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Uncovered Documents Reveal MSNBC Show Worked to Promote Fracking

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Cable TV network MSNBC has made headlines in recent days for apparently moving away from its “Lean Forward” progressive brand, catering instead to a more center-to-right-leaning crowd.

People might start accusing us of leaning too far to the right,” the station says in a new advertisement featuring MSNBC's conservative personalities—an array of Republican identities such as Michael Steele, Steve Schmidt and Ben Ginsberg.

But on the issue of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for shale oil and gas, documents from 2011 obtained under Oklahoma's Open Records Act demonstrate that the network saw itself as a promoter of the controversial drilling method and natural gas vehicles.

NBCUniversal, at the time, was owned on a 49-percent basis by the natural gas utility and electricity company General Electric (GE) and is now wholly owned by Comcast.

The documents, obtained from Oklahoma State University (OSU), relate to the filming of an episode of The Dylan Ratigan Show on the OSU campus in April 2011. The episode came two and a half years before the network announced in late-2013 that its website would run native advertisements (content that looks like original news) on behalf of fracking lobbying group America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). ANGA is now part of the American Petroleum Institute (API).

That episode of Ratigan's show featured oil and gas industry hedge fund tycoon T. Boone Pickens, who now serves as a fundraiser for Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump and who was stumping at the time for his pro-fracking “Pickens Plan.” The emails offer a rare look inside the making of an episode of a popular MSNBC show and a glimpse into a future business relationship, too.

“Steel on Wheels”

The April 2011 episode of Ratigan was part of a broader “Steel on Wheels” tour MSNBC pushed at the time featuring Ratigan, whose show is no longer on-air. The tour, conducted on a bus and catching media attention for being a sponsored partnership with steel company Nucor, looked to find “solutions to the most pressing problems facing America today.”

“I am committed to getting this country back on track for the benefit of all Americans and ‘Steel on Wheels’ is the perfect vehicle to show how we can make that happen,” Ratigan said in a statement announcing the partnership between Nucor and MSNBC. “There is no better partner for this than Nucor and their visionary CEO Dan DiMicco, a man who is as dedicated to his own extraordinary employees as he is to helping get all of America working again.”

The relationship between Nucor and MSNBC was described at the time by Ad Week as “a first of its kind partnership.” Mediaite, a media outlet that covers the U.S. media apparatus, described one on-air segment of the tour as something which “easily could have been confused for a human resources video to boost Nucor employee morale.”

“Not Josh Fox”

“Steel on Wheels” focused on finding solutions to many problems ailing the U.S., including health care, education, manufacturing, public works and energy.

At the center of the energy portion sat T. Boone Pickens, the Pickens Plan, Clean Energy Fuels and promotion of natural gas vehicles. Days after the three-day (March 30-April 1) energy portion of the “Steel on Wheels” tour ended, Congress introduced the Pickens-promoted NAT GAS Act on April 6, which offered subsidies to the industry to produce gas-powered automobiles and ended up not passing.

A planning document for the three-day energy segment shows that anti-fracking voices, such as that of Josh Fox—director and producer of the two Gasland documentaries and of the forthcoming film How to Let Go of the World: and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change—would not have a slot on the three days of energy-focused episodes. Natural gas receives an explicit mention as a “solution.”

Though Josh Fox gets mentioned as a potential guest who will not receive an invitation, prospective guests listed on the document included climate change denier and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), former Shell North America CEO John Hoffmeister and Pickens.

Fox ended up as a guest on the show on March 31, 2011. But he was treated in a hostile manner by Ratigan when Fox pointed out that Pickens had money riding on the fracking boom and that the fracking boom could lead to global climate change chaos, water impacts and human health impacts.

“I get it, you believe that natural gas will ruin the universe and can't be solved,” Ratigan exclaimed to Fox in closing out the segment. “I want to have a conversation to solve the problem with you. I'm not looking to have a propaganda speech from you more than I am from Boone Pickens or anybody else.”

Pickens though, interviewed the day before Fox on Ratigan's show, received a much friendlier reception.

Photo credit:
Oklahoma State University

“The goal of the Steel on Wheels Energy Summit is to capitalize on the emerging opportunity to address America's energy problem,” the document reads. “[With] [s]ignificant disruptions in the Middle East and unprecedented opportunities here in the U.S., Free America would culminate its quest to find jobs and solutions for America by highlighting ENERGY as a trillion-dollar problem that we CAN solve and in the process create jobs, capture trillions of value, and create lasting nation (sic) security—and it is (sic) problem both businesses and politicians are ready to tackle.”

“Our Cause”

On March 24, 2011, MSNBC public relations employee Tanya Hayre emailed Jay Rosser—vice president of public affairs for BP Capital, a hedge fund owned by Pickens—to introduce herself and get the ball rolling on logistics for the following week's episodes and the events surrounding them. In that email, she referred to the need to “drum up press” in service to “further promot[ing] our cause/discussion” and then asked if Pickens could speak with reporters in order to complete that task.

Photo credit:
Oklahoma State University

GE's business interests in natural gas and gas-powered vehicles went unmentioned in the segment, an interview between Ratigan and Pickens, which took place at OSU. OSU's football stadium is named after Pickens and he is a major donor to the university.

In that interview, Ratigan showered praise on Pickens and called him a “patriot” while not mentioning where Pickens makes his money: from both investing in the natural gas industry and owning a major natural gas vehicles fueling station company, Clean Energy Fuels Corporation, that was actively lobbying for the NAT GAS Act at the time.

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“My recollection is that I was approached by Dylan’s team wanting to factor energy into one of their town halls,” Rosser said via email. “I connected them with OSU, Boone’s alma mater [but] didn't have any meaningful input into the program outside of Boone’s direct participation (i.e., speaking format, etc.).”

In November 2012, a year and a half after Ratigan's shale gas-promoting stint at OSU, Pickens' gas fueling station company Clean Energy Fuels Corporation bought some of GE's natural gas vehicle fueling equipment as part of its “America’s Natural Gas Highway” marketing effort.

“GE is proud to be partnering with Clean Energy Fuels to develop natural gas infrastructure in the U.S. Clean Energy is an industry leader in pioneering a new way for America to fuel its vehicles and to further gain energy independence,” GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said in a press release announcing the deal. “With an abundance of cleaner, more affordable natural gas here in the U.S., this is an important opportunity for GE to join Clean Energy in changing the way America drives.”

The two companies would later sign another business deal in October 2013, linking them in the effort to beef up the number of natural gas-powered trucks on U.S. highways. GE also promotes its “CNG in a Box” (compressed natural gas) vehicles fueling station equipment on its website.

Lean Right: “They Already Do”

Cenk Uygur, founder and show host of the popular YouTube-based The Young Turks Network and former MSNBC show host, reacted to the news of MSNBC's looming rightward shift by giving a contrarian take on the announcement. In the past, Uygur said he left MSNBC when he was told by CEO Phil Griffin that “We’re the establishment, and it would be cool to be like outsiders, but we’re not, we’re insiders, and we have to act like it.”

Right-wing in the Fox News sense of the term? Not quite.

But right-leaning in terms of being a corporate-owned media outlet with business interests that often converge with the stories they cover? As the case of T. Boone Pickens, Dylan Ratigan and OSU shows, without a doubt.

“MSNBC is a good case study on the parameters of mainstream media. There are certain lines you can't cross and when people do, there's consequences,” Michael Arria, author of the book Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC,  said in an email. “Everyone I researched for my book seemed extremely earnest about what they're doing. Someone like Maddow seems genuinely convinced she can do any story she wants.”

Ratigan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

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An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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