Winning the Messaging War

Hydraulic Fracturing

The natural gas industry has underestimated the resolve of the environmental activist community in New York state. For the better part of a decade, the state’s gas industry has continued to lose the messaging war while jobs and industry move to nearby Pennsylvania and Ohio. The problem has many causes, not least of which is poor coordination and understanding of the state’s subtleties by the gas industry. In order to reach Gov. Andrew Cuomo and key state influencers, natural gas advocates must return to the drawing board and rethink their broad-based themes and methods of reaching out to New Yorkers.

As of Feb. 23, there were a total of 51 bans, 107 moratoria and another 88 movements to prohibit drilling in local municipalities throughout New York state’s Marcellus Shale region. There are more than a dozen bills currently in the New York state legislature that seek to ban drilling altogether or hinder most of its operations. The message for companies trying to operate in the Marcellus Shale in New York is clear: This state is closed for business.

Just next door in Pennsylvania, residents are reaping an economic boom, and according to the January 2013 numbers from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, the total employment directly related to the Marcellus Shale is 243,116. The state also is reporting a 121 percent increase in jobs in the mining and logging sectors since 2003, with the largest increase occurring in 2011 and 2012. These facts are not well-known in New York, and the natural gas industry only has itself to blame for that.

Recent polling in February by the Siena College Poll reports that voters are split on supporting hydraulic fracturing statewide, with 40 percent supporting it and 40 percent opposed. Residents living in the southern tier of the state, where the highest density of gas is located, support drilling by a margin of 47 percent, with 48 percent opposed, according to the same poll.

This data is important because it highlights how divided residents of the state and Marcellus Shale region are about drilling and its safety. For example, Siena reports that 49 percent of New Yorkers believe that drinking water will be contaminated. Another 46 percent believe that the gas is unsafe, and harmful chemicals will come up to the surface.

Many New Yorkers, particularly those with second houses upstate, are afraid that natural gas exploration is going to destroy bucolic portions of the state. They fail to realize that regions like the southern tier have been economically depressed for decades and are in desperate need of revitalization. Inevitably, uninformed opponents from the New York City region are dictating to people in Jamestown what they can and cannot do with their property. These opponents are well-funded and are using every method available to them to make an emotional-based appeal against fracking.

The poll numbers and the success of the anti-fracking movement is conclusive proof that the industry has to take its national strategy and adapt that to the playing field of New York.

Recruiting traditional and non-traditional allies is of utmost importance for the industry. New York has a history of well-organized labor, and a new robust industry with the power to employ tens of thousands of New Yorkers would certainly interest union leaders. The construction of wells, transportation of natural gas, and fabrication of materials also would create secondary industries that would help local economies. Natural gas success stories from the Dakotas can serve as case studies for local mayors and county executives eager to create jobs and keep young people close to home. There are more than 45 active wells on school properties in upstate New York, a fact that should be publicized.

What’s more, the volume of gas under New York’s southern tier has the potential to turn the region into an economic powerhouse that could match the output of Wall Street. That prosperity will create a growing tax base that could help balance local budgets and create surpluses for years to come. More money in state coffers means more support of the arts, non-profits, healthcare, etc. A state legislator that represents Suffolk County on Long Island – who may be without an opinion on natural gas exploration in upstate Olean – is likely to support it if he knows that his constituents will benefit when the state accumulates new tax revenue.

Importantly, natural gas is compatible with agricultural growth. New York’s wine and beer industries are booming, and the state is now becoming one of the biggest yogurt producers in the world. Opponents are misleading the public to believe that New York’s agricultural sector will be decimated and all of its farms will be turned into wastelands if fracking is approved. Third- and fourth-generation farms that were in danger of being lost to the bank are now thriving because of land agreements made between owners and natural gas companies. Military veterans are coming home from war, stepping off the plane and onto the unemployment lines.

The gas industry offers a unique opportunity for these heroes to earn a decent living and help America become less dependent on foreign countries for energy. This important narrative isn’t being told effectively. Instead, the industry is largely relying on commercials that do not tell the story about what New York is losing by not supporting this industry. Ads on the Sunday morning talk shows are not accomplishing anything in New York.

Cuomo has directed his staff to ensure that if drilling were to be approved, heavy regulations would be put in place to ensure its safety. Regulations are important, but the poor dissemination of information about the health and water impacts of fracking has only caused the state’s approval to stall. Now the Department of Health has extended the deadline for its review of the health impacts, which may now trigger additional public hearings, only causing more headaches for the industry.

The winning strategy for the industry is to go on the offensive and stop playing defense. We live in an unprecedented time when massive amounts of information and the ability to micro-target constituencies – similar to what President Obama was able to do in 2012 – are available. We now have access to digital media, direct mail, television, radio and print ads that can effectively reach voters and decision-makers in real time. Ambivalent downstaters are far more likely to support the natural gas industry if they find out that their electricity bills will go down if the state approves fracking.

Furthermore, the national interest argument has been totally lost on New Yorkers. If the United States becomes more self-sufficient and less reliant on foreign sources of energy, then we are less likely to be disturbed by overseas wars and the accompanying price fluctuations – that’s where veterans can become a strong ally.

The key to getting fracking approved by the state is explaining the safety, history and economic benefits that it will produce for all New Yorkers. It’s time for the industry to mount a serious ground game that uses facts to debunk fear.

Original article appered in: Energy & Mining International

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