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How Big Oil Plans to Win Ugly in New York

A PR firm well known for its hardball tactics in defense of Big Tobacco will deliver the keynote address at tonight’s Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York’s (IOGA-NY) annual conference in Buffalo. The same talk titled, “Big Green Radicals: Exposing Environmental Groups,” was presented at the Western Energy Alliance annual meeting in Colorado this summer. Richard Berman, president of the consulting firm Berman and Company, told the audience of oil and gas executives that they were engaged in “an endless war,” and warned that, “You can either win ugly or lose pretty.”

An anti-fracking rally in front of the New York State Assembly in Albany in 2013. Berman and Company’s strategy fails to recognize that long before celebrities were touring gas fields, local landowners, farmers, and activists had already started asking questions about the merits of fracking.

(The title of tonight’s talk is, “Big Green Radicals: Winning Public Opinion, Undermining the Activist’s Credibility & Changing the Debate”). A transcript from the Western Energy Alliance event was leaked to the New York Times and Bloomberg News in October.

Anti-fracking groups in Buffalo plan to protest outside of the Hyatt Regency where the IOGA conference is being held. According to a press release from ReEnergize Buffalo, one of the organizers of the protest, “The oil and gas industry doesn’t have science behind them so companies resort to lies and innuendo invented by high-priced PR firms.” IOGA New York Director Brad Gill told the Albany Times Union that Berman and Company was booked long before the recent stories in The NYT and Bloomberg. “They have a lot of heavy-hitter clients, but we are not one of them,” he told the paper.

The presentation before the Western Energy Alliance outlines a new ad campaign launched by Berman that seeks to undermine the anti-fracking movement by exposing the so-called double standards and hypocrisy of celebrities who have taken up the cause. For example a billboard in Pennsylvania features an image of Yoko Ono and asks the question, “Would you take energy advice from the woman who broke up The Beatles?” Another billboard targets Robert Redford and says, “Demands green living. Flies on private jets.”

Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, saw some of the ads when she was in western Pennsylvania this summer. “I found them offensive but also a little arcane and bitterly cynical, especially for the people who would see them on the western Turnpike,” she wrote in an email. “Who really hates movie stars and musicians and gets all worked up because they live lavish lives?”

The campaign, funded by oil and gas companies (the presentation at these conferences is essentially a sales pitch), suggests that the anti-fracking movement takes its cues from mainstream environmental organizations in Washington and from the handful of celebrities who have gotten involved. What it fails to recognize is that long before Yoko Ono was touring the gas fields of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, local landowners, farmers, and activists had already started asking questions about the merits of fracking. When I spoke with residents of Pennsylvania and New York in 2009 for an Earth Island Journal story on fracking I was struck by how well versed they were. They weren’t waiting for handouts from the Sierra Club to tell them what to think.

In fact early on in the fracking wars the national chapter of the Sierra Club came out in support of natural gas development arguing that it was a clean alternative to coal. At the same time opponents of fracking — or the Keystone XL pipeline for that matter — don’t always conform to the stereotypical image of an environmental activist. They’re often small-r republicans or disaffected landowners who, after leasing their land to a gas company, have come to the realization that it wasn’t worth it. The oil and gas industry though continues to treat the opposition as if it were straight from central casting.

Last year, Control Risks, a British consulting firm published a report on the global anti-fracking movement and argued that the industry had misread the opposition. “The industry has underestimated the sophistication, reach and influence of the anti-fracking movement,” the authors wrote. “[It is] a diverse coalition of ideological and vested interests unlikely to be swayed by industry-funded studies or glossy public relations campaigns.”

So what makes Berman and Company think they can succeed where others have failed? Perhaps by making it personal and nastier. In other words launching a smear campaign targeting politicians and celebrities associated with the anti-fracking movement, which they hope will undermine their credibility and turn people away.

Jack Hubbard, the vice president of Berman and Company who is slated to give tonight’s keynote, explained to the audience in Colorado that the Big Green Radicals campaign follows the company’s standard model: undermine your opponents credibility and destroy their moral authority. According to Hubbard they’ve “conducted intense opposition research,” including investigations into activists’ criminal records, and plan to go after individuals in an attempt to discredit the larger movement. “What we wanted to do is that we wanted to brand the entire movement behind this as not being credible, and anti-science,” he said. “We’re really making this personal. We’re trying to make it so they don’t have any credibility with the public, with the media, or with the legislators.” At the end of his speech Hubbard said he wouldn’t discuss details about tactics and strategy because “this is a public venue.”

It’s unclear how such a dirty campaign would play out in New York. Fracking has been banned in the state for several years and in that time the opposition has built up a formidable network of supporters. In June the New York Court of Appeals upheld the right of municipalities in the state to ban drilling. According to the FracTracker Alliance,  New York State communities have passed 80 bans, 100 moratoria, and 86 movements for fracking prohibitions. Only a handful of municipalities have passed resolutions supporting hydro fracking.

Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper is skeptical of Berman’s ability to change the terms of debate in New York and elsewhere. “I don’t think most people really expect celebrities to be part of the 99 percent and reject the trappings of success just because they may be philanthropists and activists. And do they really want to shine a light on double standards — how big oil and gas executives and energy CEOs live their lives? Turning the tables on corporations who cry the blues about having to pay taxes and fight any public policy that may cost them a dime, while they rake in profits, is too easy.”

Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal. He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com.

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Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal.He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com.

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