Earlier this month, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology published a staff report entitled “Russian Attempts to Influence U.S. Domestic Energy Markets by Exploiting Social Media.” The report is the result of the Committee’s investigation into Russian efforts to influence U.S. energy markets.  

After initial investigation revealed that Russian-sponsored agents were funneling money to U.S. environmental organizations “in an attempt to portray energy companies in a negative way and disrupt domestic energy markets,” the Committee expanded the scope of its investigation in the summer of 2017—requesting data from social media organizations Facebook and Twitter and culminating in publication of the staff report. The report concludes that Russian agents have in the past several years sought to disrupt U.S. energy markets and influence domestic energy policy by exploiting American social media platforms. Among the report’s findings is that Kremlin-backed organizations used social media accounts to target pipelines, fossil fuels, climate change, and other divisive issues to influence public policy in the U.S.

Pipelines and domestic energy infrastructure were a primary target of the Russian agents. The report notes several instances of social medial posts directed at encouraging protests of pipeline construction projects such as the Dakota Access, Sabal Trail, Keystone, Colonial, Bayou Bridge, and Enbridge Line 5 projects. The report also explains that “[t]he main focus of the Russian efforts centered on disruption of pipeline development or the advancement of climate change policies targeting fossil fuels.”

Any proponent of a major pipeline project knows that grassroots activism organized over social media can be a significant impediment to the execution of energy and pipeline projects. As a diversion from the more traditional channels for public input—such as the public participation process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—public engagement on social media about infrastructure development projects can manifest itself in many different forms, from online petitions to organized protests to actual interference at a construction site. The staff report highlights the extent to which social media is a powerful tool that sometimes is more effective at inflaming discord than disseminating accurate information from known, reliable sources—and the disruptive effect that such misinformation has on energy development projects.

This report should be understood in the context of other Russian online activities targeting the oil and natural gas sectors, including the widely reported Russian cyber attacks on computers at U.S. gas pipeline operators, power companies and electric grid operators in 2014 and the Russian use of cyber means to cause the explosion of a Turkish pipeline in 2008.