Thursday, February 17, 2005

One Slick Trick

Reuters is currently carrying a story by Tom Doggett which describes how the American Petroleum Institute (API) is trying get Congress to shield oil companies from lawsuits involving methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is a fuel additive and a suspected carcinogen. The EPA formerly required oil companies to add MTBE to fuel in an effort to reduce air pollution. But fuel containing MTBE has leaked from underground storage tanks, polluting the drinking water of hundreds of communities across the country. And these communities are suing the industry for creating a mess that may cost as much as $29 billion to clean up.

So the API, lobbying on behalf of the industry, is now saying that they should be protected from these lawsuits, because the EPA required them to add MTBE to their products.
"This is, above all, an issue of fairness," API President Red Cavaney said, testifying before a House subcommittee on U.S. energy policy.

"Any industry that acts as mandated by the government to meet a societal need -- in this case, cleaner air and improved health -- should not later be victimized for doing what the government required it to do," he told lawmakers.
Talk about a slick spin technique! This is as bold and beautiful as any. Did you notice the sleight-of-hand at work here? There are several spin techniques at work, and they are all happening at the same time. Let's count them, shall we?

First and foremost, spinners always try to define every issue. "This is, above all, an issue of fairness," he says. And of course he has to say that. Because he'd have a much tougher time getting what he wanted if the issue were seen as one of, say, negligence.

A second spin technique involves casting the perpetrators as victims. Forget the people who have to drink that water. They don't count as victims in this analysis. In fact, they don't count at all. They are not even in the picture, as Red Cavaney frames it. It's a great technique, isn't it?

The third spin technique in play here involves asking for special treatment and portraying it as "fair". "Fairness" is a powerful incentive. Who would want to be unfair? And even more important in the realm of politics, who would want to be seen as being unfair?

So we get statements like this:
"Our companies acted in good faith and heeded the federal government's call to use MTBE to enhance air quality. What we ask is that the federal government also act in good faith to protect us against lawsuits for doing what the law required us to do," Cavaney said.
Aha. Did the law also require that the fuel be stored in leaking tanks? Did "our companies" act in "good faith" in polluting drinking water all over the country? And what about the people who live in those communities and drink that water? Did they not act in "good faith"? Or do they deserve to be drinking suspected carcinogens, as a matter of "fairness"?

It's a very selective view of "fairness", isn't it? To me, it doesn't look like Red Cavaney or the API have any interest in the "fairness" implicit in the notion that if you make a mess, it's your job to clean it up. Nor do they seem to respect the "good faith" inherent in the idea that if you make a mistake, you are responsible for the consequences.

So the spin continues. Another good spin technique involves pretending that what you are asking for is not for yourself, but for others.
Cavaney said lawsuits brought by personal injury lawyers over MTBE discourages investment and threatens jobs, and Congress needs to fix the problem.
So it's all about encouraging investment and preserving jobs, is that it? Whose investments is Cavaney trying to protect here? And whose jobs is he trying to save? Not his own, of course!

And in any case, it's Congress that needs to fix the problem, is it? Because presumably Congress was also responsible for storing fuel in tanks that couldn't hold it. Oops! Bad Congress!

Well... hang on a second, Red. Listen: Congress has already spent about $400 billion, and the American people have already sacrificed thousands of lives, not to mention the number of completely innocent foreigners who have been killed in the past few years, in order to get your clients free access to oil that doesn't even belong to them. And from the look of things, Congress is prepared to spend hundreds of billions more, and ruin countless thousands of other lives, to get even more oil for you and your friends. So don't you think Congress and the American people have done your clients enough favors lately?

You wouldn't want to talk about that, would you, Red? Just like you wouldn't want to talk about how that fuel got out of the underground tanks. You really wouldn't want to talk about either of these things, would you?

That would be bad spin, now, wouldn't it? Because everything boils down to what you are willing to talk about, and what you can force others to talk about. Once again, framing the issue is the main thing. It's the inviolate law of spinning: Whoever defines the issue is going to win the debate. So the API is framing this issue as a question of how and why the MTBE got into the fuel. The question of how the fuel got out of the storage tanks is simply outside the frame. And because it's outside the frame, it's not in the picture.

Do you see how this works? If you watch closely, you'll see more and more of it. It's everywhere, all the time, but it takes a trained eye to see it. If you don't stop and think about the frame, you can never get beyond wondering what's wrong with the picture.

I hope they don't get away with it. And they might not. People who drink water are fairly well-represented in Congress. But I wouldn't count on anything. And I have to admit: That's one slick trick.

Oh yeah. Slick like oil on the water.