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The fossil fuel industry held a “consumer” conference in Pennsylvania with Ryan Zinke, just after it released a sham report. Why is the media reporting on these astroturf efforts so uncritically?

Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who spoke at the recent Consumer Energy Alliance summit

The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) recently hosted a summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Given the organization’s name and slogan – “the voice of the energy consumer” – one might think the gathering would have included a host of grassroots and community organizations who care about energy issues.

But the summit was primarily an oil and gas industry affair, with top fossil fuel CEOs and other corporate leaders speaking. Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gave the keynote presentation.

Zinke is widely seen as a friend of the oil and gas industry. He has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from energy companies that he now oversees. He has moved to roll back safety rules for offshore drilling. In September, Zinke told the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association that “our government should work for you.”

According to one report, Zinke praised Donald Trump at the summit, and he also “highlighted the positive impact domestic energy production and development in the Marcellus and Utica formations have on the U.S. economy.” Pennsylvania, located over the Marcellus and Utica formations, is a major hub for the fracking industry.

Another speaker at the summit was Alan Armstrong, president and CEO of Williams Companies, owner of the massive Transco pipeline. According to SEC filings, Williams CEO Armstrong received over $27 million in compensation from 2015 to 2017.

Other speakers also included Dave Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the state’s major pro-fracking business coalition whose members include a who’s who list of oil and gas corporations; Bruce McKay, senior policy advisor of Federal Affairs for Dominion Energy, the main stakeholder in the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline; and Kevin Sunday, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

Far from a “consumer” event, then, the CEA summit was primarily an industry gathering – a chance for CEOs and business leaders to mingle with each other, and with a member of Trump’s cabinet who is helping to lead the way in rolling back environmental laws to expand oil and gas drilling.

All this shouldn’t be a big surprise. As we’ve reported on multiple occasions (here, here, and here), the CEA is little more than an industry-funded public relations campaign run out of the office of a Houston-based oil and gas communications firm called HBW Resources that gets paid millions for these efforts. Every CEA “leader” is in fact a HBW Resources employee or executive – even the CEA’s mailing address is just HBW’s office address. The CEA is a prime example of an “astroturf” campaign – a top-down, corporate-funded effort that poses as “grassroots.”

The CEA has a history of pushing the oil and gas industry agenda in Pennsylvania. For example, Food and Water Watch reported that in 2011, it “funded a public relations campaign that helped defeat a fracking ban ordinance in Peters Township, Pennsylvania.”

The CEA wages a range pro-industry campaigns in other states beyond Pennsylvania, such as Minnesota, Louisiana, New England, and more.

The recent summit in Pittsburgh came just after the CEA released a report that highlighted consumer savings in Pennsylvania due to fracking. It claims that “due to increased production and new technologies, Pennsylvania natural gas consumers have saved over $30.5 billion between 2006 and 2016 simply as a result of the decreasing price of natural gas.”

While fracking has brought down short-term energy costs, the report has multiple problems:

  • It is based on biased sources. For example, one report claim is that “A PricewaterhouseCoopers report tallied nearly 322,600 jobs in Pennsylvania that provide nearly $23 billion in wages to Pennsylvanians.” But the reference actually takes you to document produced by the American Petroleum Institute – the top oil and gas lobbying group in the US.
  • It is misleading. It claims upfront that “Pennsylvania natural gas consumers have saved over $30.5 billion between 2006 and 2016 simply as a result of the decreasing price of natural gas.” But the small print – footnote 9 – clarifies this by saying: “$9.2 billion saved by industrial users, $13.3 billion saved by residential users, and $7.9 billion saved by commercial users.” In other words, well more than half of the purported savings were for industry and business.
  • It ignores external costs & counter-evidence. The report ignores others costs of fracking that cut into any savings. These include declining property values, legal costs (against fracking companies whose operations poison people, for example), private and public costs associated with climate change, damage to infrastructure like roads, and – as one report put it – “deterioration in local amenities, which may include increases in crime, noise, traffic and declines in health.”
  • The firm that produced it is tied to the oil and gas industry. The firm that the report credits with crunching the numbers that produced its results, Orion Strategies, is tied to the oil and gas industry. According to a press release, the contact for the report, Brittany Ramos, “served many years at Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation where she directed strategic outreach efforts and represented the industry and company to the general public, media, elected officials, landowners, and other stakeholders.” Cabot has hundreds of active wells in Pennsylvania.
  • It is a cookie-cutter report that CEA replicates for other states. The CEA produced a similar report for West Virginia, which give the impression that this is all a coordinated PR move for the oil and gas industry waged by one of its astroturf fronts.
  • It lacks rigor and transparency. It is just four pages – very short, given its big claims – and it doesn’t reveal in any depth how it arrived at its results. This means it can just say what it wants without scrutiny.

What’s alarming is that media outlets within the state simply parroted the CEA’s press release. This is one reason why astroturf efforts like the CEA are dangerous – they allow corporate interests to shape public opinion in backhanded ways through the cover of a “grassroots” voice.

For example, the Pittsburgh Business Times, Marketwatch, PennLive and industry sites uncritically recited the report’s findings as crafted by CEA in its press release. Even the Associated Press just reprinted the CEA’s press release with no comment.

The oil and gas companies that back the CEA also promoted the report. For example, Williams Companies highlighted it on its blog, while the right-wing, climate change-denialist Heartland Institute – which is funded in part by the fossil fuel industry – also carried a story on the report.

In short, the CEA report set off an echo chamber whereby major media and oil and gas profiteers cited its findings as self-evident truths, generating headlines that push the debate over fossil fuel energy in the industry’s favor.

The CEA might be stepping up its efforts in Pennsylvania because of the growing opposition to the Sunoco’s Mariner East 2, a major pipeline project being constructed across the state to transport fracked gas. ME2 has faced numerous violations, spills, sinkholes, delays, and temporary halts.

As opposition to the expansion of carbon-emitting fossil fuel infrastructure grows, especially in light of the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that says we have until 2030 to avoid climate catastrophe, concerned people in Pennsylvania and beyond should be on the lookout for CEA events and reports that pose as “consumer”-driven as cover for promoting industry interests.