIG Report for Non-Profit Accountability Project.

The product in question was the "chill can," developed by The Joseph Company (TJC). It was designed to hold a product such as a soft drink, along with refrigerating aerosol gas that would chill the can's contents with the press of a button. A major hitch was that the can used HFC 134a, a hydrofluorocarbon gas that is considered a far more serious contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide.

"While this might seem a marvelous invention, the problem is that the cooling gas is HFC 134a, a chemical that is 3,400 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas," said Dr. Robin Pellew, director of the British office of the World Wide Fund for Nature WWF. "This is potentially a very serious threat to the environment," Pellew said. "If millions of people start popping these cans, it will make a mockery of the international drive to reverse climate change."

Anxious to head off this sort of criticism, TJC approached EDF in 1996 about the possibility of developing a greenhouse gas "offsets" strategy. In exchange for support of the can itself, TJC would promise to support some activity that, in theory at least, would offset "110 percent" of the global warming impact caused by the cans.

According to EDF's Washington-based senior attorney, Joe Goffman, EDF decided that the traditional advocacy approach of trying to stop the can's development would take too long and might fail. Goffman concedes that they saw their involvement with the chill can as a damage limitation exercise given the product's "significant global warming potential."

Exploration of the chill can "offsets" strategy was delegated to the Environmental Resources Trust (ERT), a nonprofit group established by EDF that "seeks to use traditional financial tools to benefit environmental resources." ERT's mission is to protect the environment through "free market mechanisms." Its board of directors includes three EDF staff members, a philanthropist and representatives from the Audubon Society and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The chairman of its Board is C. Boyden Gray, a major financial supporter of conservative politicians who is also chairman of the Washington-based Citizens for a Sound Economy, a very powerful industry-funded right-wing group that promotes deregulation of industry. In 1997, Gray led the lobbying effort against moves by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve air standards.

According to EDF's Goffman, Gray's involvement was part of a deliberate strategy. "We thought, here was a guy with a lot of credibility with business and with the Republican Party as well as who was an advocate of market based mechanisms," he said. His involvement would signal to business and conservative politicians that ERT was serious about using market-based mechanisms for environmental outcomes.

In August 1996, the ERT board of directors approved "the development of a greenhouse gas offset" project with TJC, with the can being "bundled with greenhouse gas offsets to produce 'no net environmental impact.'"

One of the "upsides" of the chill can project, from ERT's point of view, was that it could demonstrate the viability of the "emissions trading" approach to environmental protection that was being touted by market-oriented environmentalists. According to Goffman, ERT was excited at the possibility that by developing an early emissions trading project "we would be actually able to put into play new finances to support innovative technology."

Unfortunately for these free-market schemers, their plan fell afoul of controversy created by the "traditional" advocacy approach that EDF thought would be ineffective in stopping the chill can. The World Wide Fund for Nature in Britain and a bevy of US environmental groups joined in mounting opposition to the can. Faced with this growing pressure, the European Environment ministers began considering a ban on its use.

In response, TJC promised to substitute less damaging gases for the HFC 134a. Ironically, this promise to reduce the can's potential damage dramatically changed the equation for ERT, which was expecting to receive funding from TJC to support the greenhouse "offsets" program.

If the can produced less harm, TJC's contribution for offsets would also shrink, reducing the funding for ERT. "What looked like a high benefit contribution in 1996 was a fairly modest contribution in 1997," Goffman told PR Watch.

The public controversy also raised concerns at the level of the ERT board of directors about the potential bad publicity that the project could bring for ERT. EDF and ERT obtained pro bono services of the Sawyer-Miller media consulting firm to develop a "strategic communication plan." Their market research and opinion polling of the general public and EDF's own membership "indicated scepticism about offsets and a lack of enthusiasm for the product," according to an internal ERT memo from October 1997 that was leaked to Issel.

Before the project could proceed further, the British government announced a ban on the use of refrigerants for applications such as the self-chilling can. "The combination of these circumstances made the project environmentally untenable to pursue," the ERT memo concluded.

While the initial chill can proposal flopped, a revised chill can which uses recycled industrial carbon dioxide gases has been developed and apparently approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the British government.

The Environmental Defense Fund's strategic plan and other information can be found on their website at <www.edf.org>. The full story on the self chilling can and C Boyden Gray is available on the NPAP website at <http://www.erols.com/npap/>.

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