On Bogotá’s famous Avenida Séptima (7th Avenue) in Colombia, about where it connects with 76th street near the Russian Embassy, a large mural was painted on a wall. The mural, since painted over, was graffiti art in opposition to “Fracking,” or Hydraulic Fracturing. Known within the petroleum industry as an “Unconventional” method, hydraulic fracturing is a method of oil and gas extraction from wells where conditions don’t support conventional pumping. This may be because the geology is such that the petroleum doesn’t readily flow underground, or even older wells where free flowing petroleum has already been pumped, but additional oil remains in the formation.
Just last week, the British government imposed an immediate ban on hydraulic fracturing nationwide. The country has been rocked by intense anti-fracking protests who have blocked traffic, with protesters chaining themselves to vehicles, even obstructing air transport and public transportation. The trigger for the ban? A “2.9 magnitude tremor” in the English town of Blackpool, near hydraulic fracturing activities by British energy company Cuadrilla.
This article does not seek to take a position on hydraulic fracturing, rather it investigates the way that Active Measures are used to manipulate unwitting civil society groups to achieve policy aims.
For some context, in the past day, the US Geological survey reported 53 natural earthquakes in the US alone, with a 2.5 magnitude or above. The vast majority of these are not even noticed by humans and go unreported in the news. Meanwhile, a study of micro-tremors in Surrey and Sussex, England determined conclusively that they were not caused by hydraulic fracturing, and even had they been, they were too small to present any danger. Still, the media attention has caused UK support for hydraulic fracturing to plunge.
In Ohio, a state in the US Midwest where hydraulic fracturing has taken place for decades, a series of “micro-seismicity” tremors not exceeding 2.2 were detected by scientific sensors, “none of which were reported felt by the public” according to a 2013 article by the Seismological Society of America.
Pungesti is a small, impoverished town in NATO member country Romania. The mayor, Vlasa Mircia thought the town had hit it big when Chevron Petroleum (NYSE: CVX) leased land for shale gas exploration. But soon, anti-fracking activists appeared from other parts of Romania, clashing violently with the police. The mayor was temporarily run out of town.
What is behind the resistance? “Everything that has gone wrong is from Gazprom,” Mayor Mircia told the New York Times. Gazprom, the petroleum giant controlled by the Russian government stands to benefit from European and global dependency on Russian oil and gas exports. The UK relies on gas imports to heat 80% of its housing, so a shock to imports could freeze the country in the winter. Domestic shale gas production would provide a degree of energy independence that the country does not now have. Due largely to hydraulic fracturing, the United States has gone from being a petroleum importer to a petroleum exporter.
Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been very blunt, and points the finger directly at Vladimir Putin. “I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations – environmental organizations working against shale gas – to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.”
“Russians are behind the protests against Chevron.” — Anca Maria Cernea
For his part, President Putin, former KGB chief, has portrayed himself as an environmentalist. “Fracking poses a huge environmental problem. Places that have allowed it no longer have water coming out of their traps but a blackish slime.” Of course, not only can Putin pump Russian oil as he wishes, with or without hydraulic fracturing, he does not permit the kind of protests and civil disobedience in Russia that he is being accused of fomenting elsewhere to suit his needs.
Curiously, Gazprom subsidiary NIS is exploring for shale gas in Western Romania but unlike Chevron, has faced no protests.
Countries generally won’t go into specifics or “on the record” like Rasmussen did on such allegations because the information is gathered through intelligence networks. However, a NATO official told UK media outlet The Guardian that “Russia has been using a mix of hard and soft power in its attempt to recreate a sphere of influence, including through a campaign of disinformation on many issues, including energy. In general, the potential for Russia using energy supplies as a means of putting pressure on European nations is a matter of concern. No country should use supply and pricing terms as tools of coercion.”
The South American country of Guyana found itself the victim of disinformation in August when Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson M. V. Zakharova claimed (falsely) that the United Kingdom was constructing a military base in the tropical country, and “there have already arrived several dozen so-called ‘Refugees’ from Venezuela to undergo training as part of reconnaissance and sabotage groups and then to be dispatched to Venezuelan territory in order to destabilize the situation and carry out appropriate actions – from extremist to terrorist.”
Guyana has a once in history opportunity. If it can avoid The Resource Curse discussed in depth in “The Dictator’s Handbook,” it can go from being one of the poorest countries in The Americas to an very high standard of living and long term economic prosperity—or, it can mismanage, squander & steal the proceeds. The choice is clear.
The government of Guyana issued a statement denouncing the slander. Guyana, which sits between Brazil and Russian ally Venezuela has recently discovered a vast petroleum field of high quality light crude oil in its offshore waters. This has prompted the Venezuelan dictatorship to attempt to claim the offshore territory for itself. In 1899 the dispute was settled by arbitration, in 1962, with the prospects of petroleum riches apparent, Venezuela reneged on the agreement and again disputed the territory.
By 1990 relations had improved enough for Venezuela to sponsor Guyana’s 1990 bid to join the Organization of American States, but under Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship of Venezuela the belligerence has returned. In 2013 the Venezuelan navy seized an oil exploration vessel operating in Guyana’s waters and working on behalf of Anadarko Petroleum (Now part of Occidental Petroleum (NYSE: OXY)). After discovering potentially 5 billion barrels of crude oil in Guyana claimed territory, ExxonMobil is making major investments in the country, and so far, the environmental activists don’t seem to have significantly mobilized.
They may not need to. Venezuelan dictator and Putin supplicant Nicolas Maduro is doing the job for them. Again, in December of last year, the Venezuelan Navy stopped a Bahamian flagged exploration ship contracted to ExxonMobil and working in Guyanese waters, 90 miles from the border. After the Venezuelan navy approached, the ship pulled anchor and fled to international waters.
The US State Department has warned Venezuela that “Guyana has the sovereign right to explore and exploit resources in its territorial waters,” and stated that it was monitoring the situation.
In July, Baltic sea coastal country and former Soviet satellite country Latvia shut down news organization Baltnews.lv. Government censorship? No, the Baltic state and NATO member discovered that Baltnews.lv was an instrument of Russian intelligence. The website was registered to Rossiya Segodnya, controlled by Dmitry Kiselyov, a propagandist directly promoted to his position by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kiselyov is under restrictive sanction by the European Union for his participation in Active Measures. Rossiya Segodnya is the renamed Radio Comintern from the Soviet Union.
The vast majority of activists are very genuine in support of their causes, whether the environment, a political ideology, animals, social justice, or countless other legitimate issues. However, it is not very difficult for hostile actors, such as governments in this case to coopt these efforts.
Read the official US government final report: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Study of Hydraulic Fracturing and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources
Romanian activist George Epurescu told the New York Times that his activist group, originally established to fight political corruption, was educated about “the shale gas problem” from Bulgarian activists. Russian-leaning Bulgaria canceled a shale gas license issued to Chevron and banned Fracking in 2012 after protests and organized activism from groups that had not focused previously on environmentalism.
The domestic energy alternative would have been beneficial to Bulgaria, a country that saw industry stop and citizens freeze in the winter of 2009 when Russia cut off its natural gas supply to Ukraine, Eastern and central Europe. With the ban on hydraulic fracturing, Bulgaria remained completely dependent upon Gazprom and Russia for essential natural gas. Recently, Bulgaria has sought to diversify its gas supply, but still remains dependent upon imports.
The Case in Colombia & The US
Colombia continues to discover oil; just last month Ecopetrol announced it struck additional oil in the La Paz Formation that lies under the Santander department, in the east of the country. On the other hand, due to growth in domestic consumption, the country is in danger of becoming a natural gas and oil importer. According to Colombia’s National University, the country will face gas shortages as soon as 2024 without significant changes in projected supply or demand.
As the country improves its standard of living, more and more families are connected to municipal natural gas networks, or cooking with compressed gas, and with the intent of “going green” more and more cars, trucks and buses in Colombia run on natural gas. Without adequate supplies, natural gas will become scarce, prices will skyrocket, and vehicle operators will flee back to diesel and gasoline.
Colombian anti-fracking activists have already mobilized, and as in Bulgaria, appear to be well organized and well-funded. In a politically divided country, it isn’t difficult to gain traction. Former revolutionary militant, mayor of Bogotá, and current senator Gustavo Petro ran unsuccessfully for president of Colombia on an anti-fracking platform.
It can be particularly easy for state actors to encourage and support well-meaning local anti-fracking activists in Colombia because of the country’s historic political polarization. In 2016 The FARC, one group of communist rebels finally agreed to lay down arms after 50 years of armed insurgency. Two separate Marxist groups, the ELN and EPL remain active, and neighboring antagonist Venezuela has also provided material support to Colombian guerillas. It isn’t hard to find someone willing to scream “Imperialismo” at any significant industrial initiative—especially if it involves international companies.
Foreign actors are already jumping in the game. One London based activist group already cries in a 2017 article “A multinational fracking boom has begun in Colombia. New concessions threaten the water supply to the capital city of Bogota.“ though there has been zero hydraulic fracturing to date in Colombia as of 2019, two years after the article was published, and no petroleum company holds any contract to explore for oil in the Páramos, or wetlands near Bogotá. According to Luis Miguel Morelli of Colombia’s National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH), the government agency is only now in 2019 working with Colombia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) to write technical and environmental rules for experimental hydraulic fracturing pilots that they expect to take place late in 2020.
Apparently the misinformation came from a press release published by “The Colombian Alliance Free From Fracking,” cited in Colombian weekly magazine La Semana. The same article admits “It is necessary to clarify that these areas are delimited unilaterally by the government, that soon would offer them to enterprises interested in developing this activity. Still, up to the moment, no contracts have been signed for exploration or for extraction from the mentioned blocks. Even still, various environmental organizations attached to the Colombian Alliance Free of Fracking have sounded the alarms before what they consider to be a menace for environmental sustainability of the country.”
Russian money has already allegedly been traced to the Sea Change Foundation based in San Francisco. According to an article in the Washington Examiner, a money trail flows from Russia through a shell company in Bermuda directly to the environmental group, where it then goes to other allied groups through grants such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. The secretive offshore entity Klein Ltd. funneled $23 million USD to the Sea Change Foundation in 2010 and 2011.
US members of the house of representatives Lamar Smith and Eddie Bernice Johnson sent a six-page letter (see graphic, right, with link to download the letter) to Secretary of The Treasury Steven Mnuchin on June 29, 2017 detailing what they call “a concerted effort by foreign entities to funnel millions of dollars through various non-profit entities to influence the U.S. Energy Market.” The letter requests “a full and complete investigation into the allegations raised…If the above allegations are true, Russian entities have funneled money through shell corporations to U.S. environmental activist organizations to influence US energy policy.”
Update: Finance Colombia has received a statement from representatives of the Sea Change Foundation (click here)
An extreme partisan environment in the US may hobble unified, aggressive action in the US to counter Russian efforts, especially less than 2 months away from a presidential election year.
But maybe not. The two major parties might just unite enough to fight back yet, with Democrats bitter about Russian tampering in the 2016 election, and Republicans friendly to US oil interests. Democrats seem to realize there is a problem. “We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort, ‘Oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you,’ and a lot of the money supporting that message was coming from Russia,” said former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in remarks to a private group, according to an article by The Washington Times.
In a speech to Deutsche Bank, Clinton said “With the new technology known as fracking, we are truly on a path — and it’s not just United States; it’s all of North America — that will be net energy exporters assuming we do it right.” Many criticized Clinton in her failed presidential campaign of saying anything to anybody in order to get elected.
95% of oil and gas wells drilled in the U.S. today are hydraulically fractured, according to the National Petroleum Council.
During a March 6, 2016 debate, Clinton tried to perch upon both sides of the fence, when she said she supports hydraulic fracturing but then she doesn’t “when any state or locality is against it. “So by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place…And I think that’s the best approach, because right now there are places where fracking is going on that are not sufficiently regulated.”
The Industry Response
The free-world petroleum industry, made up not just of the giant petroleum companies, but thousands of small local service companies and mineral rights holders, and hundreds of thousands of downstream businesses such as gas stations and oil-change shops, has presented no coordinated consistent response so far; not surprising because it is made up of countless different businesses, often with divergent interests. Individual company responses haven’t been much better. No company appears to be taking an aggressive stance to make its case, probably afraid to become a target of the bile and ire of rowdy, sometimes violent protesters.
In Colombia specifically, things are even worse. A coalition of local petroleum industry groups published a series of animated cartoons and infographics on YouTube, apparently directed towards children for their Saturday morning styling, called “La Verdad del Fracking” (The Truth About Fracking). They don’t identify themselves as an organization in their YouTube channel. Every viewer comment on the channel is anti-Fracking and there is no attempt at response or engagement.
The coalition’s website “La Verdad Del Fracking” isn’t very impressive either. With a cartoon or comic design, it focuses on the economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing to Colombia, which are real, but the site lacks a serious discussion addressing concerns and challenges made by anti-fracking activists. Better than nothing at all perhaps, but it isn’t driving the debate.
Whatever the industry is doing, it is too little, and will soon be too late if they expect to present their case. They would be wise not to make the same grave mistake global mining concern AngloGold Ashanti made when they attempted to enter Colombia and negotiate solely with Bogotá politicians and ignoring the villagers and public opinion. They literally got run out of town.
The activists “own the street” quite literally, from graffiti to protests, to social media, to grassroots one-to-one campaigning on university campuses, and street teams winning over the vast public with no opinion one way or another, one conversation at a time.
Reading the comments on “La Verdad del Fracking’s” Facebook page, it is clear they are losing badly in social media. Every comment is in ridicule of the coalition’s posts, and the page protagonist is a cartoon character. It’s just not serious.
On their coalition Twitter account, in response to this tweet comparing soccer players in Colombia and Argentina (WTF?) one responder replied: “All the ways to defend Fracking and you come out with this silliness? Not this way. Sustain yourselves with questions of Engineering.”
🇦🇷tiene a Messi✅
🇨🇴tiene a James✅
🇦🇷tiene a Fito Paez✅
🇨🇴tiene a Juanes✅
🇦🇷tiene autosuficiencia energética✅
¡Hace 10 años🇦🇷 decidió desarrollar los no convencionales con fracking, esto le permitió pasar de importar recursos a exportarlos! ¿Y 🇨🇴 por qué no?🤔 pic.twitter.com/gyj72DYRTS
— La Verdad del Fracking (@VerdadFracking) October 2, 2019
As far as the individual companies, most upstream exploration and production enterprises, including Colombia’s state-controlled Ecopetrol (NYSE: EC, BVC: ECO) are silent on their Spanish-language Colombian websites, except for ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), which provides a thoughtful argument in support of hydraulic fracturing.
Outside of industry events where executives largely “preach to their choir,” inadequate public engagement is taking place and the companies, singly or in the aggregate, do not currently own the initiative on this issue. A lot more can be done to foster an honest discussion.
Perhaps after such a dialogue, Colombians, Guyanese, Britons, Romanians, Bulgarians and others may still vote no on hydraulic fracturing, but it should be their decision, not Vladimir Putin’s.
2016 Anti-Fracking carnival in San Martín, Cesar photos credit: “Esperanza Próxima” on Flickr, kindly licensed under Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)