In an attempt to convince wary local populations of the benefits of shale gas exploration, several US energy companies are employing former soldiers with psychological warfare experience learned in Iraq.
Journaliste politique engagé et un brin utopiste, j'ai couvert la campagne présidentielle pour Marianne2.fr avant de m'ouvrir à l'économie. Enquêteur augmenté sur OWNI depuis septembre 2010, je cherche la petite bête dans les domaines de l'énergie, de l'écologie et des partis politiques.
Oil companies are making use of techniques and personnel from the psychological warfare unit of the US military, in their efforts to convince local populations drop their resistance to large-scale shale gas exploration operations in the northeastern United States.
The information emerged from an otherwise unremarkable conference of communications directors working for shale gas and oil companies. The Hydraulic Fracturing Initiative 2011, held in early November at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Houston, Texas, gave the floor to several industry executives. Amongst them was Matt Pitzarella, from the company Range Resources, who boasted of the methods employed in Pennsylvania to break the resistance of locals concerned about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on their living environments:
We were particularly concentrated at Range with setting up a proactive initiative vis-à-vis the local population. [...][A communications official] has got people interested in the idea of turning to other economic and industrial sectors, namely, the Army and Marines. We have several guys from PsyOps (the nickname used to refer to psychological warfare operations in the U.S. Army) who work for us at Range, because they’re particularly comfortable with global issues and local governments. [...] [They spent a large part of their time] assisting the understanding of the of psychological warfare operations that the Army has put in place in the Middle East. Which has been hugely helpful in Pennsylvania.
Road-tested on Iraqi insurgents, these methods of psychological warfare were now ready to be applied to US citizens.
A resident of Mount Pleasant Township in Pennsylvania, Dencil Backus met Matt Pitzarella twice: during his course in communications at the California University of Pennsylvania, and then when the young man was in charge of drilling for shale gas for the Range Resources company. Present in the state since 2005, the company is part of the myriad start-ups launched in the rush to capitalize on the vast geological shale deposit known as Marcellus Shale. In the ensuing cavalcade of rigs and trucks carrying fracturing fluid, the town of Mount Pleasant in suburban Pittsburgh quickly became the scene of open conflict with the company, as Dencil Backus describes:
Relations with the local authorities were terrible. To manipulate the locals, Range began boycotting businesses and services in the area: they rented excavators from elsewhere, went for dinner in restaurants in the next city…But when the community considered in June 2011 passing a zoning ordinance, they went into top gear.
The expansion of Range’s drilling operations was threatened by such a decision at the local level. According to US law, which assigns each individual ownership over the subsoil under their property from the surface to the centre of the Earth, most of the community would be covered by the “sale of mineral rights”, which authorized Range to extract whatever they liked from under the soil to a depth 68 square-kilometers. Which would represent the bulk of the total surface area of the community, which covers 93 square-kilometers.
Not wanting to deprive themselves of any potential resource, Range then sent two different letters, one to each half of the population. To the residents who had signed over their mineral rights and to small businesses, the company complained about the zoning ordinance and the lack of cooperation from local authorities which they claimed would soon compel them to abandon their operations in Mount Pleasant. In the letter received by those who had not signed over their drilling rights, Range Resources declared exactly the opposite: the company welcomed the exigency of local authorities and agreement reached with its representatives around the issue of gas exploration. Six months later, the results of this manipulation of public opinion are still evident to Dencil Backus:
The simultaneous arrival of these letters has caused confusion about the whole thing. One half has been pitched against the other, accusing them of impeding oil exploration and threatening the local economy. Local authorities have been forced to postpone a vote (on the proposed zoning ordinance) for several months, after a failed mediation with Range Resources.
Behind this discord, Matt Pitzarella boasted notably of employing the services of former soldiers of the 303rd Division of the US military, the PsyOps unit. Contacted by OWNI, a US Army Communications Officer provided the following description of the activities of this unit:
The 303rd unit’s functions in Iraq would be dissemination of products to the local population. Products had messages which helped the local population in reacting to American forces on ground. The 303rd is a reserve unit and we don’t know the amount of people that were engaged in Iraq, due to the fact that this happened in 2003.
Based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the unit had duties include making massive drops of leaflets and short wave radios that conveyed messages designed to break local solidarity between the civilian population and Iraqi insurgents. Ronald Gulla, who was forced to abandon his farm in Mount Pleasant after seeing his water and land contaminated and his cattle struck down by illness as a result of the fracturing fluid leaking from Range gas wells, was not surprised:
From the start of these operations in 2005, we identified former soldiers in the ranks of their communications and negotiating teams. They would knock on your door and say, “You don’t want us to use your gas? Aren’t you a patriot?” They claimed that this gas would reduce oil imports from the Middle East, but eight LNG ports have already been converted for export. There are academics who have looked into their CV’s and passed on the word to me. But I’d prefer not to name names: many teachers have paid dearly for their criticism of shale gas in these parts.
Passed in 1948, the Smith-Mundt Act prohibits the use of psychological warfare operations against targets other than foreign enemy troops. Contacted by OWNI several times, Matt Pitzarella did not respond to our messages.
To find other examples of the close relationship between the army and the gas industry, we need look no further than the Hydraulic Fracturing Initiative conference which Matt Pitzarella spoke at. Matthew Carmichael, head of communications for the Anadarko Petroleum company which drilled in Pennsylvania, learned his trade as a sergeant from the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Marine Regiment. He proudly displays his membership of the Semper Fi network, a US Army veterans society, on his LinkedIn profile. After a few years at Chevron and before joining the ranks of the shale gas lobby, Carmichael spent some time working at KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, noted for having employed a large number of mercenaries in Iraq, according to the Los Angeles Times. The tone of his speech at the shale gas communications conference seemed to have lost nothing of these tumultuous years:
If you are a communications official in this area, I recommend you do three things. Three things I read recently that I think are of interest. Download the US Army Marine Corps Counter-Insurgency Manual [surprise in the room] because we are facing an insurgency. There are many good lessons in it, coming from military experience. [...] In addition, there is a training course organized by Harvard and MIT twice a year called “Managing an angry public.” Go to this course [...]; many officers in our troops are already doing it. This gives you the tools, media tools, to manage the huge controversy with which our industry is struggling.
Third, I have an copy of “Rumsfeld’s Rules”. You all know Donald Rumsfeld – it’s kind of a Bible, also, to guide the way I operate.
Contacted by OWNI, Anadarko Petroleum has not responded to our questions. At Harvard Law School, we were directed to the “Program on Negotiation”. Twice a year for the last 15 years, Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field, mediation specialists, have held a three-day seminar based on their book, Dealing with an angry public.
For $2,999, lawyers, private industry executives, government officials and activists from the United States, Canada and also Europe can participate in the “Program on Negotiation for Senior Executives”. The pharmaceutical, real estate and energy sectors are strongly represented at the seminars. Lawrence Susskind described to OWNI the outline of a seminar:
We set up a role play: each participant is given a briefing based on a real situation arising from a controversy related to health, energy, banking or some other.
Around a dozen tables, participants assume the roles given to them to conduct the negotiations. Some are the “angry public”, others are playing the industry role…And after two hours, the lights go down and a journalist (who is an investigator for a Canadian newspaper) arrives with his camera and films each participant, questioning them…At the end of the seminar, we project a mock-up report based on the sequences filmed by the journalist. Because another of the objectives of our training is to learn how to manage invasive journalism.
Asked about the shale gas boom, Susskind puts it in context:
The issues raised are more or less the same in conflict management with an angry public. Whether it’s land, legislation, the risk of leaking…In the end, there’s nothing new with respect to conflicts surrounding the installation of a pipeline or a power line. As for the methods used to resolve them, they are common to many sectors.
Meanwhile, the shale gas sector continues to draw on expertise from far and wide. In addition to the services of the army, various oil and gas lobbies are now using the services of the prestigious New York agency Hill & Knowlton. They became famous for launching the first campaign in the 1950’s to restore the reputation of tobacco after the introduction of health warnings. They drew controversy for having been paid $10.8 million by the Kuwaiti government to direct a propaganda campaign aimed at triggering the first Iran-Iraq conflict.
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