Shady shale lobbyists accused of setting up sham grassroots group supporting drilling
by Lamiat Sabin and Solomon Hughes
FRACKING lobbyists denied yesterday that they had created a pro-shale gas campaign by roping in college students as supporters of the climate-destroying drilling method.
Westbourne Communications, which has shale gas companies Centrica and Cuadrilla as clients, said it did not “astroturf” a fake grassroots movement in favour of fracking — a practice halted in Britain since 2011.
In press releases swallowed up by mainstream media, eight students were shown standing on the steps of Lancashire Country Council with a “Students for Shale” banner on Monday, before councillors make a landmark decision this week on whether to allow fracking in the area.
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett will join up to 2,000 people at a protest outside the County Hall in Preston today urging councillors to “consider the strength of opposition to fracking,” including concerns over damage to homes, noise, pollution and traffic.
But the Star can reveal that the purportedly pro-shale students have vested interests in fracking — using high-pressure chemicals to smash shale rock and release gas — as they are studying geology and hope to get jobs in the industry.
One of the students attends Blackpool and Fylde College, which was designated as the national training centre for the onshore gas sector last year.
As well as bankrolling the North West Energy Task Force campaign led by Westbourne Communications, Centrica and Cuadrilla have also “supported” the college to become Britain’s main onshore energy training site.
Maurice Cousins, account director at Westbourne Communications, denied that he had deliberately used Lancashire geology students to coerce positive public opinion of fracking.
He said: “We are in no way misrepresenting how students regard fracking. I do not understand what the issue is. We are transparent and not misleading. The students are within their rights to their opinions.”
After the Star contacted Blackpool and Fylde College, a flustered Mr Cousins called to demand that we only get information from him.
The former adviser to MP Douglas Carswell accused the Star of “harassing” students — despite our reporter going through the correct procedure of speaking to the college data protection officer to get in touch with one student — and said that they were “students, not activists.”
Mr Cousins failed to see the irony of his comment after using these non-activists in his so-called grassroots campaign. But it is not the first time that Westbourne Communications has been accused of astroturfing.
In a report for Spinwatch, journalist Anna Minton reported that the firm had spun a campaign for high-speed rail to intimidate local opposition — or “shit them up,” in the words of Westbourne director James Bethell.
Ms Minton wrote: “It has been set up to give the impression that it is a grassroots campaign of concerned employers, local businesses and local residents.
“They didn’t want the HS2 ‘narrative’ to be about shaving minutes off journey times to Birmingham and in the process cutting through swathes of countryside.
“The debate they sought to create was about pitting wealthy people in the Chilterns worried about their hunting rights against working-class people in the north.
“The strategy was ‘posh people standing in the way of working-class people getting jobs’ the lobbyist said.”