A leaked tape from an oil and gas industry conference
shows how Big Carbon uses dirty tricks to undermine science, vilify its
critics and discredit journalists who criticise the use of fossil fuels,
writes Sharon Kelly via DeSmogBlog.
Leave it to Washington's top attack-dog lobbyist Richard Berman
to verify what many always suspected: that the oil and gas industry
uses dirty tricks to undermine science, vilify its critics and discredit
journalists who cast doubt on the prudence of fossil fuels.
In a speech at an industry conference in June, surreptitiously recorded by an energy executive, Rick Berman ‒ the foremost go-to guy for Republican smear campaigns ‒ gave unusually candid advice to a meeting of drilling companies.
“Think of this as an endless war,” he told executives in a speech, which was leaked to the New York Times by an attendee at the conference who was offended by Berman's remarks. “And you have to budget for it.”
He said the industry needs to dig up embarrassing tidbits about
environmentalists and liberal celebrities, exploit the public’s short
attention span for scientific debate, and play on people’s emotions:
“Fear and anger have to be a part of this campaign.
We’re not going to get people to like the oil and gas industry over the
next few months.”
Berman also advised that executives continue to spend big:
“I think $2 to $3 million would be a game changer. We’ve had
six-figure contributions to date from a few companies in this room to
help us get to where we are.”
But always cover your tracks, he suggested, adding that no-one is better equipped at doing so than his firm:
“We run all this stuff through non-profit organisations that are
insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity.
People don’t know who supports us. We’ve been doing this for
20-something years in this regard.”
Berman, whose tobacco ties were profiled yesterday by DeSmog contributor John Mashey, is the founder and chief executive of the Washington-based Berman & Company
consulting firm. He attended the conference in Colorado, hat in hand,
looking to raise money from energy companies for an advertising and
public relations campaign he started called Big Green Radicals.
The campaign has already placed a series of intentionally
controversial advertisements in Pennsylvania and Colorado, heavy
drilling states. The firm has also paid to place its media campaign on
websites aimed at national and Washington D.C. audiences.
The event where Berman spoke was held in Colorado Springs and was sponsored by lobby group Western Energy Alliance.
The crowd included executives from drilling firms like Chesapeake Energy and EnCana Oil and Gas, along with energy services companies like Halliburton, industry trade associations, law firms and banks, according to a scheduled attendee list also provided to The Times.
He told them:
“… wherever possible, I like to use humour to minimise or marginalise the other side.”
Berman was joined at the conference by Jack Hubbard, a vice president
at Berman & Company, who described the P.R. firm's approach for
targeting what they labelled “radical” groups like the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Food and Water Watch.
A full transcript of their speech was published by The Times.
“So we thought, how are we going to kick off this
campaign? Take the typical Berman and Company model, in terms of
undermining these folks’ credibility and diminish their moral
He added that they had done “a whole bunch of intense opposition research into their board of directors”, but ended up with nothing more than a campaign based on the gas mileage of the directors’ personal vehicles.
As an example of their effectiveness at changing the public's
perception of an issue through personal attacks on advocates, Hubbard
explained how their campaigns worked:
“…one of the things we are really focused on is how do
we take the message, put it on a bumper sticker, and get it out to the
public so it gets coverage and you break through the 24/7 news cycle.”
The team’s tactics include taking advantage of people’s short
attention spans, especially where ballot initiatives and issues of local
control are concerned.
“The next thing you know, you’re trying to play defense
against multiple public initiatives that are very different and very
complex. And the public, frankly, doesn’t have the time or the brain to
understand them all. So what we wanted to do is that we wanted to brand
the entire movement behind this as not being credible and anti-science.”
Berman described the job of convincing people as he sees it —
introducing just enough doubt that even if people don’t support an
issue, they’re confused enough to write it off.
“Instead of getting the ‘he said she said’ debate, what
you will get with the factual debate, often times, you’re going to get
into people get overwhelmed by the science and ‘I don’t know who to
believe. But if you got enough on your side you get people into
a position of paralysis on the issue. You get into people’s minds a
tie. They don’t know who is right. And you get all ties because a tie
basically ensures the status quo.”
It is unclear whether people have the stomach for more of this type of behaviour. Even the pro-drilling Denver Post editorial board has criticized the tactics that Berman suggested and which industry public relations outlets like Energy In Depth have been using for years, calling one ad:
“… a cheap shot at fracking foes.”
But the industry itself is desperate as public concerns about climate
change increase and popular sentiment turns against more drilling. And
desperate times mean desperate measures.
The recording is by no means the first evidence of these aggressive and ad hominem tactics.
Last month, DeSmog described how
the industry’s attack machine has gone after major foundations and
endowments, attempting to frame their donations to environmental groups
as an insideous conspiracy to undermine American energy production
instead of a response to the growing number of problems related
Back in 2011, CNBC revealed that Range Resources
was taking military psy-ops skills and applying them to political
battles in Pennsyvlania and across the U.S., with an official from
another shale gas company, Anandarko, telling attendees at a Houston shale conference that
“… we are dealing with an insurgency.”
They’ve also claimed that the media is waging a “war on shale gas” at times when reporters started asking tough but vital questions, surrounding dubious financial practices and how toxic waste from fracking is handled, for example.
The industry famously targeted the New York Times itself back in 2011 when that paper ran Drilling Down, an award-winning investigative series about fracking.
In the recorded speech, Berman and Hubbard provided detailed public relations advice to those gathered:
“If you want a video to go viral, have kids or animals.”
Mr. Hubbard added, describing a series of billboards deploying personal attacks on Yoko Ono and Robert Redford, both of whom have spoken out against fracking:
“There is nothing the public likes more than tearing down celebrities and playing up the hypocrisy angle.”
Berman is also known for having created the American Beverage Institute in 1991, which lobbied against tougher restrictions on drunk driving, while protecting its donors.
He is also especially notorious among labor unions, another of his favorite adversaries. Berman created the so-called Center for Union Facts, which led a $10 million anti-union campaign, without disclosing its donors.
As he said:
“I get up every morning and I try to figure out how to
screw with the labor unions — that’s my offense. I am just trying to
figure out how I am going to reduce their brand.”
Listen to the audio recording of Berman spilling his secrets in full.
This story was originally published on DeSmog Blog as 'Oil and Gas Industry's "Endless War" on Fracking Critics Revealed by Rick Berman' and has been republished with permission.