A fossil fuel-tied consultant has frequently used his CNN job to attack environmental protections

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

CNN political commentator Scott Jennings has defended the fossil fuel industry in at least nine instances without the network disclosing his numerous financial connections to that industry, including his firm’s work for power companies, fossil fuel associations, and a Republican super PAC that’s funded with fossil fuel money.

Jennings has used his CNN employment to criticize the Green New Deal as something that would “fundamentally alter the U.S. economy and would put a lot of people out of work”; attack Democrats for trying “to rid our country of coal and other fossil fuels”; and praise former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt for “dismantling Obama's anti-business regulatory regime” and “taming one of the most out-of-control, anti-growth bureaucracies in Washington.”

Jennings is a co-founder and partner of RunSwitch, a public relations firm that states that it has “local, national, and international clients,” including “Fortune 500 companies and national trade associations.” RunSwitch is reportedly the largest PR firm in Kentucky. Jennings is also a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is a prominent ally of the fossil fuel industry. (Kentucky “is the fifth-largest coal producer among the states, and is ranked fifth in the nation in estimated recoverable coal reserves,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

RunSwitch has had numerous clients over the years that have been involved in the fossil fuel industry. They include:

  • American Municipal Power (AMP), “a nonprofit corporation that owns and operates electric facilities.” AMP uses fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and diesel for power generation. In 2010, AMP retired its coal-fired power plant near Marietta, OH, under a settlement with the EPA to "resolve violations of the Clean Air Act.”
  • The Kentucky Petroleum Marketers Association, a nonprofit statewide trade association that “is made up of representatives of all segments of the petroleum industry” and promotes Kentucky’s petroleum industry.
  • Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, a state association that supports Kentucky’s “24 local distribution co-ops and two ‘generation & transmission’ co-ops.” The group has criticized the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, writing that it “targets coal, the main source of Kentucky’s electricity, in new and aggressive limits on carbon emissions. About 90 percent of electricity generated in Kentucky is by coal fired power plants.”
  • The Kentucky Coal Association, a nonprofit organization that “represents both Eastern and Western Kentucky operations that mine coal through surface and underground methods.” RunSwitch issued a 2013 press release on the group’s behalf that criticized then-President Barack Obama’s administration for pursuing “policies that have contributed to the loss of thousands of direct coal-mining jobs in Eastern Kentucky.”
  • The Louisville Gas and Electric Company, which “serves 326,000 natural gas and 411,000 electric customers in Louisville and 16 surrounding counties.” According to a filing by the company with the Kentucky Public Service Commission, Louisville Gas and Electric Company paid RunSwitch in 2018 for public relations work.

Over the years, RunSwitch and Jennings have also been involved with the pro-McConnell group Kentuckians for Strong Leadership (KSL). According to Federal Election Commission records, the super PAC has paid RunSwitch over $140,000 since 2013 (see: data in 2013-2014, 2015-2016, 2017-2018).

During that same period, major donors to KSL have included fossil fuel-linked entities such as American Electric Power, Murray Energy Corporation, and a revocable trust belonging to Joseph W. Craft III, who is the president and CEO of coal company Alliance Resources Partners. In 2014, Jennings and KSL ran a campaign defending the coal industry from political attacks.

The CNN commentator also worked for the pro-McConnell 501(c)(4) group Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which was active during the 2014 election and McConnell’s successful reelection campaign. The Intercept’s Lee Fang reported in 2015 that, according to its bankruptcy filings, now-defunct coal company Alpha Natural Resources helped fund the group.

Jennings could have even more conflicts of interest than those reported here since, as the Center for Public Integrity wrote in a 2015 report, public relations firms are “not subject to federal disclosure rules.”

Those many conflicts of interest should have prevented Jennings from commenting on issues related to the fossil fuel industry (or at a very minimum required CNN to offer a disclosure about his firm’s clients). Instead, CNN has repeatedly allowed Jennings to defend the interests of fossil fuel companies. Here are nine examples:

  • During a September 2, 2017, appearance on CNN Newsroom, CNN political commentator Symone Sanders criticized Trump for reversing an Obama-era EPA regulation and correctly tied Hurricane Harvey to climate change. Jennings responded by attacking Sanders, stating: “I think that only a liberal Democrat could come in and tell us that EPA and government regulations could prevent an epic hurricane like what we just saw come ashore. I mean, that's sort of a nonsense talk.”
  • During a December 30, 2017, appearance on CNN Newsroom, Jennings praised President Donald Trump for a tweet making fun of climate change, saying: “I do think that here in Kentucky, we know something about when it is cold, what heats our homes and that’s good old Kentucky coal. I think 90 percent of the electricity in Kentucky is generated by coal. And I think what the president is doing in his tweets is poking a little fun at some of the liberal Democrats who tried to rid our country of coal and other fossil fuels. And so, I think the president was just trying to get a rise out of the left wing. This was a big issue in the campaign. And frankly, I think it hurt.” He later claimed that environmental protections “destroyed Kentucky coal.”   
  • In a January 31, 2018, CNN.com op-ed, Jennings praised Trump’s State of the Union speech, stating that it “offered some good old-fashioned Trump-style populism,” including when the president “said he ended the ‘war on coal.’” Jennings added that the populism continues “to play well in Flyover Country, even as they cause Washington Democrats to roll their eyes. Trump has never lost his touch when it comes to putting Democrats on the wrong side of issues that play 80-20 in middle America.”
  • During an April 4 appearance on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, Jennings praised then-EPA head Scott Pruitt as “one of the most effective cabinet officers at rolling back the Obama regulatory regime.” (While discussing Pruitt on CNN, Jennings was also sometimes critical of Pruitt’s judgement related to ethics but still heavily praised him for trying to reduce environmental protections.)
  • Jennings wrote an April 5 CNN.com op-ed defending Pruitt, writing that he “might be the most successful Trump cabinet member, delivering win after win to President Trump” and liberals are “hopping mad that he's dismantling Obama's anti-business regulatory regime.” He concluded by praising Pruitt for “taming one of the most out-of-control, anti-growth bureaucracies in Washington.”  
  • During an April 5 appearance on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, Jennings said, “Pruitt took the mandate seriously and he has systematically dismantled the Obama regulatory regime. That's why I think he is under attack right now.”
  • During a May 5 appearance on CNN Newsroom, Jennings praised Pruitt for “effectively deconstructing the Obama-era rules at the EPA that were anti-growth, anti-business.”
  • During a November 24 appearance on CNN Newsroom, Jennings said he didn’t believe climate change is a hoax but said that policy makers have to “figure out what actions can we take that would help counteract it but at the same time not immediately devastate people in economic regions that are more sensitive to it than others, say in Appalachia where the coal industry is still important.” He also suggested that the “free market” could “innovate” in response to environmental concerns.
  • During the February 13 edition of Cuomo Prime Time, Jennings attacked the Green New Deal, saying, “To call this policy half-baked would be in, you know, I'm not even sure the Democrats turned the oven on yet.” He continued by discussing the proposal’s “policy implications for the energy sector, for the manufacturing sector, for the agriculture sector,” claiming that “thousands of jobs ... would be impacted in the Midwest, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota, where Joe Manchin is in West Virginia, in my home state of Kentucky. This would dramatically fundamentally alter the U.S. economy and would put a lot of people out of work.”

In those nine examples, Media Matters did not find any disclosure noting that Jennings has financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. (Both the January and April 2018 op-eds mentioned that Jennings works for RunSwitch but didn’t reference his fossil fuel ties.)

CNN has not responded to Media Matters’ requests for comment about Jennings’ conflicts of interest.