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Pro-Fracking Group "Vets4Energy" Is a Front for the Oil Industry

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More than 20 counties in Florida have signed ordinances banning fracking, the controversial process by which water, sand, and an unnamed cocktail of chemicals are jammed into the ground in order to extract oil and natural gas. The process has been blamed for contaminating groundwater. Around the time Broward County banned fracking in February, it appeared that the state was ready to pass a ban on fracking bans, and force the practice to be allowed across all of Florida. But after environmentalists converged upon Tallahassee in protest, the bill died on March 1.

Since then, a PR rep for a group called "Vets4Energy" has sent New Times a handful of emails, asking us to publish a pro-fracking op-ed written by Vets4Energy's Florida cochair, Dennis Freytes. The story accuses Florida's environmentalists of fear-mongering and spreading disinformation in order to kill the bill.

But a quick fact-finding mission shows "Vets4Energy" is effectively a public-relations front for the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's largest trade association, PR firm, and lobbying wing. And despite how obvious the group's oil ties are, at least four major Florida newspapers, including the Sun Sentinel and Palm Beach Post, appear to have run op-eds from the group without any mention of its funding sources.

Vets4Energy's latest piece is hilariously ominous in tone. "Fear just secured another victory," it begins. It then continues, adding that Florida's environmental activists are recycling "discredited arguments to scare citizens and legislators alike into believing that fracking will harm Florida's environment." It later claims that fracking can energize the state's job market and has never harmed groundwater.

"If alarmism were a crime, these radicals would be wearing handcuffs," Freytes, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, wrote.

The group claims on its website to be a "group of volunteer veterans who continue to serve America as advocates for energy policies to sustain our national security." The piece appears to have run unedited in the Pensacola News-Journal on April 11, as well as in the Tampa Tribune.

The Palm Beach Post too ran an op-ed from fellow Vets4Energy Florida rep Tom Garcia in October 2014 that implied that offshore drilling in Florida would keep America safe from the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. There was no mention of the group's funding background.

Likewise, the Sun Sentinel ran a different Garcia op-ed on August 3, 2015, that claimed that drilling off Florida's coast would "spur job creation, boost Florida's economy and move the United States toward energy independence." Again, no mention of the group's oil ties.

But a handy disclaimer at the bottom of Vets4Energy's website says the site is sponsored by a group called "America's Energy Forum," a "a non-partisan community of concerned citizens committed to two goals — achieving energy security for our country, and holding our elected officials more accountable in shaping energy policies."

America's Energy Forum's website, in turn, says the group is sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute. 

(Both sites, however, include disclaimers that their sponsors "do not warrant the accuracy of information contained herein" and disclaim "any liability for the use of, or reliance on, the information presented" and that each group's views do not necessarily reflect those of their sponsors.)

If things weren't obvious enough, the American Petroleum Institute itself sent out a press release in 2013 that straight-up outed Vets4Energy as a lobbying front for the organization:

The American Petroleum Institute’s Vets4Energy campaign returns to the nation’s capital this week. Twenty-six veterans are meeting members of Congress and staff to discuss why burgeoning North American energy resources are vital to improving our national security.

Here's a screenshot from the institute's own website:

Vets4Energy appears to be a clear example of "astroturfing" — that is, the practice of masking lobbying groups as well-meaning "grassroots activists" to gain the public's trust and hijack space in the nation's newspapers. "Astroturf" groups are a growing — and frightening — section of the U.S. lobbying industry: Famously, a now-defunct group called the "Save Our Species Alliance" campaigned to gut the Endangered Species Act ten years ago. Watchdog groups later found out the alliance was deeply tied to the forest-products (read: stuff that comes from trees, like paper) industry.

When asked about Vets4Energy's oil-industry ties, the spokesperson sending out the email blasts, Carolyn Clendenin, said she was unable to "acquire any specific funding information" about the group. But Freytes did tell her that the group "has received funding from organizations supported by people in the energy industry." She declined to provide a direct contact for Freytes, and New Times' attempts to contact him independently were unsuccessful.

As such, anything tied to Vets4Energy ought to be served with a heaping helping of scrutiny. Whether you like fracking or not, the lack of transparency there should seem egregious to everyone.

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