The corporations pushing for expanded “hydraulic fracturing” (“fracking“) for “natural gas” are putting big money into PR campaigns due to growing citizen concerns about this damaging drilling process. At a “Media and Stakeholder Relations: Hydraulic Fracturing Initiative 2011” meeting this winter, an industry representative went so far as to suggest that industry public relations agents download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps' “Counterinsurgency Field Manual.” He noted that it would be helpful because the industry is “dealing with an insurgency.”
Chris Tucker, the spokesperson for Energy in Depth (EID) defended the statement by saying it was meant only as a joke, and that “there are no black helicopters here. … We go to township meetings, and we hear what people have to say.”
But Tucker is heavily involved in the “counterinsurgency,” working for one of the industry's many tentacles of its spin campaign. EID is a Washington-based, industry-funded front group that attacks people concerned about the dangers of fracking and the cocktail of toxic substances being used in the drilling processes. A report released last month by Common Cause notes that the fracking industry gave $20.5 million to current members of Congress and has spent at least $700 million on lobbying over the past decade. It has also spent an untold sum on PR campaigns targeting the public.
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Energy in Depth = Far From “Independent”
EID says it is simply comprised of “small, independent businesses with less than 12 employees” but this description masks that fact that it was actually formed by industry giants like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). It recently attacked the New York Times for a report that some financial institutions have become hesitant to grant mortgages or loans to folks with property leased for gas drilling. The story posits a legitimate question: who wants to underwrite a property that might be damaged by drilling or contain pools of contaminated wastewater?
In a piece called “Lender's Bagels,” EID responds with spin that distracts from the important questions raised in the article. Among other unusual aspects of its talking points, EID attacks the New York Times for relying on people from Ithaca, New York, as some of the sources for the article. Located in the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York's bounty of beautiful waterfalls, the countryside surrounding that college town has been marred by fracking drills, lagoons of contaminated water, and the heavy industry of transporting the gas. It is also home to Cornell professors and others concerned about the fracking. What does EID have against bagels? Oddly, that is not explained.
Redefining the Word “Grassroots”
EID emerged in 2009 as part of an industry-wide campaign to push gas industry-friendly messages to news media and legislators to combat efforts to regulate fracking. It was launched with early financial support from El Paso Corporation, XTO Energy, Occidental Petroleum, BP, Anadarko, Marathon, EnCana, Chevron, Talisman, Shell, API, IPAA, Halliburton, Schlumberger and the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. Few would describes these massive global corporations as “small.”
Despite these roots, EID labors to describe its PR efforts in Pensylvania and Ohio as “grassroots” efforts. The staff members are listed as “natives” of the region, and the EID website notes their “hometowns” under their titles.
Some of the “Meet the Team” pages on these local initiatives neglect to mention the stake the staff might have in the expansion of fracking. For example, the campaign manager of the EID Northeast Marcellus Initiative owns a planning and market research consulting business that works with communities on zoning ordinances. Some citizens have been attempting to regulate fracking through zoning or other local democracy, while industry groups have been attempting to limit local zoning or other regulations as well as federal regulations of the drilling practice.
EID and “Gasland”
A primary target of EID ire is the documentary film “Gasland” by Josh Fox, which premiered on HBO in June, 2010. The film trails Fox as he documents Americans living near gas drilling sites who can no longer drink their water, have fallen ill, or have faucets that explode in fire from gas leaking into their water wells. EID has written several dozen posts on its site since 2010 attacking Fox, and has even devoted a tag on its website to “debunking” Gasland.
Why funnel so many resources to combating an independent film? The film challenges the image the industry is paying big bucks to promote.
In the film, Fox emphasizes the centrality of the “Haliburton loophole,” which exempts fracking fluids from federal laws designed to protect clean and safe drinking water. (Current members of Congress who voted for the bill that included the “Halliburton loophole” received an average of more than six times those that did not in contributions from the gas industry over the past ten years.) EID repeatedly attempts to brush the importance of this major loophole off by referencing lesser regulations the industry is subject to, and denying that fracking has a negative impact on watersheds, despite numerous complaints by citizens about the impact on their wells and water.
EID has also received some traction from corporate media outlets, such as CNN and ABC, where industry-friendly reps tore apart the film and the filmmaker. The target of these attacks, Josh Fox, appeared on Democracy Now! where he described EID as a node in the network of deception — an “attack dog” group akin to a “rabid pitbull who drank too much Red Bull.”
“They go out and attack families, and they've attacked 'Gasland.' They've attacked the New York Times. They've attacked ProPublica — the Pulitzer Prize-winning news source,” he said. “This is a charm offensive on behalf of the gas industry. But it's just as insidious, if not more. What they're saying is, fracking is the road forward, this is the way to go.”
“Energy Citizens” and Gas Industry Front Groups
Front groups like EID are not unique to the industry, but have proliferated in recent years. Another front group, Energy Citizens, is backed by API (one of the founders of EID), yet claimed to be made up of tens of thousands of “grassroots activists” supporting loose government energy regulations.
In 2009, the group was exposed for orchestrating astroturf rallies attacking climate change legislation. An internal memo from API was leaked to GreenPeace, which appeared to have been from the company's president and CEO Jack Gerard. The memo called on CEOs of oil companies to ensure employees involvement in the rallies, even offering transportation to company members. The memo noted that “API will provide the up-front resources to ensure logistical issues do not become a problem. This includes contracting with a highly experienced events management company that has produced successful rallies for presidential campaigns, corporations and interest groups.”
Despite this exposure, the industry continues to tout “Energy Citizens” as a movement. During a September API press call, an industry representative said, “We have over the last couple of years been building up our capabilities — not only with industry employees, but through the general public. We've been very pleased to see how many of these people are self-selecting to be part of a grassroots operation that we call 'Energy Citizens.'”
It seems as though there are not enough real “Energy Citizens” out there to keep the movement alive, and not enough “small” or “independent” methane gas drillers out there to keep the EID “movement” going without the deep pockets of the global energy giants.