Infamous Astroturfer Pushes Big Oil’s Drilling Propaganda in Local Papers

  • submit to reddit
In this March 25, 2014 photo, a worker oils a pump during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. well pad near Mead, Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this March 25, 2014 photo, a worker oils a pump during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. well pad near Mead, Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

This post originally appeared at LittleSis, the blog of the Public Accountability Initiative.

Last week, The Salt Lake Tribune ran an op-ed entitled “‘Bean-counting bureaucrats’ at BLM are locking up Utah’s future,” advocating the opening of federally owned lands to oil and gas drilling. The column, essentially the same as an op-ed that ran a week earlier in The Las Vegas Review-Journal, relies on a report by Timothy Considine, a University of Wyoming economics professor whose work we have profiled in depth in our reporting on the “frackademia” phenomenon. That report was funded by the Interstate Policy Alliance, a project of the corporate PR firm Berman and Company which has created myriad front groups to advocate the interests of the tobacco, food and alcohol industries and to attack unions, animal rights and environmental regulations. The Salt Lake Tribune and Las Vegas Review-Journal columns were penned by Anastasia Swearingen, who is identified as a research analyst at the Environmental Policy Alliance, a project of another Berman front group, the Center for Organizational Research and Education.

In their foray into the fracking debate, Berman and Company seems to have deployed a vertically integrated astroturf campaign wherein the firm funded research from a notorious pro-fracking academic through one of its fronts and then deployed another front to cite the research in various newspapers in the Rocky Mountain region.

The Environmental Policy Alliance: One of many Berman and Company front groups

The Center for Organizational Research and Education (CORE) was originally organized as the Guest Choice Network (GCN) in in the mid-1990s to fight public smoking bans on behalf of the tobacco industry. In 2001, GCN changed its name to the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) and began focusing on food and beverage industry issues, campaigining against mercury warnings on seafood, humane treatment of food animals, GMO labeling and soft drink bans. This year, CCF changed its name again, this time to the Center for Organizational Research and Education, in a broadening of the scope of the group’s advocacy.

Part of that CORE’s new broader scope is the Environmental Policy Alliance (a name cleverly chosen to share the same acronym as the federal Environmental Protection Agency) project. It is impossible to tell exactly who is a member of Berman’s alliance, since, as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, CORE does not have to disclose its donors, but judging from the recent op-eds it is a fair assumption that they include oil and gas companies or trade groups.

Swearingen, the author of The Salt Lake Tribune and Las Vegas Journal-Review columns, also published a series of editorials attacking the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards meant to encourage that buildings are constructed in an environmentally responsible and resource-efficient fashion. After Swearingen’s anti-LEED piece ran in USA Today, the paper issued a correction indicating that she is not, per se, an employee of the Environmental Policy Alliance:

Editor’s note: After this column was originally published online on March 7, USA TODAY learned that the author, Anastasia Swearingen, is employed by public relations firm Berman and Co., not the Environmental Policy Alliance. The Environmental Policy Alliance, a tax-exempt group, has no employees and is housed at the same address as Berman, which controls the recently created group, according to Berman spokeswoman Sarah Longwell.

This is typical of Berman’s campaigns. As can be seen in the map below, he has created dozens of groups like the Environmental Policy Alliance to tackle a myriad of issues important to anonymous corporate clients such as labor organization, animal rights, and trans fat bans earning him the nickname “Astroturf kingpin”:

In this instance Berman’s astroturfing goes, Inception-like, one level deeper.

Funding frackademic studies, then citing them

Swearingen’s columns rely on a study by University of Wyoming professor Timothy Considine for their claims that the time it takes the Bureau of Land Management to process drilling applications has cost Rocky Mountain states “between $2.4 billion and $5.1 billion in annual tax revenue, and between 67,000 and 208,000 regional jobs.”

The columns neglect to mention the name of the study (“The Economic Value of Energy Resources on Federal Lands in the Rocky Mountain Region”) or the fact that it was not published by the University of Wyoming, but was rather “prepared under a consulting agreement with the Interstate Policy Alliance.” The Interstate Policy Alliance, a “foundation-supported partnership between free-market oriented think tanks on the state and national level,” is another Berman and Company group.

Thus, Berman used money from one of his front groups, the Interstate Policy Alliance, to fund an economic report, then used another of his front groups, the Environmental Policy Alliance, to cite the report in various Western newspapers, inventing a dialogue out of whole cloth to the benefit of whichever energy industry group he is working for.

If the name Timothy Considine sounds familiar, it’s likely because he is an old hand at churning out energy industry propaganda. The relationship between Considine, the funders of his widely criticized Penn State studies, and the Berman groups engaged in this particular astroturf campaign can be seen in the map below:

From 2009 to 2011, Considine led a series of three studies, published under the Penn State imprimatur, that promised huge economic gains for the state of Pennsylvania from hydraulic fracturing. Founded on questionable assumptions about the indirect economic effects of fracking, it wasn’t until the study’s second iteration that, under scrutiny from an environmental group, Considine disclosed that the reports were funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a consortium of oil and gas companies. The Penn State studies were cited widely at the beginning of Pennsylvania’s gas boom and contributed to the state’s rejection of a severance tax on natural gas at the wellhead. The dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences excoriated the flaws in the report’s writing and how it was presented to the public, saying Considine “may well have crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy.”

In 2012, Considine published a pro-fracking study at the University at Buffalo, containing claims that the rate of major environmental impacts from fracking was on the decline that were based on a simple math error. In fact, the rate of major impacts increased by 36 percent in the span Considine examined. That report resulted in UB’s Shale Resources and Society Institute being shuttered after the State University of New York initiated an investigation.

Most recently, Considine himself authored an op-ed in The Orange County Register making his usual bold economic predictions, this time for the state of California, of the benefits to be derived from fracking for oil in the Monterey Shale. A week after his column ran, the federal Energy Information Administration announced that the amount of recoverable oil upon which Considine’s study of the Monterey Shale was based had been grossly overestimated – there is, in fact, only four percent of the recoverable oil previously estimated.

Given his track record, it is unsurprising that Considine would team up with the Richard Berman misinformation machine to create an echo chamber of pro-drilling propaganda. This cynical alliance is a paradigmatic example of how bad science can be bought and marketed by the public relations industry to create the appearance of a growing consensus in favor of a vastly unpopular practice.

Pro-drilling interests are attempting to manipulate the public debate about resource extraction through a network of front groups and hired-gun frackademics. This astroturfing is an usurpation of the democratic process, which thrives on transparency and a well informed electorate. Berman’s groups and frackademics like Considine run interference against these ideals for their corporate patrons, inserting paid-for messaging into the conversation and obscuring the messages’ source.

Robert Galbraith is a research analyst at the Public Accountability Initiative. He is a co-founder of the Farmer Pirates Cooperative, a cooperative of urban farms in Buffalo that shares land, equipment and resources. Follow him on Twitter @RELrobgalbraith.
  • submit to reddit