Analysis: Colorado Oil and Gas Front Group’s $2.5 Million PR Campaign to Win the Public’s Trust

Apr 15, 2014

By Center for Western Priorities

Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development is an industry-backed front group created to “educate” the public about oil and gas drilling in the face of significant local opposition across the state. Since its inception in September 2013, the group has been plastering Colorado’s airwaves, public buses, and mailboxes with paid advertising. But until now, Coloradans have had no sense of just how much money the group is spending on this massive public relations campaign.

Using publicly-available data from TV and radio stations’ files for political and advocacy advertising, we determined that CRED spent $2.4 million between October 2013 and March 2014 on television and radio ads. This number does not include CRED’s substantial spending on online advertising (such as a widely criticized faux-Denver Post spread) and outdoor advertising like bus signs.

Coloradans can also ready themselves for a continued onslaught—the group has already purchased $586,000 of TV ads through June.

The oil and gas industry’s need for a PR organization like CRED is the direct result of not listening to homeowners and local communities that want transparency around the process and some control over where drilling should and shouldn’t be allowed. Consider these anecdotes:

– There were 495 spills reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2013, 22 percent of which resulted in water contamination. Yet, CRED’s “Study Fracking” webpage boasts a stellar track record on water protection.

– The Colorado Oil and Gas Association spent more than $600,000 in last November’s election to halt fracking bans in five cities across the Front Range. But when it failed at the ballot box, the group went on to file lawsuits against Fort Collins, Lafayette, and Longmont.

– Stan Dempsey, President of the Colorado Petroleum Association, fought against common sense air regulations, saying Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission didn’t have the authority to regulate air pollution (it does).

Most Coloradans want oil and gas development, as long as it is regulated, transparent, and done with care. But the industry made a mess of its efforts to override local community concerns. To correct its major public relations problem, CRED was created.

The group began its paid media foray by overcorrecting industry’s image with radio ads, insisting that oil and gas companies in Colorado are “going the extra mile” to not only find new energy sources, but also to keep Coloradans safe.

Soon, CRED’s advertising expanded exponentially. Television ads air regularly touting the safety of fracking and asking seemingly innocuous questions about oil and gas development. The CRED message has also been posted along Colorado highways on billboards, and spotted on the sides of RTD buses in Denver. Mailers and local newspapers across the Front Range boasted the group’s credibility as a source of legitimate information on the safety of drilling practices.

But the reality is, CRED’s message has little to do with quelling the concerns of communities, and far more to do with the overhaul of industry’s image. Rather than addressing problems, like continued oil spills or concerns about health impacts, industry has thrown money at advertising, and in the case of CRED, a lot of money.

Compounding the situation is a potential statewide ballot measure to give local communities control over fracking, which the industry is fighting strongly against. A separate industry front group called “Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence” has been created to work on this measure and is spending significantly opposing the effort.

Even as CRED continues its superficial public relations campaign, some in the oil and gas industry have taken positive and proactive steps to build communities’ trust. Colorado, for example, has recently devised best in the nation rules to cut oil and gas air pollution. The rules were created in collaboration between Anadarko, Encana and Noble Energy, alongside environmental groups and Colorado’s Health Department. Even before their passage in February, all three oil and gas companies adopted the rules, saying, “It’s the right thing for us to do.” Industry also supported a bill proposal to increase oil and gas fines—a measure they fought tooth and nail just one year ago.

Actions like these go much further than any PR campaign to build trust with Coloradans. That’s the thing about trust: you have to earn it, not buy it.

Both Erin Moriarty and Jessica Goad contributed to this blog.