How the Energy and Policy Institute dupes the media into covering its work

By: Daniel Stevens, Washington Examiner, July 10, 2017

When the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) released a report recently about the source of the Edison Electric Institute’s funding, it received widespread media coverage in prominent newspapers, blogs, and energy newsletters. None of the coverage included the fact, however, that EPI – like the Edison Electric Institute that it criticizes – appears to be funded by interests or persons that profit financially from its work. Although the group states that it takes no financing directly from corporations or trade groups, even this is impossible to verify thanks to its deliberate lack of transparency as to where its money comes from.

EPI describes itself alternatively as a watchdog and a think tank. EPI’s mission statementstates “EPI is a watchdog organization working to expose attacks on renewable energy and counter misinformation by fossil fuel and utility interests.” The group claims its aim is “to disrupt fossil fuel-funded misinformation, separate polluters from policymakers, and accelerate the transition to a clean economy.”

To accomplish this, EPI profiles “front groups” – 14 of which are profiled on EPI’s website — that seek to advance the goals of the fossil fuel industry. EPI typically posts material on its front page revealing that the energy sector has secretly paid for positive assessments of its positions. Recently, for example, EPI’s site featured the headline “Front group paid by Dominion releases shady poll showing support for Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”

My organization, Campaign for Accountability (CfA) has been looking at rooftop solar companies for the past six months and we’ve discovered that some of these companies prey on vulnerable populations without delivering them any benefits. Upon finding that the solar industry trade association supports EPI in its campaign goals, we decided to delve into the matter further. Last week, we released a report revealing that EPI is not a typical think tank or watchdog as it purports to be. Rather, it is a dark money group. EPI is not registered with any relevant secretary of state, no one admits to funding it, and it does not appear to have nonprofit status.

Nonprofits are required by law to file their tax forms with the IRS annually and release those forms upon request. Yet in May, CfA asked EPI for a copy of its annual tax form, but received no response. A search of databases that maintain public copies of 990s, Guidestar and the Foundation Center, similarly returned no results. Rather than a nonprofit, EPI appears to be simply the creation of a public relations firm. When asked by E&E News in May about whether the group had nonprofit status, an EPI spokesman became evasive, deflecting the question.

EPI’s founder and former executive director, Gabe Elsner, is closely tied to the cleantech industry. He is currently an MBA student and an intern at Tesla, the parent company of SolarCity, a solar panel manufacturer. Mr. Elsner previously worked for the Checks and Balances Project, a clean energy advocacy group, and at Tigercomm a “cleantech marketing communications, PR and public affairs firm.” Tigercomm’s clients include several solar companies as well as the Solar Energy Industries Association.

While working at the Checks and Balances Project, Mr. Elsner responded to a casting call seeking individuals to appear in a television commercial promoting the oil and gas industry and express support for American-made energy. At the audition, Mr. Elsner refused to stick with the API approved script and surreptitiously recorded the session. The Washington Post reported that after setting up the sting, Mr. Elsner contacted journalists “with the help of his own public relations person from Tigercomm.”

Despite its opaque background, journalists tend to cover EPI’s findings and quote its employees as they would any nonprofit. Popular Science, for example, recently interviewed EPI’s executive director about climate change in Dubai and referred to the organization a watchdog group without further comment.

During Florida’s recent debate about solar energy policy, EPI’s work was regularly featured. One paper wrote an article about an EPI public records request, describing EPI as “a non-profit that works to counter what it deems ‘misinformation’ from fossil fuel and utility interests” and another outlet referred to EPI as “a clean-energy advocacy group.”

Renewable energy companies seek to convey an image of not just cleaner energy, but also cleaner politics. EPI, however, embraces the same campaign-style tactics that green energy companies purport to oppose. The fact is that EPI is not so different from the Edison Electric Institute – the two just appear to work for the goals of competing business interests. Journalists should acknowledge the double standard and treat EPI in the same manner as those it targets.

Daniel Stevens is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group in Washington.

This piece has been edited after publication to incorporate EPI’s statement that it takes no corporate or association money.

Read the article in the Washington Examiner.