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Drilled Down: Big Fossil's Disaster Capitalist Response to Russia-Ukraine

Drilled Down: Big Fossil's Disaster Capitalist Response to Russia-Ukraine

In the response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the gas industry is now fully embracing it's new role. Right alongside the API, Chevron, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the gas industry moved quickly to capture the narrative in the early days of the invasion, going from disinformation blitz to policy wins within a matter of weeks.

In the latest podcast episode we dig into new research from Influence Map, Media Matters, and Triple Check that traced the industry's disinformation campaign and its results (transcript below).

New Climate Villains Ep 5 mix 2

[00:00:00] Amy Westervelt: On February 24th, 2022, one of the world's most powerful Petro states gave the gas industry a lifeline.

[00:00:21] News Archival: The month long buildup of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine has turned now into an invasion Ukraine under attack.

[00:00:35] Amy Westervelt: It was an echo of Russia's invasion of Crimea back in 2014. Back then the world was caught off guard by Russia's aggression, even the fossil fuel companies, which lost millions when the U.S. imposed stiff sanctions on Russia and US oil companies like ExxonMobil found themselves holding assets worth nothing.

This time, the industry was ready with a proactive response.

[00:01:00] Christine Arena: I think on February 24th, I freaked out because within hours of Putin's invasion, just watching serious patterns like emerge where, you know, API and other trade associations echoing similar talking points immediately, anti-Biden talking points, anti renewable energy talking points.

[00:01:21] Amy Westervelt: Christine Arena is a public relations expert who previously worked as a VP for Edelman PR, back when the firm was handling the account for the American petroleum Institute or API. She left that job in 2015 and has a new gig now.

[00:01:37] Christine Arena: Really been focused for the last seven years on climate accountability. And that is helping lawmakers to assess greenwash climate disinformation, how it occurs, how it spreads and how it's working.

[00:01:52] Amy Westervelt: And there was a lot of questionable messaging to observe over the past few months. First, for some context, even before Putin's invasion of Ukraine, the industry was lobbying the White House for weak sanctions.

They wanted to avoid a repeat of the losses they suffered after Russia's invasion of Crimea. The day after the invasion industry groups were ready. LNG Allies and the American Exploration and Production Council wrote a joint letter to President Biden, urging support of the U S natural gas industry.

"America's vast energy resources are a strategic asset that can help keep us prices low while supporting our allies abroad," the trade groups wrote. "Policies such as pausing leasing on federal lands, preventing new pipeline infrastructure, and discouraging investments across the hydrocarbon value chain hamper US production, thereby driving up prices and making the world more reliant on energy from nations such as Russia."

Arena says she saw this type of messaging-- blaming high gas prices on the few us policies that have been unfriendly to the gas industry-- emerge immediately and consistently across both social media and broadcast media channels.

[00:03:13] Christine Arena: There were a number of proxies, repeating the same talking points. And then there was like a media creative produced, including ads on television.

[00:03:23] Amy Westervelt: Media creative, by the way, is PR industry speak for ads and branded graphics.

[00:03:28] Christine Arena: And I just felt this very eerie sense that this was just too coordinated. Given the timeframe from the triggering event, when Putin invaded, to the release of this creative, the intervals were too tight. The messages were too word for word.

This is an organized disinformation effort geared towards effecting policy in the short term.

[00:03:51] Amy Westervelt: That made Arena reach out to the folks at Influence Map a think tank that measures the impact of corporate lobbying on climate policy around the world.

[00:04:00] Faye Holder: I'm Faye Holder, and I'm a program manager at Influence Map. We track around 350 companies and 150 industry associations on a weekly basis for any evidence of engagement with either climate policies or the broader debate on climate.

[00:04:16] Amy Westervelt: I spoke with both Holder and Arena in early May, before Influence Map publicly released what they discovered about the industry's recent messaging. Influence map also looped in the groups Media Matters and Triple Check to do a comprehensive media and social media listening campaign. In other words, they looked at everywhere industry spokespeople and their proxies were turning up, what they were saying, when, and how much impact at all.

[00:04:45] Christine Arena: For a media campaign where you're engaging different stakeholders and you're writing the talking points. If you want your proxies, you know, other political officials, other organizations to repeat the same talking points that takes at least three or four weeks, if you're producing a creative ad that is on television that could take two months plus in a tight timeline.

It takes the time to prepare that, to pitch producers, to get Mike Sommers on TV.

[00:05:16] Amy Westervelt: Mike Sommers is the president and CEO of the American petroleum Institute or API. He was on TV a bunch this spring.

[00:05:25] Christine Arena: To coach all of the different individuals who are, again, repeating API talking points word for word, that takes some time and coordination.

I do personally believe that the communications pieces were put into place and ready to go prior to February 24th and that the fossil fuel industry knew it stood to benefit from Russia's war, not just in terms of near term gas prices, but you know, a shorter term policy grab.

[00:05:52] Amy Westervelt: In the wake of the Ukraine invasion, we've seen a resurgence of the bridge fuel narrative, but we've also seen a new form of messaging. One that almost makes greenwashing seem quaint. That's our story today. This is the finale of season six, part two, the new climate villains. Stay with us.

[00:06:28] Faye Holder: One that we saw a lot of was blaming climate policies for the decrease in a supply of oil, which led to this increase in gas prices. And these arguments were kind of going on before the war in Ukraine began, but quickly got tied together.

[00:06:44] Amy Westervelt: That's Influence Map's Faye Holder describing one of the key industry talking points that took hold this spring.

Here's American Petroleum Institute president Mike Sommers, talking to CNBC as Putin began to build up troops and weaponry along the Ukraine border in late 2021. You can hear him already here blaming climate policies for increasing gas prices.

[00:07:09] Mike Sommers: There are a lot of factors at play as to why energy prices are surging. But certainly one of the key factors is that the Biden administration has made an effort to reduce production in the United States. One of their first acts, for example, was cutting off the Keystone XL pipeline. One of their second acts was cutting off, uh, leasing and permitting on federal lands. And then they cut off access to, uh, ANWR.

[00:07:35] Amy Westervelt: And here he is making the same point in an interview on CBS post Ukraine invasion in early March.

[00:07:42] Mike Sommers: The most important thing that we can do right now is really focus on increasing supply here in the United States. And that means adopting a regulatory framework, that advances American energy leadership.

And Mike, what exactly would that look like?

Uh, we have to remember at the beginning of the Biden administration, uh, they did a couple of big things that really dampened the amount of oil and gas that we were producing in the United States. You know, first they cut off the Keystone XL pipeline. Then they put a moratorium on leasing and permitting on federal lands and on offshore waters.

Uh, and then they cut off supply from the Alaska natural national wildlife refuge. So really the first week of this Biden administration was very harmful to the domestic production of oil and natural gas.

[00:08:31] Amy Westervelt: That is some consistent messaging! And creative spin, given the reality. For the record, about 25% of fossil fuel drilling happens on public lands. The rest is entirely controlled by private companies. The fossil fuel industry is sitting on at least a decades worth of unused leases. So it's unlikely that a lack of new leases impacted current production or supply. Now let's talk about the Keystone XL pipeline. A lot of folks think this was an active pipeline that somehow got shut down. Not so! The Keystone XL pipeline was intended to transport tar sands oil from Canada to export terminals in the Gulf of Mexico. Two thirds of that oil was earmarked for non-US customers. Had the pipeline not been canceled, it would have come online by about 20 26. So the idea that it would play a huge role in oil supply in 2022 is ridiculous.

And then the Arctic national wildlife refuge, or ANWR the holy grail of US oil companies for some reason. The refuge had been off limits to oil drilling since 1977. There was a brief moment in 2017 when the Trump administration reversed that. But so few leases were actually sold. It surprised even the fossil fuel industry.

And none of the companies that got those leases had even started drilling it, thanks to multiple legal challenges when the Biden administration reversed the decision to allow that drilling in 2020. So again, not something that had a huge impact on the supply here in the U S. These are the only pieces of climate policy that Sommers can point to over and over again, because they're the only ones the Biden administration has managed to pass.

And none of them have any impact on the current supply of domestic oil and gas in the United States or the price at the pump. But these facts don't seem to matter. In the context of Russia, Ukraine, these talking points really took hold. Faye Holder from Influence Map explains how this message led into another key narrative for the industry.

[00:10:55] Faye Holder: To fix the issue with gas prices, the answer was then to increase the supply of oil and gas, and that's where Ukraine then got brought in because increasing the supply of oil and gas, according to the oil and gas companies would also increase energy security, energy, independence. And we started seeing those narratives really being brought into. Particularly through large ad campaigns and from the industry associations in particular American petroleum Institute.

[00:11:21] Amy Westervelt: According to Holder and Arena, there were three dominant messages that emerged in the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine: first, climate policies were responsible for high gas prices. Then, increased production is the answer to both lower gas prices and increase national security. And then a third one that was new and somewhat surprising. Here's Christine Arena, again, to explain.

[00:11:49] Christine Arena: The notion that it's activists and woke people, they should be the ones to fight climate change. You know, it's not relevant for real Americans. This notion that president Biden cares more about climate activists than he does about real Americans. So there's a concerted push around these narratives.

[00:12:08] Amy Westervelt: Leveraging crises to increase profits is nothing new for the fossil fuel industry or any other industry. It's what the author Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism and the oil and gas guys are experts at it.

Klein says watching their response to Hurricane Katrina back in 2006. It's actually what drew her into the climate conversation.

[00:12:33] Naomi Klein: In the aftermath of these shocking events, like wars, economic crises, and increasingly natural disasters. There is a kind of corporate feeding frenzy. That was certainly the case in New Orleans after Katrina. So I went there because Halliburton was there and Blackwater was there and Bechtel was there and the charter school movement was there.

And all of these private real estate developers were there and it was just like this insane feeding frenzy. Before the water had even drained from the streets. But when I was there, I definitely had this feeling that I was looking at our collective future. If we stay on the road we're on that we would be facing a future. More of these kinds of climate shocks intersecting with a weak and neglected public sphere, overlaid with systems of white supremacy and then disaster capitalists swooping in with plans to make it all more unequal.

[00:13:34] Amy Westervelt: Disaster capitalism has only intensified since then. And what's happened in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a perfect example.

Researchers not only looked at what messages took hold and when, but also at who was sharing and amplifying these messages. Seven companies and trade groups dominated the news cycle, including some usual suspects like API, the U S chamber of commerce, Chevron, and Conoco Phillips. But there were some new folks at the party, our old friends at the American gas association for one. And Sempra, the national energy company that now owns SoCal gas.

[00:14:15] Christine Arena: It's just so incredible at the same time natural gas is being mass marketed as the world's greenest effort, the industry leadership is out there talking about how harmful it is and anti-American it is to view any discussion through the lens of climate.

[00:14:34] Amy Westervelt: Holder says it's new to see gas industry spokespeople playing a similar role to the rest of the fossil fuel industry.

[00:14:42] Faye Holder: I think the gas industry has definitely got a lot louder and more active in the past few years. And you can see that precisely through companies like Sempra. And I'd also mentioned American gas association.

I think I've been at Influence Map tracking companies and industry associations for nearly four years now. And I maybe heard of American gas association in the past two years, which is not to say they didn't exist before, but they've just got a lot more active.

[00:15:06] Amy Westervelt: That timing, as we've noted in this season, parallels the spread of gas bans in the last couple of years.

[00:15:13] Faye Holder: I think maybe the gas industry is starting to feel the heat a bit more around their culpability for climate change as is kind of evidenced by these gas bans. And so I wonder whether it's maybe they're going on the defensive a bit more in that similar vein that API has done for a long time and us chamber, uh, and those kind of groups that have always represented oil, particularly joining that effort.

[00:15:41] Amy Westervelt: These messages from trade groups and utility presidents might not seem like a big deal, but when they're amplified via advertising and proxy spokespeople, they can reach really large audiences.

[00:15:53] Faye Holder: We've seen a heavy, heavy use of social media, both in advertising and organic content. And it's definitely a key strategy and outlet for the oil and gas sector. I think they feed off each other nicely. A lot of the things that are retweeted by API for instance, are Mike Summers on Fox news. So it's almost a way that they can come at it from both angles, cover the widest audience.

[00:16:17] Christine Arena: Yeah, we're seeing that in the data. That's what the data shows us. The biggest impressions are on social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter specifically.

And then to a lesser extent, it would be, you know, you're right-leaning media outlets like Fox daily wire, Breitbart, Newsmax, daily caller, and to face point there's that cross amplification. But by far, the majority of media impressions are happening through social media channels. Amplify that by the echo chamber, that is like Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Alex Epstein, even Greg Abbott from Texas Dan Crenshaw, Marsha Blackburn, Ted Cruz of all of those accounts are amplifying great.

[00:17:03] Amy Westervelt: These misleading impressions, according to the Influence Map report, in the weeks leading up to and following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the American petroleum Institute alone ran at least 651 ads on Facebook. Many of which promoted the role of American gas and oil being essential for energy independence. Their ads reached 10% of Facebook users to put that in context, the biggest ad buys on the platform tend to deliver at the absolute most about 5% of users. Media matters ran a parallel analysis of the types of messages the industry was pushing from late 2021. When Putin first started to mobilize troops to March, 2022, when the Biden administration began to concede to the industry's demands.

They found three key points repeated over and over. Those same messages that Holder and Arena were seeing: that climate policy is responsible for high gas prices. That the answer to those prices and national security is increased American production. And that climate policy is something only liberal woke elites care about not real Americans.

[00:18:20] Christine Arena: 651 Facebook ads in that short time period, that's a big buy it's unusual. But then if you look at Twitter for media matters and triple check, their data shows that misinformation peaked, you know, February 24th, literally, there's a huge peak where we get to a hundred fossil fuel misinformation posts that yielded over 5 million likes comments and shares.

[00:18:46] Amy Westervelt: The most important number in all of this though is a pretty small one: 20. That's the number of days between the launch of the industry's Russia Ukraine campaign and the industry's first policy wins. Those started with the liquified natural gas or LNG decisions. The department of energy, granted long-term permits to increase the volume of LNG export it from two key terminals on March 16th.

[00:19:18] Faye Holder: So that's two weeks maybe from the start of the crisis during this whole situation, that was a new climate policy out for discussion at the federal energy regulatory commission that would have required you gas pipelines to take into account the impacts on climate change and local communities that just got completely rolled back.

[00:19:38] Amy Westervelt: That decision was followed by one to roll back climate requirements on pipelines, and then more permits for new export terminals. Then March 25th, 2022 Biden announced an even bigger win for the industry. A deal with the European union for American producers to supply an extra 15 billion cubic meters of LNG to Europe in 2022.

And that's not all .Beyond 2022, the two agreed to lock in demand for us gas at 50 billion cubic meters a year until 2030.

[00:20:20] Christine Arena: Allegedly to help wean them off Russian energy, but certainly to the U S natural gas industry's advantage. And so that's just a little over four weeks. That's a very short interval, and I feel that interval should alarm lawmakers.

It should alarm people in the climate community. That's disaster capitalism. I think you could call it a disinformation driven heist of public policy.

[00:20:46] Amy Westervelt: The uS-EU LNG deal will make the U S the world's largest exporter of gas, who is already the world's largest producer. And that deal was announced the same week that the intergovernmental panel on climate change and the typically conservative international energy agency announced that we simply cannot engage in any new fossil fuel development and keep warming to even two degrees or less.

[00:21:15] Christine Arena: It's a deal that Brouillette who was actually Trump's energy secretary before he ran Sempra infrastructure couldn't even get done under the most oil funded president, the country has ever elected, but Biden who ran as the climate president, he made it happen.

[00:21:36] Sharon Wilson: There were new rigs even before he made that announcement. But now it's just, the horizon is filled with new drilling rigs. It is booming again.

[00:21:47] Amy Westervelt: You might remember Sharon Wilson, an anti-fracking activists in Texas, who we heard from an earlier episode of the season. She's been out this spring with her thermal imaging camera to see what the gas industry is up to in Texas's Permian basin.

She says, without even looking for new rigs, she kept seeing.

[00:22:08] Sharon Wilson: We saw at least 60. Oh my God. 60 new rigs. I mean it, and every single site we looked at with the camera was major pollution. Miguel drove and I pointed the thing out the window.

[00:22:26] Amy Westervelt: Miguel is Miguel Escoto, wilson's colleague at the environmental nonprofit earthworks.

[00:22:32] Miguel: The increase of production. The skyrocketing of production is immediately visible. We would drive from like Odessa to big spring, which is about, uh, an hour long drive. And almost at every point in the horizon. While you're driving through this highway, you see new drilling rigs

[00:22:58] Sharon Wilson: and I'd go, oh my God, it looked like a war zone.

There was black plumes of pollution coming from every site we're going the wrong way. So fast that it's mind boggling. We're seeing a whole bunch of new sites go in which we don't need. But the thing that's so horrifying is we've got all of these existing sites, emitting, methane, and VOC is like crazy. I mean, just huge planes that take up the whole sky and then they're just drilling more.

Yeah. I mean, does it seem to you, like they're going backwards on methane emissions? It's actually, it has gotten worse. It's worse. You cannot reduce methane by continuing to produce more methane.

[00:23:58] Amy Westervelt: Yet. Once again, the industry has convinced a lot of talking heads. That gas is a critical part of any climate solution.

[00:24:07] Sharon Wilson: Here's Sempra infrastructure, president Dan Brouillette making that point on Bloomberg TV, CNN and CNBC's squawk box

[00:24:17] News Archival: and natural gas is a perfect compliment to renewable technologies. Not only here in the United States, but all around the world. The transition is more than just going again from natural gas or fossil fuels to 100% renewables.

It's going to be adding new energy and natural gas is a part of that. We are still hurdling towards a sort of a climate reckoning just based on. Uh, zeitgeists that we're in right now, but that's again where natural gas is going to have a very positive impact.

And here's Faye Holder again,

[00:24:45] Faye Holder: definitely a big effort to portray gas as green ,I think one of the quotes that we found from it was an executive vice president at EQT corporation describing. Exporting US LNG is the largest green initiative on the planet.

[00:25:03] Amy Westervelt: So to recap, in just under three months, the gas industry has managed to put a stop to any regulation that might have held back its continued growth, stopped even pretending to do anything about methane emissions, expanded production in a major way, all while simultaneously convincing the public and politicians that gas is green energy, and that only woke libs care about climate change and. It's breathtaking, how well this campaign worked.

Oh, and gas prices. Yeah, they're still high