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Oil and Gas Industry Moving Aggressively to Silence Critics

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At an industry public relations conference last year, Michael Kehs of Chesapeake Energy described a Wall Street Journal op-ed to gathered oil and gas officials, saying it pointed out the industry's "credibility problem."



“And I’m sure some of it relates to defensiveness,” Kehs added. (MP3 Audio

Small wonder.

For years, the oil and gas industry has adopted a war-like mentality towards its critics. When confronted with problems caused by drilling and fracking, instead of acknowledging them and working to prevent more, their approach has too often been to cover up the issues while attacking any critics who make problems known publicly.

This pattern has sharply accelerated in recent months.

Earlier this month, Al Armendariz, the EPA's regional administrator for the oil-and-gas rich states of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, sent his letter of resignation to Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA. Mr. Armendariz had come under heavy fire over comments he made two years ago at a local government meeting in Texas. 

In explaining his law enforcement philosophy, he analogized his agency's strategy to the early Romans, who he said would "crucify" law-breakers to make examples of them. After a video of these remarks was circulated last week by Sen. James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, who counts the oil and gas industry as one of his largest donors, a firestorm of controversy broke out.

As Media Matters pointed out, when Mr. Armendariz said he intended to make an example of offenders, he was referring only to companies that actually broke the law -- but this was not enough to save his career.

Despite high-profile incidences like these, many academics, reporters, environmentalists and public safety advocates have continued to press forward and conduct research to identify the sources of environmental contamination in their communities.

When the oil and gas industry is at fault, these professionals have a responsibility to inform the public -- a responsibility that many take seriously, even knowing that they are confronting powerful interests. Fulfilling that responsibility has all too often cost them their privacy or their careers.

These attacks have also stood in the way of an open and direct discussion of issues, distracted listeners from the real issues, and consumed the time of those targeted, and often spread misleading or false information.

For example, after (then) Dish, Texas mayor Calvin Tillman arranged for air quality tests to be conducted  in his town (home to dozens of compressor stations and pipeline junctions), he found himself dragged into lawsuits by natural gas companies and facing subpoenas and open records requests for his files.

Mr. Tillman, who has since moved from the town because of his family’s health problems,  was able to successfully quash the first subpoena against him.

The second time around, the same company, Range Resources, also hit a well-known blogger, Sharon Wilson, better known as Texas Sharon, with subpoenas ordering her to be deposed and to provide email exchanges with a long list of people, including many well-known activists and researchers.

This time, Mr. Tillman responded. The Texan has now filed a formal ethics complaint with the state bar against two of the companies attorneys, alleging that the company abused the court’s power, using it to go fishing for information unrelated to any pending case.

“It is now my belief that this subpoena was not issued as a matter of necessity in this case, but rather this mechanism was used by Mr. Poole, and Mr. Okruhlik, as an intimidation and punishment tactic, due to my negative statements regarding the natural gas industry in general,” wrote Mr. Tillman in a letter to the Texas bar association, describing his and Ms. Wilson’s experiences with two of the company’s attorneys.

Within the scientific community, the blowback faced by researchers whose conclusions are considered harmful by the industry has been intense.

One of the longest-standing controversies from drilling and fracking has centered on tiny Garfield County, Colorado, which was the most heavily drilled county in the state in 2007.

That year, Judy Jordan, a newly-hired county geologist, Geoff Thyne, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and a graduate student, Tamee Albrecht, undertook a three-part study to determine where contamination in the county’s aquifer had originated.

In May, 2009, officials from the Colorado School of Mines threatened to fire Prof. Thyne, under pressure from the industry, causing him to leave the institution, according to Prof. Thyne.

In 2010, amidst clear signs that the study would implicate Encana, a natural gas drilling company, Judy Jordan lost her job.

The study itself? Never completed.

Other academics have reported similar experiences.

One of the industry’s fiercest and most vocal critics in academia was Conrad Volz, Director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

When reports began to emerge that the natural gas industry was disposing of its wastewater through treatment plants ill-equipped to handle the specific contaminants in the brine and frac water, Prof. Volz and a team from the University of Pittsburgh began to investigate.

Last March, they reported their findings from testing the wastewater discharged by an industrial wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania, demonstrating that high levels of contaminants were hitting local rivers and streams, causing health concerns for local fishers, swimmers and others.

Shortly after the report was distributed to the EPA, and local and state authorities, Prof. Volz came under enormous pressure to leave the University.

In an April email to colleagues, he explained that he was not being forced out. However, I am leaving over what I perceive as a basic philosophical difference with the university as to the role of environmental public health advocacy and the practice of environmental public health in an academic setting,” he wrote as he explained his resignation.

When environmental organizations try to publicize problems, the drilling industry flexes its muscles, making it nearly impossible to get their message out. Signs questioning the impact of drilling are often deemed “controversial” in ways that ads touting the benefits of drilling are not.

In Pennsylvania, a billboard depicting a jug full of contaminated water from a local well, captioned “Fix It” was dismantled after only two days. In New Brunswick, the local power company was pressured by government officials to pull anti-fracking signs, and no other signs, down from utility poles.

Anti-fracking activists have also described being questioned by law enforcement officials about their beliefs. For example, Adam Briggle, a professor of philosophy and bioethics, was visited by the FBI and questioned about his course syllabus and his participation in anti-fracking protests, based on an anonymous tip.

And Pennsylvania awarded a $125,000 no-bid contract to a consulting firm, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, nominally to protect against terrorism threats. Instead, the firm issued bulletins alerting local law enforcement authorities about peaceful protests, anti-war organizing, and environmentalists concerned about fracking.

Not only were there breathless -- but entirely unsubstantiated -- warnings that activists could target natural gas pipelines, but, most absurdly, the firm suggested that local authorities beware of a screening of Gasland.

When the contract came to light, it was immediately cancelled -- but the damage has been done.

Attacking the messenger may work in the short run. But as the oil and gas industry is starting to find out,  these tactics come to light in the long run.

As the list of those who’ve come under fire grows, the industry further weakens its credibility. In the meantime, the underlying problems are ignored and grow worse.

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