Corporate insiders peddling the claim that drilling for methane gas will solve America's energy needs just scored big in Washington -- and for these insiders fracking for gas is very lucrative business. House Resolution 1380, given the feel-good moniker of the "New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act " or "NAT GAS Act," was announced on Wednesday, April 6, in the U. S. House of Representatives. The bill is 24-pages long and rewards the fracking industry with tax credits and products to help "drive" consumption. The bigger the vehicle, the more tax credits given.
This initiative to expand the controversial fracking process -- which has already resulted in contaminated wells and rivers and even ignitable tap water for some -- is being spearheaded in Congress by Reps. John Sullivan (R-Oklahoma), Dan Boren (D-Oklahoma), John Larson (D-Connecticut), and Kevin Brady (R-Texas). The bill has 77 co-sponsors, with 40 Democrats in support, and 37 Republicans, from 33 different states.
But, perhaps its most powerful supporter or potential supporter is President Barack Obama. Just two weeks ago, he alluded to being a strong supporter of a bill of this nature in a speech on March 30 on "America's Energy Security" at Georgetown University. In that address, he specifically mentioned T. Boone Pickens's name when discussing legislation to support expanded fracking for methane.
Pickens Hearts Methane: A Quick Review
As has been documented by PR Watch, T. Boone Pickens is a diehard advocate of methane gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale basin of the U.S. and elsewhere, vis-a-vis what he has coined as the "Pickens Plan".
Announced in July of 2008, his PR pitch is about "getting off of foreign energy sources" and "using the resources we have at home." In theory, these soundbites could refer to greater investment in renewable resources like wind and solar energy. In practice, it has meant a push by Pickens for relentless fracking for methane in virtually every crevice of American land.
Though hailed by Pickens and other uncritical observers as an "energy efficient solution" and a "clean" energy resource, this PR spin ignores the true dangers and consequences of fracking and of the methane distribution and consumption process. Fracking -- using a drilling technique pioneered by Halliburton that forces a concoction of hazardous chemicals and drinkable water into shale--has been well-documented in movies like Gasland, as well as by the Center for Media and Democracy's Water Portal, as a dangerous and destructive process that shortchanges land owners, enriches drillers, and spoils land and water.
Obama Embraces the Pickens Plan
But the potential for natural gas is enormous. And this is an area where there's actually been some broad bipartisan agreement. Last year, more than 150 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle produced legislation providing incentives to use clean-burning natural gas in our vehicles instead of oil. And that's a big deal. Getting 150 members of Congress to agree on anything is a big deal. And they were even joined by T. Boone Pickens, a businessman who made his fortune on oil, but who is out there making the simple point that we can't simply drill our way out of our energy problems.
Obama also referenced Pickens in a March 11 address, using the same "This is one emergency we can't drill our way out of" talking point. In an interview after the March 11 address, Pickens praised Obama in appearances on Fox News and CNN's Larry King Live.
The headline of a March 30 Dallas Morning News article gets the headline right on what just happened: "Obama endorses Pickens plan for natural gas vehicles." Seconding that, the Miami Herald headline from April 3 reads, "Obama, oilman Pickens allied on natural gas push." The lead of that article states, "The centerpiece of President Barack Obama's new energy policy mirrors the plan trumpeted for more than two years by a one-time GOP juggernaut: Dallas oilman T. Boone Pickens."
This is the same oilman who was a huge funder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- he gave some $3 million, according to a story by Politico.com, to the organization that is infamous for the smear campaign it ran against John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential Election.
Obama and Pickens both also claim that, for "national security" purposes, we need to end our addiction to foreign oil, particularly from OPEC countries. Yet, government reports show that gas companies are exporting an increasing amount of methane gas drilled throughout the U.S. to other countries, thus adding to the profits of the industry as it depletes the gas supply available to Americans.
Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal reported that two big Houston, Texas methane gas drilling companies, Freeport LNG and Cheniere Energy, are entering the export market. U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), one of the bill's original four sponsors, represents Texas's 8th congressional district, which is located just outside of Houston. These two companies, lo and behold, are headquartered in Houston.
Additionally, a cursory look toward Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries the United States military is currently occupying, shows that fossil fuels are on the minds of the powers-that-be and will be for years to come. The Trans-Afghainstan Pipeline, located in the heart of Pipelineistan, was a project spearheaded by U.S. oil company Unocal. The pipeline procures methane gas.
Similarly, the Sourcewatch article titled "Oil and War in Iraq" also shows that Iraq sits on one of the largest oil reserves in the world, much of it consisting of methane gas. That article, citing a Sept. 2008 report from The Guardian, states, "In September 2008, oil giant Shell became the first western oil company to win significant access to the energy sector in Iraq since the 1970s, in a $4 billion deal...Shell signed an agreement with the Oil Ministry to form a joint venture with the South Oil Company ... to process and market natural gas extracted on 19,000 sq km (7,300 sq miles) of land."
A National Security concern? Certainly a concern for big profits, accompanied by big spin.
How the "NAT GAS" Bill Story Broke and What that Tale Tells
The way the story on the bill was broken reveals a lot about how the bill came to be. The first four entities to break the story are all, as will be seen, in some way, shape and form, well-connected to Pickens: School Transportation News (STN) and Natural Gas Vehicles for America (NGVA), and the American Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), and Clean Energy Fuels (CEF). All four originally broke the story before the bill was publicly available.
ANGA consists of all of methane's key players, including Cabot Oil and Gas, Chesapeake Energy, Seneca Resources, and EQT, among others. (SourceWatch has new profiles on these companies and the political donations and activities of their leaders.) ANGA showered Obama's March 31 address with praise.
NGVA, on the other hand, is called a "peer group partner" of the so-called "American Clean Skies Foundation." NGVA has a programming agreement through the Foundation's PR channel, Clean Skies TV Network, and the Foundation is funded by Chesapeake Energy CEO, Aubrey McClendon. NVGA's spokesperson is the author of its press release on the announcement of the NAT GAS Act, and Denise McCourt, according to her LinkedIn page, is the former Industry Relations Director of the American Petroleum Institute (API). Before that stint, she was the Director of General Membership and Member Relations.
CEF is another "peer group partner" of the American Clean Skies Foundation that has a programming agreement with Clean Skies TV Network. Coming full circle, Pickens sits on its Board of Directors, as does John S. Herrington, the former United States Secretary of Energy under Ronald Reagan during his second term as President. The President and CEO of CEF, Andrew J. Littlefair, according to his biography on their website, is also the President of NGVA. According to that same biography, he formerly served as President of Pickens Fuel Corporation. A glance at the American Clean Skies Foundation webpage shows that he also sits on the Board of Directors with McClendon.
Pickens Fuel Corporation is the predecessor of CEF, which Littlefair co-founded in 1997 with Pickens. It was reincorporated as CEF in 2001. CEF dedicated its first Liquified Natural Gas plant to Pickens in May 2006, according to its website. The plant is called the "Pickens Plant." CEF's homepage includes links to the American Clean Skies Foundation, Clean Skies TV Network, and the NGVA website.
A bit trickier to figure out, STN, according to its website, "is a monthly news and feature magazine serving the field of pupil transportation." Two of its "industry contacts" for "vendors and suppliers" in the "alternative fuel and equipment" category include, lo and behold, NGVA and CEF.
An e-mail exchange with the Editorial Director of STN and the author of STN's article on the House' introduction of the NAT GAS Act, John Gray, confirms that he had not yet seen a copy of the legislation when he wrote his article, but was flagged about it via a direct contact from a representative from the NGVA. Gray predicts that NGVA "were likely key authors of the legislation. My hunch is that they helped write it. Standard procedure in DC. They are a lobby."
Many Questions to Answer, and Avenues to Explore
To be fair, it is unfortunately not uncommon for lobbyists to write drafts of legislation but that does not make it not unseemly. This situation does raise legitimate questions. The age-old questions are about wealthy interests dictating law to willing servants in the legislature. Or to put it another way, the question is whether the gas industry's money is basically throwing its voice, like a ventriloquist, through the public's (or industry's) servants in Congress. And, relatedly, given all the access expensive lobbyists and donations can procure in Congress, what access if any has been given to ordinary people who have deep concerns about the the methane industry's grand plans? Here are some more specific questions:
1. If well-connected and multi-billion dollar industries represented by groups such as CEF, the ANGA, and NGVA were the first to see this bill and know its details before it was available to the general public, did they actually write the thing, in part or in whole, themselves, as Gray suggested? Why and how did they get a head start?
2. Was there some sort of bargain negotiated between President Obama and Pickens in their mid-August 2008 meetings before he became President? Did candidate Obama promise to support drilling in those pre-election meetings?
3. Did the $4,800 Pickens that gave to two the bill's sponsors, Rep. John Sullivan (R-Oklohoma), and Rep. John Larson (D-Oklahoma), (figures according to the Center for Responsive Politics) have any influence on their decision to propose this bill? How about the $10,000 Pickens gave to two swing states' Democratic Parties in the 2008 Presidential election, Colorado and New Mexico? Both of these states also sit on huge potential beds of gas. How often have these reps or their staff been meeting with gas lobbyists and how much time has been given to citizens with concerns?
4. How much influence did the $327,400 campaign cash doled out in the 2010 election from the hand of Big Oil (much, but not all of which comes from methane gas companies) have on these four representatives?
5. How about the $11,000 from Aubrey McClendon ($4,800 to Boren and $4,800 to Sullivan, as well as $2,300 to Obama)? How about the $37,000 that the corporation he is CEO of, Chesapeake Energy, doled out to the bill's four co-sponsors? Did that money carry with it any clout?
6. Will there be any public hearings that will let people like Josh Fox and others who have documented concerns about fracking be allowed to testify before Congress?
The Center for Media and Democracy plans to keep digging into this troubling proposal and its details in the coming days and months ahead.