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In late June 2010, the Florida Conservation Alliance -- an affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group -- bought what it called a "substantial" amount of television time in the Tampa Bay area to run an ad critical of Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla.
Here's the narration: "It’s the worst oil disaster in American history, and Floridians are bracing for the consequences. But at a time when we need leaders who will fight for Florida’s economy and environment, Sen. George LeMieux voted to let oil companies off the hook and overturn pollution rules. Senator, when you fight to protect our coasts, we’re with you. But when you stand with Big Oil, you let us down. Call Senator LeMieux. Tell him not to disappoint us again, and to support a strong, clean energy future."
The visuals were almost exclusively tied to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- oil gushing underwater, soiled beaches, petroleum-soaked birds, the flaming Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
In this sense, the ad reminded us of one we rated recently that had been placed in several media markets by Americans United for Change, a liberal advocacy group. In both ads, the focus on the oil spill -- in both the narration and the visuals -- suggested to us that reasonable people would assume that the vote "to let big oil off the hook" would have something to do with the spill itself, such as a vote to limit BP's liability for paying damages.
In reality, both ads refer to a different measure in Congress -- one that has nothing directly to do with the oil spill itself.
The vote cited in an on-screen footnote was on a procedural motion to take up a joint resolution sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. This measure would disapprove a rule submitted by the Environmental Protection Agency that classified greenhouse gasses as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That classification would allow the EPA to act to curb emissions by big polluters that could be causing global warming.
The resolution was the latest salvo in a fight between industry and environmentalists over curbing emissions. The EPA effort, blocked during the administration of George W. Bush, was revived after Barack Obama became president. The vote was seen as a key preliminary decision in advance of possible Senate consideration of a "cap-and-trade" emissions bill -- a major bone of contention between the parties.
Major oil companies could be at a competitive disadvantage if the EPA acts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, since burning oil and other fossil fuels produces a lot of carbon dioxide.
It's worth noting that the resolution failed, 47 to 53, so the Senate never really wiped out what the group terms "protections that hold polluters accountable." But there's little question that the vote was important. "If ever there was a vote to find out whose side you are on, this is it," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
But was it related to the oil spill? Not really. And to us, that makes it an example of an ad that isn't wrong, but is misleading.
The ad says nothing about the specific topic of the vote at issue -- be it greenhouse gasses, emissions, or global warming -- but it does mention the oil spill several times in the narration. And almost all of the imagery highlights the spill. To us, the ad's strong implication is that the vote had something to do with law or policy relating directly to the spill.
In our earlier ruling, we gave the Americans United for Change ad a Half True, arguing that it overplayed its hand on the oil spill to such a degree that it risked misleading viewers about the nature of the vote being criticized. While the ad by the Florida Conservation Alliance uses somewhat different language, the message strikes us as essentially the same. We rate this ad Half True as well.
Florida Conservation Alliance, "Senator LeMieux: Support A Clean Energy Future" (television ad), June 19, 2010
St. Petersburg Times, "Enviros target George LeMieux with TV ad" (Buzz blog post), June 23, 2010
U.S. Senate, roll call vote on the Murkowski resolution, June 10, 2010
U.S. Senate, text of S.J. Res. 26 ("the Murkowski resolution"), accessed June 24, 2010
Associated Press, "Obama's greenhouse gas rules survive Senate vote," June 10, 2010
Americans United for Change, "Tell Sen. Richard Burr: Look Out for America's Clean Energy Future, Not Big Oil Profits" (television ad), June 11, 2010
PolitiFact, "Liberal group's ad hypes oil spill link in Senate vote," June 25, 2010
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