If there is an up-and-coming investigative journalist to follow, it’s Steve Horn of DeSmog Blog. If you follow any of Frack The Media’s social media, you’ve been exposed to Steve. What draws us to Steve (and others like him) is his attention to detail surrounding the energy issue. It’s a multifaceted, highly complex and propagated geopolitical issue — regular reports often miss these intricacies (as mainstream media outlets tend to gloss over complex topics ). Long story short, we got to pick Steve’s brain and highlight some of the important investigative work he does.
Frack The Media: A lot of your reporting has focused on fracking and tar sands. What draws you to these particular issues?
Steve Horn: I focus on these issues for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the majority of the reporting on these issues by U.S. and Canadian reporters only grazes the surface, treating them as only environmental issues or only as energy issues. That’s not the case.
Given my academic background is in sociology and history and my keen interest in geopolitics, there is far more to these issues than meets the eye at face-value. I use my “sociological imagination,” as C. Wright Mills put it, when doing reporting on these issues. That means being an ecologist and looking at how the local interconnects with the global and looking at energy as not only an environmental issue, but also as a geopolitical issue.
In the case of fracking and tar sands, they’re the two biggest sources of energy that have transformed the U.S. and Canada into the “New Saudi Arabia” for oil and gas, huge players in the geopolitical “great game,” as Zbiginiew Brzezinski once put it. Not only are these important issues because they’re ravaging ecosystems and racing us to climate change catastrophe, but they’re also reshaping geopolitics as we know it.
There will still be wars for oil of course, as it’s a cornerstone of U.S. geopolitical planning. But given tar sands and fracking are both seen as political pawn chips on the “Grand Chessboard” to fend off Russian dominance of the global gas market and Saudi/Russian dominance of the global oil market, these issues aren’t going away anytime soon without a hell of a fight by grassroots activists, regardless of the idealism of some well-meaning environmentalists. That means busy times for an investigative journalist and endless stories to tell, an incredible time to be in the business to say the least.
FTM: You’ve reported on the industry influence of academic research on fracking (“frackademia”). Can you explain this issue and it’s significance?
SH: Yes, I actually got into reporting on “frackademia” originally because I was interested in the “Grand Strategy Programs” being funded by major patron of the right, Roger Hertog. I ended up writing a two-part investigative series on this for TruthOut back in 2011 and was also doing a bunch of reporting on fracking at that time too. I thought, “Hey, if there’s university-military-industrial complex, there must also be something akin to academia in service to promoting fracking, as well.”
Lo and behold, I didn’t have to look far to discover “frackademia” — academics whose studies are funded by and function in service to industry, often just propaganda “studies” — on campuses nationwide. First I discovered energy investment baron T. Boone Pickens gives huge bucks to his alma mater Oklahoma State University. It’s so bad at Oklahoma State that entire endowed professorships are funded by huge oil companies, such as Anadarko Petroleum, Devon Energy, etc.
But it’s not just an Oklahoma State issue, it’s everywhere: Penn State, Ohio State, University of Southern California, University of Texas-Austin, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo) and the list goes on.
There’s even a federally-funded “frackademia” program: the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA), which was created via the Energy Policy Act of 2005’s Section 999. And President Barack Obama’s head of the US Department of Energy, Ernest Moniz, used to sit on its Board of Directors. It’s important to note Moniz is a “frackademic” himself, with a background in doing key industry-funded studies while a professor at MIT.
Why’s the issue significant? Because the corporate university — what Jennifer Washburn calls “University, Inc.” — exists as a cheap research and development center for the oil and gas industry and other multinational corporations, as well. And as state-funding continues to be cut at once-public universities nationwide by neoliberal Governors representing both political parties under the umbrella of austerity, we can expect even more reliance on industry funding from campus research centers. It’s a vicious downward spiral that – by definition – only gets more vicious over time.
And as S. Dennis Holbrook — a public relations higher-up for the New York Independent Oil and Gas Association — said at a 2011 industry PR conference in Houston, it’s key to “seek out academic studies and champion with universities—because that again provides tremendous credibility to the overall process.”
Disinformation is the name of the game for the industry — with “frackademia” just another piece of that puzzle — and it’s the job of journalists to counter lies and deception and tell the public the truth.
FTM: Political pressure to export LNG has been growing. What is LNG and what domestic and geopolitical issues are driving this?
SH: LNG is shorthand for “liquefied natural gas.” That is, gas that’s super-chilled to −260 °F at a facility and then shipped on a tanker to global markets.
The US may — if the industry and investors have it their way — become a massive exporter of LNG on the global market. Ernest “Frackademic” Moniz is a major fan of LNG exports and several export terminals have been approved under his watch at the commanding heights of the DOE.
There aren’t really any domestic issues driving the boom for LNG exports and many U.S.-based manufacturers and chemical producers don’t even like the fact gas may be exported on the global market because — though few really have grasped this concept — gas isn’t just for energy. Fracked gas is also useful for creating petro-chemical products, manufacturing, fertilizers, etc. It’s a major feedstock and those who produce these substances in the US don’t necessarily like the idea of gas being used as a geopolitical pawn chip on global energy markets to fend off Russian dominance of that market under the watchful eye of President Vladimir Putin.
FTM: How does the showdown with Russia over Snowden fit into this?
SH: As I’ve written before, there is a “great game” being played out behind the scenes of the Edward Snowden — of NSA whistleblower fame — asylum affair. Russia, where Putin was granted one year of Asylum by Putin and the Russian government, is a major producer of gas. In fact, it’s the top holder of of conventional gas reserves on planet Earth, for now. And the US hates that for historical geopolitical rivalry reasons dating back to the Cold War.
I think we’re seeing a new Cold War developing between Russian exports of gas — which recently passed a law to further liberalize its gas export market and passed another related law to break state oil company Gazprom’s monopoly on gas exports — and the US exports of gas. Snowden’s asylum stand-off — in my opinion — served as a public relations snafu for Putin, who doesn’t really care about civil liberties, the environment or anything else liberals/progressives/people on the left care about. It gained him legitimacy on the world stage as Russia continues to push for a new “gas OPEC” in the form of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF).
In fact, as I have pointed out in my investigative reporting, Putin announced he would grant Snowden asylum in Russia on the sidelines of last summer’s GECF meeting. And Russia has been the biggest proponent of the creation of a “gas OPEC.” GECF’s continued push and growth will be a trend to watch for close observers of global energy geopolitics in the weeks, months and years to come.
Indeed, the U.S. government sees Russia’s push for a “gas OPEC” and its status as a competing natural gas producer and exporter as a geopolitical threat, so much so that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a major report on it titled, “Energy and Security from the Caspian to Europe” in December 2012.
One other related item of interest used as a propaganda tool by the corporate media and the political right was correctly pointing out the fact that Matt Damon’s Hollywood film “Promised Land” was financed partially by Image Nation Abu Dhabi — a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media — wholly owned by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
UAE of course is a member of OPEC and GECF and is an emerging Middle Eastern gas exportation hub with a real economic interest in slowing the fracking boom for the sake of bolstering its own ecologically destructive conventional gas boom. And the chairman of the Board of Abu Dhabi Media is Mohamed Mubarak Al Mazrouei, also the undersecretary to the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince’s Court. Coming full circle, Al Mazrouei’s boss Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan sits on the Supreme Petroleum Council of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
Some anti-fracking activists have tried to brush this critique of what I felt was actually a really good film aside, but I think to do so is to miss an important lesson in how propaganda works. That is, propaganda often doesn’t always come from one faction, it works in a very sophisticated way and it’s always important to follow the money. Look no further than the U.S. shale gas industry’s two most recent propaganda films — “Truthland” and “FrackNation” — in order to understand the multiple faction nature of the propaganda machine.
FTM: The industry has also exerted its influence with regard to tar sands. What actions has the industry taken to influence the fate of the Transcanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline?
SH: The industry has spent millions of dollars lobbying on behalf of the Keystone XL. It’s spent millions more on advertising to blast out propaganda over the airwaves, on TV, on YouTube and other platforms. It’s also utilized the industry-government revolving door to get its way. Basically, conventional influence peddling and nothing more, another day at the office for paid hacks and flacks.
But it’s important to note how close President Obama’s inner-circle is to the Keystone XL decision, as I’ve pointed out in my investigative reporting.
Look no further than to Anita Dunn, Obama’s former Communications Director who does PR now for Transcanada at her Democratic
Party-aligned PR firm SKDKnickerbocker. Who’s Dunn’s husband? Robert “Bob” Bauer, Democratic National Committee election law attorney, Obama’s election law attorney in 2008 and 2012 and Obama’s personal attorney. The private firm he works at — Perkins Coie — also does legal work on behalf of Transcanada in Alaska and Transcanada is of course the owner of the Keystone XL project.
Some would call it a conflict of interests, I would say it actually clarifies whose interests the Obama White House serves: those of huge multinational corporations.
FTM: What is petcoke and how does it relate to tar sands?
SH: Petcoke is shorthand for petroleum coke, a coal-like by-product of tar sands that can be used in coal power plants to produce energy/power. It’s way dirtier than conventional coal, so much so that it can’t even legally be burned in the U.S. So it’s become a hot export commodity, refined in the U.S. and exported to the global market. There are major refineries both in the midwest and the Gulf coast and it’s a commodity that will only become more and more lucrative as tar sands continue to flow into the U.S. via pipelines and rail.
FTM: In what ways could the northern half of Keystone XL influence petcoke exports and what greater impacts could this have?
SH: I think it’s incorrect to look at how Keystone XL’s northern half will influence petcoke in of itself.
It will, of course, but so will any other tar sands pipeline that flow into the U.S., such as Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper, Enbridge’s Flanagan South, Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline, Keystone XL’s southern half (rebranded the Gulf Coast Project), the original Keystone, etc. Basically, if tar sands flow into the U.S., it means the petcoke market will flourish. And because tar sands are increasingly flowing into the U.S., that means the petcoke market will become increasingly huge, another “prize” the U.S. can export to the global market.
As Oil Change International has lead the way in investigating, the ecological issues inherent in petcoke production are horrific and will only hasten catastrophic climate change. Koch Industries is a leading producer of petcoke and conveniently, they deny climate change exists and fund the climate change denial echo chamber. There are also serious storage issues with the petcoke feedstock as exemplified in Chicago, so much so that even the neoliberal “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel — Obama’s former Chief-of-Staff — is pushing for regulations in the southeast side of Chicago’s petcoke facilities.
In short, it’s an environmental issue that will only grow in size along with a growing backlash to it over time. I encourage everyone reading this to watch what happens in Chicago around the petcoke issue closely, as it will lead the way for what the industry calls “stakeholder relations” going forward.
FTM: And finally, given the political climate around the energy issues, as a journalist do you have any fears about the facts you are exposing to the American public? Put another way, based on the reporting you do, are you worried you will become subject to things like unreasonable search and seizure, wiretapping, electronic surveillance, etc.?
SH: Honestly, not really. I am very well aware of the stuff Snowden revealed and was well aware of it before he even came out and revealed what he has as a whistleblower. I even brought in Glenn Greenwald — who has conveyed Snowden’s findings to speak to a student group I lead called Student Progressive Dane when I was a student at University of Wisconsin-Madison back in fall 2010 when he was still a writer for Salon.com.
I know I will become — if I am not already – subject to things like unreasonable search and seizure, wiretapping, electronic surveillance, etc., but that doesn’t worry me. It means I’m doing my job holding powerful people accountable and providing “actionable intelligence” to citizens and activists.
The way I see it, Wikileaks has hit the nail on the head by saying “Courage is contagious.” I believe that’s the case and thus will not let fear get in the way of doing the hard-hitting reporting that’s necessary and that citizens and activists around the world deserve.