Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular 'grassroots' behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

The goal of such campaigns is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity -- a politician, political group, product, service or event. Astroturfers attempt to orchestrate the actions of apparently diverse and geographically distributed individuals, by both overt ('outreach', 'awareness', etc.) and covert (disinformation) means. Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual promoting a personal agendum, or highly organized professional groups with money from large corporations, unions, non-profits, or activist organizations. Very often, the efforts are conducted by political consultants who also specialize in opposition research. Beneficiaries are not 'grass root' campaigners but distant organizations that orchestrate such campaigns. -- from Wikipedia

A front organization is any entity set up by and controlled by another organization, such as intelligence agencies, organized crime groups, banned organizations, religious or political groups, advocacy groups, or corporations. Front organizations can act for the parent group without the actions being attributed to the parent group. Front organizations that appear to be independent voluntary associations or charitable organizations are called front groups. In the business world, front organizations such as front companies or shell corporations are used to shield the parent company from legal liability. In international relations, a puppet state is a state which acts as a front (or surrogate) for another state. -- from Wikipedia

Corporate Greed and Arrogance

Not content with just using electric ratepayer money for multi-million dollar marketing campaigns under their own name, PATH partners Allegheny Energy and American Electric Power have also been funding costly astroturf front organizations in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and possibly Virginia. They have been getting away with it since 2007, when the Coalition for Reliable Power was launched by Charles Ryan Associates, a PR/marketing firm in Charleston, WV, to spread propaganda and drum up support for Allegheny's TrAIL 500kV transmission line in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

After the PATH partners' application for PATH was filed in West Virginia and Maryland in the spring of 2009, Charles Ryan Associates split up the Coalition for Reliable Power and set up separate websites for West Virginians for Reliable Power and Marylanders for Reliable Power and farmed the Pennsylvanians for Reliable Energy out to a Pennsylvania PR/marketing firm, since that state would not be needed for the PATH propaganda campaign. A similar group was also set up in Virginia, the Virginians for Reliable Energy, and is being handled by McGuire Woods Consulting.

For whatever reason (they didn't want to dirty their own hands?) Charles Ryan Associates isn't handling the day-to-day activities of these 'coalitions'. Each state's coalition is being handled by another, more local, PR firm. In Maryland, it's The Artemis Group, in Pennsylvania it's The Bravo Group and in West Virginia, it's Brown Communications, LLC.

These four state-specific 'coalitions' claim to be comprised of concerned citizens, businesses, organizations, industry leaders, individuals, community members, labor groups, chambers of commerce, government officials, policy leaders and trade associations (whew! are they sure they have every angle covered? what is a 'policy leader'?) Their stated purpose is to encourage conservation, additional generation and to encourage electrical transmission infrastructure improvements in our region. They don't seem to be doing much about the first two, but are concentrating all their efforts on the last. Although West Virginians for Reliable Power's Bryan Brown was recently quoted as saying their group isn't advocating for any particular transmission project, all of these coalitions seem focused on PATH, with the exception of the Pennsylvania one, which focuses on the TrAIL and Susquehanna-Roseland projects.

These coalitions hold 'forums' around their state and provide 'expert' speakers who spout incorrect facts, propaganda and fear-monger about 'brownouts and blackouts'. They're always looking for a patsy to host one of their 'forums' and provide them with a by-invitation-only, captive audience, invite some local media to drink the power company-supplied kool aid and publish a one-sided puff piece. Don't worry.... it won't cost you a thing (said the side-show barker), the 'coalition' will pay for everything, from renting a cushy hotel conference room to having breakfast supplied for the 'forum'. They conveniently forget to mention that these coalitions don't legally exist and can't write a check -- all this is being paid for by the power companies partnering on the transmission project. Where do they get their funds from? From you, electric ratepayer, of course! And the best part is that they can even make a hefty 14.3% profit on what they spend on 'prudent' pre-construction costs like these! So, take an extra muffin home for later, if you still have an appetite afterward. There probably won't be any money left for groceries after you get your next electric bill...

Their goal is to create a zombie army of PATH proponents who will gladly march forth to write letters to politicians and the editors of their local newspapers, and tell others that the sky is falling (or at least browning or blackingout). Unfortunately, like coalition-supplied 'experts' (a cultural anthropologist and the granddaugher of a former President?), these folks know about as much about the electric transmission grid as my big toe.

Read on to see who is behind the 'coalitions', fact vs. fiction, and what you can do about it.