Sorting Fact from Fiction: a look at oil and gas industry commercials

Last week brought disappointment to those of us who wanted the opportunity to vote on increased local control of oil and gas operations within our neighborhoods.  The Colorado Secretary of State disclosed his decision that there were not enough legitimate signatures on the petitions to get initiatives 75 and 78 on the ballot this November.  Then as if to add insult to injury, a new commercial started airing thanking Colorado citizens for taking a “balanced” approach to energy development by not signing these petitions.

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The commercial features Gale Norton, who tells us that as our former State Attorney General it was her responsibility to “keep a watchful eye on ballot measures.” As she speaks,  images of drilling rigs surrounded by open fields flash across the background.  She references her prior political office, seeking to portray herself as an impartial observer rather than someone with an agenda.  It is a clear effort to make us believe that she knows what is best for us, like a parent exerting authority for our own good. Never mind the fact that Gale Norton has long-standing ties to the oil and gas industry, having worked for Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company before starting her own consulting firm.  Furthermore, in her work as the U. S. Secretary of the Interior under President George Bush, she promoted the expansion of oil and gas operations in the West and resigned amid an ethics investigation involving convicted felon Jack Abramoff and her department .  All in all, given her allegiance to the oil and gas industry as well as questionable ethics, she seems like the perfect person to front this advertisement and paint a distorted view of reality.

I think a more authentic version of the commercial should have Norton say the following: “It should not surprise you that like many past and present politicians,  I am an advocate for the oil and gas industry.  In fact, I feel it is my duty to place the financial interests of the industry ahead of measures that may improve the health and welfare of the general public.  After all, money is good for Colorado, and it’s good for me too.  Look at these images of oil and gas drilling rigs surrounded by open space while I talk about how the recently defeated ballot initiatives would have ‘gutted’ the oil and gas industry and destroyed our economy.   We don’t want you to think about having these same operations right next to your homes and schools — so we will flood your TV screen with images that perpetuate the misconception that oil and gas operations are primarily taking place far away from anything that could possibly impact you directly.  So thank you Colorado, for listening to our campaign to frighten you from signing any petitions.  We’re glad our strategy worked, and we thank you for helping line the pockets of oil and gas companies without questioning whether any of us have a conflict of interest.”

(Side Note: Speaking of conflicts of interest, our current Colorado Secretary of State and Attorney General both have ties to the oil and gas industry, as described in this well written Boulder Weekly article from last week.)

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Another disingenuous commercial frequenting the airwaves right now features Marc the farmer.  He tells us that he has lived and worked on his family’s farm for many years and that Noble Energy is a fantastic company.  He claims, “most of our production takes place in rural areas and so does theirs.”  He also goes on to tell us that 2500 ft setbacks of oil and gas drilling rigs from schools and other occupied buildings is ridiculous and would “cripple” the oil and gas industry.  But let’s take a closer look at those statements.  If most oil and gas production takes place in rural areas then how would 2500 ft setbacks from occupied buildings halt energy operations?  Honestly, if most drilling and fracking were taking place out of sight instead of within our communities, this wouldn’t even be an issue for most people.  But the problem is, for those of us who are unfortunate enough to live where oil and gas companies want to drill, the idea that drilling/fracking mainly takes place in rural areas is laughable.  Why on earth would oil and gas companies be spending millions of dollars on an ad campaign to tell us that they are wonderful if there was not an overabundance of evidence to the contrary?  I especially love when Marc says that Noble Energy is a great company to work with “from a land owner’s perspective.” One of the injustices of real estate is that you can buy a home without a reasonable option to purchase the mineral rights to the land beneath your home.  It must be nice for you, Marc, to own your land and be able to work with Noble Energy to make sure they do not set up that drill rig right next to your house.  That is not an option for those of us who don’t have the money to buy acreage, but instead live within suburban developments without any mineral rights.

We are inundated with additional radio and television commercials that tell us that oil and gas development is vital to our economy, and fracking is safe.    I particularly cringe at the one with the woman walking through the woods, declaring “I have always been interested in protecting the earth” as she goes on to explain that she’s protecting the environment from the inside by working for an oil and gas company.  There is a very  Stepford Wives quality to the blank look on her face as well as the stilted monotone character of her voice.  I think the message is supposed to be calming:  Trust us.  Look, we even have an “environmentalist” who works for us.  We’ll make sure everything is okay.  Go worry about something besides fracking.  Notice that she is not walking in an open field, next to multiple natural gas storage tanks, like the ones we have in our neighborhoods.  She is walking among the trees in an area that has no obvious sign of oil and gas activity.  It is as if the commercial is trying to say, “See, we don’t drill everywhere!  We’ve left a few places intact and unspoiled.  You should thank us for leaving you a nice place to hike.” This propaganda seeks to brainwash us to associate pristine images of nature with oil and gas companies.  Other commercials use this tactic as well.  Consider the Noble Energy TV commercial with the woman in the red shirt running on a path.  Have you noticed all of the clean creeks and waterfalls you see in that commercial?  We are supposed to assume that clean, healthy watersheds go hand in hand with oil and gas companies.

The reality is that there is mounting evidence that fracking waste along with chronic exposure to the hydrocarbons released from oil and gas operations are bad for our health (see peer reviewed scientific articles here).  And mainstream media fails to talk about the smaller spills that happen frequently.  Here’s a report on just one that happened recently in Erie: Spill Release Report to COGCC

The oil and gas industry is counting on us to be gullible.  They assume that the general public will believe the commercials we see on TV, hear on the radio, and find littering our mailboxes.  They are counting on the overwhelming repetition of their message to overshadow the murky truth of the hazards (such as methane leaks described here) for those of us living alongside oil and gas activities.

My message to you is to be vigilant and skeptical:  Ask yourself, if fracking is truly safe and there are no risks to my health from living next to drilling and fracking operations, then why is the oil and gas industry spending millions of dollars on an ad campaign to convince me that I should have no concerns?

Let’s face it.  The pro oil and gas organizations within our state continue to run a very aggressive and effective advertising campaign; since they have millions of dollars to spend on marketing, it is easy for them to defeat the underdog opponent.  One of the more effective schemes was to paint our grassroots local oil and gas control movement as an “out of state special interest.”  They maligned the opposition as the very outsider big money entity that more accurately describes themselves.   Note too the language they choose in naming pro oil and gas organizations: “protect Colorado” and “Coloradoans for responsible Energy Development.”  While misleading and devious, it is a rather ingenious ploy.  We can learn something about how to use vocabulary to our advantage as we formulate our counter arguments.

So how do we fight this onslaught of advertisements when we lack the money and political power that backs the oil and gas industry?  I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  But I do have some ideas:

  • Use social media as much as possible to spread the word.  Experience something in your neighborhood related to oil and gas?  Take a picture and share it on Facebook. Better yet, when drilling rigs are operating near you, get some video and post it to YouTube and Facebook.
  • Support the Sierra Club and other non-profit organizations working on our behalf to fight unchecked development of oil and gas within our state and beyond.
  • Talk to neighbors and friends — be a grassroots advocate.
  • Read as much as you can.  A good starting point is this site which gives a nice synopsis of fracking-related issues.
  • Share this blog and read others such as this one

Yet, the single most important thing you can do for Colorado this year is to vote NO on ballot initiative 71, the so-called “Raise the Bar Initiative.”  This initiative, if passed, would make it more difficult to bring forth future citizen-driven amendment petitions. No matter where you stand on the fracking debate in Colorado, you should be alarmed at the level of influence that industries and special interests have on our politicians.  Maybe the hot button issue right now is fracking, and so you are willing to give up your ability to mount future amendments because you are not too concerned about oil and gas development in your daily life.  But that approach is very short sighted.  You would leave yourself with no future recourse when the political climate changes and a new set of special interest groups are buying our politicians’ votes.  “Raise the Bar” increases the power of politicians and takes it away from the people.  It feeds government corruption.  Take a stand and vote NO.

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