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Editorial: Fracking op-ed was signed by public officials, but penned by big oil

With its Republican legislative allies facing criticism that they had robbed a North Texas town of its powers, the oil and gas industry settled on a PR move in late May that fought fire with fire: enlist local officials from a handful of Texas communities to lend their names to an opinion piece praising the new, high-profile law that quashed a North Texas town’s ban on fracking.

In the opinion piece, versions of which have appeared in at least seven newspapers, including the San Antonio Express-News and the American-Statesman, officials from Karnes City, Pleasanton, Midland and Lubbock argue that, with the recently signed law, “lawmakers got it right by relying on fact-based information to develop a balanced solution for Texas.”

The law clarifies that oil and gas regulation is the exclusive jurisdiction of the state.

It was a response to a November referendum in Denton, in which 59 percent of voters chose to ban fracking, a method of natural gas extraction, within city limits.

In a twist that left local-control-minded Republican policymakers, including the governor, facing accusations of hypocrisy, killing the Denton measure fast became a legislative priority, one spurred by gas industry lobbying.

Through a public information request, the Statesman learned that the opinion piece was shopped around by the Joint Association Education Initiative, which is paid for by oil and gas associations and producers.

The Joint Association’s work is paid for by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, the Texas Pipeline Association and a handful of other associations and nonprofits.

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Gretchen Fox, who runs a PR agency that represents the Texas Oil and Gas Association and puts together the Joint Association materials, said in an interview that she had written the opinion piece.

“After the bill passed, a lot of the media coverage focused on people who didn’t support legislation,” Fox said. “These folks did — they see this as good policy for Texas, and this was a way to get that message into various markets around the state.”

Asked why the oil and gas industry sought to have the piece signed by local officials rather than industry officials, Fox said, “That gets to the point of public education; that people, organizations, and officials not affiliated with the oil and gas industry at all have positions and a stake in public policy that impacts the energy sector.”

She said the listed authors of the piece — Don Tymrak, city manager of Karnes City; Karen Gibson of the Lubbock City Council; J. Ross Lacy of the Midland City Council; and Clinton J. Powell, mayor of Pleasanton — weren’t paid. She said they were aware the piece was written as part of an oil and gas industry education campaign and acknowledged that at least in some cases the newspaper editorial boards that published the piece weren’t informed of the oil and gas ties.

Officers with the Association of Opinion Journalists, which promotes standards in newspaper editorials and opinion pieces, said a piece written by an organization and then circulated to potential authors is really a petition.

It’s “a practice we vigorously discourage, although I suspect it sometimes happens,” said Kate Riley, who is the Seattle Times editorial page editor and who has served as vice president of the Association of Opinion Journalists.

Authors of the piece said it was a genuine reflection of how they felt about the issue.

“Had I been the true penned author, that’s what I would have written,” Tymrak said in an interview.

Gibson said she had lent her name to the piece because the bill showed “that we can all work together.”

“It was a compromise that works for everybody,” she said.

Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, which was opposed to the bill, said he wasn’t shocked the opinion piece had its roots in an industry shop.

“I don’t think it’s so uncommon that someone has a name on something he or she hasn’t written — it happens all the time.” But, Reed said, “it’s troubling that public officials would attach their name to something written by industry.”

This article was written by Asher Price from Austin American-Statesman and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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