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$26,000 Social Media Campaign Trumps $900,000 Oil and Gas Ad Buy

Fracking site and social mediaFracking site in Warren Center, PA, Ostoff Law, via Wikimedia Commons

Social media strategies—and the communication philosophies behind them—may have made the decisive difference when voters in Fort Collins, Boulder, and Lafayette, Colorado and Oberlin, Ohio approved anti-natural gas fracking ballot initiatives in early November.

In Colorado, the state’s oil and gas association spent nearly $900,000 on traditional advertising and PR, against $26,000 on the anti-fracking side, according to Forbes columnist Richard Levick, but still took heavy losses: the three communities voted for moratoria or outright bans, Boulder with 76% support. A fourth ballot in suburban Broomfield failed by 13 votes and is headed for a recount.

An Online Campaign Waiting to Happen

The mounting controversy over natural gas fracking has a powerful local dimension in Colorado, according to Climate Central. In some neighbourhoods north of Denver, “city dwellers are seeing new oil and gas wells being fracked in their neighbourhoods and near public schools,” despite concerns about safe drinking water, radon exposure from shale deposits, and large releases of atmospheric methane.

So fracking had all the elements of a breakout topic for social media. The stakes were high. The impacts were local. The division of power—the oil and gas industry, with high-powered political support, lined up against scrappy local organizers—played to the immense power of social platforms to level the odds and empower community voices.

Levick’s after-action report in Forbes showed that anti-fracking forces earned their win by working hard, building an active online community, keeping up a steady flow of information, and transferring the relationships they were building from digital to doorstep.

Campaigning to Win

“Social media outreach, online content development, and search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing (SEM) are all dominated by activist voices,” he wrote. “As a result, they are not only rallying significant grassroots opposition; they are doing it in ways that neutralize any advantage that industry money once provided.”

Levick, a fracking supporter, continued: “While industry money went into advertising and traditional ‘outreach’ campaigns that net diminishing returns in the digital age of public…activists stretched every dollar with online efforts that prove far more effective.”

Those efforts included:

  • Content-rich microsites that clearly and succinctly argued the dangers of fracking
  • Facebook pages to keep up a flow of messaging and Twitter traffic to promote screenings of anti-fracking documentaries Gasland and Gasland II
  • YouTube content that pointed to the risks of fracking.

By comparison, the industry’s advocacy group “built a microsite that, up until a few weeks ago, was static, non-social, and unsupported by devoted SEO or SEM campaigns.” Across the U.S., Levick reported that the top 10 anti-fracking groups have 2.1 million Facebook likes and 1.2 million Twitter followers, compared to the industry’s 28,000 likes and 70,000 followers.

More Than a Numbers Game

It’s no huge surprise to see oil and gas companies outrun by content-rich social media campaigns by small, nimble grassroot groups. “Implementing content marketing in larger enterprises can be a political nightmare,” wrote Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi in a recent blog post.

Pulizzi’s quote points to a crucial factor that Levick left out of his analysis: beyond a simple accounting of the dollars, likes, followers, and tweets behind the pro- and anti-fracking campaigns, online communities thrive on content quality as well as reach.

The anti-fracking campaigns had a genuine, heartfelt message that resonated with local communities and neighbourhoods, but they would never have had a chance if they’d had to compete for traditional media placements. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association could have shifted to a digital strategy, but its pro-fracking advocacy would still have run into a disconnect with grassroot perception and experience.

From Digital to Doorstep

In an angrily dismissive piece on The Energy Collective, petroleum publicist Simon Lomax said anti-fracking forces focused on local ballots because they lacked state-wide or national support. “The national activist groups are ‘going local’ out of desperation,” he wrote.

Sheltie on guard
Sheltie on guard, Rideau River Nature Trail, Ottawa, photo by Karen Irving

But going local is exactly the point, whether it’s to oppose dangerous energy development or support cleaner, greener alternatives. Renewable energy and energy efficiency sometimes make most sense and are easiest to manage at a smaller, decentralized scale. And while the threat of dirty energy is abstract until it comes to your community, a project outside your front door has a wonderful way of focusing your mind. That’s what happened here in Ottawa, Canada over the summer, when TransCanada Pipeline proposed a diluted bitumen pipeline under the river where we walk our dog every morning. (Memo to TransCanada: You’re not fouling Maydeleh’s river.)

Which points to an important similarity between online and physical communities, and one of the keys to a digital to doorstep strategy. We form communities on social media because we share interests, issues, and concerns in common. We form community associations, school councils, and neighbourhood groups because we want to make things better where we live, work, learn, and play. The Colorado anti-fracking campaign picked up on that parallel and showed that when communities organize on social media, they can win in the face-to-face world.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Content Roundtable.

Mitchell Beer's picture

Thank Mitchell for the Post!

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Discussions

Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on November 18, 2013

Mitchell,

Thank you very much for writing and comparing these campaign spends, as well as, helping readers understand the power of social media on local ballot initiatives. What evidence is there thus far that social media can have a similar impact on statewide campaigns?

 

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on November 18, 2013

Great question, Jim. I don’t know of any research on state- or province-wide campaigns, but my instinct is that Colorado gives us the template: Keep the content authentic and relentlessly honest, and focus at the local or neighbourhood level. I’ve heard of many “central campaigns” that stood or fell on their ability to identify with important issues in specific niches within a larger jurisdiction.

A generation ago, then-municipal candidate Harvey Milk said whoever could solve the dog droppings problem in San Francisco parks could be mayor for life. I’m not from San Francisco, but the comment rings true to this day. There’s been a lot of commentary and analysis to suggest that, as we form online communities of interest, neighbourhood issues large and small–from natural gas fracking to picking up after our dogs–become more important to us, not less.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on November 18, 2013

I can’t get excited by your post because you oppose Fracking in the hope and faith that More renewables and Efficiency will save our lives. Well I don’t think that’s true.

I might see/find Natural gas as a poor substitute to baseload Nuclear Power, but it is I guess, better than coal, and it has helped to reduce our CO2 emissions far quicker than any renewables and efficiency we may dream about would/could.

In any case, are renewables fans not shooting themselves in the foot by opposing Natural Gas (fracking) which has been the great enabler for wind and solar power?

I just can’t get very excited by this.

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on November 18, 2013

Thanks, Paul. You’re right that I’m not thrilled about fracking, partly because of the impacts that are showing up around fracking operations, mainly because of relatively recent concerns about methane releases (http://goldschmidt2012.conferencesymposium.com/june27/27-5s.html). Research on this particular issue is still going on, but given the precariousness of the global climate and methane’s potency as a greenhouse gas, I think it’s important to err on the side of caution until the matter is credibly resolved, rather than launching into a full-scale fracking boom.

Confidence in renewables and efficiency is about much more than faith! Solar and wind costs are plummeting–solar by 99% in the last three decades–and while I was working with the Trottier Energy Futures Project, we found that Canada would have sufficient supplies of sustainable, low-carbon energy to reduce energy-related GHG emissions by 80% by 2050 (http://www.trottierenergyfutures.ca/an-inventory-of-low-carbon-energy-fo...). There will be significant challenges along the way, but they have to do with institutions and infrastructure, attitudes and assumptions, not the basic technology.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on November 20, 2013

I support the rights of local communities to have zoning and determine for themselves what type of industrial development to have or not have.

But natural gas and renewables do not need to be in opposition.  Wind and solar are great but only provide intermittent electricity and do not displace much coal and oil in practice.  Natural gas is a direct replacement for coal and oil for all applications, and any time someone replaces those dirty fuels with clean fuels they are doing the environment a favor.

Rather than associate hydrofracking with tar sands development and making them the same enemy, we should be talking about how natural gas can outcompete tar sands and thus make tar sands development unneccesary.  Wind and solar still require a hydrocarbon infrastructure to operate, so then the question is which hydrocarbon to use?  Natural gas is clearly better for the environment than any of the alternatives. 

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on November 20, 2013

That’s an interesting point, Ed, thanks. As I’m sure you know, natural gas has been described as either a “bridge to the future” or a “bridge to nowhere”, and from what I can tell, the difference in viewpoint depends on two factors: the observer’s geographic proximity to fracking operations, and their level of concern about methane release. From your TEC bio, I see that you have a lot of background in natural gas. What’s your sense of the facts and arguments that began to emerge with Howarth’s work over the last couple of years? (The link is in my original post.)

To your point about grid distribution of non-dispatchable wind and solar, I strongly recommend that you have a look at NREL’s 2012 Renewable Electricity Futures Study (http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/). No one is suggesting that we can back out of fossil fuels overnight, but the modeling showed that renewable sources can meet the lion’s share of U.S. electricity requirements, on the right time frame to help control runaway climate change. The NREL scenario depends on an upgraded grid, but this is the right time to have that conversation — the North American grid is massively antiquated and in dire need of overhaul, and if we’re doing the work anyway, it makes sense to rebuild it as the smart grid of the future, rather than the dumb grid of the past.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on November 20, 2013

I live in the Marcellus Shale region in NY and my town has banned fracking, so I think about the potential for drilling in my neighborhood a lot.  I think the key to minimizing the impacts is good enforcement of the regulations and accountability for the drillers, but that requires good governance which I think is more problematic than the drilling itself.

I have studied the NREL Futures paper, it is better than Mark Jacobson’s work, which I have written about on TEC.  The problem with the overreliance on wind and solar is that they have not proven themselves to actually displace fossil fuels for any big jobs.  Wind and solar require the existing grid to even be able to function are not self-sustaining industries energetically.  Solar panels are not being manufactured using the power from solar panels.  Producing solar panels requires heavy machines to mine the materials, energy intensive manufacturing, container ships to move the goods, etc, none of which can operate on the intermittent electricity provided by renewables.  All of these big machines require some type of hydrocarbon fuel to operate, so then the question is which hydrocarbon?  Coal, oil, tar sands, natural gas? 

Natural gas is simply methane, which is by far the most abundant of all hydrocarbons, its high performance and versatile enough to power the biggest machines today.  Methane burns clean and is essentially non-toxic, yes there is still some CO2 and some NOx, but far less than any of the competitors.   And methane is devoid of sulfur, particulates and heavy metals, the stuff that kills.

And methane is itself renewable, we can make vast quantities from a variety of resources, today. Synthetic methane, biomethane, renewable natural gas, call it what you want, can be injected into the gas pipelines and is indistinguishable from fossil natural gas.  We can make methane through gasification processes, digestion, even power-to-gas.  We could conceivably even use the gas pipelines as the storage medium for excess electricity.  Wind and solar are already using natural gas as the backup for their intermittent power production, producing gas from surges in electrical production would deepen the symbiotic relationship even further.  Natural gas is also the natural partner to enable hydrogen fuel cells.  Hydrogen is impractical to distribute and store widely, but natural gas infrastructure already exists and could feed hydrogen filling stations that would simply steam reform CH4 to H2 on the spot.

So I see a hybrid gas-electric model as the way to go.  The engineering models break down with overreliance on just electrical solutions.  

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on November 20, 2013

But methane is 21 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 when it escapes from a production facility, and we’ve established (and you make a great point) that safe, clean natural gas operations depend on good enforcement and good governance.

I think that means we’re each advocating for a solution that is as yet imperfect, but better than tar sands, offshore oil, or coal. Which reinforces your initial argument that natural gas can be an ally or a complement to the renewables…in essence, the “bridge to the future” argument.

I can live with that in a world (a mythical world, I’m afraid) where we do have good enforcement and good governance, including honest, transparent public consultation. But only if we’re all working from a very clear low-carbon scenario that points us toward a GHG reduction of at least 80% based on a 1990 baseline, achieved no later than 2050. Once that long-term imperative is factored in, even if we still have a short-term mix of natural gas, renewables, and aggressive energy efficiency, surely the balance in investment and effort will have to favour the renewables and efficiency.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on November 21, 2013

Wind, solar and efficiency is the party line for environmental groups these days, but there is no real word evidence that any of these actually replace coal and oil in practice.  If you are serious about replacing coal and oil you need to replace the functions they provide.  

Efficiency is not fuel, a car that gets 500 miles to the gallon still needs a gallon of fuel, and historically efficiency gains translate to making devices cheaper and more desirable and more get used, its called the rebound effect. There is no real historical evidence that efficiency gains in devices translate to net reductions in energy demand.

Wind and solar suffer from intermittency and we live in a world where the grid needs to stay up all the time.  And all the solutions for electricity storage being tossed around; batteries, pumped hydro, etc all have serious functional limitations that prevent them from scaling.

Wind is severely limited by the number of good sites available.  It is just like hydro power, works great in the right locations but is a non-starter elsewhere, and once all the good locations are taken then you are capped.  I will be curious to see if global wind production ever matches global hydro production.  And turbines make poor neighbors, if 1 mile setbacks from homes are regulated then the number of potential sites plummets.

Solar needs storage even more than wind because as you build out increasingly more solar in a given region then the power produced comes in proportionally bigger spikes, because everyone is getting their sun at the same time.  Power to gas is not a trendy topic, but I suspect it may offer the most scalable and versatile solution for energy storage.  Batteries only store power for a limited amount of time.  H2 and CH4 are stable indefinitely.

The real scalable solutions are natural gas and nuclear.  If you are serious about reducing carbon emissions you should be advocating nuclear power.  As it is, natural gas can replace coal and oil in every machine for every purpose, while saving lives by reducing toxic emissions and lowering carbon outputs. Methane leaking from industry is only about 30% of total methane emissions, we get lots of methane form swamp lands, farms, landfills.  Industry can and is doing a better job of reducing leaks (they are spilling product after all).  The more methane we capture from all sources is more fuel we can use.

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on November 25, 2013

IMPORTANT UPDATE from Climate Progress: Bombshell Study Finds Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Production Far Higher Than EPA Estimates

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/11/25/2988801/study-methane-emissi...

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