Oil Executive: Military-Style 'Psy Ops' Experience Applied

Last week’s oil industry conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Houston was supposed to be an industry confab just like any other — a series of panel discussions, light refreshments and an exchange of ideas.

A hydraulic fracturing site
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A hydraulic fracturing site

It was a gathering of professionals to discuss “media and stakeholder relations” in the hydraulic fracturing industry — companies using the often-controversial oil and gas extraction technique known as “fracking.”

But things took an unexpected twist.

CNBC has obtained audiotapes of the event, on which one presenter can be heard recommending that his colleagues download a copy of the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. (Click below to hear the audio.) That’s because, he said, the opposition facing the industry is an “insurgency.”

Another told attendees that his company has several former military psychological operations, or “psy ops” specialists on staff, applying their skills in Pennsylvania. (Click below to hear.)

The comments were recorded by an environmental activist, who passed along audio files to CNBC. The activist, Sharon Wilson, is the director of the Oil & Gas Accountability Project for the nonprofit environmental group Earthworks. She said she paid full price to attend the two day event, and wore a nametag identifying her organization as she recorded the conference.

In a session entitled “Designing a Media Relations Strategy To Overcome Concerns Surrounding Hydraulic Fracturing,” Range Resources communications director Matt Pitzarella spoke about “overcoming stakeholder concerns” about the fracking process.

“We have several former psy ops folks that work for us at Range because they’re very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments,” Pitzarella said. “Really all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of psy ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.”

At another session, Matt Carmichael, the manager of external affairs for Anadarko Petroleum , spoke on the topic of “Understanding How Unconventional Oil & Gas Operators are Developing a Comprehensive Media Relations Strategy to Engage Stakeholders and Educate the Public.”

He said he had several recommendations for the oil industry media professionals at the event, one of which, he said, involved the military.

“Download the U.S. Army-slash-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, because we are dealing with an insurgency,” Carmichael said. “There’s a lot of good lessons in there and coming from a military background, I found the insight in that extremely remarkable.”

Reached by CNBC to provide context to his remarks about psychological operations, Range Resources’ Matt Pitzarella explained that he was referring to one employee of the firm, whose military background makes him particularly good at handling emotional meetings with local representatives.

“Range employs dozens of veterans and active service men and women,” Pitzarella said. “One employee who works with municipal governments in Pennsylvania has a background in psychological operations in the Army. Since the majority of his work is spent in local hearings and developing local regulations for drilling, we’ve found that his service in the Middle East is a real asset.”

Pitzarella explained that Range operates transparently with local communities, and pointed out that it was the first company in the United States to fully disclose all the fracking fluids that it uses. He also took issue with Carmichael’s comments about using Marine Corps tactics on opponents in an “insurgency.”

“That’s not something I think that we would do,” Pitzarella said. “You’re not dealing with insurgents, you’re dealing with regular people who live in towns and want to know what you’re doing.”

Carmichael emailed a comment to CNBC, explaining his remarks. “The comment was simply suggesting industry embracing a broader move toward more active community engagement and increased transparency, as it’s very important to build fact-based knowledge to maintain public trust amidst special interests that often use misinformation to create fear,” he said.

Wilson, who recorded the remarks, said the comments reveal what the fracking industry thinks about people in the communities that are impacted by the industry.

“What’s clear to me is that are having to use some very extreme measures in out neighborhoods,” she said. “And it seems like they view it as an occupation.”

She said she was surprised such military-style techniques would be discussed in an open forum.

“This was crossing a line — they considered it was on the American people, sort of like they are going in and occupying our land — which is what they are doing,” Wilson said.

But another attendee saw the remarks differently.

Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry group Energy in Depth, said Carmichael’s comments about facing an “insurgency,” were simply meant as a joke.

“There are no black helicopters here,” Tucker said. “No one’s rappelling down from a helicopter at three a.m. looking through people’s trash. We go to township meetings, and we hear what people have to say.”