Digging Deep on Fracking: Interview with DeSmogBlog’s Brendan DeMelle

Digging Deep on Fracking: Interview with DeSmogBlog’s Brendan DeMelle

Much of the advice in the Fracking Messaging Tip Sheet (member login required) we posted comes from Brendan DeMelle, executive director and managing editor of DeSmogBlog, which he shared during an international call organized by The Tree. I spoke with him recently to understand the strategies being used by the fracking industry as well as delve deeper into his recommendations for those opposed.

Here is our conversation:

Q: Can you outline the industry’s communications strategy on fracking?

A: The DeSmogBlog has been covering the misinformation campaign against climate for a while now, and it’s like watching Groundhog Day with the fracking industry using the exact same playbook the climate denial machine uses, which is really the tobacco playbook. We’re seeing it all over the country and all over the world deployed to confuse the public about the real impacts of unconventional gas development. They are setting up front groups as third-party validators and their experts for hire and giving studies to support their claims—we saw this in the recent story of them paying scientists to come up with studies that support their claims about water contamination, air and climate impacts. They are using the same sort of PR techniques to avoid what are real concerns that people have with this industry.

Q If it’s the same playbook that goes back to the tobacco industry, why aren’t we better at understanding what’s going on?

A: A lot of people are so easily duped by the same techniques and tools because people generally want to believe those whom they perceive to be experts and the industry has gotten savvy about putting forward people who seem to be credible, but not disclosing their full interest in the matter. There’s also the massive problem of the responsibility of the media to act as a referee to ferret out the truth and weed through the misinformation, the spin factor. And we just don’t see that with the media’s reliance on the balance framework of he said-she said journalism, which doesn’t do justice to the consumer of that news to parse the reality for what’s spin. It’s not only the journalists’ responsibility, it’s also the access that industry has to pepper opinion columns with their own shills. You see this with Pat Michaels, a long-time climate confusionist who is now working the fracking file, the Heartland Institute and others. It’s rinse repeat, and unfortunately the public is continually duped by this, and so are our government officials all the way up to the White House touting unconventional gas as a solution when it’s a distraction and harms our future for clean energy deployment.

Q: In your Huffington Post piece about the War on Shale Gas, you describe the attacks on media outlets and journalists trying to cover fracking. What is that telling you?

A: It’s a fascinating thing to see. We learned a lot by having our researcher go to that emergency PR conference in Houston and learn how the industry speaks internally about journalists and what they are doing to respond to what they see as this war on shale gas. They see it as a PR problem and not a science or technology challenge. Rather than truly finding solutions to threats to drinking water and water supply, they are more interested in convincing everyone that they’re green and clean. The war on journalists is interesting because once again you see a combative industry feeling like the victim, and their solution is to undermine and attack the credibility of journalists, complaining to editors and getting their legal departments involved. It’s a chilling technique to have your story become a hot button issue among your legal department. It really has an impact on who covers this, how they cover it and if they even cover it. It’s been an interesting scene to watch them be so aggressive and to see how they monitor press coverage of their industry and how they’re using Google ads, other paid techniques as well as their earned media abilities.

Q: What impact do you think this strategy is having on public opinion?

A: Just like with the climate conversation, it leaves the door wide open for people to consider it an unsettled file that doesn’t need to be dealt with until there’s more certainty. It muddies the public conversation about what are significant concerns. Industry is way ahead—they’ve been allowed to develop these resources with little accountability—and now we’re playing catch up.

Q: What do you make of the industry’s communications strategy, including what’s been most effective?

A: As with a lot of these issues, science has to be a key tool in communicating not only the risk but also the uncertainties. With fracking, we don’t have the huge body of evidence as we do on climate change; we have a lack of science in areas that are needed to prove the technology is safe and worthwhile. That’s largely a result of industry operating without accountability. Scientists would love to be able to do studies on the carcinogens and what might be reaching the water table from fracking chemicals, but the industry can hide behind trade secret exemptions, exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It makes it difficult for scientists to do their job when the industry isn’t compelled to release their data. It’s an opportunity to point out that from a precautionary standpoint it would make way more sense to do the science first before continuing to develop the resource.

One of the angles I feel is under-discussed is the idea that this industry is acting in the best interest of our energy security when in fact they’re chasing export markets as fast as possible and raising prices for American consumers. It’s a classic example of bait and switch; they’re trying to gain access to more opportunities to drill and exploit the resource not for American’s gain, but for their private interests.

Q: Why do you use the term unconventional oil and gas development when describing fracking.

A: We like the term unconventional oil and gas because that’s what it is. This isn’t the easy directional drilling and low hanging fruit of fossil fuel, this is the dirty dregs and the only reason we’re able to continue exploiting this resource is because of the unconventional technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. I’ve heard some like Michael Klare push the term extreme energy, which makes sense to me, but in the age of energy drinks the word extreme apparently has a positive connotation. Oil and gas are one industry now; natural gas industry has been swallowed up by Big Oil.

Q: What do you think about the term fracking?

A: A common critique is that it’s not the fracking that’s causing the harm, it’s the well-casing failures or whatever, but I say fracking and fracking industry because the two are not separable; you cannot have shale gas development without fracking….Fracking is a term that resonates with the public in a way that seems threatening.

Q: Since it’s the same playbook, what are the lessons that those opposed to fracking have learned, or should have learned?

A: First and foremost is that accuracy and sticking to what we know is key, not getting involved in temptation to reach for rhetoric, hyperbole, or exaggeration. When we wrote Fracking the Future we were very careful with every line of the report not to overstate the facts and to emphasize that uncertainties exist and there has to be more scientific and regulatory scrutiny.

Other than that, one of the most important things to keep pointing out is that it’s not just the tobacco playbook–this has gotten out of hand. This industry is using warfare techniques on U.S. soil. The discussion in Houston was mind-blowing; for anyone who thought this industry was acting responsibly and living up to its rhetoric, they’re sitting in Houston in private comparing their critics to an insurgency and using warfare language and bragging about the fact that they’ve hired military veterans with psychological warfare expertise to muscle and intimidate communities on American soil. It’s not only essentially illegal, it’s highly immoral.

Q: What are your suggestions on how to convey this to the public and get it to resonate?

A: That’s a good question. It’s one I’m still grappling with, particularly with that PSYOP example that’s something I think a lot of military veterans would find outrageous. It remains a messaging challenge about how to explain this. It’s a difficult thing to try to tell somebody because they may not see anything beyond the billboards or the op-eds, if they see anything at all. The overall challenge is that most people don’t understand very much about our energy portfolio. This goes to the core of what Climate Access talks about, which is how to communicate potentially difficult scientific messages to a public that doesn’t have the terms and the knowledge of the subject matter.

It gets into simplification, pick something that people do understand. I think that’s why we have seen more discussion about water than the methane threat or radon; water is something that everyone understands the public health impacts, but again these are tricky to determine exact causation.

Q: You guys have been doing this for a while. It seems difficult to get the public to understand the lengths to which the opposition will go to.

A: One tactic that we’ve found that does work pretty well is that people don’t trust lobbyists and a lot of lobbyists are doing the public relations work for the industry, so we’ve tried  to identify who some of them are. Clearly, they’ve done their job with exempting this industry from a lot of oversight. On the federal level this has a lot to do with the backroom meetings with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. An opportunity not taken often enough is show where those lobbyists are and who they are.

Q: How do you not come across as appearing that you’re against everything?

A: That’s a colossal failure by the Obama Administration to not amplify successes of the clean energy industry and moves toward efficiency. We almost saw efficiency disappear from the conversation about our energy future after the last presidential election. That’s a tragedy because some of the largest gains in our energy portfolio should be made by eliminating waste in our energy system. We need our leaders to talk about the efficiency gains that are possible and the success stories in clean energy—we’ve seen rapid advancement in price discresses with wind and dolar. And if we level playing field and continue to support wind and solar we could rapidly get off our addiction to dinosaur energy….People understand that renewables are part of the energy solution, but keep being misled that  it’s all far off in the future. If we got rid of fossil fuel subsidies. We could quickly realize a lot more ren energy and look at efficiency.

I’d like to see the conversation shift from fracking as a savior or a bridge to, no this is still 19th century fossil fuel energy that we know we don’t’ need any more, but we are stuck to it and the incumbent forces behind those technologies want us to stay addicted to them, so it really becomes a question of can we overcome the special interest and make room for real solutions.

Q: Is there anything that you’d like to add to the tip sheet (member login required) on fracking messaging advice that we posted from the call you were on?

A: I guess it comes across a wee bit in point two about countering the industry’s claims about energy security. I really think it’s important and under recognized opportunity to talk more with the American public about exports. All the fossil  fuel industries are chasing export markets in order to improve their profitability, it doesn’t haven anything to do with our energy security. If we don’t shut down the coal expert terminals in the Northwest, the Tar Sands terminals in Canada, the LNGs all over the place, we will look at higher prices, less domestic security and the guarantee of colossal accidents that could threaten our coasts. The expert conversation needs to be better articulated. These companies drape themselves in the American flag and talk about domestic security, but they’re not actually committed to that. Winning the export battle shutting down terminals is one key ways to communicate with public about our energy future and that this is not our long-term interest.

One thing not on the list is the return to industrialization of rural communities; we’re seeing massive industrial development in people’s backyards. But not enough people see it. It’s frustrating that there aren’t both more personal interest stories elevated in the national conversation about victims of fracking and more visual examples of what it really means to have this massive industrial complex in your backyard. There are people who wouldn’t’ typically align themselves with environmentalists who are really frustrated; it’s not that they’re anti gas development, they just see complete lack of accountability and reckless behavior of industry and nobody holding them responsible. . 

Q: Is the public more jaded today than when people were shocked by revelations about the tobacco industry?

A: There’s a level of cynicism that is larger than back in the day. A much bigger problem is the way the media landscape looks and the way information gets conveyed now. People choose to receive the news from outlets that fit their views and ideology is a troubling trend away from fact-based decision making.  Even when you expose a study as false or paid for by industry, it still gets reported and the weight of it is greater than it should be because of media not responsibly reporting it. Not only is the public less reachable with hard facts, the industry has gotten much savvier with their PR techniques to muddy the water and confuse people.