November 10, 2011 11:06 AM EST
Public relations executives employed by the energy industry encouraged their colleagues to study counterinsurgency techniques and noted the effectiveness of veterans trained in psychological operations in the push to win public approval for natural gas drilling.
Energy/natural gas companies are encountering increased questions on hydraulic fracturing, a process in which sand, water, and chemicals are blasted underground to release natural gas; critics argue it can pollute groundwater, and result in other environmental damages.
Much of the debate over natural gas drilling, also known as hydraulic fracturing or “hydrofracking,” has played out in rural towns sitting atop vast deposits of the fuel. As local governments have weighed potential profits against concerns over regulation and safety, energy companies have waged extensive public relations campaigns, including a $20 million effort sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.
An environmental activist recorded an Matt Carmichael, the manager of external affairs for Anadarko Petroleum, telling attendees of an industry conference in Houston to download the military’s counterinsurgency manual “because we are dealing with an insurgency.” Range Resources communications director Matt Pitzarella also offered strategies for alleviating public concerns surrounding hydraulic fracturing, CNBC reported.
Psy Ops to Help Harness Unconventional Natural Gas?
“We have several former psy ops folks that work for us at Range because they’re very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments,” Pitzarella said. “Really all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of psy-ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.”
The military has employed psychological operations, or psy-ops (it has recently been renamed to the less sinister sounding Military Information Supply Operations) to try and win over skeptical or antagonistic populations from Germany to Iraq. It has ranged from dropping leaflets urging Japanese troops to surrender to radio broadcasts calling on Iraqi soldiers to defect in the months preceding America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“Public affairs is really informing and providing information to a broad audience, including the American public,” a senior military official, who asked to speak on background because he is not authorized to talk to the press, told the Christian Science Monitor. “Psychological operations is purely about influencing the behavior of foreign target audiences.”
Pitzarella clarified his comments to CNBC by explaining that he was referring to a representative whose experience mediating conflicts in Iraq served him well at public hearings over drilling. Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, said that concerns about employing psy-ops veterans could be overplayed.
“We have a number of students that come into our MBA program who come out of the military as officers that have spent time either in Iraq or in Afghanistan, where part of their job was to go in and build rapport with communities, and they’re very good at it,” Bullock said. “They’re very transparent, very open, very honest and very good at building trust. Quite frankly, I think that kind of skill set is probably a little bit what the industry needs.”
Sierra Club: Gas Companies Viewing American Public As ‘the Enemy’
But Jeff Schmidt, director of Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter, said that the energy industry’s drawing on military techniques illustrated its determination to override public objections to natural gas drilling. He noted the industry’s aggressive efforts to win support for local ordinances that would make it easier to drill new wells, as well as for a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that would strip municipalities of their ability to regulate drilling.
“The attitude of the drilling companies towards citizens as the enemy that they have to use psychological operations on means they are not good corporate citizens of Pennsylvania, in my view,” Schmidt said. “I know there was also a reference to citizens that object to drilling being called insurgents. That’s very telling that the industry is drawing an analogy between the people of Pennsylvania who are trying to protect their communities with insurgents.”
This American Life recently detailed how Range Resources waged “a full-scale PR war” in the small town of Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania. After Range donated substantial amounts of money to the town and helped to buoy local businesses, according to business owners, the company deluged residents with letters warning that the company would leave the town if it was unable to secure the more relaxed zoning ordinances it sought. The letters emphasized that the town’s board of supervisors was to blame, a claim that township manager Mary Ann Stevenson emphatically rejected.
“While we have made every effort to establish a positive and robust working relationship with your elected officials, our attempts continue to be rejected,” one letter read. “As a result, we are sending this communication to inform you that we have revised out future long-term plans in the Township due to continuing difficulties with your Township supervisor and their unwillingness to work with us.”