Pa. natural gas boom falls in Russia's crosshairs as gas-rich nation amplifies discord in American politics, energy sector

When President Barack Obama won his first term, Russia was the world’s leading natural gas producer. Then along came Pennsylvania. During Obama’s first year in office, as the global economy struggled to pull itself out of the Great Recession, U.S. natural gas production edged ahead of Russia’s, and it hasn’t relinquished the lead.

The Marcellus Shale boom drove America’s natural gas production increase, and Pennsylvania drove the Marcellus boom, according to U.S. Energy Information Agency data.

That’s made Pennsylvania a battleground in the same propaganda war Russia waged to influence the 2016 presidential election. Russia depends on its natural gas exports to Europe for cash and clout and has tried to preserve its dominance of that market by sowing discord in U.S. and European environmental debates, according to two congressional committees and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“Russian agents were exploiting American social media platforms in an effort to disrupt domestic energy markets, suppress research and development of fossil fuels, and stymie efforts to expand the use of natural gas,” according to a Republican staff report of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. The report was released March 1.

Thousands of Russia-linked social media accounts uploaded more than 9,000 social media posts related to the U.S. energy debate between 2015 and 2017, the committee found. Four percent of Russia-linked Twitter posts “were related to energy or environmental issues,” compared to about 8 percent of tweets related to the 2016 election, according to the report.

“They have a lot of gas that goes into Europe, and the U.S. is trying to make a big push in natural gas markets,” said Ilia Murtazashvili, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “That would create an incentive for them to interfere somewhat with domestic shale gas production.”

Soaring production
Pennsylvania’s natural gas output rose from less than 200 billion cubic feet in 2008 to a whopping 5.5 trillion cubic feet last year, making the state second only to Texas in gas production. That has helped keep global gas prices low, and led to a milestone in 2017, when the United States became a net exporter of natural gas for the first time in 60 years.

Both are bad news for Russia.

“The problem that Russia has is that they’re still a resource-based economy,” said Duncan McGill, dean of the Ridge College of Intelligence Studies and Applied Sciences at Mercyhurst University, in Erie.

Rather than use its resources to build manufacturing or service industries, Russia sees them as an end in themselves — direct sources of revenue and influence.

Russia has sought to become an “energy superpower” that “uses energy supplies as leverage” by “accumulating large stakes in energy infrastructure throughout Europe,” according to a 206-page report on Russian meddling in foreign countries by Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been shy about using that influence.

“They have typically used gas as political leverage, especially during winter months, against Eastern European, as well as some Western European, countries,” McGill said.

Russian pipeline project
A major component of Russia’s gas infrastructure is Nord Stream 2, a $12 billion, 800-mile pipeline that will bypass Poland and Ukraine (traditional conduits for energy supplies from Russia to Europe) by running under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, Europe’s largest economy.

The United States has long opposed the pipeline, as have European allies who fear it will cement Russia’s status as Europe’s indispensable energy supplier. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned NATO members in late May that the pipeline is a “new hybrid weapon” Russia would use to undermine the trans-Atlantic alliance and the European Union.

As far back as 2009, State Department officials discussed helping European countries exploit their shale gas reserves, according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.

“(Presidential candidate and former Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton’s State Department was really pushing for shale gas in Eastern Europe,” Murtazashvili said. “They wanted to try to help countries break free of Russian influence. It was motivated by geopolitics.”

Shale Gas Initiative
As Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry was beginning to boom in 2010, the department announced the Global Shale Gas Initiative, a program aimed at helping other countries develop their shale reserves.

It hosted a conference that August in Washington, with a scheduled bus trip to take foreign officials to a well pad in Pennsylvania, according to State Department emails published by The Intercept and The Guardian.

In Pittsburgh the following year, the Center for Sustainable Shale Development began to take shape as gas companies, environmental nonprofits and local government officials met to come up with a set of guidelines for shale drilling. By 2012, the center was hosting delegations from across Europe and Asia, spreading the gospel of energy independence.

But as U.S. gas companies, with the State Department’s backing, began moving into Eastern European countries, local officials there noticed unusually well-organized and well-funded protests springing up against fracking.

Some European leaders quickly blamed Russia for fomenting opposition. NATO’s outgoing Secretary General Anders Fogh Rassmussen told a London-based think tank in 2014 that Russia “engaged actively with so-called nongovernmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain dependence on imported Russian gas.”

Russia’s pushback to the State Department-supported expansion of fracking soon crossed the Atlantic, where it dovetailed with its effort to interfere in the 2016 election. The cable network RT — formerly Russia Today — began airing stories critical of fracking and sympathetic to environmentalists.

“How Obama, Clinton & the DNC forced fracking on the world,” one June 2016 headline read.

Among the trove of leaked Clinton campaign emails — which intelligence agencies say were originally stolen by Russian operatives — was an excerpt of a paid speech Clinton gave in which she blamed Russia for funding “phony” environmental groups.

That fed suspicions about her coziness with big business at the expense of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. In comments sections and internet forums, environmentalists used the remarks to cast doubt on her claims during the primary that she would be tough on gas companies.

Focus on Pennsylvania
Meanwhile, RT and the more shadowy network of Russian social media trolls posted extensively about the Dakota Access pipeline protests in North Dakota.

After that protest, RT turned its attention to Pennsylvania, according to a Caucus review of its stories.

One story trumpeted the Seneca Nation’s opposition to a plan that “would see 42,000 gallons of fracking wastewater dumped in a river in Pennsylvania, the latest fight between the energy industry and indigenous Americans.”

Another, in February 2017, read, “Pipeline to move fracked gas across Pennsylvania as critics cry foul.” “Protesters resisting Mariner East 2 pipeline in Pennsylvania feeling intimidated,” said the headline of a November 2017 story.

RTTV America Inc., parent company of RT, registered as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice on Dec. 11, 2017, according to federal records.

“The registrant has contractual agreements with ANO-TV Novosti (Russia’s state-run news agency),” RTTV wrote in its registration form. “The registrant does not agree that it is acting as an agent of a foreign principal, but is registering because DOJ has taken the position that the contractual relationship with ANO-TV Novosti falls under the registration obligations of (the Foreign Agents Registration Act).”

Suspicion goes viral
Like its operation supporting President Donald Trump’s campaign and weakening Clinton’s, Russia’s involvement in the energy debate didn’t create opposition; it inflamed it. Incendiary posts made it less likely that people could have a reasonable conversation about legitimate differences of opinion by needling, insulting and aggravating them.

“It disrupts the United States’ ability to function” by eroding people’s faith in American institutions, McGill said. “Look at the approval ratings for Congress — not that Congress has ever been all that popular — but it’s at an all-time low. The executive branch is being attacked no matter which party is in control. The whole idea of a free and open press is being attacked over this idea of what is or isn’t news.”

Russian trolls have rallied Black Lives Matter activists and white supremacists. In Houston, they organized a protest against the “Islamization” of Texas and a counterprotest called “Save Islamic Knowledge.”

Targeting protesters
Though most of their energy-related interference was against domestic energy, they also attacked protesters. StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Amy Sisk reported that a photo she took of the North Dakota pipeline protest had been cropped by a Russian Instagram account and used to create a meme critical of the protesters.

Environmental activists remain wary that accusations of Russian meddling will be used to discredit their work, and pro-fracking partisans wonder whether Russians lurk behind the successes of domestic political opponents.

“Certainly the case against fracking is clearly supported by the facts and doesn’t need ‘fake news’ or any foreign interference to know that dirty drilling is bad for our air, water, health and environment,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment. Masur said he hadn’t heard of Russian interference in the energy debate before a reporter emailed him.

The state Senate’s Environmental Resources & Energy committee hasn’t looked into the issue directly, “but we are aware of it,” committee director Nick Troutman wrote to The Caucus.

Then, raising the issue of a stalled pipeline project, he said, “The question we have is, where is the money coming from behind stopping pipeline construction in New York?”

The Constitution Pipeline would have provided a key conduit to get Pennsylvania’s natural gas to New England. Environmental regulators in New York, where the governor banned fracking in 2014, nixed the project in 2016, saying the pipeline company’s application didn’t adequately answer questions about protecting water safety. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the company’s appeal this April.

With no access to Pennsylvania’s natural gas, New England states had to turn elsewhere during last winter’s brutal cold.

In late January, the enormous blue hull of the French tanker Gaselys pulled into Boston harbor, brimming with liquefied natural gas from Russia.