Written for The Ecologist, published 18th March under the title Engineering consent for fracking: Chris Smith and the 'astroturf' consultancy
What we're talking about here is the spectacle of a 'shadow play'; an illusion of form operated invisibly by people behind the scenes. What creates those elusive images is the craft of public relations; in particular the use, since its formalisation in the mid-Twentieth Century by Edward Bernays, of public relations techniques to convince the public of supposed certainties which are objectively misleading.
Unless George Osborne gets new orders about his budget this week, it looks like, despite the bluster of the last year, the Government will not be announcing the results of the 14th On-shore Oil and Gas Licensing Round this side of the election (perhaps they're worried about legal action).
Despite this the Conservative's token 'green', Tim Yeo MP, has been trumpeting the benefits of shale gas, based upon some spurious results produced by DECC, which – as I outline in a new report for Talk Fracking this week – is based upon questionable data. Arguably Tim Yeo's trust in that data, expressed during the Parliamentary debate on the moratorium proposed by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, has been very much abused by DECC and unconventional gas's supporters in government.
In fact, with less than two months to go before the election, and despite 'fracking' having been the major grassroots environmental issue of the last Parliament, all is quiet on the shale gas front.
In reality though this is just the calm before the post-election PR storm.
Irrespective of who wins (or perhaps in the circumstances, who loses the least), after the election the UK public will face an onslaught of PR-orchestrated 'spin' to promote shale gas, coalbed methane and underground coal gasification (UCG) as the best thing since… well, anything!
In Scotland, a moratorium on 'fracking' was imposed days after the failure of the moratorium in Parliament (although, as I highlighted in my last Ecologist article, the wording of the moratorium doesn't cover UCG). As a result the pro-fracking company INEOS, recently heavily invested into unconventional gas, is planning to "love bomb" the Scottish public back into supporting fracking. And though in Scotland that campaign is just getting under-way, in England it's already begun…
What?, hadn't you noticed? – that's because you were not meant to.
In the final case study of my recent report for Talk Fracking I examine the use of academics within the Task Force on Shale Gas – a body set up last September under the auspices of former New Labour minister, and more recently former head of the Environment Agency, Lord Chris Smith.
The Task Force claims to –
…provide a transparent, trusted, independent and impartial platform for public scrutiny, discussion and information about shale gas exploration and production in the UK.
This is where the public relations 'shadow play' comes into its own. Not in the guise of Lord Chris Smith – who while head of the Environment Agency had behind the scenes meetings to thrash out how environmental regulations would be watered-down. Not the Task Force's 'expert panel' members – many of whom have previously expressed support for shale gas and even outright hostility to the anti-fracking movement. And not even the oil and gas industry companies – who are funding the work of the Task Force.
The real players here – the people behind the scenes pulling the strings of the shadow play puppets – are Edelman, the Task Force's secretariat.
Who are Edelman? That's the really important question here – and the most prescient question to ask in relation to the Task Force's future work on behalf of the public.
All modern businesses tend to specialise in certain fields. Edelman's specialism is 'grassroots engagement' – creating industry-friendly front- or 'astroturf'-groups to represent the benefits of controversial developments. Edelman has developed this technique in the US for its large American extractive and industrial clients over the last decade or so.
Their purpose is not to convince the public. They are there – as outlined in the recent US study Merchants of Doubt – to confuse the public so that they don't know who to believe. To create, as the original strategies developed by the tobacco industry in the 1960s outlined, an apparent controversy so they can get their point across. They do not create unity or agreement on an issue, but instead seek to polarise the community to prevent the grassroots opposition holding sway over political decision-makers.
If you want to see how Edelman works, take a look at TransCanada's alternative proposal for the stalled Keystone Pipeline – the East Energy Pipeline. Even before the route was announced, TransCanda employed Edelman to carry out an assessment of how they could –
…drive an active public discussion about Energy East that gives Canadians reasons to affirmatively support the project in the face of organized opposition.
The way this would be enacted is outlined in another study prepared a few months later by Edelman –
The most effective way to counter any external challenge is to ready a robust campaign that comprises proactive and reactive communication activities. This approach strives to neutralize risk before it is levelled, respond directly to issues or attacks as they arise, and apply pressure-intelligently-on opponents, as appropriate.
Their strategy also included a specific digital 'grassroots advocacy' proposal which – from Edelman's US-based offices where they maintain a large interactive intelligence database – would organise an on-line campaign, using 35,000 recruited 'activists', to target conventional and social media with positive messages about TransCanada's pipeline.
The difficulty for Edelman and their clients was that someone leaked these documents to Greenpeace Canada last November.
Which brings us back to the Task Force on Shale Gas.
Up until the Task Force was created, Edelman had been running the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Unconventional Gas and Oil. The APPGs expenses were funded, like many other APPGs, by the industry – a similar group in fact to those who now support the new Task Force.
Trouble was, being comprised of politicians, the public paid little attention to any of the 'industry propaganda' which the APPG circulated.
Then last Autumn, roughly coincident with the formation of the Task Force, Edelman dropped the APPG – handing the secretariat role to another agency with a track record of astroturfing on behalf of industrial causes, Hill and Knowlton.
Was the APPG a failing cause? Were politicians the wrong conduit to influence the public?
After all, in 2013 someone at one of the funders of the Task Force, Centrica, had written an email to the Department for Energy and Climate (DECC) office promoting shale gas stating that –
Our polling shows that academics are the most trusted sources of information to the public so we are looking at ways to work with the academic community to present the scientific facts around shale.
Just few months before the dropping the APPG, Edelman employed Katie Waring, energy secretary Ed Davey's former special adviser at DECC – perhaps indicating that a change of strategy was being planned.
The problem for the ambitions of Chris Smith is that the model of the Task Force – comprising experts doing research for the public, funded by industry and managed by PR agencies – has already been used in the USA. For example, the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. It too was modelled as a 'stakeholder' group where academics, industry and the public could come together and research the impacts of shale gas – but which was shown to be a front group for the industry, and whose fossil fuel industry support increased when some non-industry members left.
Even with the panel of experts many of whom are pre-disposed to shale gas, and the industry financing, the involvement of Edelman is toxic to the future work of the Task Force.
Chris Smith has to come clean about: who thought up the concept of the Task Force; who co-ordinated the early meetings and identified the key figures who would take part; and what has been the role of Edelman in that process. If the Task Force exists "to provide a transparent, trusted, independent and impartial platform for public scrutiny", then a key part of that has to be accounting for the previous manipulative role of Edelman in controversial public issues – and whether that contaminates the Task Force's role to serve the public interest.
In the USA almost sixty years ago the father of PR, Edward Bernays, stated in his influential book, The Engineering of Consent –
Today it is impossible to overestimate the importance of engineering consent; it affects almost every aspect of our daily lives. When used for social purposes, it is among our most valuable contributions to the efficient functioning of modern society… The responsible leader… must apply his energies to mastering the operational know-how of consent engineering, and to out-maneuvering his opponents in the public interest.
The Task Force on Shale Gas, in its composition, the background to its formation, and those who organise its work, has the appearance of an industry front group; organised by the company who specialise in such tactics to 'engineer consent' – Edelman. Unless and until the process by which the Task Force was created is fully revealed, including who employed or commissioned Edelman in that role, then the Task Force cannot be considered – irrespective of its academic credentials – to be a fair and impartial platform to discuss unconventional gas and oil in Britain.