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by danps

Capitalism takes on democracy

2:50 am in Uncategorized by danps

TPP Potential Members, dark green – currently in negotiations; light green – announced interest

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Lambert’s post on Sunday about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) looks at the deal from an important perspective: Its effect on popular sovereignty. He links to Dean Baker’s short post and highlights this: “The main thrust of the negotiations is to impose a regulator[y] structure in a wide range of areas — health, safety, environmental — which will override national and sub-national rules.” International agreements have always had that character, of course. Treaties, conventions like the Geneva Conventions and Convention Against Torture and so on also (theoretically) supersede national and sub-national rules. They would be worthless otherwise.

The idea that trade agreements weaken national laws is also not new. One of the sticking points in the NAFTA debate was that worker and environmental regulations would be degraded as part of a rush to the bottom. There’s a big difference between warning of a risk, though, and actually quantifying the impact afterwards. Perhaps the growing awareness of those real world consequences has helped many realize just how much those without a seat at the table stand to lose from capital-privileging acts like TPP.1

Unlike treaties and conventions, these agreements have a key third party: investors and corporations. Lambert notes (emph. in orig.) “the tribunal can order your government to pay an investor for damages to their investment which may, as we saw in the definition of investment, include expectations of a return” (lest you think he’s being alarmist, he also links to a couple of examples). A major trade agreement, negotiated in secret, in anticipation of being hustled through Congress does not smack of democratic process – even if all the forms are technically observed.

I realize many conservatives make a similar argument about loss of sovereignty – or freedom, their preferred term – through laws like Obamacare. Say what you will about Obamacare, though, it was passed by elected representatives over an extremely public, contentious and drawn out (remember the Gang of Six? Good times) process. It was challenged and upheld in court. One might reasonably believe it is not an accurate expression of popular will, but it is silly to believe it did not adhere to the spirit of democratic process.

The sovereignty angle of TPP resonates with me because it seems to be an emerging theme. I am seeing it on a topic I just happen to follow closely; it isn’t hard to imagine other areas having similar developments.

The resource extraction industry is trying to route around troublesome outbreaks of democracy, and the strategy seems to be a TPP-like subversion of citizens’ self-determination. For instance, last week three cities in Colorado voted to ban fracking within their city limits; they are now poised to be sued by oil and gas companies. The state’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the industry in the past, and if it does so again it will raise the question of just how much citizens may decide what they want in their neighborhoods.

Meanwhile here in Ohio, Sunoco is looking to use eminent domain to expand one of its pipelines. Pipelines have become a new issue this year because their perceived lack is seen as a drag on capacity. In fact, they have been in the news elsewhere quite a bit as well, usually for bad reasons. Like the ruptured one in North Dakota that was discovered by a farmer and not disclosed to the public for eleven days. (Not an isolated incident either. But it’s being contained and remediated!) Or the one in Arkansas that spilled so much oil homes now need to be demolished. And of course the Big Kahuna is still out there.

We know that pipelines stay in place for decades and are rarely inspected, and we know what to expect from that, so naturally residents of the affected areas are concerned. In addition, this particular item appears to be set up to carry more than just oil. Is it right to use eminent domain for unrestricted use by a for profit company? We aren’t talking about installing a municipal sewer system here. The purpose is not the common good but corporate enrichment; must citizens really have no say in the matter?

At both the macro and micro levels there appears to be a new enthusiasm for using public tools for private purposes, with the intention of circumventing democratic processes or subverting popular sentiment. No one expects government to work the way we were taught in civics class, but there are limits to the amount of cynical manipulation a polity will stand. Take away popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed will follow not too far behind. And at that point, things get ugly.


1. Let’s stop lending a rhetorical hand to neoliberals by using their preferred terminology. These kinds of odious laws aren’t about free trade, so let’s not join the charade.

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by danps

ODNR meets with public on Nelson wells

2:48 am in Uncategorized by danps

Against fracking 01

Against Fracking

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Last summer the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) announced plans to approve seven toxic fracking waste injection wells for a single site in our county. Many citizens were alarmed by this, and at the time I posted on some of our fruitless attempts to get ODNR (in the person of geologist Tom Tomastik) to have a public hearing during the comment period. Instead we were promised an informational meeting at some point.

ODNR finally held it this last Thursday – nine months later, and about a 50 minute drive from the community where the wells will be permitted. Department officials assured residents that they really tried to find a good place:

Mark Bruce of ODNR’s Office of Communications, said the state tries to make such information sessions “as convenient as possible.” He said Wingfoot Lake State Park was the closest state facility with adequate meeting space.

The meeting really should have been held in the impacted community. Even if some technicality in the bowels of the Ohio Revised Code might justify having it so far away, it really is not in the spirit of public service to require citizens concerned about a major event in their town to travel far outside it to attend a meeting. (It also raises the question of who the rules are written to serve.)

In addition, ODNR does not appear to know our area very well. In last summer’s post I noted how they printed their public notice on the Soinski wells in the largely unknown Portage County Legal News rather than the county’s largest daily newspaper, the Record Courier. We are a friendly people here in Portage county; if ODNR had trouble locating a suitable facility in Nelson we would have been happy to help find one.

The department also made it clear that those who did make the trek would not be welcome:

ODNR is also stressing that crowd size and activities will be strictly controlled.

The release notes that only small personal items and purses will be allowed in the lodge, that all bags may be subject to inspection by law enforcement, and that no video cameras, demonstrations, signs or banners will be allowed inside. The fire marshal’s room occupancy limit will be enforced.

Because nothing says “transparent and citizen-friendly public office” like strict control of residents and not allowing them to take pictures at a public meeting. Also, the “no signs or banners” verbiage looks like a response to the informational meeting held in Athens last November. Citizens there objected to the format when it was announced:

Critics of injection wells have argued that the open house format, in which various informational booths are made available to the public, is inferior to the public hearing format, in which citizens can stand up and voice their opinions to state officials and the rest of the crowd in attendance. (ODNR still takes written comments even under the open house approach, however.)

In a news release, the Athens County Fracking Action Network and Appalachia Resist!, two groups opposed to hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, and to new injection wells to store the wastewater from such operations, slammed ODNR for not holding a genuine public hearing.

“An ‘open house’ is no substitute for a public hearing,” the release maintains. “At a public hearing, residents bring their concerns publicly before ODNR and all assembled, speaking one at a time in an organized fashion so that every comment can be heard by all. Most importantly, at a public hearing, public comments are entered into the legal record and can thus help hold ODNR accountable to the public.”

By contrast, the release alleges, at an open house citizens “are asked to mill around a large room, talking to various ODNR representatives in a casual one-on-one manner,” and comments don’t become part of legal record, “so ODNR cannot be held accountable to objections raised.”

When the event was held, people showed up with signs and yelled, which sounds awful. But consider: State Republicans are vocally in favor of fracking. Democrats – with a handful of exceptions – use a rhetoric of strategic ambiguity. The regulatory agency is, well, you’re reading about it now. The industry is flush with cash and can air as many “natural gas: America’s clean energy future!” commercials as it wants. When all you’ve got is your voice, you’ll use it as best you can.

So ODNR responded by making the information sessions even less useful by banning anything that might register or document strong opposition.

Our session began, as the one in Athens did, with a set of tables in the back that had ODNR officials on hand to talk, and some placards next to the tables. They had titles like “Seismic networks. Monitoring seismic activity across Ohio,” “Proposed class II injection wells (Portage) in relation to existing Ohio wells,” “Class II injection well surface facility. Components and checklist,” and other generalities.

One of the tables did look relevant, with a groundwater yield map in relation to proposed injection wells. But without the ability to sit down and study it, check it against other resources, maybe consult local experts, and so on, we couldn’t really do much more than look at it.

What we really wanted was to have our questions addressed, and one of the strongest impressions from the meeting was citizens trying to get answers and being turned away. The audio clips below are some of the exchanges between ordinary Ohioans and ODNR officials. Except for the county commissioner at the end the cast of characters is just regular citizens.

The first two clips have a lot of background noise and are hard to hear – we don’t have high end equipment and typically bring along our own humble devices or what we can borrow from someone else. But citizens can clearly be heard asking about the Soinski wells and being assured that they will be discussed in detail during the presentation (transcript).

Also listen to how the clip ends – with officials trying to stop the audio recording. This, along with the ban on video recording, may have been a violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws. The manual states (p. 89):

A public body cannot prohibit the public from audio or video recording a public meeting. A public body may, however, establish reasonable rules regulating the use of recording equipment, such as requiring equipment to be silent, unobtrusive, self-contained, and self-powered to limit interference with the ability of others to hear, see, and participate in the meeting.

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