In Some Pennsylvania Pro-Fracking Corners, Name-calling, False Claims, and Swastika-Laden Images Circulate


Cabot Oil and Gas is a shale drilling company that, according to state regulators, botched its shale gas extraction operations in an area around Carter Road in Dimock, Pennsylvania, about a decade ago.

Cabot has for years fought liability for locals’ contaminated water supplies and has remained in legal disputes long after reaching secret settlements with many Carter Road residents that reportedly included non-disclosure agreements.

Outside a courthouse not far from Dimock, a Cabot spokesman recently claimed that people complaining about water contamination from fracking were actually paid imposters, an unsubstantiated claim quickly echoed in pro-gas circles.

“This is not Cabot vs. three landowners. This is Cabot vs. the money that’s behind this. These are paid activists, paid actors on behalf of Food & Water Watch and the like,” Cabot spokesman George Stark said outside court in February, according to the Associated Press.

It’s a line that in the Trump era carries echoes of the “crisis actor” claims tossed around by the far-right — a conspiracy theory-grade claim that equates efforts to help families left without drinkable well water with a scheme to induce people to invent evidence tying fracking to problems.

More broadly speaking, the evidence linking shale industry activity to drinking water contamination is already well established, not just by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but also by the U.S. Department of Justice, state regulators (documenting thousands of spills at fracked wells), and countless peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Nonetheless, Stark’s claim that fracking opponents are part of some sort of scheme was picked up by a major natural gas PR shop and by a far-right industry news service, Marcellus Drilling News (MDN), which mixes a sizable dose of slurs, name-calling, and prejudice into the news clips it circulates to subscribers daily, and whose editor is friendly with Stark and with Cabot.

The Company You Keep

Someone holds an anti-swastika sign at a Charlottesville support rally in Pittsburgh in 2018.
Pittsburghers gathered together to mourn for the dead and injured a year after Charlottesville, while organizing against hate, bigotry, and white supremacy. Credit: Mark DixonCC BY 2.0

Run by Jim Willis, MDN has compared multiple fracking critics — everyone from state attorneys general to climate scientists to a group representing 16,000 doctors and medical students — to Nazis.

One of Willis’s apparent favorite images, used to accompany more than two dozen articles, shows a bright green man wearing a gas mask, surrounded by a garish rainbow, with a giant swastika on his chest. “Enviro-Nazis Say Marcellus Pipelines Equal Global Warming,” a headline to one such piece reads.

Willis also used the image next to his commentary on attorneys general investigating Exxon for potentially misleading investors about risks associated with climate change — or what Willis called “[u]nbridled, Nazi-like powers against private citizens and private companies by a state run amok…”

How about the Pennsylvania Medical Society, founded in 1848 and representing 16,000 doctors and medical students across the state?

That’s “controlled by a small and dedicated group of radical leftists” and “shockingly stupid,” Marcellus Drilling News said in a post adorned with the swastika graphic and decrying the group’s call for a ban on fracking in Pennsylvania.

Religious and Racial Animus

MDN’s own far-right commentary frequently carries overtones of religious and racial animus.

After Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson (who DeSmog reported took gifts from the energy industry while a state regulator) was forced to retract remarks claiming that environmentalists engage in a “jihad” against pipeline projects, MDN doubled down on an even more Islamophobic position.

Screen shot of Marcellus Drilling News’ coverage of Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson’s comments referring to environmental campaigns as “jihads.”

We applauded Powelson for speaking the truth about the nature of environmental radicalism that has morphed into a religious war against fossil fuels,” a March 24, 2017 MDN post said. “Groups like Food & Water Watch, THE Delaware Riverkeeper, the Clean Air Council and others are similar to radical Islamists who perpetuate jihad and terrorism” [sic].

For radical Islam, the object is to forcibly convert non-Muslims to their religion–Islam. Or kill them if they won’t convert,” MDN continued. “For radical environmentalists, the object is to forcibly convert American residents into abandoning the use of fossil fuels–the green ‘religion.’ Or politically ‘kill’ them if they don’t follow the green philosophy.”

MDN also has repeatedly traded in racist rhetoric about indigenous communities, rejecting the label Native American (except in quotation marks) and using antiquated racial tropes instead.

Indians on the Anti-Pipeline War Path” declared the headline of a two-part series in 2015, summarizing news articles about members of the Northern Arawak Tribal nation of Pennsylvania opposed to Williams’ Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.

Handful of Imported Indians & Hippies Protest Shale Insight” declared another MDN headline, this one from October 2018 (followed the next day by a similar piece).

Or here’s MDN’s take on “downtown Philadelphia” (i.e., Center City, the most upscale and gentrified neighborhood in Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people): Philadelphia’s the place where Willis claims “bought-and-paid-for” protesters “paraded around, collected their paychecks, bought a few dime bags of weed while they were in the ‘hood and generally had a good time” (strike-through in MDN’s original, which offered zero evidence that any protester was paid, by check or not).

Racism in the Oil Field

The broader oil and gas industry has a notably tarnished record when it comes to race. It’s not only at the center of disputes over environmental racism, the internal corporate cultures at many fossil fuel companies seem to attract racial discrimination and harassment allegations credible enough to lead to liability.

In February, the Center for Media and Democracy published a review of workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuits that found corporate members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has drafted template bills supporting fracking, “Are Leaders in Workplace Discrimination and Harassment.”

Although a significant portion of the overall allegations were resolved by sealed settlement, ALEC members appeared to make up a significant percentage of large corporations whose liability for racial and sexual claims from 2000 to present is known. Chevron paid out over $5.5 million, Energy Transfer over $5.8 million, and Koch Industries over $1 million — all due to racial and sexual misconduct claims.

One has to hold one’s nose’

MDN operates primarily as a subscription service, circulating excerpts from the day’s Marcellus-related news along with comments penned by Willis to subscribers for less than $10 a month.

The website often provides links to other news sites, and will sometimes work in factual reporting of its own. Some readers have publicly flinched at Willis’s commentary while praising his news gathering.

I’ve gleaned dozens of tips on oil and gas stories of local or regional concern from MDN over the years,” wrote editor and publisher Terry Smith in an opinion column for The Athens News, based in Athens, Ohio. “Unfortunately, one has to hold one’s nose before arriving at the linked articles, since the editorial ‘we’ who curates and introduces the articles makes Rush Limbaugh seem like a squishy liberal.”

Willis’s habit of reaching for comparisons between grassroots demonstrators and powerful dictators was called “amusingly incoherent” by the Pennsylvania Capital-Star earlier this month — “NatGas foes are just like Chairman Mao? Wait? What?” read the headline — but his commentary not only serves to ratchet up animosity along political, racial, and religious lines, it has also attracted national attention.

MDN’s anti-environmentalist commentary was quoted in 2018 by the Washington Post in an article about delays during construction of the Atlantic Coast pipeline. “The natural gas industry website Marcellus Drilling News blamed the delays on ‘a myriad of frivolous lawsuits from Big Green groups’ and said the slowdown ‘means every­one will now pay more. Thanks Big Green,’” The Post reported.

Some in the shale industry seem to have publicly distanced themselves from Willis over time.

The industry’s public relations effort Energy in Depth had previously described him as their Marcellus-region “special correspondent” in 2012. Energy in Depth ran his commentary directly, and re-published at least a half-dozen of his articles in 2012 and 2013. Energy in Depth was created by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and funded by companies including Chevron, Shell, BP, Halliburton, and Schlumberger. Willis has not written for Energy in Depth since 2013.

Screenshot of Jim Willis of Marcellus Drilling News moderating a Northeast Oil and Gas Awards 2018 panel
Screenshot of Jim Willis (first from left) moderating a video-recorded panel at the Northeast Oil and Gas Awards 2018.

Others have continued to embrace him. Last year, Willis was invited to speak at an industry conference sponsored by Williams, Eclipse Resources, and other large oil and gas companies; he was also listed as the moderator for panels at that same conference in 2017,  2015, and 2013.

More recently, Willis has written that he counts among his frequent readers Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, (“Oh yeah, I read your stuff all the time,” Willis reported Turzai told him in a May, 22, 2018 post).

And Willis lists as a “long-time friend” Cabot Oil and Gas spokesperson George Stark — the same Stark who now claims that Kemble is a “paid actor” and not simply a landowner fighting cancer who has lived for years without regular access to drinking water.

Mainstream media continues its propaganda-fest,” Willis wrote. “They don’t tell you the *real* news that came out of yesterday’s court hearing: that Ray himself, and other fractivists from Dimock, were being paid by radical Big Green groups including FrackAction, Food & Water Watch and Catskill Mountainkeeper up to $5,000 per month to travel around and spread their lies about Cabot.”

Willis’s source for that information? A blog post by Natural Gas Now, a self-described “planning and research firm” that represents clients in the natural gas industry.

Timing Is Everything

It’s worth noting that Stark’s claim gets the timeline flat wrong — and in so doing, flips the apparent motives of environmentalists on their heads.

Dimock’s water problems rose to national attention well before Food and Water Watch got involved — as viewers of Gasland, filmed in 2009 and released in January 2010, may recall. Dimock residents on Carter Road filed their suit against Cabot in November, 2009.

Food and Water Watch — incidentally the very first national environmental group to support a ban on fracking — didn’t release its first report on fracking until July 2010 and didn’t announce its support for a ban for another year.

In other words, the timeline suggests that instead of ginning up a crisis, environmental groups responded to one.

And that’s also what environmentalists themselves say their motives were.

We’ve provided funding so that people in Dimock who have had their drinking water taken from them have access to clean water,” the group’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, wrote in a column published by EcoWatch responding to Stark’s claims, “and to assist these courageous frontline advocates who have been fighting hard against crooked companies and bought-and-paid-for elected officials who look the other way.”

Willis has not responded to questions sent by email from DeSmog.

Main image: Screen shot of a 2016 story on Marcellus Drilling News about the Pennsylvania Medical Society. 

Sharon Kelly is an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware.

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