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Mind games in the Barnett Shale

Mind games in the Barnett Shale

In their exhaustive report in Sunday's paper about the methods used by oil and gas production companies to fight the public-relations war over gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the Record-Chronicle's Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe and Lowell Brown produced a fascinating look at how the war for the hearts and minds of local residents and governments is being fought.

The two reporters used transcripts of audio recordings taken at a conference of oil and gas public relations executives last November in Houston to illustrate that the energy companies do indeed consider the controversy a "war." Several speakers used martial terms to describe the conflict between the gas companies and coalitions of residents and environmentalists, and military manuals on psychological warfare and counterinsurgency were cited and recommended as source materials for their colleagues in the gas-drilling business.

Our two reporters cited a few skirmishes in North Texas as evidence that at least some of those in attendance had been doing their homework.

Martin Garza, an attorney for oil and gas interests, dangled a carrot and wielded a stick at a public meeting in Denton heavily attended by proponents of tougher regulations on gas drilling operations.

The carrot came first, when he offered the expertise of gas company representatives in drafting any new drilling ordinances.

Then came the stick:

"Misunderstandings do lead to lawsuits," he said ominously.

Other instances weren't quite so subtle. Keystone Exploration, a gas exploration and drilling company, openly took sides in the 2010 Flower Mound city elections, writing letters characterizing unfriendly candidates as anti-drilling activists out to destroy the industry that was bringing prosperity to local owners of mineral rights.

Reading about the gas industry's affinity for military psy-ops procedures was mildly interesting, if not terribly surprising, but our own observation of the gas companies' public-relations campaign leads us to believe that it owes more to Dr. Frank Luntz than to John J. Rambo.

Luntz, you may recall, is the public-relations genius who first came to public attention by coming up with a list of emotional, inflammatory words and phrases that became the offensive weapons of congressional Republicans back in the old "Contract with America" days of 1994. The policies of the Democrats should not be described as "mistaken," or even "wrong." The top word on Luntz's list was "traitor," followed by "waste," "corruption," "self-serving," "greed," "cynicism," "cheat," "steal" and "patronage."

"Inheritance tax," was too nonjudgmental a phrase, Luntz advised the Republicans back in 1994. Say "death tax" instead, he advised.

He even advised Republicans to hold press conferences decrying the inheritance tax in friendly funeral parlors to hammer home the point.

In the realm of energy, it was Luntz who advised oil companies to eschew the phrase "oil drilling" in favor of the more benign "energy exploration."

Luntz is unsurpassed in finding words and phrases that elicit instant, simplistic emotional reactions in those who hear them.

"Eighty percent of our life is emotion," he has said, "and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than you think."

To those who call such semantic manipulation Orwellian, Luntz has an even more Orwellian explanation: He strips George Orwell of all irony and makes the great writer's greatest sin into a virtue:

"To be 'Orwellian,'" Luntz said in a 2007 radio interview, "is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening … and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever."

In other words, war is peace, freedom is slavery and "newspeak" is now the official language.

Those flacks in Houston may have been reading Army training manuals, but our guess that the guys who wrote those manuals had been reading Frank Luntz.