Financing the Seeds of Doubt on Shale

The scientific consensus concerning the safety of hydraulic fracturing and shale gas development is well established. After all, state regulators, officials in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, Democratic and Republican governors and independent reviews – including one spearheaded by the current Secretary of Energy – have all affirmed the process doesn’t pose a credible risk to the nation’s water and air.  In fact, experience shows increased natural gas utilization brought about by shale development is ridding our nation’s air of greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants, and even helping increase renewable energy utilization in the United States.  That’s one reason President Obama noted in his 2012 State of the Union Address that the nation’s abundance of natural gas means “we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”

It goes without saying this is great news for most Americans. That good news is also a terribly inconvenient and credibility-decimating narrative for anti-shale activists such as Josh Fox. And yet, faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicts their public statements, critics are sparing no expense to prevent the public from recognizing such broad scientific agreement.  It’s what happened with the launch of Gasland, and it’s looking ever more likely that this is what the marginalized activist community is gearing up to do again.

To wit: Months before the HBO premiere of Gasland Part II, Josh Fox has already secured $100,000 for the next iteration of his pathos-driven film series — whose original offering was widely panned by independent observers as being “fundamentally dishonest” and a “polemic.”  It’s also why the Park Foundation, the organization funding Fox and just about every other anti-natural gas initiative, just committed over 11 percent of its 2013 grant awards to organizations working overtime to block hydraulic fracturing’s continued advance.

A review of the Park Foundation’s 2013 grants show that it’s increasingly worried about Americans recognizing that oil and gas production technology is not nearly as risky or tumultuous as the organization would like them to believe.  Take for example, just a few of the group’s most recent contributions:

$100,000 to the International WOW Company for Gasland, Part 3
$125,000 to Food and Water Watch (one of the most aggressive anti-fracking groups in the United States) to “protect and conserve the nation’s water resources”
$40,000 to Catskill Mountainkeeper, Inc. “for its on-going comprehensive campaign against fracking”
$50,000 to Physicians Scientists and Engineers for Sustainable and Healthy Energy for general operating support
$60,000 to the Public Policy and Education Fund of New York for “its campaign against fracking in New York and related organizing work in the Southern Tier.”
$110,000 to the Sustainable Markets Foundation to help “coordinate a broad movement of opposition to shale gas drilling”
$20,000 to the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance for an anti-hydraulic fracturing web based talk show, and
$50,000 to 350.org for the advancement of their fossil fuel divestment campaign

Of course, the Park Foundation isn’t alone in its efforts to steadily feed misinformation into the public sphere. A recent report – titled “Fracking Survey 2012: Report on NGO and Philanthropic Efforts to Address Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing” – declares bluntly:

“Engagement of NGOs and foundations on this issue [hydraulic fracturing] is growing rapidly.  The NGOs surveyed reported spending a total of $17.4 million in 2012; they hope to expand that investment of effort to more than double that figure in 2013.” (emphasis added)

The report also notes that “foundations surveyed reported investing a combined total of $18.3 million in fracking related grants in 2012.”

For those keeping track at home, that means opponents of hydraulic fracturing spent more than $35 million to further their cause – in 2012 alone. And they have the temerity to claim that they’re just the “little guys” standing up to Big Oil? Please.

Almost as important as the amount of funding being levied at the issue are the priorities that funding is being directed towards.  Here, too, the report provides some clear evidence that, like the Gasland series, much of this funding is earmarked to disseminate largely false information, rather than informing and advancing the scientific discussion.

Revealingly, when asked what strategies this funding went to support, respondents overwhelmingly indicated it wasn’t being directed at advancing increased scientific understanding or research. Instead, as the report observes: “The NGO respondents gave highest priority to communications work and raising public awareness,” while 68 percent of NGO expenditures and 83 percent of foundation expenditures were dedicated towards efforts to influence activities at the state and local level. The graph below shows this in very clear terms.

HF organizing efforts

That’s right: An internal survey of NGOs and foundations working to influence the public’s perception on hydraulic fracturingshows that, in their own words, they are pumping millions of dollars into states and local communities to advance talking points that don’t align with the scientific and regulatory consensus. As if it could get any worse, the study found a clear majority of this funding is being directed towards regions where supposedly “grassroots” groups and NGOs (think Catskill Mountainkeeper, as an example) are using talking points that are completely unhinged from reality. That region, of course, is the Marcellus Shale, to which NGOs and foundations funneled nearly $20 million in 2012. Marcellus Shale gets the NGO dough

As EID has noted time and again, this is a region where NGOs that appear in the “mainstream” have blatantly attempted to mislead the public with little concern for accuracy, much less a well-reasoned and informed debate.  A few noteworthy examples:

Penn Environment’s attempt to claim water contamination in Pennsylvania with a picture of a flooded rig, which a review later showed to be located in Pakistan.

NRDC’s claims of “poisoned” drinking water in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which both the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared was safe.

The Sustainable Markets Foundation support for, and mailing of, publications to over 140,000 residents in New York claiming that gruesome scenes of environmental destruction were attributable to natural gas development when, in fact, they were not.

Activists funding an ongoing legal campaign to compel communities to ban hydraulic fracturing due to unfounded claims of health impacts.

Josh Fox’s claims that shale development resulted in increased rates of breast cancer, which was later refuted by an Associated Press investigation titled “Some Fracking Critics Use Bad Science.”

And yet, despite being rebuffed at literally every turn, they’re going to avoid any sense of reflection on Gasland Part II and move full speed ahead with Gasland Part III?  Remember, the Park Foundation gave Josh Fox’s production company, International WOW, some $150,000 for Gasland, and now they’re going to throw another $100,000 at him – on top of all the grants he’s received from various city, state and national arts organizations at taxpayer expense? You’ve got to hand it the guy – he knows how to hustle.  As the Playgoer blog noted regarding the original Gasland, “what does a downtown director have to do to get on national TV?  Make an HBO muckraking documentary, of course!” Apparently, making several such documentaries is the best path toward fame – or, perhaps, infamy.

Neither the Park Foundation nor Fox has learned there is a law of diminishing returns that applies to such antics. Gasland Part II is a pitiful rehash that led Fox into the cardinal sin of film-making – being boring. What will Gasland Part III be?  We can only guess, but one suspects they’re venturing into Jaws III territory where things move from being boring to being a joke. The fact that they’re steamrolling ahead without any concern about the pushback against Gasland Part II shows that engaging in legitimate debate isn’t the goal here; it’s about flooding the zone, and things like facts or accuracy only delay that process.

The irony is that all of this money is being spent to oppose a process that has been proven safe, is improving our national economy, and increasing the quality of life for middle class Americans nationwide. Even more interesting is that these funds are presumably for environmental activism, and yet it’s natural gas – largely developed with the help of responsible hydraulic fracturing – that is helping the United States reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bring increased quantities of renewable energy into our nation’s power grid.

But if your work to date has not been based on facts and science, why stop now?

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