In recent decades, fossil fuel interests have been funding front groups to advance their ideological and political goals, and key to these groups’ success is concealing their industry backing. But Utah columnist Paul Rolly has been working to shine a light on the industry backing behind the most influential front groups in his state. In an interview with Media Matters, Rolly discussed the importance of following the money.
Rolly has been a columnist at The Salt Lake Tribune for the last 20 years, and he has stood out because of his work exposing fossil fuel front groups operating in Utah. He has uncovered the oil industry fingerprints behind campaigns to seize public lands from the federal government, attack renewable energy, and promote an industry-friendly agenda in higher education.
Why is it so important to Rolly to educate his readers about Big Oil’s involvement in these fights? “It’s our job,” he said, explaining that it’s vital that readers know “what the sources of bills are, where they’re coming from, who they benefit, who’s behind them, who’s making money, and who’s making campaign contributions.” He hopes this information will give his readers the ability to “make informed decisions when they vote.”
Utah is ground zero for many of the fossil fuel industry’s campaigns, making Rolly’s work invaluable. One of the most prominent fossil fuel-backed campaigns in recent years has been the effort to transfer control of federal lands to state governments, which would greatly benefit fossil fuel interests, as states would likely open up more areas to oil and gas drilling and coal mining.
State Rep. Ken Ivory (R-UT) has played a leading role in the public land grab movement in the west, and Rolly has been paying close attention. In 2012, Ivory co-founded a group called the American Lands Council (ALC), which aims to “secure local control of western public lands by transferring federal public lands to willing States.” Utah, Rolly explained, is the only state that has passed legislation setting aside taxpayer funds to sue the federal government over control of public lands, like those managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The lawsuit was recommended by a legal team hired by a Republican-dominated commission of Utah legislators, even though the lawyers acknowledged that the lawsuit “could cost up to $14 million, take years to play out in the courts,” and is “far from a sure victory,” according to the Associated Press.
Rolly has repeatedly pointed out that Ivory has taken a six-figure annual salary from the ALC, which is largely funded by counties in Western states. The ALC’s tax forms reportedly indicate that Ivory and his wife have pocketed almost half of the group’s total revenue. Rolly believes that the negative attention Ivory received over his salary at ALC may explain why he stepped down as the organization’s president in December. (He remains an unpaid member of its executive committee).
Rolly has devoted several columns to exposing the fossil funding behind ALC and other groups that are engaged in the public lands campaign. He's pointed out that Federalism in Action, where Ivory currently heads the “Free the Lands” project, is affiliated with the oil billionaires Charles and David Koch. And he's documented that the firm hired by the Utah legislature to promote the land transfer agenda, Strata Policy, also has financial ties to the Koch brothers. As the Los Angeles Times has noted, ALC has also received financial support from Americans for Prosperity, which was co-founded by the Kochs and continues to spearhead their agenda.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate front group that connects fossil fuel executives with legislators to push model bills that serve industry interests, is also highly influential in Utah and has a heavy hand in the public land grab movement. And, as Rolly told Media Matters, “the Koch brothers are a big deep-pocket force behind ALEC.” Ivory is an ALEC member and was even awarded the group’s “Legislator Of The Year” award in 2014.
In addition to the public lands battle, Rolly has turned his attention to the Kochs’ influence in local universities. He said national stories about the Kochs' investments in higher education led him to examine their efforts at Utah State University, where Strata co-founder Randy Simmons was previously the Charles G. Koch professor of political economy and currently supervises a Koch-funded scholarship program. As Rolly reported: “The Kochs have extended influence to institutions of higher education, setting up grants at universities to hire professors that teach the Kochs' anti-tax, anti-regulation business and political philosophies to mold young minds to fall in step with the Kochs' industrial wishes going forward through the 21st Century.”
Too often, media fail to disclose these important ties, Rolly noted. ALEC, for one, “probably doesn’t get the attention it should” in the national media, nor do its “ties to the Koch brothers, and their deep-pocket influence, and what happens to state legislatures.” Many valuable resources that provide context are “underused,” in Rolly’s opinion, including legislators’ conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure forms, which he examines to see if there’s any connection between “who’s giving them money” and “what they’re doing as a legislator.” He said he also examines the tax filings of nonprofits such as ALC.
But he also noted the difficulties that newsrooms face as the journalism industry struggles financially, resulting in increased pressure and reduced resources. Newspapers have been shutting down all over the country, and the ones that remain have had to greatly cut down on staff (including the Salt Lake Tribune). When that happens, Rolly noted, “the first thing to suffer is investigative reporting” because it requires so much time and staff resources. He added: “The industry is in peril right now.”
There are also structural difficulties that further complicate the task of investigative journalism, Rolly noted, such as Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that protects a corporation's right to make unlimited expenditures in support of political candidates as a form of speech. Because of that ruling, Rolly said, super PACs can “basically take over [political] campaigns” and “you have no idea who’s contributing the money.”
It’s worth keeping in mind that even as newspapers are facing increased financial pressures, reporting like Rolly’s can be good for business. His columns are among the newspaper’s most viewed pieces online, he says. And he recently received the “Making Democracy Work” award from the League of Women Voters for his work at the Tribune.
The need for the media to disclose the industry backing that’s behind fossil fuel front groups is clear. Dark money groups like DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund exist solely to hide these funds. And research shows that organizations funded by Exxon and the Koch brothers are “more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue." Yet Media Matters has shown time and time again that fossil fuel front groups are getting away with promoting anti-environmental agendas while hiding the real voices behind their misleading messages.
In the words of the Tribune, Rolly told the League of Women Voters that “democracy best works when the public is informed.” Reporters would do well to follow Rolly’s example by digging a little deeper to uncover the dark money behind special interest campaigns occurring all around the country.