Holt: Russia sows discord, discontent in American society

By Staff | March 19, 2018

Earlier this month, the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology released a majority report on attempts by the Russian government to use social media to disrupt energy markets and policy.

The report cited information provided by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram detailing the exploitation of these social media platforms to spread propaganda aimed at exacerbating discord in the U.S. The report said the Russian government engaged in efforts to halt or slow down fracking and the construction of energy infrastructure projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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.

David Holt, president of the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), provided North American Shale Magazine with his impressions of the House report and what he believes the Russians are hoping to accomplish. He has led the organization since 2006 and has nearly 30 years of experience working for state and federal agencies and Congress.

CEA is a trade association focused on expanding the dialogue between the energy sector and the rest of the economy. It has more than 300 corporate members and 500,000-plus individual members representing every sector of the U.S. economy.

What was your reaction to the House committee’s report on Russia’s use of social media to disrupt energy production and policy in the U.S.?

My reading of the House report and other reports I’ve seen related to this is that there has been evidence that the Russians tried to find controversial issues and use that to create additional dissension and discord in the public dialogue. Any time there’s dissension and discord in the public dialogue on any issue—including energy—that’s not where we as Americans want to be. We would much prefer having respectful, patient, civil conversations.

In general—with or without Russian interference—we are seeing increasingly in the United States conversations around issues that need discussion becoming less and less civil. There were certainly groups related to the Dakota Access Pipeline and other pipelines and other energy issues that are becoming less civil in their discord. And these are Americans.  

We’re certainly very concerned that the Russians obviously tried to take advantage of public debate on energy issues. We are also concerned about the lack of civility in some of these ongoing discussions. From a Consumer Energy Alliance perspective, we support energy for American families and small businesses. We also support environmental improvement. We’re one of the groups that’s right in the middle, supporting an ‘all of the above’ strategy that makes sure we’re looking at this in a non-partisan way and making sure we’re finding solutions for the environment and solutions for our energy policy. We encourage other groups to join us in this big middle so we can keep that conversation going. We saw memes and other things on the internet that were attributed to Russian efforts. There are certainly memes out there attributed to other groups that are known in the United States and that aren’t helping us reach a logical conclusion.

So it’s not necessarily that the Russians have been involved, but that the nature of the internet and social media have led to a less-civil discourse on how to solve these issues?

I think so, and I think the Russians took advantage of it. That’s my personal opinion.

There’s been a lot of reporting about Russian collusion. Would you have expected that this report from the House to get more attention than it did? Is that something you wish the media would also address?

Yes, I think so. There’s a lot more that we agree on than we disagree on in broad society. I think that’s always held true in the grand American dream. The more we can find ways to find common ground—both in media reports and societal discussions—I think that would be very helpful.

In the media stories about the House report, they emphasized the fact that the Russian social media postings came down on both sides of the issues. Is that what you saw?

I saw them taking advantage of the polarization of the vital discussions. They were attempting to sow additional discontent. They were trying to perpetuate and expand arguments.

What do you think is Russia’s intent in creating this divisiveness on both sides of energy-related issues? What’s their motive for doing it?

To me, it’s not just energy issues. It’s all issues in society that are more likely to create emotional arguments. They’re trying to create polarization and they’re trying to create a situation where Americans are just fundamentally not talking to each other. I think if you look at American society today—and we are increasingly polarized—they’re probably taking advantage of what they see as something that’s occurring naturally and trying to poke it a bit to speed it along or make it worse.

What can you say about reports that the Russians were importing LNG into the Northeast U.S. at a time when there’s a lot of anti-fracking efforts are occurring?

The problem there is that elected officials in the Northeast are creating a problem for their citizens. They are moving away from coal-fired power plants. They’re moving away from nuclear facilities. At the same time, they’re refusing to build pipelines to bring natural gas to the region to supply electricity. What you saw in December and January during a period of very cold weather was a lack of electricity capacity. Electricity prices—by our reckoning—over about a 30-day period went up an aggregate of about $2 billion. Citizens in those states were paying about $2 billion above what they should have been paying. You also saw that the region had to import Russian LNG and to move to fuel oil in almost an emergency situation. That, in my view, is directly tied to decisions over the last three, four or five years to say “No” to new pipelines.

Natural gas is the method now to meet electricity needs in the United States. It’s the fastest growing. CEA certainly supports wind and solar. We see that as a growing aspect of meeting our electricity needs, but it’s not there yet. It was a lack of political planning and basic energy understanding that led to higher prices and the need to import Russian LNG in an emergency situation. You’ve got the natural gas there in the Marcellus shale. You just need to deliver it.

So it’s to Russia’s advantage to not have that energy infrastructure built?

Based on what we just saw in January and December in the Northeast, it certainly would appear to be so because the Russians benefitted from it.

There was a story recently in the U.K. Daily Mail about how Europe imports 35 percent of its gas from Russia and how that’s left Europe vulnerable to political pressure from Russia. Are the Russians concerned about what the U.S. can do with its increased oil and gas production from shale?

President Trump has made several statements over the last year about the need for U.S. energy exports to help our friends in Europe as a counterbalance to Russian energy pressure. I think it’s a known issue and has been for a while. The energy revolution in the United States is really fundamentally changing the geopolitics of energy and is allowing the U.S. to not only be the No. 1 oil producer and the No. 1 natural gas producer in the world and meeting all our energy needs at home, but also potentially changing international power structures in geopolitics.