Mark Zuckerberg is not trying to drill in ANWR

Environmentalists can relax. The Facebook founder's new PAC is not pushing a pro-fossil fuel agenda

Published April 29, 2013 10:28PM (EDT)

It was the kind of ThinkProgress headline sure to get environmentalists riled up and retweeting furiously: "Mark Zuckerberg's New Political Group Spending Big On Ads Supporting Keystone XL and Oil Drilling."The implication was awful, and unsettling. Cash from the billionaire and the rest of the bevy of Silicon Valley  contributing to Zuckerberg's new FWD.US PAC is bankrolling an effort to start drilling in ANWR. Sound the alarm! Better yet, change your Facebook avatar in protest!

But hang on there just a sec. The ThinkProgress headline is misleading. Zuckerberg's PAC -- or rather, the two subsidiary PACs it has launched, one leaning Democratic, and one leaning Republican -- are not spending big pushing drilling in Alaska and the Keystone pipeline. They are spending big supporting senators up for reelection who just happen to support the Keystone pipeline and drilling in ANWR. Yes, the ads cite those positions as points in favor of those politicians, but that's not quite the same thing as a big political ad campaign pushing a specifically pro-drilling agenda.

Maybe that seems like a distinction without a meaningful difference, but it's worth understanding what's really going on here. Zuckerberg's FWD.US was created primarily to push for one major issue: immigration reform. In pursuit of that goal the PAC's strategists have decided to bankroll the reelection of senators who might be pro-reform but vulnerable to defeat in 2014. In this specific case: Democrat Mark Begich in Alaska and Republican Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.

So the ads bankrolled by FWD.US praise Begich for drilling in ANWR and Graham for supporting the Keystone pipeline. And they never even mention immigration reform. That's for a very good reason. The electorates of South Carolina and Alaska do not support immigration reform.

The goal is to buy Graham and Begich's immigration vote. The quid pro quo is obvious: We'll pour a lot of money buying ads in your market microtargeting issues which will help you win, and in return, when immigration reform comes up for a vote, we can count on your support. It's hypocritical, disgraceful, and profoundly cynical, but it's also politics as usual. It's not really all that different from Obama running ads in southern Ohio attacking Romney for being anti-coal. The larger goal -- winning Ohio -- trumped any environmental policy consideration.

Could Zuckerberg's spending have the unintended effect of actually making drilling in ANWR a reality? It's hard to see how. If Begich and Graham lose, they are likely to be replaced by more conservative senators, who would be even more likely to support expanded drilling.

Zuckerberg is not gunning for ANWR. At least not yet, anyway.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Anwr Drilling Facebook Keystone Xl Mark Zuckerberg Pac Zuckerberg