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Fact-Checking the Energy Industry’s PR Twitter Stunt

A collection of holiday themed “fractoids” recently promoted New Mexico’s oil and gas industry. Many suffered from a lack of facts.

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Over the recent holiday season, the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA), the state’s leading oil and gas lobbying group, sprinkled some holiday cheer via Twitter with a campaign titled “12 Days of Fracking.” This collection of “fractoids” promotes 12 popular talking points of how the oil and gas industry supports New Mexico and, in turn, the country. However, many of the fractoids suffer from a lack of facts.

To be sure, the industry could use some holiday cheer as it faces historic challenges, from the COVID-19 economic downturn to a wholesale shift away from fossil fuels by state government, electric utilities and transportation manufacturers.

“Most Americans agree that fossil fuels are a dead-end technology,” says Lucas Herndon, the energy and policy director at Progress Now New Mexico, where he tracks the political influence of the oil and gas industry across the state. When looking at the Twitter campaign, he says, “It’s like AT&T trying to sell me a landline telephone.”

“Nobody is calling for the death of an industry overnight,” he says, but “They need to sell the public on the idea that they are doing their part to try to create a better world.”

Robert McEntyre, director of communications for NMOGA, requested that Capital & Main submit all questions about the Twitter campaign via email (i.e., Who came up with the overall idea? Who came up with the daily ideas? What are the sources for your claims?). Rather than answering those questions, McEntyre emailed a link to this report, prepared by the New Mexico Tax Research Institute. The report was made using IMPLAN, a proprietary economic modeling application.

But the report raises more questions. For example, unlike peer-reviewed studies that are checked and vetted by others within a field, this economic study was funded by NMOGA and conducted by Thomas E. Clifford, Ph.D., the secretary of finance and administration to former Gov. Susana Martinez. During the Republican governor’s administration, Clifford worked alongside Ryan Flynn, whom Martinez appointed as secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). Today, Flynn is the president and CEO of NMOGA.


On the 1st Day of Fracking

Fracking is providing American energy security.”

Energy security refers to the reliable, affordable access to all fuels and energy sources. As such, the United States hasn’t been energy insecure since the oil shocks of the 1970s.

So is fracking providing fuel for American energy security? Yes. Would America be insecure without fracking? Unlikely, as it wasn’t insecure before use of the technique dramatically increased in the early 2000s. For decades before widespread fracking (aka hydraulic fracturing), the U.S. supplemented its own production with oil and gas from countries kept friendly through diplomacy (as when the U.S. negotiated with OPEC to end the oil embargo in 1974) or compliant through bombs.

A bigger security question comes from climate change, which is exacerbated by burning or leaking the gas brought up by fracking. “The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies and governance institutions around the world,” the U.S. Department of Defense warned in 2014. “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” None of which sounds like security.

Total plastic production accounts for just about 4% of all petroleum use, and medical goods are just a tiny fraction of that. Would the world lose its plastic medical supplies if fracking stopped? Unlikely.

This fractoid is likely part of the oil and gas industry’s push to make more plastic (and make that plastic seem recyclable) as the rise of electric vehicles and clean energy projects shrink fossil fuel demand.

Meanwhile, fracking does contribute to putting people in hospitals through increased air pollution around oil and gas fields.

On the 3rd Day of Fracking

“From 1990-2018, methane emissions from natural gas systems dropped 23.6% during a period when production increased more than 70%. This is effectively a 55% reduction in the rate of emissions.

NMOGA didn’t offer any sources for this, but there are official sources that track methane emissions. One is the New Mexico Environment Department, which recently reported, “Leak rates in New Mexico’s Permian Basin increased 250% in 12 months.”

For years, the state has relied on operators to report their own emissions and violations, and that obviously hasn’t worked. “It’s clear that voluntary emissions reductions measures undertaken by some operators are not enough to solve this problem,” NMED Secretary James Kenney says in the release.

Another source is the EPA, which shows an 8% reduction in all natural gas and petroleum systems emissions from 1990-2018.

Fracking does not affect vehicle emissions.

Fracking is a process used to force oil and gas from the ground. Vehicle emissions come from burning that fuel to power those cars and trucks and planes. For decades, state and federal governments have passed fuel-efficiency and emissions standards leading to decreased vehicle emissions.

NMOGA’s connection is impressively misleading, though. It is true that vehicle tailpipe emissions from new cars have dropped by 99% since 1970, in the wake of improved fuel efficiency and exhaust standards. It is also true that the oil and gas industry worked tirelessly during that time to thwart improved standards and continues to do so.

Ironically, fuel efficiency standards were first implemented following the 1970s-era oil shocks to increase energy security (see the 1st Day, above).

The Twitter video also says, “Cleaner fuels produced by fracking have contributed to vehicular emission reductions,” which is true. There are 175,000 natural gas vehicles on U.S. roads today, which produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than do gas or diesel powered vehicles. By comparison, there were more than 1.1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads in 2019. And Tesla alone built nearly 500,000 electric cars in 2020.

True. For now.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 21,816 workers in the oil and gas industry in New Mexico in 2019, the latest full year for which numbers are available.

That represents 2.5% of the total workforce of 868,000 at the end of November 2019, according to New Mexico Workforce Connection, the state’s employment website. However, the number of people working in oil and gas decreased by more than 20% between February and September of 2020 because of the COVID-19 economic downturn, according to a report from New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee. Historically oil and gas jobs have never been stable, as they are subject to the boom-and-bust nature of the petroleum market.

Meanwhile, the job market for renewable energy is growing, as new renewable energy projects pop up across the state. Which is more than can be said for new natural gas power stations.

On the 6th Day of Fracking

“Oil and natural gas development added $16.6 billion to New Mexico’s economy in 2018. Excluding state and federal government contributions, this made it the state’s top industry
in terms of economic impact.”

No one argues that the oil and gas sector is the largest contributor to state GDP, but there are questions to what extent. NMOGA’s number comes from a 2018 study similar to the one noted above, also paid for by NMOGA and conducted by Clifford. But the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis disagrees, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. It finds that the oil and gas industry added $11.2 billion to the New Mexico GDP in 2018, roughly 33% less than claimed in the study. In the scientific world, peer review is used to turn up discrepancies like this and answer them.

Meanwhile, anyone looking to research the industry’s economic impact on New Mexico will find page after page of news stories based on this NMOGA report and others – also paid for by NMOGA – going back years. It’s a sign of an effective – if questionable – lobbying campaign.

True. New Mexico also is fifth on a list of states deriving their energy from wind and in 18th place for solar production in 2020, up from 22nd place the year before. Unlike the oil production ranking, moving up either of these rankings doesn’t increase the greenhouse gasses that make New Mexico the second-fastest warming state in the country and one of the states most at risk from the effects of climate change – change that is driven by burning the oil and gas taken from the ground here.

As do revenues from every other sector and taxpayer in the state.

Again, this number comes from the study noted above, paid for by NMOGA and conducted by Clifford. Roughly speaking, the study says it took oil and gas contributions as a percentage of the overall state budget, and translated that percentage to, in this case, the Department of Public Safety budget to show the industry’s contribution. This particular number isn’t tracked by other sources and the report itself wasn’t peer reviewed, so it’s hard to say if it’s accurate or not, short of an outside economic review.

As above, this number comes from this same study and suffers from the same questions of accuracy.

Fracking, like all commercial drilling, is regulated in various ways by the state and federal government. But those regulations are not reining in pollution (see 3rd Day above), and they are not keeping pace with greenhouse gas reduction goals set by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. More than half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the oil and gas industry, and current monitoring efforts are falling short. Much of the state’s current monitoring relies on operators to self-monitor and report leaks and spills. According to the latest airborne study from NMED, that isn’t working.

“With respect to our overall climate goals, we need to do more,” said NMED Secretary James Kenney in November at a state Water and Natural Resources Committee meeting. “There’s still more to do beyond those existing policies and goals.”

During the holiday season, people also relied upon wind and solar power, neither of which has the climate or pollution effects of fracked fuels.

Plus, both wind and solar have reached a level at which new installations produce energy as cheaply as natural gas power plants. Those costs are expected to fall further in coming years. Though natural gas supplies much more energy at this point, the trend away from lighting holiday homes with fossil fuels is clear. In fact, France recently blocked a natural gas deal with the U.S. because the fracking operations that produce the gas emit too much methane.

“It’s just funny that they want to promote a product that has no market,” says Progress Now New Mexico’s Herndon. “That’s kind of a weird thing.”

In the end, NMOGA’s job is to promote the oil and gas industry, which is the largest single contributor to the state budget. There is no debate that the industry is the largest nongovernmental contributor to state GDP (even if the numbers themselves are debatable) and that oil and gas still power most cars and light most nights.

But there’s also little debate that the industry’s time is slipping away as the world shifts slowly but surely to renewables for both economic and climatic reasons.

Industry has fought that for decades, but perhaps next year NMOGA can offer 12 Days of Change.


Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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