EARTHWORKS

Drillers using counterinsurgency experts

Marcellus industry taking a page from the military to deal with media, resident opposition

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Don Hopey

November 13, 2011
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Marcellus Shale gas drilling spokesmen at an industry conference in Houston said their companies are employing former military counterinsurgency officers and recommended using military-style psychological operations strategies, or psyops, to deal with media inquiries and citizen opposition to drilling in Pennsylvania communities.

Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman speaking to other oil and gas industry spokespeople at the conference last week, said the company hires former military psyops specialists who use those skills in Pennsylvania.

"We have several former psyops folks that work for us at Range because they're very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments," Mr. Pitzarella said during the last half of a 23-minute presentation in a conference session. The session was titled "Designing a Media Relations Strategy to Overcome Concerns Surrounding Hydraulic Fracturing."

"Really all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that," he continued. "But very much having that understanding of psyops in the Army and the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania."

Matt Carmichael, manager of external affairs for Anadarko Petroleum, which has nearly 300,000 acres of Marcellus Shale gas holdings under lease in Central Pennsylvania, gave a speech urging industry media spokesmen to read a military counterinsurgency manual for tips in dealing with opponents to shale gas development.

"There's a lot of good lessons in there," he said, "and coming from a military background, I found the insight extremely remarkable."

The remarks of both Mr. Pitzarella and Mr. Carmichael were recorded at the conference by Sharon Wilson, an activist and member of the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a national environmental nonprofit focused on the impacts of mineral and energy development.

She said the term "insurgent" shows what the industry thinks about the communities where it is drilling.

"What's clear to me is that they are having to use some very extreme measures in our neighborhoods. And it seems like they view it as an occupation," Ms. Wilson said.

Psychological operations is a term used in the military and intelligence agencies and involves use of selective communications and sometimes misinformation and deception to manipulate public perception. According to a U.S. Army careers website, psyops specialists "assess the information needs of a target population and develop and deliver the right message at the right time and place to create the intended result."

Environmental groups and residents of communities where Marcellus drilling has been controversial and sometimes contentious were quick to seize on the comments. They said they reflected the industry's battlefield mentality and disinformation strategy when dealing with communities and individuals.

"This is the level of disdain, deception and belligerence that we are dealing with," said Arthur Clark, an Oil & Gas Committee co-chair and member of the executive committee of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club.

"On tape and in print, for once, an industry literally at war with local residents, even labeling them 'insurgents.' I don't recall seeing anyone toting an AK-47 at any of the public meetings or rallies regarding frack gas development."

"It sounds like the gas companies are utilizing military 'psyops' in gas patch communities," said Bill Walker, a spokesman for Earthworks.

Mr. Carmichael did not return calls requesting comment, but John Christiansen, director of external communications for Anadarko, issued a statement, addressing Mr. Carmichael's use of the term insurgency.

"The reference was not reflective of our core values. Our community efforts are based upon open communication, active engagement and transparency, which are all essential in building fact-based knowledge and earning public trust."

Mr. Pitzarella explained his remarks by saying the industry employs large numbers of veterans, including an attorney with a psyops background who "spent time in the Middle East," with temperaments "well suited" to handling the sometimes "emotional situations" at community meetings the company holds to explain its well drilling and fracking operations.

"To suggest that the two comments made at unrelated [conference sessions] are a strategy is dishonest," Mr. Pitzarella said. "[Range has] been transparent and accountable, and that's not something we would do if we were trying to mislead people."

But despite repeated questions, Mr. Pitzarella would not name the Range attorney with a psyops background. The company does employ James Cannon, whose LinkIn page lists him as a "public affairs specialist" for Range and a member of the U.S. Army's "303 Psyop Co.," a reserve unit in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Cannon could not be reached for comment.

Dencil Backus of Mount Pleasant, a California University of Pennsylvania communications professor who teaches public relations, once had Mr. Pitzarella in his class. Mr. Backus said it's "obvious we have all been targeted" with a communications strategy that employs misinformation and intimidation, and includes homespun radio and television ads touting "My drilling company? Range Resources"; community "informational" meetings that emphasize the positive and ignore potential problems caused by drilling and fracking; and recent lawsuits, threats of lawsuits and commercial boycotts.

"There's just been a number of ways in which they've sought to intimidate us," said Mr. Backus, who has been a coordinator of a citizens committee that advised Mount Pleasant on a proposed Marcellus ordinance. "It's one of the most unethical things I have ever seen."

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

Tagged with: psyops, ogap, marcellus shale, fracking, drilling

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