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by danps

John Podesta’s heroic battle against straw men and the politically marginalized

6:35 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

“With all due respect to my friends in the environmental community,” he continued against his fictional adversary, “if they expect us to turn off the lights and go home, that’s sort of an impractical suggestion.”

Last week several environmental groups called on the president to not speed up permitting for liquefied natural gas exports. In response White House adviser John Podesta met with reporters and forcefully rebutted arguments they had not made.

“If you oppose all fossil fuels and you want to turn that switch off tomorrow, that is a completely impractical way of moving toward a clean-energy future” he thundered, answering a charge articulated by no one. “With all due respect to my friends in the environmental community,” he continued against his fictional adversary, “if they expect us to turn off the lights and go home, that’s sort of an impractical suggestion.” It was an admirable performance, a rare and special display of the kind of soaring creativity not normally encountered outside of a child’s imagination.

In point of fact, the groups were simply arguing against the latest excuse to ramp up fracking – and they can’t do much more than appeal to conscience. They certainly aren’t in a position to launch primary challenges or force other unpleasant consequences on Democrats. Meanwhile the fossil fuel industry – which, granted, doesn’t wield the fearsome clout inside the Beltway that, say, Friends of the Earth does – has managed to scrape together some meager resources to try to get its message out.

Since the Obama administration is a huge fracking cheerleader – Podesta reiterated that support – I can understand why activism against it is a sore spot. He also was careful to point out that the administration is finalizing plans to reduce methane emissions from fracking. Details to follow, um, later. Meanwhile, the existing dirty practices continue.

Presumably the EPA will be in charge of regulating methane, which doesn’t inspire much confidence considering that the EPA is currently being sued for failing to regulate methane. Podesta’s spiel boils down to a vague promise that eventually a captured agency will do something. In addition, we are to trust that – against all recent experience – the industry won’t dilute to meaninglessness any worthwhile proposal that somehow miraculously emerges.

Since this was a Politico story no pushback like that greeted Podesta, of course. He pretty much got the stenography treatment: An official said something and whether or not it has merit, it’s newsworthy. In a similar vein the article links to a piece with a headline trumpeting popular support of Keystone XL “(Also on POLITICO: Poll: 65 percent back Keystone),” support based largely and falsely on expected job creation. The fact that only 35 permanent full time jobs will be created by Keystone doesn’t reflect on the validity of the poll though. People said they liked it, with or without accurate information, so the result must be reported. Journalism, friends.

As you might expect, a dumb comment from a White House official turned into amplified stupid elsewhere. One might expect an analyst to analyze that distinction in the poll, or a reporter to report on the contrast between peoples’ urgent concerns about jobs and the anemic results unconventional extraction has delivered. An enterprising journalist might even look into why unconventional extraction has become such a big thing.

After all, what if the talk about “peak oil” turned out to be true and that we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit? What if the turn to fracking, tar sands, and so on reflect a new reality? One where continued use of fossil fuels will require ever greater investment? What if it turns out that we are now coming up against the law of diminishing returns, and have to decide just how much money we are willing to pay in order to maintain the status quo?

Here’s another possible angle: Podesta has trumpeted fracking as providing a bridge to a renewable energy dominated future. Yet the fossil fuel industry’s pals are busy wiring dynamite to that bridge’s foundation. Maybe all that talk about bridges is just a way to allay public fears about the ferocious consequences of human induced climate change. Maybe the subtext of all that bridge talk is: “Hey, let us go ahead with this next round of extraction and then we’ll clean up our act.” Maybe the absence of any actual bridge building by the people talking it up is worth a look.

Yes, Podesta’s comments offer many potentially compelling story lines: Pushing back on his bullshit rhetoric, examining the gap between jobs promised and jobs created, looking at the specter of having passed peak oil, following up on the chimerical promises of a clean energy future from those with dubious interest in it. Lots of interesting columns that someone with an outsized platform could check into, right? Daily Beast columnist Lloyd Green took stock of the possibilities and concluded: effete liberals.

He starts by citing the poll (vox populi!) and links its support to “job-craving America.” He doesn’t note the actual lack of jobs Keystone will provide.1 All that matters to him is the mistaken impression among the majority. He then claims Democrats “have a problem with the non-government employee middle class” (?) and that contemporary liberalism “sounds more like reactionary 19th century Toryism.”

In Green’s view, there’s a cadre of out of touch upper middle class progressives who oppose industrial development on aesthetic grounds, and embrace NIMBY-ism (Not in My Backyard) in order to preserve picturesque landscapes against unsightly signs of such activity. This is perhaps the most intellectually dishonest part of his article.

Green has a lofty, theoretical view of those opposed to doubling down on unconventional extraction. He refuses to acknowledge the concerns of those who have been (or might be) affected by the combination of aging infrastructure, lax to non-existent regulation and the malign neglect of political leaders. Places actually impacted, and the people forced to deal with the aftermath, do not appear to exist to him.

He could spend a week in West Virginia, bathe in and drink the water, talk to residents, and then tell us if they’re a bunch of NIMBYs. Or he could visit North Carolina and Virgina. Or he could come right here to Ohio. Who knows, he might even encounter some concerned citizens in the non-government employee middle class.

Spending time in some of the backyards in question might give him a different perspective on NIMBYs, were he interested in such a thing. He isn’t though. He’d rather talk about Martha’s Vineyard and wind farms in Nantucket – because it’s much more fun to goof on the Kennedy family than it is to get an up close and personal look at environmental hazard. (The likelihood of crying NIMBY is inversely proportional to one’s distance from a Superfund site.)

He winds up, funny enough, by criticizing Barack Obama for not delivering on his promise of green jobs, though he mysteriously neglects to mention the 600,000 fracking jobs the president promised a couple years ago. He gets in an obligatory wingnut reference to Solyndra, though in an admirable show of restraint he declines to link it to Benghazi. And because there will be an election in seven and a half months, the horse race must get its due: “die-hard gentry liberals” – presumably this year’s re-branded emoprog – will help throw support of the Senate to the Republicans with their constant griping.

That’s only true if all the people who stood in line in 2012, and don’t show up in November, are Downton Abbey liberals. I suspect the demographic breakdown is a little more diverse than that, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. As for Green’s implication that the environmental movement doesn’t know which side its bread is buttered on, I’ll just say this: There are a number of words that can describe someone overtly hostile to you on an issue of immediate and substantial importance; “friend” is not one of them.


NOTES

1. The unconventional fossil fuel extraction industry has been notoriously weak in job creation. I know I’m repeating myself here, but fracking hasn’t led to job growth in Ohio. It has only led to modest bumps in industries serving the itinerant workers who fill most of the temporary jobs.

The failure to create jobs is a major flaw in the argument for these projects. Hammering away at that, and at the apparent ignorance or dishonesty of those peddling it, might be the kind of thing a friend would do. For the most part (with some highly important exceptions) it’s just been crickets from the Democrats.
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by danps

Commissioners pipeline meeting: strategy and why it’s worth the bother

5:33 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Previously: Report on the meeting, background, and the statement I prepared for it. In this last installment I’ll look at why we approached the meeting the way we did, and what we hoped to get out of it.

A group staging or participating in a public event should give some thought to how it plans to conduct itself. For instance, will it be compliant or disruptive? If the group believes the fix is in, the event sponsor is hostile and the whole thing is just a dog and pony show, disruptive may be the way to go.

Oil Pipeline

Oil Pipeline


The 2009 Congressional town hall meetings during the Obamacare debate were a good example of that. Show up, make lots of noise and drive home your points as vehemently as possible. These actions were arguably quite successful: While Obamacare ultimately passed, the confrontations may have served as a rallying point for conservatives in the following year’s wave election. Confrontation can come across as extreme and unreasonable, though, turning off neutral observers and keeping allies away. It’s a high risk/high reward strategy.

The other basic approach is compliance, and that too has risks and rewards. Compliance is probably best when one expects at least a sympathetic hearing, if not substantive results. No sense in alienating potential allies. The upside with compliance is coming across as sober, serious, and willing to work within the system. The downside is coming across as meek and ineffectual, and never actually being able to change the system. Depending on the situation, sometimes it’s best to be nice and polite; other times to make noise and rattle cages.

For the pipeline meeting, our group decided on the former. The commissioners have been very willing to listen to our members and to make time for us. I would say the pipeline meeting was an example of our efforts bearing fruit: citizens were able to express their concerns,1 and it was the first time the company answered questions before public officials. While it may have been late for this pipeline (see below), it’s something that could be repeated, hopefully earlier, with future ones.

Some might wonder why to bother showing up for a meeting like this. The pipeline is already about 80% built and is expected to be operational by summer. The meeting clearly happened very late in the process. Did it do any good? I think so, for a few reasons. The first is simple civic engagement. Citizenship is about more than showing up on election day to cast a ballot – it’s an ongoing process. We became aware of this project after it began, but still wanted to raise our concerns. To me, that’s part of being a citizen.

We also wanted to raise awareness for those who were still being approached about easements (particularly the shaky eminent domain assertion), and to the wider community. Pipelines are becoming a hot topic, and other residents of northeast Ohio might want to know about these kinds of grassroots efforts. We succeeded in that regard: our county paper ran two pieces on the pipeline in the following days, and Cleveland’s NBC affiliate WKYC ran a segment about it on their evening news.2 Other towns might want to have their own public meetings, and maybe learn from our example. Learn from our mistakes as well: we clearly would like to have had the meeting before the pipeline was nearly complete.

Then there is the simple act of going on the record. We know the state is enthusiastically in favor of fossil fuel extraction, and that the law has been fixed so that companies have little risk of local communities stopping them. But meetings like this can prompt a responsiveness from pipeline companies that “call our customer service help line” will not. If we can get just a modest improvement in how the thing is constructed, monitored and repaired, well, that’s better than what we’d have had otherwise.

If even that doesn’t happen, at least we will have a public record of our concerns. As I said in my statement, pipelines leak. Pipeline companies often do not detect leaks. There are real hazards associated with them. Should there be some substantial impact on our community because of it, at least we will be able to say: Yes, we knew that was one of the risks you posed. Don’t tell us no one could have known; don’t say it was completely unforeseen; don’t say some process had an unexpected blind spot or breakdown. We knew all of that from day one, we raised our voices about it, and that is precisely why we opposed it.


NOTES

1. If you are going to speak in public, consider preparing both a full statement and an abbreviated one. Sometimes things change at the last minute. In our case we expected to have three minutes each but it was shortened to one. At the meeting I made a number of hasty edits – crossing out lines and paragraphs of my prepared statement, adding rough transitions and grammatical changes, etc – and still didn’t make it through the shorter version. If you take an analytical approach it’s good to at least have note cards, if not a printed statement. If you plan to speak extemporaneously and from the heart, at least think about the major topic(s) you want to cover.
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2. WKYC has done a phenomenal job covering local oil and gas issues. I approached reporter Kristin Anderson after the meeting and thanked her station for that. I also told her the station has changed my opinion of local news. I’ve long had a jaded view of it, and written it off as devoted to stereotypical “if it bleeds it leads” sensationalism. WKYC, though, has shown that local TV news can provide invaluable coverage on the issues facing a community. Full credit to them for it.
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by danps

Commissioners’ meeting background: Pipelines, fracking and peering underneath the rock

4:50 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Last week I posted a statement prepared for our county commissioners regarding a pipeline under construction in Portage County. As I began outlining a report on the meeting I realized a good deal of context was needed for those not in the thick of it. Here is a bit of background.

Pipelines have traditionally been understood as carrying oil, but that has begun to change with fracking. Companies now want to use them to transport various fluids associated with that process, and in places that do not already have lots of pipelines there is a new push to construct them. As the Columbus Dispatch reported last May:

Officials of the oil and gas industry said the pipelines and the plant are safe and vital to their plans to develop Ohio’s Utica shale.

A lack of natural-gas processing, industry officials say, keeps shale wells from delivering to buyers and has slowed the pace of drilling and fracking.

So places that have been targeted for fracking are seeing a new interest in pipelines. The first step in this process is securing the land along the route, and this is also perhaps the shadiest part of the process. Pipeline companies subcontract out through what are called land men. These individuals go door to door attempting to negotiate the necessary legal agreement – and that is an exceedingly diplomatic, anodyne and generous way to describe how it sometimes works.

Land men are not governed by anything other than their scruples. Theoretically the companies paying them have requirements for conduct, but the arrangement more often seems designed for plausible deniability: Ask a pipeline company about allegations of unethical behavior and they will insist in the strongest terms that their contractors must adhere to the highest ethical standards – and usually that they’ve rarely or never had complaints about their land men.

Which is at least slightly disingenuous. After all, who can say what was discussed on someone’s doorstep? Some residents have reported being delivered contracts that were far different than the ones promised; others that they were told eminent domain (ED) was a foregone conclusion and signing the contract a mere formality. Good luck proving it, though. Unless the homeowner had the presence (and ability) to record the conversation, it would end up as he said/she said in a courtroom.

The land men basically pick off the low hanging fruit. Those reluctant to sign require a little stronger persuasion. In Portage County that has meant the pipeline company making what it has determined is a fair offer to buy the property, backed up by the threat of seizure via ED. These letters have a veneer of legal nicety, but an unmistakable subtext of menace and intimidation lurks behind them as well.

For instance, letters sent to residents say that the state of Ohio allows the company to seize the property via eminent domain – this will be a crucial topic in next week’s post – but that they would rather negotiate something agreeable to both. In other words, we can take it if we want; now let’s negotiate! (Imagine how successful those negotiations will be for the homeowner.) The good cop/bad cop routine continues as the company says it is

of the opinion that this offer is in excess of the fair market value…[W]e make this final and best offer in the hopes that the parties may be able to reach an amicable agreement and avoid unnecessary and costly litigation expenses. Please understand, however, that if you force us to commence eminent domain proceedings to acquire the easements, this offer is withdrawn.1

Basically, play ball with us or you’ll lose your land.

It should be clear just how much gumption it takes to fight a company on something like this. Most folks will be blindsided by it: There they were living their lives, not knowing they were in the way of pipeline company profits, and one day land men show up. They will generally not be knowledgeable about the laws in question nor will they have access highly specialized legal counsel. Most will be sufficiently risk averse (and sensible) to not want to risk what is likely their biggest single investment on an all-or-nothing showdown with the oil and gas industry. So they sign and get something instead of risking getting nothing.

That’s how these pipelines get created. But even though the playing field is so decidedly tilted in favor of big business, it still hasn’t been entirely cleared. More on that, and how it came up in the commissioners’ meeting, next week.


NOTES

1. I believe this short excerpt to be covered by the fair use provision of copyright law:

the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

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by danps

Naturally occurring, but not with wanderlust

6:19 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

About a year ago a local family began getting flammable water. The fact that their house’s recorded methane levels (along with their sink) shot up shortly after fracking began nearby was considered maybe not coincidental, so the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) looked into it. Before the agency did, though, it let the public know which way it was leaning: “Methane is naturally occurring in this portion of the state, and the water well in question was found to be drilled into shale, which may have led to these increased levels.”

Isn’t the point of an investigation to try and understand the cause, not to confirm one’s hunches? It doesn’t inspire a lot of faith in the impartiality of the investigation to start by declaring the expected outcome. (I noticed the same thing when North Dakota State Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt said he didn’t expect to find groundwater contamination at their recent oil spill. Oil and gas regulators seem a little eager to pre-exonerate the industry they are supposed to be keeping an eye on.)

ODNR concluded its investigation a few weeks ago, and the result was no surprise to anyone who had seen the agency tip its hand at the outset:

An investigation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recently concluded that the gas in the Kline’s’ water well was chemically different from the gas produced by a Mountaineer Keystone oil and gas well 1,500 feet southeast of the house.

An Oct. 18 agency report said methane in the Kline’s’ well matched the methane found in natural gas that leaks from shallow underground sources into groundwater.

“Up to 40 percent of the water wells within the area of the (shale) drilling have some concentration of methane in them,” said Mark Bruce, a Department of Natural Resources spokesman. “Methane is naturally occurring.”

The verbatim use of “methane is naturally occurring,” in addition to being a favored pro-fracking talking point, is not especially relevant when discussing the impact of fracking. No one disputes that methane occurs naturally, or that some water supplies have high levels of it that long pre-date fracking. The relevant question (or one of them) is: what happens to that naturally occurring methane when heavy industrial activity begins nearby?

Setting off explosions below the earth and repeatedly forcing millions of gallons of chemical cocktails into the ground makes it more permeable. We already know that fluids in shale fields migrate much farther and much faster than previously thought, because busting up the earth makes it more porous. Saying that these fluids and gases are naturally occurring is trivial; stupid even. What matters is not whether they are naturally occurring but whether they are naturally migratory:

“It challenges the view that natural gas, and the suite of hydrocarbons that exist around it, is isolated from water supplies by its extreme depth,” said Judith Jordan, the oil and gas liaison for Garfield County, who has worked as a hydrogeologist with DuPont and as a lawyer with Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It is highly unlikely that methane would have migrated through natural faults and fractures and coincidentally arrived in domestic wells at the same time oil and gas development started, after having been down there … for over 65 million years.”

It’s entirely possible the Kline’s well was drilled into shale, and also that the methane is chemically different from that at the frack operation. That (possibly) shale-drilled well was working just fine until a year ago. Then the drilling began, and whoopsie their water began catching fire. Determining that the methane did not come directly from the drilling operation is only part of the answer. The other part, still unanswered, is whether a – naturally occurring! – pocket of methane was loosened up in newly permeable ground and migrated to the family’s property.

(A gas migration would be more like a tornado than an earthquake – going in a line and only affecting land in its path. Saying “it couldn’t be the drilling because other nearby houses were unaffected!” makes as much sense as saying a tornado didn’t level a house because neighboring houses were undamaged.)

It’s too late to know if that is in fact what happened, because there is no mapping of what the ground looked like prior to drilling. The fact that this entire area of hazard is unaccounted for doesn’t reflect very well on ODNR, though. If all they do is make sure contamination doesn’t come directly from operators, declare that it’s naturally occurring, and then wash their hands of it, Ohioans will have to bear the rest of the risk on their own. Given how easy it is to shuttle between the agency and the industry, that might bode well for regulators’ employment prospects once they leave. But it sure doesn’t do much for citizens.


NOTE: As of this writing, the report is not available on the ODNR web site.

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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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by danps

Activism in the spaces in between

3:28 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

It can be difficult to write about activism in an open-ended effort like the one against fracking. It isn’t like a campaign where all the activity is geared toward election day, at which point everyone will know who won and who lost. It’s different even from an issue like the Keystone XL pipeline, which is a single (continent-spanning) contiguous piece of infrastructure, and which will ultimately get a definitive yes or no.

Fracking involves lots of activity in communities dotted across the nation. There are big shale plays in some parts of the west, some parts of the Midwest, some parts of the east, and so on. But nothing connects those dots, and that makes it hard to give the thing a sense of its nationwide scope. Coverage will tend to be on a smaller scale, which makes it easier to dismiss it as a purely local or parochial concern.

Another issue with coverage is that developments tend to move slower than the news cycle. Activists like our group might start something like a monthly water monitoring program, but after kicking it off there really isn’t much new to report on it. You can’t make much of a story out of: We’re still monitoring!

This week there was an interesting new development though. Our county had not approved an increase in funding to our health district since 1955. We’ve had lots of renewals, but no increases. Counties and other regional bodies are capable of providing valuable services to residents, but those services cost money – paid through taxes. Asking people to raise their taxes is a pretty heavy lift, as our track record on this issue shows.

Because of the contacts and knowledge our group has gained through our water monitoring program, we knew about the replacement levy coming up and invited someone from the board to speak. He talked in general terms about what the department was doing, what its challenges were, and so on. We raised our concerns about fracking to him, and he said the department would look into subsidizing the cost of its water testing program if the levy passed.1

So we ordered a batch of signs and put them out on our lawns:

We also talked up the issue with friends and neighbors, and generally tried to promote the issue as we could. We weren’t in any way prime movers in the effort, but we pitched in as we were able to.2 And miracle of miracles, it actually passed.

There are a couple of interesting notes in the article. The eye popping one for me is this: voter turnout of 8.87 percent. My experience at the polls was certainly congruent with that. I got there about a half an hour after polls opened and I thought I’d gone to the wrong place. It was deserted.

Inside, I initially went to the wrong room (misplaced signage – not my fault!) and found out I was the first voter to show up. I then made my way to the correct room and found out I was the first voter there as well. By contrast, last November I arrived about ten minutes after polls opened and there was already a long line. It was quick inside the booth as well – the health levy was literally the only item on the ballot. That wasn’t true county wide, of course, but it’s safe to say there were considerably fewer issues than in November.

These two factors make an interesting dynamic: Lower voter turnout means each voter who does show up gets more bang for the buck. Your vote has more weight if it’s one of ten than it does if it’s one of a million. And the thinner ballot means the election results generally were something of a referendum on the levy itself. Last November’s replacement levy defeat was bundled with votes for president, Congress, and so on. But Tuesday’s replacement levy success was close to an endorsement of the levy, plain and simple.

There are potentially some good lessons for activists. The first is that action on a controversial issue like fracking can be taken through less contentious avenues like health department funding. Lots of people enthusiastically support the oil and gas industry, but the population opposed to local health department funding is pretty much limited to anti-tax zealots.

Second, a group that believes it has popular support on an issue might do well to look to special elections to get on the ballot. There is less chance of the issue getting diluted or obscured by other issues, and activists can translate their support into maximum leverage at the polls.

Finally, the process of identifying issues and reaching out to key players is a great way to build social capital. It gets you in touch with people you wouldn’t have been in touch with otherwise and find ways to support a related issue in ways that might not have been obvious. And every now and then it all translates, as it did on Tuesday, into a surprising and pleasant victory.


NOTES

1. Technical/legal note: we refer to our program as water monitoring and not water testing, because we don’t want anyone to think the handful of metrics we look at is in any way equivalent to the far more extensive testing done by the county or the EPA. We are very careful about our word choice.
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2. This sort of purely grassroots effort is exactly the kind of situation where a third party could make hay. One would think that a party like, say, the Greens would be strongly in favor of, say, adequate funding for health departments. To the extent they are absent, they are missing out on party building opportunities. They may not have the time, resources or inclination to do so in my neck of the woods, which is fine. But I will be decidedly unimpressed with their guilt trips about supporting the awful two party system when the next presidential election rolls around.
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by danps

Away from energy independence, and towards energy freedom

2:34 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Two of the more loaded words in contemporary politics are independence and freedom. Despite their similarities in meaning they get used in very different ways. Independence is used in a more national sense, which might be natural because of its prominence in what is arguably our founding document. It doesn’t seem like it is possible to disparage independence in our discourse. Even a word like patriotism, while generally well regarded, has qualifications. Independence is all good though, so anything you can attach to it is improved by the association.

This has played out for years now with the much-invoked phrase “energy independence.” The latest calls for it began in the wake of 9/11 as a way to argue for policies that would remove our need to import oil from abroad. It made sense on the face of it: We send our money to oil-rich states, states that in some cases fund groups hostile to America. Buy from them and you’re funding the terrorists, went the argument. (This is simply a description of what leaders put out for public consumption, not an endorsement of it.)

The initial prescriptions for energy independence were relatively full, or at least fuller than they would become. An increase in domestic production was the favored proposal, but was supplemented with calls to encourage conservation and discourage consumption. As late as the spring of 2008 it was possible for a conservative in good standing like Charles Krauthammer to call for a heavy tax on gasoline. But by that fall Michael Steele made the infamous call to drill baby drill, and from then on it was all about resource extraction.

The curiously elusive goal of energy independence is now being pursued through fracking, or so its proponents claim. There is lots of natural gas just waiting to be forced up to the surface of the earth, we are told. In fact, the Barnett Shale in Texas has enough reserves to supply Texas for the next 200 years. There’s also enough nationwide to supply America for the next 200 years. And 200 years for China! And India! The world! It’s the fossil fuel equivalent of Ulysses Everett McGill’s geographical oddity.

Of course, abundance does not mean independence – at least not long term. That only happens if we take some additional steps. For instance, any resource vital enough to merit a policy of independence is too precious to export. We should flat out ban the removal of any item that receives such an important designation. Selling it to foreigners is downright seditious, isn’t it? Doesn’t doing so hinder our quest for energy independence? We should be keeping it all here. Yet the industry is doing just the opposite – pushing for new ways to get it out of the country. Why does the oil and gas industry hate America?1

Similarly, we should create a substantial strategic reserve of any such resource. If natural gas truly is so important to America’s future then it is reckless to deprive ourselves of a great store of it in case of emergency. And of course there’s Krauthammer’s price floor proposal. We should just set a minimum price on it and levy whatever tax is necessary to reach that level.

The fact that none of the people making all the noise about energy independence are taking such a comprehensive view on the issue can only be explained a few ways, none of them flattering. Have they not thought the issue through? Are they uninterested in thinking about it beyond empty slogans? Or is the noble-sounding “energy independence” really just a cynical euphemism for catering to a favored political constituency? Those who trumpet energy independence should be expected to either address these issues or lose credibility.

From a citizen’s perspective, the current vision of energy independence might be a bit of a mixed blessing. What price should we be willing to pay to achieve this? Aside from the environmental impact of ongoing fossil fuel dependence(!), what good does it do the average person to give preferential treatment to wildly profitable industries?2 Or ones that cripple the democratic process? If you trade rule by a tyrannical king for rule by soulless plutocrats how much have you really gained? This might be a kind of independence we would be better off without.


Freedom, unlike independence, drags a little bit of freight behind it. Over the past few years it has become a rallying cry of the right, invoked in absurd ways (Fox link!) to decry just about anything conservatives don’t like. That has made it something of an object of ridicule on the left; this link should give you a decent look at whatever the outrage du jour is in the fever swamps.

The debasing of the word freedom is a shame, because it can be very useful to liberals in some cases – like energy. Energy independence may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but energy freedom could be very appealing. The idea of individuals enjoying energy freedom could draw primarily on distributed generating capacity. Household generation of electricity through wind and solar energy, aside from the environmental impact of ramping up the use of renewables(!), promises huge benefits.

The main one is reducing dependence on the grid. Our model has always worked on centralized generation, and the obvious flaw with that approach is that it has a single point of failure. If the power plant, and all the pieces connecting it to your house, are not up and running, you’ve got no electricity. The ability to supplement the grid with local generating capacity would not just save money, it would give families a form of backup – maybe compromised or lower scale but still usable – during outages.

That might be a modest convenience when a spring thunderstorm downs a line, but it could be much more than that in the aftermath of a major event. What if in the wake of a Katrina or Sandy people in the affected areas had some electricity during daylight hours? It’s not as good as being fully operational, but it could be the difference between remaining at home and being a refugee.

(A hurricane obviously might rip off solar panels or crash turbines, but any generating capacity retained is better than none. And maybe these local generators could be engineered with redundancy and durability in mind for just such an occasion.)

People who enjoy energy freedom, as opposed to energy independence, would see direct benefits. Instead of a long, convoluted and dubious process that somehow ends up enriching industry executives more than anyone else, we would see direct monetary benefits to ourselves. It would also serve the very national security that energy independence types love to trumpet: An electrical grid with distributed generation is far more robust than a centralized one – and incidentally is far better able to recover from the occasional whoopsie. We’ve had empty talk about energy independence for decades. It’s time for some substantive action on energy freedom.


NOTES

1. See how patriotic I am?
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2. By the way, shouldn’t the production of such a vital resource be done by the state and not private companies?
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Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

Testing water and building community

4:52 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Last summer I wrote about the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program for testing water. Our town’s anti-fracking activists have been using it at their homes for a while now, but around the time of my post we also began free monthly water testing for the community. We are careful to emphasize several caveats, though. The most important is that the testing is not comprehensive or EPA certified; it is not meant to be a substitute for a certified test. It measures a handful of items and is only meant to give a basic idea of water quality. Similarly, the testing would almost certainly not be admissible in a court of law; anyone with an eye on future court cases should go with an EPA certified lab.

That said, the tests are a good way to look for changes. If, say, your chlorine level is stable for six straight months and then suddenly triples, something might be up. Prior snapshots are among the crucial missing pieces in assessing the impact of fracking. At the moment there are few institutional incentives – private or public – to establish baselines prior to fracking. Industry players certainly have nothing to gain. They have gotten their favored legislation passed and are moving right along. The best result they could get would be to continue at their existing pace.1

As for the state, it is failing miserably. There are several possible reasons for that. It could be that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is woefully understaffed and simply not up to the task. It could be that decades of conservative rhetoric on how faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats are strangling free enterprise with regulations has had its intended effect: regulators are now too timid to be useful. It could be the pernicious (and logical) outcome of an erstwhile conservative project on term limits. It could just be the revolving door, aka cognitive regulatory capture.

The actual reasons don’t matter though; all that matters for citizens is that there is zero support for the kind of preliminary investigation that is a crucial prerequisite for connecting any environmental hazard with fracking. As it is, industry can simply claim the current environment is unchanged. Your water was always like that; prove us wrong.

Colorado is grappling with that very issue right now. Reporting on a proposed water testing rule aimed at discovering spills, Bruce Finley writes: “Unless such spills are near wellheads…state regulators would lack before-and-after data that could be used to assess damage to try to hold companies accountable.” While no testing at all is bad, testing at a handful of spots (selected by whom?) might be even worse if it gives the public a false sense of security. Better that people know they are completely in the dark than to be fooled into thinking an ineffectual agency is adequately monitoring the situation when it isn’t. (See here for additional reporting by Finley on before-and-after issues.)

This is the context for community water testing: essentially acting as the ODNR Volunteer Auxiliary, attempting as best we can to put together a “before” picture for residents. This past Sunday we had a steady stream of people showing up, thanks in part to a couple of larger media outlets unexpectedly picking up our press releases. (My camera did not like the lighting; it offered two options – no flash and dim, or completely washed out with flash.)

Samples were numbered and measured in order:

The results were recorded on a simple half-sheet printout with a carbon copy beneath (we are not a high tech operation). Residents got one copy, our group the other. Those who get the testing done regularly can use the papers to track changes, and our group is using them to slowly build a database. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than waiting for the state to take an interest in our community.

As it turns out, the community aspect is becoming important. In a semi-rural are like ours it can be difficult to get the word out. One of the people who showed up was surprised we’d been testing as long as we have because he’d only learned of it earlier in the week. In a place where there is no community center or regularly scheduled events that bring lots of people together, how do you publicize something? One way, as we are learning, is to keep active consistently over time. We test on the first Sunday of the month, and that message is slowly starting to make its way out.

Having people gather breaks up isolation. Many who are worried about fracking often feel alone because they don’t know anyone who feels similarly. This is particularly true in places where landmen have been pushing leases. Neighborhoods can – and have – become bitterly divided between those who have signed and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t might be preventing operations (and money) from flowing. Where fracking has started, those who haven’t leased often feel great resentment at having communal hazards and quality of life degradation2 visited on them against their will. One under-appreciated impact of fracking is the way it rips at the fabric of a community.

People in the middle of a situation like that might think they are the only ones going through it. Community water testing has provided a way to say to everyone who shows up: you are not alone. There are others who feel the same way you do, and who are going through the same thing you are. Come for the water testing, stay for the fellowship. While we don’t know what will ultimately happen with the former, the latter is already creating benefits.


NOTES

1. Drillers sometimes do provide people with water tests, but the measure of whether those tests are a baseline comes when potential fracking impacts on water supplies are brought up. What we are seeing right now is a lot of hand waving at the initial test along with comments to the effect that the earth is a complicated place and who can say what might have caused that water to become flammable anyway? Rule of thumb: if there is no way for a testing regime to establish a link to subsequent activity, it is not a legitimate baseline.
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2. Fracking makes a hell of a racket, and sound waves are not forbidden from leaving the property from which they are made. Fracking also requires a great deal of heavy truck traffic, but the wear and tear it creates on roads does not have to be compensated for by the companies that cause it. As the saying goes, privatize the profits and socialize the losses.
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by danps

Trustees reject symbolic statement on fracking and home rule

3:09 am in Uncategorized by danps

Against fracking 01

(Photo: Bosc d'Anjou/flickr)

 

The trustee meeting I attended Tuesday actually began over hundred years ago. In 1910 Ohio voters approved the calling of a constitutional convention, and in 1912 a whole series of amendments were adopted. The Ohio History Central link goes to a short but very good summary, and it’s definitely worth taking a minute to read it. The amendments that failed foreshadowed many of the civic battles that followed. In addition, the protection of workers’ rights and exclusion of African American rights prefigured the “devil’s bargain coalition” that made the New Deal possible – then blew the Democratic party apart thirty years later.

One of the amendments that passed was home rule, which essentially said that any power not explicitly granted to the state was reserved for cities. Lawrence F. Keller and Maxine Goodman Levin described (PDF) the conditions that prompted the need for it:

The national and state governments were quite small at the time and the demands for public regulation and services were focused in the burgeoning cities. To provide these services efficiently, cities needed independence from the often corrupt state politics and reform of their own corrupt political machines. The reformers at the time thus focused on cleaning up local politics and creating a legal status for cities that protected them from state politics.

(Considering some of the conditions in our current politics, it may be time for another constitutional convention.)

Home rule is really only meaningful for contentious issues, though. In the same way that only unpopular speech needs defending, home rule only matters when it goes up against some powerful interest. If you can’t have it then, don’t bother having it at all. No one needs home rule to declare Motherhood Appreciation Day.

The measure of free speech is the degree to which unpopular speech is protected; similarly the measure of home rule is the degree to which municipalities can act contrary to the wishes of the state. And in the same way that someone who does not believe in protecting unpopular speech doesn’t really believe in free speech, a government that will not allow home rule to flourish in the midst of sharp disagreement doesn’t really believe in it.

Tom Suddes wrote earlier this year about how Ohio embraced Potemkin home rule in 2004 when it stripped communities of the ability to regulate fracking. Suddes also noted that “the legislature has forbidden cities and towns to regulate predatory lending (2002); to regulate guns (2006); to require residency of municipal employees (2006); or, in effect, to regulate cable TV companies (2007).” In other words, home rule as long as the state approves.

In a way that’s a good thing. Democracies do not run on autopilot. You can set up a governing document with all the high minded claptrap you want, you can have a theoretically empowered court issue decisions of ostensibly great consequence, but at the end of the day what matters is the enforcement mechanism. Or: moneyed and powerful interests continually look for ways to rig the system against citizens, and the citizenry must fight to hold their gains. If they do not, the gains will erode until they exist only on paper.

A group of citizens concerned about fracking spent the summer drumming up support for more local control. This was an effort of grassroots activists who weren’t paid a dime and who gathered signatures on their own time. We went door to door in the time that was left over after work, family and other obligations were taken care of. We ended up with hundreds of signatures.

Earlier this month we took the signatures to the trustees, along with a nonbinding resolution expressing our concerns about fracking and our disapproval of Columbus for usurping the sovereignty of local communities. The key word is “nonbinding.” It was a purely symbolic resolution, and it was presented as such. Nothing in it required any action, conflicted with the state or put the trustees in legal jeopardy with the oil and gas industry. We emphasized that this was about being representatives: literally representing the views of many of their constituents, even if they themselves disagreed with the sentiments.

One of their refrains over the past few months has been that they would love to help, but their hands are tied. This nonbinding resolution gave them the chance to do something with their hands untied, even if it was just a purely symbolic gesture. Here is how it went (partial transcript here):

So it appears it will take more than the legitimate honoring of home rule to fully restore democracy at the local level.

by danps

Communities rally against toxic fracking waste

2:32 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

On Wednesday communities held Freedom From Toxic Fracking Waste rallies to raise awareness on one of the largest environmental risks from fracking: dealing with the waste it produces. In the best case scenario the toxic stew – of unknown composition due to the Halliburton Loophole – is removed from the hydrological cycle entirely. In other words, less water for everyone.

The worst case scenario is considerably more disturbing. The great, unknown hazard that hangs over fracking is this: Everything we think we know about its effects are based on modeling. We don’t precisely know what is going to happen. All we can do is make educated guesses based on the modeling, then try it out on the earth. This isn’t like computer programming, where we have some kind of development copy of the planet to experiment on, make mistakes with, completely trash if we make a mistake, wipe clean and start all over again if need be. We have one environment, the production environment, and if we screw it up we don’t have backup copies to restore from.

This makes it exceedingly important to get it right. But getting it right means taking the long view – the long view in geological terms. What we are putting in the ground will play out over literally decades, and if our assumptions now are wrong we will be left to mostly watch from the sidelines as the destruction unfolds.

There are already indications that some of those assumptions are faulty. For instance, a study from a couple months ago showed that fluids from the Marcellus Shale are likely making their way into drinking water. The fluids in question did not have drilling chemicals, and industry supporters trumpeted that point. What was disturbing about the study, though, was what it revealed about how fluids behave in the shale. The assumption had been that they were static – or extremely slow moving. Now it seems out they can migrate far more quickly than previously thought.

If that is indeed the case then the toxic fracking waste might not be removed from the hydrological cycle after all (which, remember, is the best case scenario). If fracked shale is substantially more permeable than unfracked shale, there could be catastrophic consequences. Since we are testing in production (also Cf.), this represents an enormous risk.

The protests Wednesday were held in many places. At least one was held in California, but there were quite a few right here in Ohio. I attended one in Ravenna, and we had a good crowd. Many of the messages were straightforward:

Some were a little more colorful: Read the rest of this entry →