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Railroad Commissioner Raises Concerns About a Russian Threat

Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter on Monday became the second of the state's three oil and gas regulators to raise concerns that Russia is waging a misinformation campaign against hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Railroad Commission Chairman David Porter.

The Railroad Commission of Texas is talking an awful lot about Russia this summer. 

Commissioner David Porter on Monday become the second of the state's three oil and gas regulators to raise concerns that Russia, looking to bolster its share of the global natural gas market, is waging a misinformation campaign against hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the method of blasting apart shale to free up oil and natural gas.

Russia is the world’s second-leading natural gas producer, behind the U.S., and Texas is responsible for about one-third of U.S. output. Porter says that Gazprom — Russia's state-controlled natural gas company — is partnering with U.S.-based public relations firms to spread unsupported propaganda about the environmental and health risks of the practice of fracking. 

Moscow's "apparent strategy includes funding anti-hydraulic fracturing environmental organizations, placing misinformation in the public, and even mass media propaganda — namely their assistance with the distribution of Gasland, an incredibly deceitful film about hydraulic fracturing in America,” Porter wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. The effort "has already resulted in the ban of hydraulic fracturing in many EU countries, and now, they have their sights set on the U.S.”

Porter’s letter comes two months after fellow Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, weighing in on a local push to ban fracking in Denton, suggested that Russian influences could be involved.

Circulated in a news release headlined “Porter Exposes Putin Plot to Hurt Texas Economy,” Porter's letter cites news reports showing that the Russian government and Gazprom have signed multimillion-dollar deals with Ketchum, a U.S.-based public relations firm, to support Russian interests globally. None of the reports cited in Porter's letter, however, addressed whether those firms were spreading misinformation about fracking.

Porter’s letter also cites an essay by Keith C. Smith, an associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, accusing Russia of warring against fracking. The essay cites a 2011 comment by Alexander Medvedev, Gazprom’s deputy chief executive, saying that U.S. gas production is a “bubble” waiting to burst as prices rise in the next few years. The report also references Gazprom’s board of directors statement that fracking was associated with “significant environmental risks.” 

Asked for specific examples showing that Gazprom was funding anti-fracking efforts in the U.S., Mary Bell, Porter’s spokeswoman, said in an email: There are multiple news reports citing Gazprom's influence and efforts in the EU and the US. Some are linked in the letter.”

In a letter to the Denton City Council ahead of its June vote on a fracking ban, Smitherman questioned whether “funding and manpower” behind the Denton effort was “coming from out of state sources or from those who would profit from the imposition of such a ban” – a suggestion that some Denton residents have mocked.

Smitherman’s letter referenced NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen's suggestion that Russia was secretly working with groups to discredit fracking.

Asked whether Porter fears that the Kremlin's influence has crept into Denton, Bell said that “the commissioner's comments are not specific to Denton,” but “Gazprom is spending tens of millions of dollars — that we know of — to eliminate competition globally. It's likely they've influenced much of the anti-hydraulic fracturing movement's message.”

Porter’s letter leaves Chairman Christi Craddick as the only member of the all-Republican commission not to raise concerns about Russia's intentions.

In a statement to the Tribune, Craddick said, "Texas is a globally significant player in the energy industry, on a scale that would rank it among the OPEC nations in terms of production. As such, we must be aware of international influences that might affect our shared future.”

“Commissioner Porter is well within the purview of his office to initiate and conduct conversations with leaders in Washington to ensure Texas interests are acknowledged and protected," Craddick added. 

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