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2018-05-09 / Blogs

Russian trolls are pitting Americans against energy industry

By Merrill Matthews

(05/14/18) According to a March report from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Russian trolls are trying to disrupt U.S. energy markets.

The committee’s report focuses on the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian internet troll farm based in St. Petersburg that appears to be at the forefront of Russian cyber-meddling. It claims, “Russia was actively engaged in a concerted effort to disrupt U.S. energy markets and influence domestic energy policy and was exploiting American social media platforms [e.g., Instagram, Facebook and Twitter] in an attempt to carry out this objective.”

This isn’t the Russians’ first effort to shackle fossil fuel production.

Last June, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, and Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), chairman of the Energy Subcommittee, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin identifying some of the ways Russians were trying to influence U.S. energy policy.

They claim that Russian money appeared to be channeled through a Bermuda-based shell company known as Klein, Ltd., which then “passes the money originating in Russia to various organizations such as the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, and others” to oppose fracking.

They also pointed out that in October before the 2016 presidential election, WikiLeaks released Hillary Clinton’s emails, which included a private 2014 speech in which Clinton said the State Department was “up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians”.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also concerned. He released a Committee report in January that claims, “A study by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies reports that the Russian government has invested $95 million in NGOs that seek to persuade EU governments to end shale gas exploration.”

Why would Russia want to disrupt energy markets? According to the World Bank, oil and gas revenue accounts for about 40 percent of the Russian government’s revenues, which it uses to expand its influence and foment mischief and unrest around the world.

In addition, a number of U.S. allies, many of them in Eastern Europe, depend on Russian natural gas to heat their homes in winter.

The U.S. energy boom, made possible by fracking and other innovative drilling techniques, has helped turn the U.S. into the world leader in crude oil and natural gas production, directly threatening Russia’s oil and gas revenues and, by extension, its geopolitical influence.

For its recent report, the Science Committee reached out to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for information. “Between 2015 and 2017, there were an estimated 4,334 IRA accounts across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram,” which included “an estimated 9,097 Russian posts or tweets regarding U.S. energy policy or a current energy event.

To put this in perspective, the report says, “According to information provided by Twitter, more than four percent of all IRA tweets were related to energy or environmental issues, a significant portion of content when compared to the eight percent of IRA tweets that were related to the election in the U.S.”

This is important information, because it highlights efforts that could be shaping -- or misshaping -- Americans’ views about the energy industry. While there is no evidence that Russian cyber-meddling had any impact on the presidential election, can we say the same about U.S. attitudes toward domestic energy production?

NOTE: Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews. This piece originally ran in The Hill.

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