Lamar Smith concerned by ‘Russia’s propaganda war against fossil fuels,’ not election interference

GOP congressman is willing to blame Russians for anti-fracking sentiment, but not for election results.

A natural gas facility in Moscow. CREDIT: Greg Westfall
A natural gas facility in Moscow. CREDIT: Greg Westfall

By Jeremy Deaton

It’s well documented that during the 2016 U.S. presidential election Russian forces acted to mislead the American public using fake news articles and fake social media accounts.

Now, some Republican House Representatives are investigating whether Russia used similar tactic to spur opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial technology used in the production of natural gas.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee, is launching an investigation into whether Russia is meddling with the U.S. public’s perception of fracking — even though Smith has discredited multiple reports that Russia interfered with the election.

Lamar Smith doubts Russia’s influence on the 2016 election.

Lawmakers have a duty to protect the sovereignty of the United States, both by warding off foreign interference in policymaking and by guarding the integrity of elections. Smith holds a more cynical view, dismissing Russian meddling on behalf of the Trump campaign, then offering exceptional credence to theories that Russian activities have threatened his biggest donor.

Smith told the Texas Standard in July that he doesn’t believe Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election had any tangible effect. “I’ve heard the accusations. I’ve heard the assertions. I haven’t seen any hard evidence,” he said.

Smith does, though, believe in “Russia’s propaganda war against fossil fuels.”

Lamar Smith. CREDIT: NASA HQ
Lamar Smith. CREDIT: NASA HQ

RT, Russia’s state-funded news agency, has published articles and aired TV segments that question the safety of fracking — as have numerous other news sites, ThinkProgress included.

Specifically, the House Science Committee is investigating whether Russian entities bought anti-fracking ads on Facebook, Twitter and Google. Intelligence officials say that Russia deliberately attempted to influence the election via social media. Russia infiltrated the Democratic National Committee, hacked into voter databases, and shared anti-Clinton messages on Facebook and Twitter. The activity had “a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” officials found.

Smith’s dismissal of Russia’s role in the elections suggests a willingness to discount the meddling of a foreign power when it’s politically convenient. During the election, Russia’s activities supported Smith’s preferred candidate. (The Texas Republican said he was the “first member of Congress to contribute to Donald Trump.”) Now that Russia is going after the oil and gas industry, a major donor to Smith’s campaign committee, the Texas Republican is taking a decidedly different stance.

In letters to the CEOs of the social media companies, chairman Lamar Smith wrote that his committee is concerned that anti-fracking ads “have negatively affected certain energy sectors,” including natural gas. Smith gave the companies until Tuesday to submit documents.

In recent months, Smith also suggested that Russia is bankrolling U.S. anti-fracking campaigns and called on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to investigate possible ties between environmental groups and the Kremlin. There is little evidence to suggest this is the case, either. Notably, Smith has a history of harassing scientists and environmental advocates. Last year, he demanded emails related to a NOAA study showing temperatures are rising faster than previously thought. He also tried to subpoena emails exchanged between climate advocates and state attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil over allegations that it misled investors about climate change.

Russia doesn’t care about the environment. Its goal is to undermine the United States.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose hydraulic fracturing. The chemicals used in fracking have been linked to infertility, miscarriage and birth defects. Fracking also has been shown to cause earthquakes. And drilling sites leak methane, a potent heat-trapping gas that contributes to climate change. U.S and British environmentalists have repeatedly drawn attention to the negative health and climate impacts of the practice.

But it’s clear that Russia isn’t concerned about the environmental impact of fracking. In fact, the opposite: Russia recently issued tax breaks to incentivize fracking. It isn’t concerned about climate change either. Russian president Vladimir Putin is notoriously skeptical of the carbon crisis. He has said that rising temperatures “wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia.” In its pledge under the Paris Agreement, Russia gave itself room to increase emissions between now and 2030. According to U.S. intelligence, the goal of Russia’s anti-fracking campaign is solely to undermine the United States’s natural gas development.

CREDIT: Hieronimus Dietrich
CREDIT: Hieronimus Dietrich

Fracking allowed the United States to overtake Russia as the world’s largest producer of natural gas.

A January U.S. intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election said RT’s anti-fracking programming likely reflects “the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and U.S. natural gas production on the global energy market.”

Russia has the largest known reserves of natural gas, and for years it reigned as the world’s top producer. That was until the U.S. natural gas boom. In 2005, natural gas production took off in the United States, thanks to improvements in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that allowed producers to access previously inaccessible stores of shale gas at low cost. Gas output surged and prices fell. Over the next few years, gas overtook coal as the largest source of electricity in the country, and the United States surpassed Russia as the world’s most prolific producer of natural gas.

CREDIT: Energy Information Administration

Russia still ranks as the world’s top gas exporter, supplying around one third of the gas consumed by the European Union. The United States lags behind in exports, trading largely with Mexico and Canada. Because gas must be conveyed by pipeline, both the United States and Russia do most of their business with neighboring countries. Until recently, there was little risk of a turf war.

U.S. producers now want to sell gas in Russia’s backyard.

Now, however, the United States is trying to break into the European market by upping exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which can be shipped overseas. European countries would welcome another supplier of natural gas, especially given their history with Russia, which cut exports to Europe amid a 2008 dispute with Ukraine. In a speech earlier this year in Europe, Trump hinted at Europe’s dependence on Russia. “The United States will never use energy to coerce your nations, and we cannot allow others to do so,” he said.

CREDIT: Government Accountability Office

For now, the United States doesn’t pose a serious threat to Russian dominance in Europe, and it faces several hurdles even to becoming a real competitor. It is costly to both cool natural gas to the point where it becomes a liquid and to heat it back up again. And liquefaction facilities are sparse on both sides of the Atlantic — although the United States has several under development.

Russia could cut prices to ward off overseas competitors, but that doesn’t mean Russia is happy to sit back while U.S. producers gain a toehold in Europe. Russia’s economy is dependent on fossil fuel exports. So, in an effort to undercut U.S. producers, Russia has sought to raise concerns about hydraulic fracking, the technology that made American gas so cheap.


Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.