Speaking Power to Truth: Brian Gard and Ambre Energy


Activists in Portland deliver a warning to Portland PR firm Gard Communications, demanding that they drop client Ambre Energy over the controversial Morrow Pacific coal export proposal.

By Mike Losier

The Pacific Northwest coal export debates are providing a subtle reintroduction to Brian Gard, a familiar Oregon quasi-political engine, formerly of the notorious ad agency Gard & Gerber. Now president of PR firm Gard Communications, he currently serves as one of the spokespersons for Ambre Energy’s Morrow-Pacific Project, an export proposal for the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon.

This port expansion has been designed to receive 8.8 million tons of Powder River Basin coal per year by rail to be transferred onto barges for transport on the Columbia river. The barges would then stage at Port Westward, in the Bradbury Slough off of Crim’s Island, where the coal will be transloaded to larger ships for export across the Pacific. With the addition of 2,500 barges per year, this will increase barge traffic on the Columbia river by 94%.

For those familiar with Gard, his representation of Ambre Energy will come as no surprise. He  has a history in Oregon of taking on the role of spokesperson and consultant for some of the more controversial issues, figures, and campaigns. When examining this history, it is abundantly clear that time and again Gard’s job has been tailored to help corporate interests trump public good. Gard’s politics follow wherever big money takes them.

In 2003, Gard formed an organization called ‘Citizens Against the Government Takeover’ which was primarily funded by executives of PGE (owned by Enron ’97-’06), Pacific Power (Pacificorp), and attorneys that had strong ties to those companies. Masquerading as a citizens’ group, they launched a campaign to defeat ballot measures 26-51 and 26-52, which were to create a Public Utility District in Multnomah County. It would have been the first step towards the City of Portland, a public agency, taking over PGE, a private utility monopoly.

It was a campaign of misinformation that even required a Federal Judge to order Multnomah County to warn voters about misleading information in the voters’ pamphlet. After spending 60 times the measures’ proponents, in what would be the most expensive campaign ever conducted in the county at the time at $1.9 Million, the measures were defeated.

In 2005, Gard & Gerber would form the ‘First Things First Committee’, with the backing of Portland General Electric (PGE), NW Natural (Gas) and Qwest (now CenturyLink), and lead a failed campaign to defeat  Voter Owned Elections by ballot vote. After failing to get enough signatures for the ballot, his firm propagated unsubstantiated conspiracy claims against the League of Women Voters and other reform groups, proposing that they worked to get signatures tossed out by seeking multiple signings.

Later in 2006, with the returned support of PGE, NW Natural, Qwest and other financial backers, Gard and the Portland Business Alliance would strengthen this crusade by putting up senator Ginny Burdick, former vice president of Gard & Gerber, as a challenger to Portland city commissioner Erik Sten’s seat. The campaign ran primarily in opposition to Voter-Owned Elections and attacked  Sten’s advocacy of publicly owned power. It was a campaign that prided itself on being funded without the use public tax dollars, unlike Sten, despite that technically, through tax deductible contributions, she was utilizing public dollars.

Burdick’s campaign would then go on to apparently ‘game’ the Voter-Owned Elections system by filing expenditures on the day of and before the primary election, a delay that deprived Sten’s campaign of matching funds. Aside from receiving large contribution sums the day before election, her campaign paid out $55,805 to Gard & Gerber on election day. Ed Grosswiler, Burdick’s campaign manager would claim this was due to receiving Gard’s invoice only the day before the election. Burdick’s campaign would lose the primary.

And so in that spirit, we find Gard presently representing Ambre Energy, a company that in 2010  lied to the people of Cowlitz County about the size of its coal export terminal project at the Port of Longview in order to receive lease approval. Leaked internal company emails revealed that instead of 5.7 million tons of coal per year, executives had designs for a project of 60 million tons of coal – ten times the original permitted amount. More recently, Ambre conducted secret meetings with officials at the Port of St. Helens to receive lease option agreements. Gard’s partner in representing Ambre, Liz Fuller defended this in saying, “…it would be confusing and misleading for the public to tell them about a project so far in its infancy.”

If there is a common thread to be found in much of Gard’s work, it’s the use of powerful monied interests to disempower public process both in actual policy and in the framing of public debate.

So in the case of coal exports, it is instructive to see that when even basic evaluations on health and environmental impacts are advocated for, they are painted as mere impediments to the ‘decision-making process’. Ambre recently announced the start of the Morrow-Pacific project would be delayed to at least until 2014 due to the length of the permitting process. Often, as in this announcement, we see that comprehensive environmental analyses in the interest of the ‘public process’ are regarded as subservient and frustrations to the demands of corporate timelines.

According to Gard, “an environmental assessment on the scale that one Kitzhaber requests would take years and would significantly delay work.” Gard all but admits such ‘work’ would seriously harm public and environmental health. And the problem is that this sets the tone. Here is senator Ron Wyden in a recent forum in Portland: “My bottom line is Oregonians have an absolute right to know the environmental impacts of these projects, and I don’t believe it ought to take three to five years to tell them.” It is this attitude that shoots first and asks questions later and would rather let the asthma speak for itself. It is against this kind of reasoning, which puts communities in considerable risk, that Portland as a city had adopted the ‘Precautionary Principle’ in 2006.

An extension of this framing is the idea that any challenges to entrenched power is a question of practicality. Earlier this year, Gard cited a government projection that 39% of the electricity in the U.S. will still be coming from coal by 2035 and that because of this he says: “… I think in practical terms we need to be working hard to handle and use coal in environmentally positive ways because we’re going to have to be using it for decades in the future.”

Much can be said on how we should actually utilize ‘economic projections’ as it relates to actual predictability of the future, where the present is held constant, and it becomes a tool to justify current policy. It creates a false imperative. As E. F. Schumacher said, “Full predictability in principle exists only in the total absence of human freedom.”  It really says nothing of the possibilities of ending fossil fuel subsidies, reinvesting in renewables, and the gains in economic activity and livelihood from shifting capital to these projects. Germany, now has 25% of its energy production coming from renewables. In Oregon, we’ve had a pilot of a similar program (Feed-in Tariff) which will be subject for extension and revision this coming year’s state legislative agenda. Anything can be written off as impractical if it is never attempted.

Other than keeping coal in the ground, the assertion that there are ‘clean and environmentally positive ways to handle coal’ is laughable, but it is on this idea that the Morrow-Pacific Project is being sold.

Many facts need to be ignored in order to believe  the myth that the export and burning of coal can somehow be ‘clean’. Facts such as that coal will still be strip-mined from the Powder River Basin; that the many communities and ecosystems between here and the Port of Morrow will still be subject to the impacts of diesel particulate and coal dust from rail transport; and that in its final burning the pollution eventually drifts back across the Pacific and contaminates our soils and waters – evidenced by the fact that 1/5th of the mercury in the Willamette river comes from overseas sources and similarly sizeable portions of mercury have been found on our mountaintops.

Most importantly, increased CO2 emissions from burning will contribute to the further acidification of our water and expand the dead-zones that envelope the entire Oregon coast in the summer, as well further the destabilization of our climate, resulting in the extreme weather and conditions that are making the planet increasingly inhospitable to life.

The barges alone have an impact. In fact, Crim’s Island just recently finished a  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-funded $2.2 million salmon habitat restoration project. Ambre Energy’s own biological assessment acknowledges that the increased barge traffic, port construction, and activity will greatly impact protected species and critical habitats, including already long threatened salmon populations. It will also put those who fish or recreate on the Columbia river at significant risk for their health and safety. Notably this also tramples the treaty-protected fishing rights of Native Tribes. Additionally,  there are the known dangers of spontaneous combustion when coal is transported in enclosed environments.

Unfortunately the diligence to provide concrete answers to these concerns are provisioned with an anemic we-appreciate-it-but-we-got-it-covered attitude, and a vague assurance that Ambre – when not busy lying to regulators – is committed to meet the relatively ‘high environmental standards’ set by the State of Oregon.

In practice, when the environment is protected by a corporate controlled regulatory process, we get standards that actually fall well short of meeting the needs for sustainable ecosystems and strong public health. Though such standards should be regarded as a floor to be exceeded, it is regrettable that market dictates turn them into a ceiling.

Selling fear is a great tactic to provoke swift and uninformed decisions. Gard does not shy from evoking the market ‘competitive other’ which informs us that doddering will cause us to miss a great opportunity of gain and that the more cunning ‘competitive other’ will take it. As quoted in the Portland Tribune in May, Gard said, “It’s awfully naive to assume that if Oregon doesn’t export coal that nobody else will…Ambre would simply ship its coal out of British Columbia ports instead.”

What is naïve, is to assume that there is an abundance of others willing and able to be a point of export. In the case of British Columbia, their rail terminals are not setup to handle U.S. rail coal export at the capacity being proposed, nor are they likely to make infrastructure concessions against the high-value steelmaking coal they already export.

Brian Gard never explicitly suggests that we should dismiss health concerns, the environment, native people’s rights, and climate change. Though he might call some of these things ‘gross exaggerations’, he is a poet, and he knows how to speak through omission. What he will explicitly tell you, however,  is that your principal concern should be jobs.

Gard utilizes the hackneyed frame of job scarcity, which sets up an easy and toxic opposition: The opportunity to relieve anxieties about the economic security of a region and its people versus, well, everything else; everything else can be sold off in desperation of the short-term.

“If you look at the jobs we’re talking about, from a Portland perspective, they may not look impressive,” Gard said. “Twenty-five jobs are a big deal in those counties.”

What Gard likes to assert is that this is not a choice between jobs and the environment, climate, and health. Rather the coal debate is simply a choice about jobs – the higher principle we should be operating on. Jobs then become the ultimate indicator of public well-being.

It is interesting to see how his principles intertwine with Gard’s own self-narrative — a poet with an active involvement and background in the arts and humanities, children’s hunger and former Nature Conservancy board member who also attended Harvard Business School and was on the board of the Oregon Business Association. The Brian Gard he likes to sell is one of pragmatic compassion, especially so when he argues that denying coal to the developing world means barring access to low-cost energy to those lacking basic services.  Gard admonishes us that we stand to improve the lives of many people, and it is folly to fight against that in the name of ‘high standards’. “It’s very difficult to enjoy Beethoven on an empty stomach”, he says.

With a narrow fixation on job creation, Gard wants us to know that this is the real locus of concrete reality, because, simply, wages beget food,  jobs beget wages, and coal begets jobs. This is what conditions the hard realities of family kitchen table decisions and to deny jobs is a failure of empathy and ignorance of hard personal reality.

But to achieve this apparently moral high ground, one must ignore the hard realities of a family member developing asthma, cancer, pulmonary disorders, black lung, or cardiovascular disease; the suffocation of other productive livelihoods by coal dust; increased rail and barge traffic; and growing food and health insecurity from contaminated rivers and soils – all problems dramatically amplified by the CO2 released from coal burning that destabilizes our climate and our ecosystems.

Funny that the Coal Export proposal for Grays Harbor was cancelled on the rationale that:

“…we believe that there are other uses and other opportunities for that terminal that are much more likely to generate jobs, economic development, tax revenues, (and provide a) general increase in business for the Port…”

This “it’s very difficult to enjoy Beethoven on an empty stomach”, commonly expressed as ‘Let them eat cake’ , is actually an echo from an older article penned by Gard, which he used to rail against the initiative process. Here’s an excerpt:

“We can stop using the quality of life in our state as a mantra that pretends Oregon is somehow a better place to live than some other place. It’s not. Especially now. And this civic arrogance keeps us from focusing on legitimate problems and has become a ritual excuse and defense for any number of things. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of values can be summarized, somewhat simplistically, by saying that it is difficult to enjoy Beethoven on an empty stomach. It’s just as difficult to enjoy our beautiful state and all it offers if you don’t have a job.”

“We can stop the silly justification of new policies or programs by saying that it is another example of Oregon being first in the nation. I would think our fascination with being first is getting a little old now that we are “first” in hunger, unemployment and the shortest school year.”

Gard argues that the initiative process — one he has repeatedly abused with corporate money — is symptom and creator for boondoggle projects and tax policy, and breeds a poverty of shared consensus. This idea ignores how ill-equipped the state legislature already is to the reception of public participation. It ignores how often the public voice is obstructed in procedural wrangling and drowned out by large corporate powers and the lobbyists Gard so willingly calls his clients. Options for direct-democracy should never be closed.

Gard decries the lack of shared values in this state, yet the very project he is now engaged in stands in direct opposition to one: The commonly held value that we have a right to a clean and healthy environment and a sustainable future. Such an idea should not be viewed as some luxury value, or giving cake to the hungry. This is fundamental – if our rights are being treated with negligence, it’s difficult to have a job, be well fed, healthy and enjoy our beautiful state.

All of this is the language of a huckster who cultivates and preys on anxieties. This is the kind of dialogue that seeks to disempower the public. It’s propaganda. The narrative that large corporate projects are predestined to take place, that the power and will for their realization is a matter of when and where, and that to even be offered the potential to such a proposal is a miraculous gift in desperate times. And we are to be shamed if we are to turn it down on the basis of any publicly shared set of values or standards and demand a comprehensive public process, because it’s an exercise of foolhardy first-world elitism that impoverishes for the sake of symbolic gains.

What is real is the necessity to move away from fossil fuels. This is not symbolic, but a concrete necessity for the world.

Gard is often cited as being a strong advisor on ‘crisis communication’, of which he has given seminar lectures. He most famously demonstrated this skill in 2004 in handling long time friend Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse confession. Personally, I would rather avoid learning how well Gard might employ his crisis communication skills in the case of a barge accident or train derailment that leaves our waterways and/or communities hopelessly polluted by coal. Instead, I hope people look behind the PR curtain and realize that the corporate campaigns on which Brian Gard works — while emphatically in Gard’s personal interest — are always against the public interest.

As long as Brian Gard holds the Ambre Energy account, the public should be skeptical of every word spoken in favor of coal. Portland State and OHSU, who also pay Gard for representation, should reconsider whether their strong environmental and public health programs and institutional policies are consistent with a firm whose owner represents dirty energy against the interests of the residents of this city and the future of the planet. Furthermore, we should consider whether Gard is the type of resident we should ever hold with any credibility or esteem. If, in the creative use of language, there exists a fine line between poet and propagandist, Gard has long obscured it.

Michel is a community activist with the Community Alliance Against Coal.

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