A year after Range Resources, a leading hydraulic fracturing company, claimed it had hired former military officers with experience in psychological warfare to combat anti-fracking activists, it seems as though they’re losing ground in the battle to win hearts and minds of Americans — and are turning to politicians instead. Anti-fracking activists have had a good year, celebrating small victories in their fight to protect neighbors from the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Recognizing the failure to convince small town residents that fracking is right for their communities, oil companies are now turning to technicalities, encouraging state governments that towns and cities do not have the legal capacity to outlaw their industry. That’s what’s playing out right now in Pennsylvania, where the state is claiming a ban on fracking in Pittsburgh, Pa. passed in 2010 should be thrown out. Range Resources, which declared in 2011 their PSYOPs were working in Pennsylvania, stands to benefit from a lifted ban.
A year for anti-frackers
It has been a successful year for anti-fracking activists, as they’ve watched their grassroots campaigns grow to a movement that now demands attention. In July, anti-fracking activists gathered in Washington, D.C. for a protest that drew 5,000 people — creating a noise too loud to ignore. In November, residents of Longmont, Colo. joined the 270 communities throughout the U.S. to pass anti-fracking measures. The decision in the town of roughly 90,000 came as a shock to many, as it represented a small city standing up against corporations’ information war. Longmont’s turnaround sent a wave of fear throughout the U.S., sparking pro-fracking rallies in Denver, Colo., organized by the city’s Chamber of Commerce. In Boulder, Colo., county commissioners threatened to begin prosecuting anti-fracking activists for disrupting meetings. One Boulder County commissioner simply left a meeting intended to discuss fracking regulations, complaining that protesters had taken over in a way that was unreasonable and anti-democratic. For that, he said, any future protesters demonstrating in an unfit way would be kicked out, and possibly charged. Wendy Wiedenbeck, a public relations representative of oil company Encana, also present at the meeting, expressed displeasure with the treatment she received from protesters at the meeting, according to a report by the Boulder Daily Camera. “In my opinion (the protesters’ goal) was to intimidate and perhaps even to harm,” she wrote in an email to the newspaper. “It certainly felt that way. It crosses a dangerous and ridiculous line when people believe that they have the right to treat another person that way. Does this group speak for the community of Boulder? I certainly hope not.” Her comments shed light on the industry’s strategy, unleashed by leaders in 2011.
Activists or ‘insurgents’
The movement toward a militarized method of minimizing opposition began when industry leaders gathered last year in Houston for an annual conference. Matt Carmichael, external affairs manager for Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, gave his public relations colleagues advice on how to move forward in the face of nationwide growing opposition to fracking, referencing military tactics. Brenden Demelle, reporter for the Desmogblog.com, an environmental news site, captured the audio from his Houston address. “Download the U.S. Army, Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, because we are dealing with an insurgency,” he said. “There’s a lot of good lessons in there, and coming from a military background, I found that insight in that extremely remarkable.” Carmichael was certainly not alone when he referenced military tactics to battle opposition movements. Range Resources director of corporate communications, Matt Pitzarella, was recorded at the conference claiming his company had hired military veterans with psychological warfare experience. “… they’re very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments,” Pitzarella said. “Really all they do is spent most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of PSYOPs in the Army and in the Middle East applies very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania, the very state that Pitzarella referenced, has been a hotbed of controversy for the fracking industry. In 2010, Pittsburgh passed legislation banning the practice within its city limits, stepping up as the first large city to put its foot down. The statement sent through the decision was heard loud and clear by residents of other, smaller communities, who began to note the potential dangerous impacts of fracking, most notably drinking water contamination. Now, Pittsburgh is facing opposition from its own state, which is alleging that the decision made by the city council hampered the state’s right to create environmental regulations. Doug Shields, who sat on the city council at the time, said prior to the ban, oil companies were operating within city limits, without the city’s knowledge at all. “Leading up to that (the ban), we started to have wholesale leasing within the city, and nobody knew about it — literally. There was a study by the University of Pittsburgh where they combed through the deeds office and low-and-behold, 642 acres are leased — a Catholic cemetery in the middle of my council district, 200 acres was the biggest lease. Constituents came to me and said, ‘What’s going on,’” Shields said during an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. As a result, Shields introduced the bill that went on to ban fracking within the city. Rather than operating under the umbrella of zoning, Shields crafted a rights-based bill — one he said was never challenged, until now. Shields looks at fracking as “inherently dangerous” and cites a lack of environmental impact studies on the industry a failure on behalf of the government. He cites a book written by journalist Tom Wilber, who began documenting stories of those living on the Marcellus Shale, an area that stretches through New York and Pennsylvania — a formation ripe for fracking. The book, “Under the Surface,” tells the stories of those living in the area, including 32 residents of Dimock, Pa., who say their wells have been contaminated by the 100 gas wells in the town. It’s stories like this that drive Wilber and activists to cry out against the state in its efforts to take their authority away. Yet it’s the people telling those stories who are facing companies that are going through the effort of hiring experts in psychological warfare to overcome opposition. While their minds will not likely be changed by information provided through PSYOPs, they have little control over the situation when lawmakers at the state level are targeted.