Exposed: "FrackNation" Deploys Tobacco Playbook in Response to "Gasland 2"

Read time: 8 mins

Big Oil has deployed the “Tobacco Playbook” once again, this time in response to the release of “Gasland 2.”

It comes in the form of a documentary film titled, “FrackNation,” whose co-directors' funding in the past came from Donors Capital and Donors Trust, referred to by Mothers Jones' Andy Kroll as “the dark-money ATM of the right” and a major source of funding for climate change denial. 

Both “Gasland 2” and “FrackNation” cover hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the toxic horizontal drilling process via which unconventional oil and gas is obtained from shale rock basins around the country and world. Co-produced and co-directed by Irish couple Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, “FrackNation” purports to be “funded by the 99 percent to combat the misrepresentations by the 1 percent of urban elites who want to tell rural Americans how to work and live.”

McAleer and McElhinney also say they are independent journalists working independently of corporate funding. McAleer was referred to by the San Francisco Chronicle as “climate denial's Michael Moore” and both McAleer and McElhinney are listed as “experts” by the climate change-denying Heartland Institute.

“FrackNation is an independent film and we want to remain independent of the Gas industry and be funded by ordinary people,” it says on its KickStarter page that it used to raise $212,265 from 3,305 backers of the film between February-April 2012.

This isn't the first dip in the “doubt is our product” pond for McAleer and McElhinney. In the past, they co-directed and co-produced a pro-mining documentary titled “Mine Your Own Business” and a climate change denial documentary titled, “Not Evil, Just Wrong.”

Both McAleer and McElhinney have made a living in recent years deploying the “Tobacco Playbook,” mutating settled scientific debates on energy and climate catastrophe into false two-sided affairs, which corporate-funded news media take and run with as “he-said, she-said” stories. 

Filmmaker's History of Tobacco Playbook Deployment

“FrackNation” made its public debut in Jan. 2013, coinciding with the release of “Promised Land,” a Hollywood drama starring Matt Damon. 

“It's time Hollywood celebrities and environmentalists were asked some difficult questions about their anti-fracking activities and ideologies. And that's what FrackNation does,” McAleer said in a press release announcing the world premiere

McAleer and McElhinney are now singing a similar tune about “Gasland 2,” as it approaches its July 8 HBO release date. 

“Mine Your Own Business”

Countering popular environmental struggles and luminaries is the modus operandi for McAleer and McElhinney, with a track record of doing so dating back to the mid-2000's. Their first public foray into the world of “marketing doubt” came with the release of their “Mine Your Own Business: The Dark Side of Environmentalism.”  

Released in 2006, the film was produced in response to the anti-mining protests that popped up against Gabriel Resources proposed open-pit gold mines in Romania, slated to be the largest in Europe. McAleer said it was “the world's first anti-environmentalist documentary.” 

One key funder: Gabriel Resources. This moved local Romanian citizen Eugen David to write that the film was pure propaganda. 

“Because the gold lies squarely under and around the village of Rosia Montana, Gabriel needs to move out the local population – roughly 2000 people all in all. But it's not only the people that will need to go,” David wrote in Jan. 2007. “Gone also would be our mountains, pastures, rivers and our churches, cemeteries and school – our community with its social fabric and traditions.”

The purpose of the film was obvious: complicate the narrative on the proposed mine through ad hominem attacks on environmentalists, rather than addressing environmental issues associated with the mine itself. David and fellow citizens living in the proposed mining area didn't buy the bluff. 

“After a first unannounced test screening in Bucharest, Gabriel Resources had to stop the film after 15 minutes because people were so revolted by what they saw,” he further explained

“Mine Your Own Business,” however, did have a loyal fan base: the right-wing echo chamber. 

Steve Milloy, a tobacco industry front man-turned-fossil fuel industry front man, wrote two favorable reviews for Fox News. The Salt Institute and Atlas Society (named after Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged”) echoed Milloy's efforts.  

“Not Evil, Just Wrong”

In response to the proposed 2009 federal climate legislation and in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations international climate summit, McAleer and McElhinney released the film, “Not Evil, Just Wrong.” Akin to “FrackNation” with “Gasland 2” director Josh Fox, the film spends much time attacking former Vice President Al Gore in ad hominem fashion, with the film serving as a response Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth.”  

“It has no commercial distributor, but instead debuted on an October 18 webcast heavily promoted by social conservative organizations like Focus on the Family and the American Family Association, as well as local Tea Party groups,” a Mother Jones article explained.

Paralleling “Mine Your Own Business,” the film was met with great fanfare within the right-wing echo chamber despite lack of commercial distribution. 

“They’ve held pre-screenings for bloggers and brought the film to every major conservative conference of 2009, including the Values Voter Summit and Americans for Prosperity’s Defending the American Dream Summit,” one news media report explained. “At the Conservative Political Action Conference [CPAC], McAleer and McElhinney spoke right before Rush Limbaugh.”

Other Big Tobacco apologists-turned-Big Oil apologists also helped promote the film: Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and the Heritage Foundation, the Cornwall AllianceThe Washington ExaminerCollegians for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), the Fraser, and Right Online.      

McAler and McElhinney have brought the Tobacco Playbook to the big screen. The question remains: who's funding them?

Donors Trust, Donors Capital Funding McAleer, McElhinney

“Mine Your Own Business”

“Mine Your Own Business” was funded by Gabriel Resources, but Gabriel wasn't the only fundee. The other patron: Donors Trust/Donors Capital.

In the past, McElhinney and McAleer were formerly Fellows at the Moving Picture Institute (MPI), founded by Thor Halvorssen. MPI, in turn, produced “Mine Your Own Business” and is a member of the State Policy Network (SPN), a right-wing echo chamber network for state policy that publishes PR “studies” to promote the corporate agenda.

Halvorssen also runs the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), which has taken $764,950 from Donors Trust and Donors Capital since 2005, according to a recent investigative story by Max Blumenthal. Blumenthal also explains MPI took more than $300,000 from Donors between 2005 and 2011. 

“Not Evil, Just Wrong”

“Not Evil, Just Wrong” also received funding from DonorsDeSmogBlog contributor and Guardian (UK) climate changer writer Graham Readfearn explained in a Feb. 2012 article that Donors funnelled $24,753 toward the film

This lends an explanation as to why “Not Evil, Just Wrong” was promoted by well-heeled climate change deniers in the mid-2010 Balanced Education for Everyone (BEE) campaign, calling for a “balanced” scientific teaching of the climate change “controversy.” The BEE campaign parallels ones pushed for via an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bill, by the Discovery Institute, and by the Heartland Institute

“Global warming alarmists want Americans to believe that humans are killing the planet,” BEE's former website explained in promoting the film. “But Not Evil Just Wrong, a documentary by Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, proves that the real threats to America (and the rest of the world) are the flawed science and sky-is-falling rhetoric of Al Gore and his allies in environmental extremism.”

BEE's campaign was run by the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), which in Oct. 2003 signed a partnership with Americans for Prosperity (AFP), an astroturf front group founded and funded by the Koch Brothers, key funders of the climate change denial machine. The two entitites at the time announced they would share leadership, senior staff and office space, a formal relationship they say ended in 2005

IWF - before it disbanded - was formerly headed by current AFP Board Member Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer from 2000-2005, who also sat on IWF's Board of Directors from 2005-2007. From 1998-2000, Pfotenhauer served as a lobbyist for Koch Industries, also serving as Senior Policy Advisor and spokesperson for the 2008 John McCain presidential campaign. 

Pfotenhauer was also the former Executive Vice President of Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), established by Charles Koch and affiliate Richard Fink and propelled by $13 million in grants from Koch Family Foundations. After CSE split into FreedomWorks and AFP, she served as AFP's President and CEO. She now sits on the Board of Visitors of George Mason University and on the Board of Directors of the CATO Institute, two other key entitites that make up the Koch echo chamber.  

“Not Evil, Just Wrong” shared the same PR firm with BEEGo Ahead PR, a sure sign that the film's release and the campaign were part of a well-coordinated campaign. 

And though McAleer and McElhinney say “FrackNation” was bankrolled via a grassroots KickStarter fundraising drive, a deeper dig into its books - as will be seen in part two of this investigation - calls that all into question. 

Image Credit: ShutterStock | grynold

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  1.  “I am a journalist”, “FrackNation is a documentary”, “I wanted to show both sides, the truth about fracking”, etc.

    If these things are true, why are there NO negative impacts of gas drilling shown in FrackNation? No pipelines cutting across the countryside. No fire-breathing compressor stations disturbing the neighborhood with blowdowns and explosions.  No contaminated water. No speeding service trucks flipping over on top of cars and crushing people alive. ALL of these impacts and many more have been suffered in Pennsylvania.
  2. “I received no industry funding”

    Let's not forget that Phelim was paid “an undisclosed amount” by Mark Cuban for the broadcast rights to play Frack Nation on AXS-TV. Mark Cuban was heavily invested in a gas services company (“Oilfield Water Lines LP”) which was active in the Eagle Ford shale play in Texas. This could explain how he was able to purchase a million dollar mansion on the beach of Marina Del Rey, California May 2010.
  3. Phelim the Criminal?

    I am friends with several people who live in Dimock and nearby who were interviewed by Phelim for his POS film. Here is a fact which Phelim likes to omit: HE LIED to these people – VICTIMS of a dirty industry which CONTAMINATED THEIR WATER WELLS – to gain entrance into their homes and record their testimony. He told them “I'm making a film to save Ireland from Fracking”.

    This is Pennsylvania Law Phelim is accused of violating:

    18 Pa.C.S. § 2709(a) Deceptive or Fraudulent Business Practices:
    18 Pa.C.S. § 4107 Breach of Privacy
    18 Pa.C.S. §5703 Criminal Trespass
    18 Pa.C.S. § 5503 False Impersonation:
    18 Pa.C.S. § 4115 Interception, Disclosure or Use of Wire,
    Electronic or Oral Communications

I could tell you many more stories about Phelim, about how likes to bully women.

He blocked Julie Sautner in her own driveway, and prevented her from leaving, demanding a water sample. He then told here he would trespass on her property and collect a water sample if she left her home.

We have video of Phelim chasing after 80 y/o Yoko Ono and 67 y/o Susan Sarandon and verbally assaulting them.

But the bottom line is: Anyone who takes industry money AND violates the law to produce a hit-piece against the victims of a dirty industry is IMO a sick man.