Putin's Other American Propaganda Effort: Anti-Fracking News
Energy politics makes strange bedfellows, none stranger than Robin Hood and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
RT, a media organization that the U.S. intelligence community calls "the Kremlin's principal international propaganda outlet," published an article on Jan. 2 under the unlikely headline: “Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest hideout under threat from frackers.” The article, which carries no byline and cites the work of environmental activists, laments plans of a unit of Ineos Group, a Switzerland-based chemical company, to conduct seismic testing for natural gas near Major Oak, the millennium-old tree that served in legend as headquarters to Robin Hood and his merry fellows. (Ineos Shale and Friends of the Earth have been involved in a public dispute over the environmental group's depiction of fracking, with the U.K.'s Advertising Standards Board weighing in.)
This wasn't the only foray by RT, formerly known as Russia Today, into anti-fracking coverage. The media organization has regularly published articles and aired segments that appear to oppose fracking, the fossil-fuel extraction technique that has made the U.S. an energy superpower again. One "exclusive" interview about the extraction technique features the opening question: "There are a lot of studies that say fracking is dangerous, so why do you think some countries and companies think it’s worth the risk?"
RT's practice is so marked that U.S. intelligence officials used it last week as an example of how Russia promotes its national interests abroad. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) states in the public version of its report on Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election (PDF):
“RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government's concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom's profitability (5 October).”
Russia is currently the world’s second-largest natural gas producer, after the U.S., and the third-largest producer of petroleum and other hydrocarbons, after the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. As weird as it sounds for Russia to throw in with American and British environmental activists, it may be a case of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, at least from the Russian perspective. Interfering with fracking-driven U.S. fossil-fuel production—one way or another—could boost global prices of oil and natural gas, which made up about 63 percent of Russian exports, according to this helpful visualization from MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity.
"This is probably the most high-profile example that points to a direct attempt by Russia to undermine the shale revolution in the United States," said Katie Brown, a spokesperson for Energy-in-Depth, an education and research project run by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. The group frequently provides counterpoint to environmentalists opposed to fracking in the U.S.
"This raises a lot of questions regarding where funding for anti-fracking foundations comes from," Brown added. Public charities are not required to disclose all of their funding sources.
Russian opposition to fracking abroad may be significant not because it exists—which is widely known among analysts—but because the Office of the Director of National Intelligence thinks it's noteworthy within the context of alleged Russian election tinkering. "It's not exactly news," said Joe Barnes, a research fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. "It's only news at this point because it appears in the [intelligence community assessment]."
Russia's economy is bolted to oil and gas the way the Statue of Liberty is bolted to its pedestal. Energy prices driven low by U.S. production have caused economic and regional political headaches for Russia, which has seen its leadership erased or eroded in both natural gas ...
... and in the production of petroleum and other liquid hydrocarbons.
The relationship between the U.S. and Russia is anything but simple. Competition for fossil-fuel market share is made even more complicated by an array of issues the countries do or don't cooperate on—or, in some cases, even talk about. These include the multi-nation deal on Iranian nuclear security (to which Putin was a party), the state of NATO, to Russia's harboring of Edward Snowden. The U.S. maintains economic sanctions on Russia that range from Cold War-era measures that support people's freedom to emigrate to penalties imposed after Putin's incursion into Ukraine.
How President-elect Donald Trump, with his sunnier view of Russia and Putin, will navigate this complexity is anybody's guess. "I literally can not make a prediction," Barnes said. "Literally. Can you? Can anyone?"