A review of the comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on its proposed rule to fast-track the export of small-scale liquefied natural gas (LNG) shows that roughly two dozen of of the 89 comments were directly copy-pasted from either industry itself or else pro-industry materials written by the DOE or Congress.
Furthermore, all of those copy-pasted comments are anonymous, a hint that the oil and gas industry may be behind an astroturf-style comment-submitting campaign for this rule. Only one letter favoring the proposed rule, written by the American Petroleum Institute and the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, has the industry's name on it. Three other comments supporting the rule have actual names of individuals, a law school student, a college student, and an individual who DeSmog confirmed wrote the comment out of personal interest and for a public policy course at his university.
The rule, which the DOE proposed on the Friday before Labor Day, would assume exports of small-scale LNG — these days mostly obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the U.S. — are automatically in the “public interest” as defined by the Natural Gas Act of 1938. Comments for the proposed rule closed on October 16 and then posted online on October 24.
'Repeat the Same Basic Message'
Oftentimes for high-profile, contested projects and regulations, environmental groups offer template letters for concerned citizens to submit to federal agencies, which citizens can easily sign and send off.
For example, the group 350.org organized a comment drive in 2014 in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline during President Barack Obama's administration, calling for pipeline opponents to sign and give their names, zip codes, and email addresses. More recently, the Sierra Club gathered over 33,000 comments from its members and supporters, calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency not to reconsider the water toxics rule for coal-fired power plants, which Administrator Scott Pruitt has stated he will do.
But if the oil and gas industry were similarly trying to rally actual supporters in the case of this LNG export rule, it must have forgotten to tell them to sign their comments. Perhaps even stranger, none of the anonymous comments even had anything to do with the nuances and particulars of small-scale LNG. Instead, these comments were generally pro-LNG text written years ago that had been simply copied and pasted with no further context.
But maybe there's a method to the madness. In “A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA” published by the White House Council on Environmental Quality in 2007, the manual details that like-minded comments often receive en masse consideration by federal agencies.
“The number of negative comments an agency receives does not prevent an action from moving forward,” it explains. “Numerous comments that repeat the same basic message of support or opposition will typically be responded to collectively.”
Small-scale LNG differs from the large-scale variety in that the ships are smaller and the gas is carried in containers in its original form, rather than super-chilled and eventually placed on a mega-tanker for shipment to the global market. But even the small-scale LNG industry admits that it is not, in fact, “small.”
“So people have started talking about small-scale and mid-scale and we’ve sort of chuckled at that. As you would imagine, there is nothing small scale about LNG,” Meg Gentle, CEO of small-scale LNG company Tellurian, said in a March 2017 interview. “It’s just making the refrigerator component itself a little bit more modular, repeatable, and standardized. But we’re still using the largest [General Electric] turbines, the largest storage tanks ever built.”
LNG Exports Copy/Paste
One of the comments simply copies and pastes text from President Donald Trump's proposed budget. And nothing more. Natural gas, fracking, and LNG are not even mentioned within the scope of the comment.
“America should work hard to identify regulations that eliminate jobs or inhibit job creation; are outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective; or impose costs that exceed benefits,” reads the comment, as copied and pasted from the Trump budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, which is titled, “A New Foundation For American Greatness.”
Another comment, which deals more directly with fracking, shale gas, and LNG, appears taken from two different reports. One half of the comment comes from the summary of a report published by the Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions, titled, “Work in progress: How can business models adapt to evolving LNG markets?” The other half duplicates part of a report published by the National Economic Research Associates (NERA) and funded by LNG export giant Cheniere Energy.
Both the comment and the Deloitte summary read: “The key driver to the current energy renaissance is the largely unpredicted success of unconventional gas extraction, most notably in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays in Appalachia. For the United States to sustainably build a new LNG export industry, producers will need to grow production at historically low prices — not just by investing additional capital to complete more wells, but also by leveraging operational efficiencies and pursuing new technologies.”
And from the NERA report, come two carbon-copied sentences.
“Capital income, resource income, and indirect tax revenues (including net transfers associated with LNG export revenues) increase, while labor income decreases,” reads the comment, a direct copy of text found in NERA's 2014 report, “Updated Macroeconomic Impacts of LNG Exports from the United States.” “[T]here is positive income from capital income, higher resource value, and net wealth transfer.”
NERA has for years produced reports favoring LNG exports funded by the oil and gas industry, work which included landing a contract with the DOE to publish a report in 2012. Its work most recently was cited by President Trump in his announcement that the U.S. would be leaving the United Nations Paris climate agreement. And that NERA study, in turn, was funded by the Koch-funded American Council on Capital Formation.
Some of the small-scale LNG export rule comments were lifted from materials generated by groups with ties to Koch Industries and the Koch Family Foundations. For example, sentences from a letter written in 2013 by the American Council on Capital Formation (ACCF) appears in one of the comments.
“America needs to stop the already-significant delays, in months and years, the export license approval process has imposed upon projects,” reads the comment and the ACCF letter. “It should be clear that LNG exports from the United States are in the broad public interest. The only reason for denying export license applications would be if one were to define the public interest as assuaging the fears of a small band of special interests.”
Yet another comment has language which was lifted from materials produced by Fueling US Forward, the now-defunct anti-electric vehicles front group created by Koch operatives James Mahoney and Tom Pyle. Pyle authored a strategic memo on energy and environmental issues which served as a policy blueprint for the Trump transition team.
Though the comments were supposed to pertain to the small-scale LNG exports rule, this particular comment instead took a swipe at electric vehicles.
“LNG is Clean which is good for air, and is Made in American, and good for American jobs, good for America tax payers, so CONGRESS, NHTSA, EPA, DOT needs to come clean about Electric Cars,” reads the comment.
The comment then quotes directly from — but doesn't cite — a commercial created by Fueling US Forward. That video is no longer online, but was reported by the website HybridCars.com.
“Electric car batteries are MADE from toxic, hard-to-find metals called 'rare earths,'” state both the comment and commercial. “These rare earth metals, including lithium and cobalt…”
The comment further pulls directly from a 60 Minutes report on rare earth minerals mined in China which are used in smartphones and electric cars.
Lifting from DOE, Congress
Industry groups are not the only ones being plagiarized. The anonymous commenters also used congressional and DOE materials.
A case in point: An entire pro-LNG exports press release about a House bill from 2014 was submitted as a comment without attribution. That bill, the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act (H.R. 6), was authored by then-U.S. Rep. and now U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).
Similarly, one commenter copied and pasted a press release about a congressional report favoring LNG exports and submitted it anonymously. That report, “Prosperity at Home and Strengthened Allies Abroad – A Global Perspective on Natural Gas Exports,” also came out in 2014. Metadata from the report shows it was written by Charlotte Baker, then the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce's press secretary, and who now works as a communications adviser for ExxonMobil.
The DOE itself also has materials, including from its U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), duplicated in this rule's comments. For example, one comment discusses, in grammatically incorrect language, the benefits of LNG exports. It then goes on to cite data copied and pasted from the DOE's web page for LNG.
“The mainland terminals are: Everett, Massachusetts; Cove Point, Maryland; Elba Island, Georgia; Lake Charles, Louisiana; Sabine Pass, Louisiana; Cameron, Louisiana; Golden Pass, Texas; Freeport, Texas; and Gulf LNG, Mississippi,” reads both the comment and the DOE website. “These nine facilities have a total baseload sendout capacity of approximately 16.1 Bcf/day. The offshore terminals are Gulf Gateway Energy Bridge in the Gulf of Mexico and Northeast Gateway and Neptune Deepwater Port located offshore Massachusetts, with a baseload sendout capacity of 1.2 Bcf/day.”
“Natural gas plays a vital role in the U.S. energy supply and in achieving the nation's economic and environmental goals,” reads the first sentence of the comment, which comes from the DOE website, followed by a chunk of text from EIA's website. “[N]atural gas produced in the Appalachian Basin's Marcellus Shale play, where increased production has occurred alongside expansions in capacity to move gas to exporting terminals.”
As the Energy and Policy Institute's Dave Anderson pointed out in an investigation, the fossil fuel industry has done this sort of thing before. In that case, electric utility company FirstEnergy flooded the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) with comments which appear to be ghostwritten by the company or its representatives. In that case, though, commenters used their names.
For example, the DOE docket (no longer fully up online, but still up on the Web Archive) for the Golden Pass LNG export facility co-owned by ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum lists the following people and organizations as having submitted letters in support in 2013: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), The Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce, Port Arthur's Chamber of Commerce, and others. But the letters were not actually written by them, but instead by an ExxonMobil lobbyist working for the Louisiana firm Harris, DeVille & Associates, Inc.
'Public Interest' vs. 'Private Interest'
While there were many suspicious-seeming pro-industry comments that were copy-paste jobs, even more comments on the exports rule came from concerned citizens, grassroots organizations, environmental advocacy groups like EarthWorks and Sierra Club, and environmental legal experts.
One of the sharpest critiques came from Mark Squillace, a natural resources law professor at the University of Colorado Law School.
He wrote that the proposed rule “seems to place the focus on private interests,” further arguing that “[p]roperly understood, the public interest is not about private interests but rather about rights and values that the people share in common with each other. In this case,the particular public interest focus should probably be on the impacts of the proposal on climate change.”
The Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program made a similar argument, written by staff attorney Nathan Matthews, in its comment submitted to the DOE.
“Sierra Club opposes the proposed rule. Rather than facilitating the expansion of dirty fossil fuel extraction and use in the U.S. and abroad, the Department of Energy should seek to facilitate the transition to clean, renewable energy,” wrote Matthews. “As Sierra Club has repeatedly explained in numerous filings regarding large scale LNG export proposals, expanding natural gas exports leads to both expanded natural gas production and higher U.S. energy prices, with severe climate, public health, and economic consequences, all of which are contrary to the public interest.”