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Does Petroleum Industry Spying Really Matter?

Opinion: Nicky Hager’s latest revelations about security firm Thompson and Clark’s ‘spying’ on climate activists and environmental organisations on behalf of the oil and gas industry and big GHG emitters makes entertaining reading.

But it does beg the question “So what?”

After all, most of this was already known from media coverage and academic research. Certainly environmental groups knew they were being watched and their communications monitored. Responses to Hager’s report seem to suggest this kind of clandestine information gathering was repugnant, immoral, even dangerous because the spies were photographing school children. Or because petroleum companies used it to thwart protest actions.

It IS about the exercise of power, I’ll grant you that.

The real reason such practices are dangerous and deserve exposure is what petroleum companies and PEPANZ actually do with the information besides preventing disruption to their conferences and business operations.

Hager himself notes that Thompson and Clark were “monitoring and helping to counter citizen groups concerned about climate change”. My own research (Loomis, 2017; 2020) indicates that petroleum industry information gathering (a) goes well beyond simply sussing out climate groups’ protest plans, and (b) extends well beyond climate activists.

The main targets of all this data-gathering and analysis are the New Zealand government and public opinion. Like their counterparts overseas, the petroleum industry has shifted its focus from denying climate change to a concerted propaganda and lobbying campaign of ‘predatory delay’ to slow our transition to a zero-carbon economy.

For several years, PEPANZ (who have rebranded themselves Energy Resources Aotearoa) hired a PR company to undertake an annual public opinion survey, whose findings they massaged to say what PEPANZ wanted and then used to inform their ‘reports,’ social media campaigns and lobbying.

In 2018, just before the sitting of the Select Committee on the amendment to ban oil and gas exploration, PEPANZ launched a website called ‘Energy Voices’ to give a voice to ‘average Kiwis’ (most were industry cheerleaders) whom it claimed the Government wasn’t listening to. After the bill passed, the website and associated Twitter account became a key propaganda mouthpiece for the petroleum industry.

The petroleum industry’s propaganda campaign appears to have at least five aims:

  • Trying to generate popular support for overturning the offshore exploration ban and defeating the Coalition Government at the next election, or weakening their mandate for more radical climate measures if re-elected;
  • Increasing public support for the industry and acceptance of continued dependency on oil and gas as a ‘practical necessary’ while we transition to a low carbon economy;
  • Avoiding paying for climate impacts and losses that could result from aggressive government climate mitigation initiatives (like paying full rig decommissioning costs);
  • Maintaining business as usual for as long as possible to extract as much profit as possible from existing operations; and
  • Obtaining a seat at the policy table to influence planning for Covid-19 recovery and the pace of transition to a low carbon economy.

In fact, research by political ecologists here and overseas has recently turned to documenting the role the oil and gas industry has played since the Paris Climate Agreement in discouraging governments from taking more urgent action on climate change.

So yes, it does matter that the oil and gas industry in Aotearoa/New Zealand is surveilling protesters. But it’s part of a much bigger monitoring, information gathering and propaganda campaign to shape popular thinking and influence government policy making around how fast we transition to a low-carbon future and wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

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