The multinational mining giant Glencore spent millions bankrolling a secret, globally coordinated campaign to prop up coal demand by undermining environmental activists, influencing politicians and spreading sophisticated pro-coal messaging on social media.
An investigation by Guardian Australia can reveal the covert campaign, dubbed “Project Caesar”, was orchestrated by world-renowned political operatives at the C|T Group, the firm founded by Sir Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor.
The C|T Group used teams in Sydney and London to further Glencore’s interests across the globe, including in Australia, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the project and documents seen by Guardian Australia.
Project Caesar began in early 2017 with an annual warchest of between £4m and £7m. Glencore has confirmed the project’s existence but said it moved to shut it down last month to “ensure alignment” with its recent decision to limit coal production for environmental reasons.
The campaign aimed to engage key politicians, both to gauge their views on coal and attempt to convince them of its continuing value.
Intelligence was collected about key coal detractors, including Greenpeace and 350.org, detailing their budgets, social media reach, and issues that could be used to embarrass or undermine them.
A sophisticated digital campaign was mounted to help shift public sentiment towards coal, using messaging informed by research, focus groups and polling conducted in multiple countries.
Campaign teams helped set up online grassroots groups to push positive messaging about clean coal technology, attack renewables and criticise the Australian Labor party. The practice is commonly known as astroturfing.
One source with knowledge of Project Caesar said it was linked to Energy in Australia, a Facebook group and website that attacks renewables, while supporting high efficiency, low emissions (Hele) coal plants through data, memes, graphics and video.
Posts blame renewables for blackouts in South Australia and Victoria, link renewable subsidies to “Saudi billionaires”, and stress a link between solar, wind and rising power prices. The group celebrated the formation of the Monash Forum, a group of federal MPs who speak in support of coal, including Coalition MPs Craig Kelly, George Christensen, and Tony Abbott.
Other posts warn of widespread blackouts due to the planned closure of the Liddell power plant in NSW, and tell followers that wind turbines are “desecrating our Diggers’ graves” in France, using photoshopped imagery of wind farms towering over an Anzac memorial. The wind farm, which was only in planning stages at the time, never went ahead.
Energy in Australia’s content is slickly-produced and its reach is significant. The Facebook page alone is followed by more than 20,000 people. Paid Facebook ads are also used to push posts into the feeds of other users.
Both the Energy in Australia website and Facebook group were taken offline following questions to Glencore and the C|T Group about the links to Project Caesar.
The sites are publicly authorised by a former Queensland Liberal National Party state MP, Matt McEachan.
When contacted by the Guardian, he could not say who else might be producing content for the group, aside from himself and other volunteers.
McEachan would not say who was providing funding, and said he did not know whether the C|T Group was involved in producing content for the site.
“I can’t really give you a comment or statement with any kind of authority in that respect,” he said.
Energy in Australia is similar in design and tone to a second pro-coal website, Australian Power Project, which was revealed in 2017 to have links to an employee of the C|T Group. Guardian Australia has found no evidence to suggest the Australian Power Project is part of Project Caesar.
Project Caesar also had a significant traditional media component, seeking to amplify and spread pro-coal voices and messaging in mainstream media sources.
The project had an overarching strategy of shifting the emotion and tone of the energy debate to favour coal by using arguments that were personally relevant to its target audience. Its messaging was centred on themes of cost, reliability and family security.
The campaign contrasts with Glencore’s more recent statement that it would cap global coal output, in part due to investor pressure to act on climate change.
It also potentially contrasted with the aims of another C|T Group client, the Liberal party, whose then leader Malcolm Turnbull was attempting to forge ahead with new reliability and emissions reduction guarantees, which would have reduced Australia’s reliance on coal.
In a statement, Glencore confirmed it had engaged the C|T Group on the project, which it said used research, focus groups, and polling to “better understand public views on coal”.
Glencore also confirmed it deployed a “proactive communications campaign” designed to counter the efforts of environmental activists.
It said the campaign complied with all relevant laws – Guardian Australia is not suggesting otherwise.
“The project also mandated CT Group to conduct a proactive communication campaign on coal in compliance with all relevant legal and regulatory requirements,” the company said in a statement.
“The project’s objective was to convey simple facts about coal and in particular to counter misinformation from environmental activists.”
“Our business continues to engage with a range of stakeholders on the role that coal plays in socio-economic development and enabling access to reliable energy. We also acknowledge the need to transition to a low carbon economy. Glencore’s portfolio of commodities will allow the company to play a key role in this transition.”
Glencore said it told C|T Group to wrap up the project in mid-February to align with its announcement on climate change and the decision to cap coal output.
The C|T Group declined to comment, other than to say:
“All information about our clients is treated with the strictest confidence.”
The revelations shed new light on the C|T Group’s inner workings. Crosby, one of its founders, was knighted by the former UK prime minister, David Cameron, and has run the UK Conservative party’s last four general election campaigns.
The strategies employed for Glencore in Project Caesar appear strikingly similar to those offered in a pitch for a £5.5m campaign designed to cancel the 2022 Qatar football World Cup.
The World Cup project, dubbed Project Ball, proposed setting up full-time war rooms across the world, lobbying friendly politicians, academics and journalists, and pushing messaging on social media and astroturfing sites. Project Ball was pitched to a Qatari opposition figure living in London in an attempt to delegitimise the Qatari government and pressure Fifa to “restart the bidding process” for the World Cup hosting rights.
Project Caesar took place as Glencore made other aggressive plays to protect its Australian interests.
In 2017, Glencore mounted a surveillance operation targeting CFMEU members who were picketing its Oaky North mine in central Queensland. Its “clandestine and quasi-military activity” was described as “appalling” by Australia’s industrial relations umpire, the Fair Work Commission.
Glencore employed private investigators to secretly surveil union members using long-lens cameras and video. A map of the homes of key CFMEU members in the nearby town of Tieri was drawn up. Operatives took notes about their movements, reporting back to Glencore on a 24-hour basis.
“Nil Glencore staff members at the piquet [sic] lines in the past 24hrs,” one briefing note obtained by Guardian Australia read.
“Approximately 30 vehicles located at CFMEU guide hall 0800 hours this morning.”
Glencore also launched an operation codenamed Project Zuckerberg to find evidence of potential social media policy breaches in discussions in private Facebook groups used by CFMEU officials at Oaky North.
Documents and images seen by Guardian Australia show Glencore also asked a contractor to enter the lodgings of Oaky North workers when they called in sick. Photos of their empty beds were taken to help build evidence against the workers.
Guardian Australia has not found evidence to suggest the actions taken against the CFMEU Oaky North members were linked to Project Caesar.
Glencore’s actions in Africa have also come under close scrutiny in recent years.
The Paradise Papers, a leaked cache of millions of documents, showed how the commodities giant acted to further its mining interests in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The company engaged the mining magnate and Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler to negotiate with the DRC government in 2009, giving him a $45m loan in pledged shares only repayable if agreement was not reached within three months. The loan was repaid in 2010.
Gertler had previously been cited by a 2001 UN investigation that said he had given DRC’s president $20m to buy weapons to help fight rebel groups in exchange for a monopoly on the country’s diamonds. Gertler strongly denies the allegations.