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Extensive ad campaign plays up benefits, ignores hazards of shale drilling

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By Timothy Puko
Sunday, June 19, 2011
 

When U. S. Steel Corp. created its three-diamond Steelmark logo, it generated so much buzz that the Pittsburgh Steelers adopted it in the 1960s.

Advertising and public relations campaigns, coupled with the widespread employment steel provided for generations, helped cement the industry's standing as a point of local pride, an integral part of Western Pennsylvania's identity despite its environmental drawbacks.

Now, natural gas companies and the energy industry that set up shop in Western Pennsylvania to tap the gas-rich Marcellus shale are trying to do the same thing, ad experts say.

Exxon Mobil and national industry groups are airing commercials about shale gas and domestic energy production. Chesapeake Energy has a series of first-person testimonials about the company. The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association bought billboards along several Pennsylvania interstates.

"Based on the polls, I heard they're doing a pretty good job of getting people on their side," said Paul King, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. "They seem to be catching up pretty well."

Nearly 70 percent of 1,277 registered voters said the economic benefits of drilling outweigh the environmental impacts, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.

"Are you going to have the Shalers• The Pittsburgh Shalers• Maybe that's never going to happen, but they still want us to be supportive of the industry because it makes life a whole lot easier for them," said Audrey Guskey, associate professor of marketing at Duquesne University. "It's taking the offensive and saying, 'This is a good thing for the region and we can be an international leader.' "

Pittsburgh has become an international player in gas drilling because of the Marcellus shale; in coal and nuclear because it's the corporate home of industry leaders; and in research because of its universities.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry advocacy group based in Cecil, hired former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to give site tours and speeches touting the industry. Ridge, whose firm is paid $75,000 a month by the coalition, said last week that drillers recognize they need to improve their image if they want to be "warmly embraced" by the public, not just "grudgingly accepted."

Ridge said drillers may have misjudged how Pennsylvania residents would feel about an industry that arrived virtually overnight, creating startling wealth and tens of thousands of jobs but plenty of headaches, including truck traffic and industrial accidents.

Energy groups and companies pay for Twitter feeds and e-mail blasts that blanket media outlets several times a week with news releases, studies, reports and opinion pieces. Their people help supporters organize and get to public hearings across the state.

"What I see when I look at those ads is an industry that's trying to reframe the debate around energy security and job creation instead of the environmental hazards that come with development (of) unconventional gas," said Kevin Massy, assistant director of the Energy Security Initiative at The Brookings Institution.

Shaping public opinion

The Marcellus Shale Coalition last week said it surpassed 200 members. It started with a "loose affiliation" of 17 industry stakeholders in 2008 and 2009, said Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director. Her full-time staff grew to 12, and she plans to hire one more. It contracts a part-time public relations team, she said.

The coalition spent about $1.8 million in 2009, the most recent tax data available. But with the increase in membership, dues alone — $50,000 annually for producers and pipeline companies and $15,000 for associate members — should bring in at least $4.4 million this year.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America has an $8 million budget and in 2009 created an offshoot, Energy in Depth, to help with outreach in the Marcellus shale.

The group gained national attention for rebutting industry opponents and pointing out biases and shortcomings in scientific research critical of the industry. It has a low, six-figure budget, its officials said, declining to be specific. This month it drew the ire of Pennsylvania environmentalists for offering free meals, hotel rooms and transportation to bring sympathizers across the state to a federal safety hearing in Washington County.

Environmental groups have reached out, too, mostly by mobilizing supporters at protests and public hearings around the state.

The Sierra Club in Pennsylvania nearly doubled its fundraising from its annual spring appeal this year to almost $60,000, said Jeff Schmidt, director of the state chapter, one of two paid employees.

Money for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation jumped more than 50 percent in one year, according to its federal tax returns. The foundation, one of four environmental groups represented on the governor's Marcellus Shale Commission, reported $27.7 million in donations and grants on its 2009 returns, the most recent available. Yet, spending went up and despite the funding gains, the group lost almost $3 million that year.

Its 18 staffers in Pennsylvania have worked with more than 1,100 landowners on water quality issues over seven to eight years, and with a staff stretched that far, it's hard to respond to the industry, said Matt Ehrhart, the group's Pennsylvania executive director.

"If you went out there to try and find a professional petroleum geologist to consult with, who wasn't already working for the industry, you'd be hard pressed to find one. It's a daunting task to keep up," he said.

Officials from Chesapeake Energy, Exxon and industry groups declined to say how much they're spending on lobbying, public relations, community meetings and organizing.

Fueling pride

One of the next campaigns will be from the Energy Alliance of Greater Pittsburgh to tout the importance of the energy industry here.

The campaign will attempt to persuade Pittsburghers that the industry can be a source of immense pride, as steel once was, said Tom Hoffman, a consultant on the campaign.

The drilling industry is trying to prove its worth by spotlighting people benefiting from the work. It's also trying to convince people it's responsible at a time when environmental and tax policies are still in major flux in state and federal government, he said.

Scrutiny of the drilling industry is increasing as state legislators debate taxes and fees as part of their budget season and the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission nears a Wednesday deadline to make policy recommendations.

"It is important for them to continue to tell their side of the story because there are still decisions being made by policymakers," said Hoffman, a former Consol Energy Inc. executive who runs his own company, Carbon Communications Consultants.

Federal officials are mulling laws and expanded oversight and beginning to study the safety of hydraulic fracturing, the method used to tap gas a mile underground.

In the past 12 months, several high-profile accidents occurred. Wells blew out and contaminated water in northeastern Pennsylvania and Clearfield County. Fires injured workers at wells in Independence in Washington County and in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle.

Industry officials say the accidents are anomalies.

Jeff Schmidt, director of the state's Sierra Club chapter, said proactive industry messages seek to prevent the public from thinking about the industry's consequences.

"Their goal is ultimately to affect public policy, so they need to distract the public from the problems so they're effective in getting what they want from the Pennsylvania General Assembly," Schmidt said.

 

 
 


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