So Wrong, So Often: Karl Rove Grasps For Audience Approval at Oil & Gas Summit

Read time: 6 mins

When the shale gas industry met last week in Pittsburgh, none other than Karl Rove gave the keynote speech, regaling the audience with a lengthy patriotic anecdote comparing the fossil fuel dillers to the US Navy Seals who killed Osama Bin Laden.

Having recently attended a quail hunt fundraiser with some of those Navy Seals, Rove described the tenacity of one Seal who had been wounded sixteen times on a mission in Iraq but courageously improvised his own medical evacuation despite his severe injuries. Rove then told the assembled drillers that their industry was serving the nation and overcoming adversity in much the same way as that soldier.

You overcome the physical difficulties of drilling thousands of feet under the surface for hydrocarbons,” he told over a thousand oil and gas executives as they dined on artichoke-crusted chicken. Invoking the wounded American soldier, Rove added: “He’s overcoming it by finding a way, after serving in this ghastly way like that, to serve something bigger than himself.”

It was quintessential Karl Rove. It was also the crowning moment of a rousing speech from a man who, over the past month has been pilloried for being so wrong, so often.

This month, Rove has been called out by Republicans and Democrats alike for being so wrong about his election game plan, including over $100 million spent by his super PAC to back a slate of candidates, each and every one of whom lost. His election-day wrong call, live on Fox News, over Ohio’s presidential race was so high profile that it earned Rove a reference in The Simpsons’ opening credits.

But one area where Rove is especially wrong is his view on energy policy and the role the drilling industry plays in today’s economy, its environmental impacts, and the ways it affects communities across the U.S. In reality, it is the nation that often serves the interests of oil and gas companies who seek to profit by externalizing costs and leaving the public holding the bag.

The most important and far-reaching externalized cost of fossil fuel production is, of course, climate change. And on climate, Rove has been wrong again and again. Though he rarely describes his personal views on global warming, in 2007, he angrily dismissed celebrity activists encouraging him to review the science on climate change. This summer, Rove's presidential candidate Mitt Romney mocked the idea of rising oceans at the Republican Convention, only to find Republican New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg citing climate change as he endorsed Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Rove’s more recent policy prescriptions have been off base too.

He called on the Obama administration to greenlight the Keystone XL pipeline at last week’s DUG East luncheon, describing the potential jobs from Pittsburgh to the Gulf coast that could be created by the project.

But an independent analysis by the Cornell University Global Labor Institute found that construction jobs building the Keystone XL would be only temporary in nature and that the project could lead to overall job losses when its impacts on other sectors were taken into account.

The construction of KXL will create far fewer jobs in the US than its proponents have claimed and may actually destroy more jobs than it generates,” the analysts concluded after running the numbers. (Others have also come to similar conclusions.)

It was hardly Rove’s first wrong call with regards to oil and gas. Two years ago, Rove spoke at the very same conference, DUG East, where he predicted that, thanks to midterm election results, the industry no longer had to worry about federal oversight of fracking or about climate change legislation.

But at this year’s conference, the industry seemed braced for more federal attention than ever before. Industry leaders and analysts alike acknowledged that, at times, things had gone wrong and that public perception had turned against them.

We’re not done with policy making on the topic at all, or even close,” Dr. John Martin, director of SUNY Buffalo’s Shale Resources and Society Institute, (shuttered by the University as of Monday), told attendees at this year’s conference.

It wasn’t just Karl Rove who was off his game. Richard A. Eichler, President and CEO of Hart Energy which organized the conference, kicked things off with a revealing joke, to roaring laughter from the audience. “It’s at the luncheons where we get to have fun,” he told the crowd.

He described how proud he was that DUG East had drawn the ire of the Occupy movement last year, and charged that this year environmentalists missed the bus because protests were not scheduled until the next day when Rove would no longer be in town.

He added that the conference organizers had been tipped off by local law enforcement about the activists’ plans.

One of the things I look forward to when I come to Pittsburgh every year is that we get the protestors,” he said. “The informed intellects of the protesters, as we found out from the intelligence division of the Pittsburgh Police Department, is they planned their protest for noon tomorrow. [laughter]”

Like Karl Rove, Mr. Eichler missed the point. Protests were indeed scheduled for the next day, but timed to coincide with the arrival of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection chief Michael Krancer.

And for good reason.

In battles over fracking’s impacts, Rove is increasingly irrelevant, not simply because of his error-riddled record, but also because fracking remains regulated largely at the state level, often by officials like Mr. Krancer who are appointed rather than elected.

Mr. Krancer himself is in the midst of a major scandal over test results for a broad range of toxic materials that his department failed to report when investigating potential fracking-related water contamination.  This has drawn the fury of state legislators and led some to call for a criminal investigation over potential misconduct and fraud.

In Pennsylvania, local authorities have a long history of unusual intimacy with the industry. Under Gov. Rendell, a Pennsylvania Homeland Security contractor was outed for spying on activists and issuing intelligence bulletins warning local authorities about a screening of the movie “Gasland.” Gov. Rendell fired the contractor when these activities came to light.

Now, once again, law enforcement has been coordinating with the oil and gas industry, according to Mr. Eichler.

Despite Eichler’s admission, to hear Karl Rove tell it, the shale industry has been fiercely independent and received virtually no help from the government.

It’s nice being in a room full of revolutionaries,” Rove told the drillers, praising the assembled executives for single-handedly spawning the shale bonanza, “without waiting for government to give you permission or guidance or a blueprint or a little bit of encouragement. You did it yourselves.” 

But in fact, today’s shale gas “revolution” was made possible in large part by Department of Energy funded research, starting with the Eastern Gas Shales Project in the 1970’s. And though oilman George Mitchell is often credited with launching the shale gas boom, Mitchell relied heavily on government support, right down to his very first horizontal well in Texas’s Barnett shale, paid for in part by the DOE, according to a May 2012 report by the Breakthrough Institute.

Despite his trouncing this election cycle, Rove is still going strong and top Republican donors have said they are standing by their man. It may be that Rove has found the right company, given his record.

There’s an old adage coined to describe oil-and-gas wildcatters promising fortunes to investors who help them hunt down the next big gusher, one that just might fit Karl Rove too. These pitchmen, it is said, are “often wrong – but never doubting.”

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