Red, White, and Bluewashing the Gas Industry

March 18, 2013

by Jimmy

Not surprisingly, the gas industry has its own lobbying groups or cheerleading squads or whatever you want to call them. Two prominent ones are the Marcellus Shale Coalition and Energy in Depth. That these groups exist is not news, given the long-standing American tradition of pumping money into groups to argue for particular political, social, or economic outcomes. Such groups are a fact of life, like getting slower on the bike. But lobbyists like MSC and EID pollute the waters of good information. One way they do this is through red, white, and bluewashing.

MSC is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and its board and members are people employed by the gas industry and associated businesses. Its spokesperson is Kathryn Klaber, who is widely quoted throughout PA in the press. MSC maintains a slick website that contains a lot of information about gas drilling. I’ve learned a lot there. The main page states:

 The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) works with exploration and production, midstream, and supply chain partners in the Appalachian Basin and across the country to address issues regarding the production of clean, job-creating, American natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays.

We provide in-depth information to policymakers, regulators, media, and other public stakeholders on the positive impacts responsible natural gas production is having on families, businesses, and communities across the region.

These statements frame natural gas development favorably. Again, no surprise, but you don’t have to push too hard on the language to begin to see cracks. For starters, MSC addresses “issues” about developing the resource of natural gas. “Issues” implies that there are, well, issues with gas drilling, and that questions surround the development of gas, the answers to which may not always be good. Yet, in the next statement, MSC explains that they are interested in providing “in-depth information” about the “positive impacts” of natural gas production. Now, when I have issues with something that means I have questions. I’ve never had an issue with anything that I saw only as “positive.” But MSC glides right over the issue part of “issues” and heads straight for “positive impacts.” It’s a crafty move, and one I would mark in any first year composition paper I read, because it’s sloppy.

Drill rig flying Old Glory.

Drill rig flying Old Glory.

I wonder how MSC can give “In-depth information” when they focus only on the “positive impacts” of gas development. When I encounter in-depth information, it usually includes good and bad, and parts that are not settled and may even be controversial. In depth means everything. When information excludes the negative, I see that information as compromised or incomplete, because, as much as I may wish otherwise, most “issues” are complex. MSC flushes the nuance out of their information by focusing on the positive. Things aren’t usually all positive or all negative. Life don’t work that way.

Partly, MSC fills these cracks by wrapping itself in the flag. I love how “clean, job-creating, American natural gas” echoes the industry’s most prominent selling points for developing the Marcellus. Environmentally sound? Check. Economically sound? Check. Patriotically sound? Hell, yeah. Those five words serve as shorthand for, as we have been told over and over, all that is righteous about gas.

Many of us know better than to buy what MSC is selling, but such language has a way of shading the public conversation about natural gas. Energy is a complex issue, and focusing only on the “positive” aspects oversimplifies the issue while admitting that there are issues. I should use that kind of logic when I think about my teaching.

I am not a perfect teacher, and I know it. I constantly analyze my classes, ask students what they are learning, read articles and books about teaching writing, and share my writing projects with students to help them understand that writing is not easy for anyone. Students see me make errors. In one exercise on style this past semester, a student found an error in a page of my dissertation, announced it in class and then, he said later, on Facebook. I laughed, proud of him for catching the error and willing to point it out. It was a “teachable moment” that led to serious discussion about the difficulty of writing well. I also made a mental note to mark every single error I could find in his papers. Like I said, I’m not perfect.

Now, I should be careful here, and not equate “positive” with “perfect,” but the thinking is similar—ignore anything that may cast aspersions on me or my work or my actions. Thinking positive all the time can distract us from looking at serious problems. (Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about the problems of focusing on the positive. Her take? Looking at the bright side all the time means that we often don’t call bullshit when we should.) If I created my own little lobbying group called the Best Educator EveR, or BEER, a group who excluded all comments questioning or criticizing my teaching while gushing about my awesomeness, then I would become a less effective teacher and threaten the learning opportunities for my students. Hearing only the positive, the students and I would lose perspective on what really occurs in the classroom. I would like to assume that my teaching works well and meets all my students’ needs all the time, but I know it doesn’t. Education is too complicated. Too many variables. Same with gas drilling and production. I would love nothing more than to know that gas drilling impacts are always positive. But that’s not the case.

The Netherlands are in Bradford County, right?

The Netherlands are in Bradford County, right?

I appreciate MSC telling me up front that they are not interested in reporting anything negative, because it tells me that they are not considering carefully any evidence that might challenge the story of gas they build through their rhetoric. That’s sloppy thinking, unscientific, the kind of poor analysis I hammer my students (and myself) on all the time. But MSC is not paid to think carefully, except for the way that they spin evidence to maximize the goals of the gas industry. They do it well, celebrating anything that puts gas drilling in a positive light while challenging anything that questions their rosy world view of gas drilling and wrapping it all in the flag. That is red, white, and bluewashing.

Red, white, and bluewashing shuts down discussion or possibilities. It focuses attention on a part, on what our reactions might be as loyal, smart Americans, not the whole. It takes the complex and makes it appear simple while calling to mind deeply held beliefs about our country. Because of this tendency, the academic in me claims red, white, and bluewashing is unethical. It uses language in ways that asserts certainty where none exists, using patriotic impulses to divert our perceptions. The dude in me who lives here calls red, white, and bluewashing bullshit, because it leads to confusion and uncertainty by injecting misleading information into the bedrock of the communities. It fractures them, like shale, and I’m convinced it’s intentional, a sort of PR frack drilled from two well-funded well pads. I have never lived in a place where I experienced so much day-to-day confusion about so many things, admittedly not all of it coming from the gas industry. I believe that when it comes to our day-to-day muddling along, the more we know the better. Our sense of security comes from accurate information, and our lives depend on it. Knowing more helps us see more possibilities, more options, which helps us make better decisions. Knowing more can get maddening—sometimes I just want to make a decision dammit—but my best decisions come from knowing a lot about, say, my teaching. Or shale gas drilling.

Nothing would suit the gas industry more than to have a bunch of Americans waving the flag in a sacrifice zone. It’s a unifying image that would make the industry’s work easier. That the communities are split over the gas works well for the industry, too, because people spend time arguing with each other, rather than clearly understanding the issues. What the industry doesn’t want: communities unified against them—see New York. So the MSCs and the EIDs construct a language that spews the story they want and to hell with the evidence. Unfortunately, by looking only at the positive, the cheerleaders create an illusion of red, white, and blue goodness that poisons knowledge like thermogenic methane contaminates water.

Then there’s the question of who’s really the patriot here. MSC’s Board Members and Associate Members are made up of American companies and companies from the Netherlands (Shell), Norway (Staoil), Talisman (Canada), Japan (Mitsui Oil Exploration), and France (UGI Corporation and Schlumberger). Then there’s the push to export gas, touted on MSC’s site, since it’s worth around four bucks here but fourteen bucks elsewhere. The story keeps changing—“energy independence!” to “patriots export!”—depending on which way the economic winds blow.

Patriots indeed.


3 Responses to “Red, White, and Bluewashing the Gas Industry”

  1. Karen said

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. I see (and read) the rhetoric, and I keep asking myself how many of these PR people have actually had to live in areas affected by natural gas exploration, instead of writing the PR blurbs from their cocoon-like offices.

    • I wonder the same thing, though I suspect some do live right in the middle of it. But they aren’t seeing what I’m seeing, I guess. Makes me think of Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

  2. […] thus simplifying a complex issue. I call it red, white, and bluewashing, and I wrote an earlier post about it in which I focus on language instead of images. This is the image version, and I’m […]

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