From the outset of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, Fox News has been using the conflict as a pretext to agitate for the production of more oil and gas here in the U.S., which the network's personalities and guests claim will lead to American “energy independence” – an outdated concept that right-wing media use as shorthand for increasing our reliance on domestic sources of fossil fuels, particularly during moments of global instability.
In the first two weeks of the conflict from February 24 through March 9, “energy independence” or “energy security” were mentioned across Fox News programming at least 329 times, illustrating how pervasive the fossil fuel industry talking point is within the right-wing media landscape.
The terms have appeared far less during programming on CNN (12) and MSNBC (14). However, the use of the term by its cable counterparts offers insight into how Fox is shaping cable news coverage of energy policy.
Fox is dominating the energy independence narrative on cable news
Over a two-week period from February 24, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, through March 9, Fox News mentioned the terms “energy independence,” or “energy security” a whopping 329 times.
Fox is trying to tether the idea of “energy independence” to expanding the U.S. fossil fuel industry, and suggests that the only way to achieve said energy independence is to allow for more oil and gas drilling in this country. As host Jesse Watters stated on the March 8 edition of Jesse Watters Primetime, “It’s time to restore the suspended leases on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There is 600,000 square miles of Alaska with most of it fertile drilling land. Look at that. This is how we restore American energy independence. We become self-sufficient on oil and gas and then we can sell it to our allies who need it in Europe.”
Other Fox segments implied that President Joe Biden’s focus on climate policy somehow ended U.S. energy independence. During a segment discussing the Ukraine crisis on the March 8 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Ainsley Earhardt claimed that “we used to be energy independent. Now we are dependent on countries like Russia, so we are funding this in a sense.”
Others tied the idea of increasing our reliance on fossil fuels to “energy security.” For example, on the March 1 edition of America Reports, Fox senior political analyst Brit Hume stated that “the green lobby needs to be asked to stand aside for a while and the war on carbon to be postponed” so that the U.S. can “drill now,” adding that “we can give ourselves the greatest amount of energy security and our allies.”
These claims are bogus, of course. For one, the U.S. is still a net exporter of energy, with crude oil production even forecasted to rise to record-high levels in 2023 and 2024. Before the Russian oil ban went into effect, only 8% of our total oil imports came from Russia – so unlike Earhardt’s claim, the U.S. is not “dependent on countries like Russia.” It’s also worth noting that even if the U.S. were to drill more, it wouldn’t really lower gas prices as that price is determined on the global market. Additionally, oil companies not drilling has less to do with Biden administration policies and more to do with the fact that the high cost of oil allows these companies to pay more dividends to their shareholders. Finally, as we’ve reiterated before, the U.S. cannot drill its way to energy independence – becoming truly energy independent means weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and adopting clean energy.
Fox has spent years reinforcing the idea that U.S. energy independence only comes from more oil and gas drilling
Fox’s obsession with energy independence in the wake of the Ukraine crisis is not surprising – it’s historically been a fervent ally of the fossil fuel industry while demonizing any and all climate policies.
Fox commentators have baselessly implied that Biden’s climate policies were responsible for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion on February 24, constantly mentioning the canceled Keystone XL pipeline) and wrongly blaming the administration for high gas prices following the attack. At the time, Media Matters noted, “The narratives around Keystone and high gas prices form part of a trifecta that includes the supposed halcyon days of American energy independence, another favorite topic during Fox’s coverage of Ukraine.”
Many of these Fox talking points actually predate the current war in Ukraine. In January 2020, there were numerous examples of Fox commentators implying that the U.S. assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was only possible due to the supposed energy independence under former President Donald Trump.
Fox personalities like Sean Hannity, who implied on March 2 that Biden’s policies lost U.S. energy independence, has been at this for a while. As far back as 2014, Media Matters noted that “Hannity frequently touts domestic oil extraction and oil pipelines as ways to achieve energy independence.” In 2012, Fox’s Stuart Varney falsely claimed that then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s energy plan would allow the U.S. to “be on the road to energy independence.” And in a March 2011 appearance on Fox News, disgraced former host Eric Bolling stated that the U.S. can reach energy independence through domestic drilling: “We've got more oil than Saudi Arabia. How about an energy policy that isn't blocking, hindering, and obstructing our own drilling companies?”
CNN and MSNBC have sometimes failed to challenge the “drill more” mantra – or even adopted it as their own
To be clear, the volume of discussion on cable news around energy-related issues exacerbated by the war in Ukraine is extensive – reviewing coverage that mentions the terms “energy independence” and “energy security” is just a small slice of how the conversation is playing out and who is driving it.
The 12 mentions of energy independence on CNN and its 14 mentions on MSNBC often echoed the same framing from Fox News and largely reinforced the idea that energy independence is achieved through increased domestic oil and gas production.
For example, during the March 7 edition of CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto, former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster insisted that producing more American oil and gas would “increase our own energy independence, but also the energy independence of the free world.” Marc Short, former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, appeared on MSNBC’s Craig Melvin Reports on March 3 to claim that we lost the energy independence that Trump achieved when Biden “canceled the Keystone pipeline and they stopped renewing new permits” to drill on federal lands. Notably, NBC correspondent Peter Alexander did an excellent job disarming Short’s attempt to push the false narrative that the Keystone pipeline would have made us less dependent on foreign oil, but stopped short of challenging his claims that we had greater energy security under Trump.
In fact, networks’ anchors or hosts rarely pushed back on this idea of energy independence, but neither did they raise the idea on their own – with some notable exceptions.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough used the term during at least three episodes of Morning Joe to push for more domestic drilling. During the March 2 episode, Scarborough suggested to guest Richard Haas that we should increase U.S. oil production to decrease dependence on Russian oil.
Haas, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, did not affirm the idea of drilling more but noted that “we should rethink the balance between energy security and climate change policies. The good news is you can have energy security and responsible climate change policies.”
“Energy independence” achieved through domestic clean energy garnered little attention on CNN and MSNBC
During his announcement that the U.S. was going to ban imports of Russian oil on March 8, President Biden said: “This crisis is a stark reminder that to protect our economy over the long term, we need to become energy independent. It should motivate us to accelerate a transition to clean energy.”
In fact, the argument equating energy security with clean energy production has been around as long as the term energy independence has been in common use – but right-wing outlets like Fox have largely drowned out this idea by calling to deepen our reliance on fossil fuels. This moment is no different. Only a select few instances of reframing energy independence appeared on CNN and MSNBC, while Fox’s calls for more U.S. oil and gas production reached a fever pitch. On the March 5 edition of Alex Witt Reports, Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) pivoted to the idea of “clean energy independence” during a discussion on whether to ban Russian oil, noting the strides his state of Massachusetts has made to transition to a clean energy economy.
And during the March 8 edition of CNN Newsroom, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese echoed Biden’s speech on the Russian oil ban affirming that the crisis in Ukraine underscores the need to achieve energy independence by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
Perhaps the best illustration of the challenges to shifting the thinking around “energy independence” in the face of its relentless use by Fox came in this exchange between Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and CNN anchor Jake Tapper on the March 8 edition of The Lead:
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): But let's admit, the insanity of the U.S. economy that continues to run on oil that is provided to us by dictators. The reality is if we're not getting this from Russia, we're likely going to be importing more from another brutal dictator, in Saudi Arabia, for instance, or we may have to go to Venezuela. We should learn our lesson here and become energy independent and choose to invest in clean domestic energy so we never have to choose between one dictator versus another.
JAKE TAPPER (ANCHOR): Republicans say the same thing except they're not talking about clean energy, they're just talking about American fossil fuels from Louisiana, ANWR, or Keystone.
In the short-term consequences of Russia’s invasion, unfortunately, gas prices are going to be painfully high – but the truth is we cannot drill our way out of this crisis. In the longer term, the only way to be truly energy independent and disarm oil-rich aggressors who use energy as a weapon is to decarbonize our economies and transition away from fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, this idea, at least on cable news, still seems to be at the margin instead of being front in center of the national discussion on energy this crisis has forced.
Update (5/5/22): Following the publication of this study, Media Matters continued to track mentions of “energy independence” or “energy security” on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. From March 10 through April 24, there were an additional 303 mentions on Fox News, 29 mentions on CNN, and 21 mentions on MSNBC. In total, from February 24 through April 24, Fox News has mentioned energy independence a whopping 632 times, while CNN and MSNBC have mentioned it 41 times and 35 times, respectively.
Of CNN’s 41 total mentions, 12 of them (29%) framed energy independence around increasing fossil fuel production, while just 8 mentions (20%) framed the issue as reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and promoting more clean energy usage. Similarly, 12 of MSNBC’s 35 total mentions (34%) framed energy independence around increasing fossil fuel production, while 8 of them (23%) framed energy independence as using more clean energy.
Additionally, 10 of MSNBC’s mentions (29%) and 9 of CNN’s (22%) were framed in a neutral way toward U.S. energy production. Many of these neutral mentions dealt vaguely with Europe’s energy security instead. Finally, 12 of CNN’s mentions (29%) and 5 of MSNBC’s mentions (14%) framed energy independence around both increasing fossil fuel production now while also transitioning to clean energy in the future.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “energy independence,” “energy independent,” or “energy security” from February 24 through March 9, 2022.
We counted each instance of any of the terms as a single mention. We then reviewed transcripts in the SnapStream video database to determine whether any of the mentions on CNN and MSNBC suggested that energy independence could only be achieved through more fossil fuel production or by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
Update (5/5/22): Data now also includes all new programming from March 10 through April 24, 2022.
Correction (5/5/22): This piece originally stated that CNN mentioned energy independence 13 times and MSNBC mentioned it 12 times from February 24 to March 9, 2022; in fact, CNN mentioned it 12 times and MSNBC mentioned it 14 times.