Report: Russians targeted Sabal Trail pipeline on social media

Updated March 06, 2018
Gas pipeline protesters outside of Florida Power & Light headquarters in Juno Beach on Oct 14, 2016. A Congressional report released this month found that Russian agents used social media to stir up protests against Sabal Trail, a pipeline that serves FPL’s plants. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Russian agents exploited social media to attempt to disrupt U.S. domestic energy markets and stir up protests against the Sabal Trail pipeline and other pipelines, fossil fuels, climate change and other divisive issues, a Congressional report released this month found.

Juno Beach-based FPL, which uses natural gas to generate 70 percent of its power, is the Sabal Trail pipeline’s primary customer.

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The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology says the same Russian entity indicted by a federal grand jury last month, the Internet Research Agency, is behind the social medial campaigns seeking to undermine U.S. energy markets.

Last month 13 Russians, the IRA and two other Russian entities were criminally charged with interfering in the 2016 U.S. election to help now-President Donald Trump, the office of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, said.

The Congressional report on the energy issues found that between 2015 and 2017, there were an estimated 9,097 Russian posts or tweets regarding U.S energy policy or an energy event on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

For example, a tweet on Dec. 11, 2016 from RT, the Russian-sponsored news agency stated: “Critics call $3 billion #SabalTrail Pipeline #Florida’s Dakota Access Pipeline.”

Another Tweet from RT that same day was “Pipeline Protests are Happening in Florida. #NOSabalTrailPipeline.”

The Russian agents efforts included attempting to incite Americans to take action against pipeline efforts by promoting links and references to online petitions aimed at stopping Sabal Trail, the Dakota Access and Enbridge Line 5 pipelines, the report states.

Sabal Trail is a joint venture of FPL’s parent company NextEra Energy, headquartered in Juno Beach; Duke Energy of Florida in St. Petersburg; and Houston-based Enbridge.

NextEra officials declined to comment on the Congressional report, and Enbridge officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In February last year, opponents of Sabal Trail, Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines lined President Donald Trump’s motorcade route from Mar-a-Lago to Palm Beach International Airport. Over the last few years, a number of protests were held outside FPL’s Juno Beach headquarters.

The $4 billion natural gas pipeline that has brought protests and legal challenges from environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and landowners along its route over the last few years began operating in June.

The Southeast Market Pipeline Project includes the $3.2 billion, 515-mile Sabal Trail pipeline from Alabama to Central Florida, the $550 million, 126-mile Florida Southeast Connection pipeline from Central Florida to FPL’s Indiantown plant, and Transcontinental’s $459 million, 48-mile Hillabee Expansion project in Alabama, as well as six new compressor stations.

The report from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology says that the Kremlin manipulated various groups in an attempt to carry out its geopolitical agenda, especially with respect to domestic energy policy.

U.S. production of natural gas and crude oil has boomed in recent years as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has become the primary production method, and that increase is a direct threat to Russia, the world’s top producer, the report states.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were able to identify Russian accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company established by the Russian government for the purpose of deceptively using various social and traditional media platforms to advance Russian propaganda.

The report also states:

•Between 2015 and 2017 there were an estimated 4,334 IRA accounts across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

•According to information provided by Twitter, more than 4 percent of all tweets linked to the Russian Internet Research Agency were related to energy or environmental issues. That compares to 8 percent of IRA tweets that were related to the election in the U.S.

•As the threat of American energy continues to grow, so does the Kremlin’s incentive to influence energy operations in Europe and the U.S. As they have demonstrated, the Kremlin will use any and all tools at their disposal to preserve Russia’s dominant energy status and to maintain its stranglehold over Eastern and Central Europe.

The report concluded that it’s clear that Russian agents are using social media to influence U.S. energy markets.

“Regardless of one’s political or ideological views surrounding U.S. energy policy and climate change, the American people deserve to be free from foreign political interference, ” the report states.

The committee said it will continue to work with social medial companies, which have taken positive steps to bring transparency to the online debates.

It will also continue its “ongoing efforts to identify foreign interference in domestic energy policy, whether from Russia or any other country, so that the American people can formulate their positions based on facts rather than on foreign propaganda.”