We've updated the end of this post to include a statement from Gasland writer/director Josh Fox.
The drilling revolution brought on by hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" - the process of shooting millions of gallons of chemical- and sand-laden water underground to coax oil and gas out of massive shale formations - has led to a long, serious debate in Texas. What that debate has largely been about: faucets that catch fire; methods for disposing of drilling waste that seem to cause earthquakes; a process that sucks up vast amounts of water in drought-stricken areas; and air-fouling pollutants that have accompanied the drilling boom.
What that debate hasn't been about: Russia. That is, unless you're Texas Railroad commissioners David Porter and Barry Smitherman.
Smitherman, head of the state commission that regulates oil and gas drilling, sounded the alarm this summer as Denton City Council considered a proposal to ban fracking in city limits. Denton city leaders only heard the measure after a group of concerned citizens gathered enough signatures to force a vote (they ultimately punted, calling for a November ballot measure to let voters decide if the city should ban fracking).
But instead of environmental or health concerns driving the citizen petition, in a four-page letter to the Denton City Council Smitherman cited rumors of Russia "secretly working with environmental groups" in Europe to ban fracking, and suggested Russian interests might be behind the local fracking ban. "With this in mind, I trust that you all will determine whether funding and manpower behind this effort to ban hydraulic fracturing in Denton is coming from out of state sources or from those who would profit from the imposition of such a ban."
Not to be outdone (or, maybe because he's been watching too much Red Dawn), commissioner David Porter blared this in a news release yesterday: "Porter Exposes Putin Plot to Hurt Texas Economy: Underhanded Anti-Hydraulic Fracturing Campaign Designed to Drive Dollars from US to Russia."
Porter, in a two-page letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, warned that the Russian gas giant Gazprom is seeking to undermine the U.S. and European natural gas industries to boost its own market share. Porter begins by citing recent reporting by the Center for Public Integrity that revealed Gazprombank, which is controlled by the Russian state-owned energy company, has hired two former U.S. senators to lobby against economic sanctions President Obama has imposed on the oil giant because of the crisis in Ukraine.
While we're thrilled to see anyone from the Railroad Commission citing CPI's dogged investigative reporting (which, had Porter bothered to check, actually includes this stunning indictment big oil's operations in the South Texas fracklands), Porter wandered into conspiracy-theory territory in the second half of his letter to Kerry. He warns that Russia's "apparent strategy includes funding anti-hydraulic fracturing environmental organizations, placing misinformation in the public, and even mass media propaganda - namely their assistance with the distribution of Gasland, an incredibly deceitful film about hydraulic fracturing in America."
Of all the articles and reports Porter links to in his letter to Kerry, none contain evidence that Russian-paid PR firms are spreading misinformation about fracking. None of them even address whether Gasland's prospects were boosted by big Russian oil.
As others have pointed out, the Russian-funded-environmentalists meme is one that's caught fire in right wing and pro-industry circles as of late. Smitherman is just one of many to cite NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen's suggestion that Russia was secretly working with European groups to discredit fracking ("That is my interpretation," Rasmussen later said, declining to give any details).
And Rasmussen was hardly the first to speculate whether Russian interests might fund environmental groups in order to ban fracking in foreign countries and corner the market. As revealed in Wikileaks' 2012 dump of internal emails from the private "intelligence" firm Stratfor, industry-paid analysts have been looking for a Russia-Gasland connection since at least 2010. (Check out the email here; it proves only how laughable some of Stratfor's "intelligence" really was).
We've reached out to Porter's office seeking any evidence that Gazprom has funded anti-fracking efforts in the US or that Gasland is in any way tied to Russian oil interests. We've also asked the Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox for comment. We'll update if we get any response.
Update September 10, 11:30 a.m.: While Commissioner Porter's office has yet to respond for our request for, well...evidence, Gasland writer/director Josh Fox sent us this statement this morning:
Mr. Porter's assertions are outright fabrications and are utterly ridiculous. There is no connection between the Gasland films and Vladimir Putin whatsoever. Such statements by Mr. Porter are a brazen deceitful attempt to stir up controversy and focus attention away from the corrupt agency that he heads. The Texas Railroad commisson has been derelict in its duty to protect citizens from harmful fracking on dozens of occassions. Mr. Porter should be ashamed of himself for such outright lies. Furthermore, I am opposed to gas fracking anywhere on earth- here in the US, in Russia -everywhere. We have developed a grassroots campaign at www.solutionsgrassroots.com to foster the development of renewable energy so that we can move towards distributed generation of locally produced renewable energy. We must move away from energy as a fossil fuel commodity and towards renewable energy. If energy continues to be a commodity we will all continue to be dependent on robber barons and despots like Mr. Putin who will fight and kill for fuel. The wind and the sun should put all of these despicable characters out of businesss and put energy in the hands of the people. No more wars for fossil fuels abroad. No more misinformation about fossil fuels from those who would betray the public trust like Mr. Porter.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.