The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Is Russia behind anti-fracking activism?


I enjoyed the documentary "Fracknation." I've often assigned it to my students in conjunction with "Gasland." The two films present wildly different perspectives on hydraulic fracturing and natural gas development and both illustrate how a documentary can be quite compelling, while also incomplete.

Much of "Fracknation" seeks to debunk claims made in "Gasland." At this it is quite effective on many points. Other parts of the film are a bit thin. For instance, at one point a journalist suggests that anti-fracking activism is fueled by the Russian government, which is afraid that natural gas development in Europe could reduce Russia's influence. Unfortunately, beyond this one interview, the film offers no support for the claim of Russian involvement.

The idea that an industrial interest would fund environmental activism to further its own economic interests is not new. Natural gas interests funded the Sierra Club for years—to the tune of $25 million or more between 2007 and 2010—to support the group's "Beyond Coal" campaign. (Now the Sierra Club also seeks to go "Beyond Natural Gas.") Incinerator interests also funded some purportedly grass-roots activism against cement kilns, which could burn otherwise-incinerator-bound wastes as fuel. Such funding is just one manifestation of the "Baptist and Bootlegger" coalitions that are common in environmental policy.

So it's plausible that Russian interests would fund political activism in line with their economic interests. But are they? Today's New York Timesreports that many believe so. Though definitive proof is lacking, some point to the "mysteriously well-financed and well-organized" campaigns against fracking in some parts of Europe as evidence of Russian involvement.

Before stepping down in September as NATO's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen gave voice to this alarm with remarks in London that pointed a finger at Russia and infuriated environmentalists.

"Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called nongovernmental organizations—environmental organizations working against shale gas—to maintain dependence on imported Russian gas," Mr. Rasmussen said. He presented no proof and said the judgment was based on what NATO allies had reported. . . .

"It is crucial for Russia to keep this energy dependence. It is playing a dirty game," said Iulian Iancu, chairman of the Romanian Parliament's industry committee and a firm believer that Russia has had a hand in stirring opposition to shale gas exploration across Eastern Europe. He acknowledged that he had no direct evidence to support this allegation, nor for an assertion he made recently in Parliament that Gazprom had spent 82 million euros, or about $100 million, to fund anti-fracking activities across Europe.

"You have to realize how smart their secret services are," he added. "They will never act in the spotlight."

Given Russia's interests, it would not be surprising if Gazprom sought to encourage anti-fracking sentiment. We'll see whether such claims can be substantiated.