On the morning of Feb. 24, as news broke of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the first worry on Marta Stoepker’s mind was her family. She furiously texted her sister-in-law, who is Ukrainian and whose family still lives in Ukraine.
Her next worry was for the planet. Stoepker, a climate communications expert, knew the war would drive up gas prices, maybe enough to rebound on clean energy polices and derail public support for moving away from fossil fuels. Almost immediately, she was strategizing over Zoom with her colleagues at Climate Power, a marketing firm for climate groups. “We operate like a war room,” she said.
Since then, as gas prices have surpassed $5 a gallon nationally, inflation has hit 40-year highs, and warnings of a recession have become common, climate groups and the oil industry have been fighting to control the narrative behind the crisis — and who has the best solution.
The immediate aim of both sides is the upcoming midterm elections, and whichever side wins this fight for hearts and minds might also win control of Congress.
In a barrage of ads, political messaging, and media appearances in recent months, groups have argued whether the solution is more drilling for oil, or a more aggressive pivot from fossil fuels, and whether the oil companies’ push to drill for more oil is motivated by a desire to help ease the pain at the pump or by profiteering.
The messaging from the right has been consistent, from stickers on gas pumps depicting President Biden proclaiming, “I did that!” to oil executives and conservative politicians blaming the troubles on Democratic policies that leaned too heavily on clean energy.
“They want to move to greener sources of energy, and by definition that’s going to raise prices,” said Mike Shields, founder of public relations firm Convergence Media, which serves businesses and conservative clients, and a former chief of staff to the Republican National Committee. “The voters are very aware of the inflationary impacts that were causing high energy costs before the invasion.”
An ad that ran two weeks after the beginning of the war, financed by former vice president Mike Pence’s political organization, Advancing American Freedom, declared: “Before Russian bombs began to rain on Ukraine. Before hundreds of innocent Ukrainians lost their lives. A horrific decision had already been made. Joe Biden caved to the radical environmentalists and stopped America’s Keystone pipeline and dramatically increased Americans’ dependence on Russian oil, endangering America’s security and helping Russia fund their invasion.”
The organization said at the time that its $10 million ad campaign would target 16 congressional Democrats.
Climate groups, meanwhile, argue that soaring fuel prices expose our dependency on fossil fuels — and hand oil companies record profits, to boot — and that green power is the best fix.
“As the world watches the tragedy in Ukraine, oil and gas CEOs see an opportunity to get richer,” intones the narrator of an ad sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, over video of a gas pump sale ticking past $50. “Americans have had enough. Right now, Congress can accelerate the transition to clean energy.”
So far, Climate Power and its affiliated groups have spent more than $3 million on a campaign that has included ads with military veterans arguing fossil fuel dependency is bad for national security and a full-page letter in The New York Times that also highlighted the link between security and fossil fuels.
“We don’t want to let the other side define this debate,” said John Axelrod, managing director of paid media for Climate Power. “We’re making the profiteering case, and the argument that clean energy is the solution to both high gas prices and long-term geopolitical instability.”
Some climate advocates are zeroing in on electric vehicles, which — while more expensive than gas vehicles — may appeal to a broader customer base in the face of astronomical gas prices.
Within Massachusetts, Larry Chretien, director of the nonprofit Green Energy Consumers Alliance, has been writing blogs and putting out messaging that the state must rapidly cut its dependence on gas-powered vehicles. “None of us should be shocked about what happens when you’re so overly dependent on fossil fuels,” he said.
Climate Power is driving home the same message, using polling, press events with legislators, and studies, including one recent report with the Zero Emissions Transportation Association that showed the importance of electric vehicles as gas prices soar.
A Climate Power ad called “We’ve Been Here Before” opens with visuals of armored tanks, gas station signs with prices ticking up, and a silhouetted handshake symbolizing oil CEOs. “We need Congress to ramp up production of clean, renewable energy sources — energy that doesn’t run out, so it costs families less,” says a voice, as the words “solar,” “wind,” and “electric vehicles” flash across the screen.
At Ceres, a Boston-based investor-focused environmental nonprofit, director of federal policy Zach Friedman said the group is highlighting the cost-savings for both consumers and businesses that switch to electric vehicles through a series of events with policymakers and businesses.
“The increase in fossil fuel prices has helped get more folks to the table, and made it even more urgent,” he said.
By contrast, the American Petroleum Institute is arguing that more American-produced oil and gas is the answer. In an ad from early March that opens with images of a small town and a farmer, the narrator says: “When America is tested, we find strength from within,” amid images of a hand pumping gas into a vehicle. The choice before the nation, as the ad describes it, is this: “Import energy from unstable regions or produce natural gas and oil right here in America.”
With months to go before the midterm congressional election, both sides are targeting swing districts, where the winning message on energy could be consequential on Election Day. Shields, of the Convergence PR firm, said work on the issue is just ramping up.
One energy industry ad targets Representative Jared Golden of Maine, who is fighting to hold his seat in a district carried by former president Donald Trump in 2020, for aligning with Biden on votes that were considered anti-fossil fuel.
“Biden and Golden turned off more American energy production; put the brakes on pipelines and future drilling here at home,” the ad says. “Now gas prices and heating oil cost more than ever.”
The climate groups are trying to hold the line, with a national ad, released April 1, blaming congressional Republicans for blocking clean energy “leaving us dependent on oil, and at the mercy of foreign dictators.”
The goal this year, some climate advocates said, is less about convincing a voter to care enough about climate when they didn’t before, and more about energizing climate voters about a brighter economic future.
“High gas prices suck, and inflation sucks, and you can’t pretend they don’t,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council action fund. “The promise of a clean energy future that provides jobs and creates more energy production in the US and is less susceptible to these kinds of pickles — that’s the vision we’re selling.”