Russians are attempting to influence U.S. energy policy, markets

By Patrick C. Miller | March 12, 2018

The Russian government is using social media to influence and disrupt U.S. domestic energy policy and markets, according to a majority report released this month by the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  

The report cited anti-fracking campaigns and protest efforts intended to halt the construction of energy infrastructure projects—including the Dakota Access Pipeline—as examples of “how the Kremlin manipulated various groups in an attempt to carry out its geopolitical agenda, particularly with respect to domestic energy policy.”

“This report reveals that Russian agents created and spread propaganda on U.S. social media platforms in an obvious attempt to influence the U.S. energy market,” said Congressman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, committee chairman. “The American people deserve to know if what they see on social media is the creation of a foreign power seeking to undermine our domestic energy policy.”

The report said increased shale oil and gas production in the U.S. from fracking “represents a direct threat to Russian energy interests.” This has decreased Russian market share and revenues, as well as disrupted Russia’s “ability to leverage energy consumption for geopolitical influence.” The report said this has led “Russia and its government corporations to fund “a covert anti-fracking campaign to suppress the widespread adoption of fracking in Europe and the U.S.”

While Russia’s use of propaganda is not new, the report said using social media to spread discord and create divisiveness by disseminating false information on both sides of issues—such as fracking and climate change—shows that tactics and technology have evolved to exploit the internet. NATO officials are quoted in the report as saying another goal of the Russian government is to “provide covert support to European environmental groups to campaign against fracking for natural gas, thereby keeping the EU (European Union) more dependent on Russian supplies.”

The report said a company based in Saint Petersburg—the Internet Research Agency (IRA)—was established by the Russian government to exploit social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to spread propaganda. In addition, the report cited the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as saying that the Russian-sponsored news agency RT—formerly known as Russia Today—engaged in an anti-fracking program focused on environmental and public health issues.

The congressional committee also said documents supplied by Facebook and Twitter showed that Russian-sponsored agents funneled money to U.S. environmental organizations in an attempt to negatively portray energy companies with the intent of disrupting energy markets, suppressing fossil fuel R&D and reducing the use of natural gas.

Russian agents engaging in efforts to curtail U.S. energy production didn’t limit their efforts to the Dakota Access Pipeline, but also targeted the Sabal Trail, Keystone XL, Colonial, Bayou Bridge and Enbridge Line 5 pipelines, the report noted. The agents encouraged Americans to sign petitions opposing these project, according to the House committee’s report.

In its findings, the report stated that:

- Between 2015 and 2017, there were an estimated 9,097 Russian posts or tweets regarding U.S. energy policy or a current energy event on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

- Between 2015 and 2017, there were an estimated 4,334 IRA accounts across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

- According to information provided by Twitter, more than four percent of all IRA tweets were related to energy or environmental issues, a significant portion of content when compared to the eight percent of IRA tweets that were related to the election in the U.S.

- Russia exploited American social media as part of its concerted effort to disrupt U.S. energy markets and influence domestic energy policy.

- The IRA targeted pipelines, fossil fuels, climate change, and other divisive issues to influence public policy in the U.S.