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by danps

New York Times visits Youngstown, discovers huge and nonexistent transformation

3:58 am in Business by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

On Monday the New York Times ran a piece by Nelson D. Schwartz titled “Boom in Energy Spurs Industry in the Rust Belt.” As straight news articles go, it’s not very straight. For some reason, the Times likes to give the occasional sloppy, um, kiss to the fracking industry, and this seems to be the latest in the series.

The New York Times

The New York Times

Near the start is a “correlation equals causation” argument: Fracking is big in northeast Ohio; factory hiring has ticked up in northeast Ohio; therefore fracking has led to the uptick:

Here in Ohio, in an arc stretching south from Youngstown past Canton and into the rural parts of the state where much of the natural gas is being drawn from shale deep underground, entire sectors like manufacturing, hotels, real estate and even law are being reshaped. A series of recent economic indicators, including factory hiring, shows momentum building nationally in the manufacturing sector.

Schwartz provides one example of actual causation, a pipe mill that employs 350 workers. That’s definitely good news for those employed there, but is it an example of the kind of region-transforming development that would justify the expansive tone? He notes the site used to house a mill that employed 1,400 people when it closed in 1979. And even though 1,400 dwarfs the number now working there, it only represents the last gasp of a dying industry. If you want to compare it to a “good old days” picture you need to go back a couple of years – to before Sept. 19, 1977, Black Monday, when 5,000 people were laid off. If you really want to talk about a reshaping, those are the kind of employment numbers you need to see. (Towards the end of the article Schwartz calls it a “nascent renaissance,” which is a considerably scaled down vision from the top of the piece.)

An anecdote is not data, and the data is out there for those who want to find it. Dean Baker looked at manufacturing employment in Youngstown and found that it is still way down from before the recession. As for fracking’s contribution to the employment picture, a study earlier this summer found: “Since the beginning of the recession, the mining and logging sector, which includes the shale gas industry, has only created 1,300 jobs.” So even when bundled with the numbers of a larger sector, its employment contribution is tiny.

Schwartz’ “momentum building nationally” wording is problematic, too. People don’t live in aggregate. Industry jobs often go to out-of-state workers, and even regional employment gains may be temporary. Once again, we aren’t talking steel mills here. There aren’t thousands of locals being employed long term at good wages, and implying otherwise is a disservice to readers. Considering that employment has increased less than 1 percent in the counties with the highest number of shale wells, the boom in energy doesn’t seem to be reaching many ordinary Ohioans.

So if manufacturing isn’t getting a boost from fracking, what about hotels, real estate and law? That last one is hard to figure from the article; Schwartz quotes a managing partner at a law firm who is considering hiring more people. How exactly does that add up to an entire sector being reshaped? He doesn’t mention how real estate being transformed either, though presumably he doesn’t mean in terms of people being evicted from their homes, having their houses razed or not being able to buy insurance policies for them.

As for hotels, Schwartz mentions an investor planning to build one. Again, not revolutionary. Now, hotels can see a bump in revenue as migrant workers come in to build infrastructure, but that is a temporary benefit. Funny enough, it’s become something of a fallback position for the industry as the job bonanza stubbornly refuses to materialize: “We need to look downstream from the drilling rig and realize all the auxiliary economic activity that swirls around this thing.” Not jobs, mind you, but auxiliary economic activity.

Finally, the article leans heavily on boosterism (“a real game-changer in terms of the U.S. economy”) and hopeful projections (“production of shale gas and so-called tight oil from shale could help create up to 1.7 million jobs nationally. Many of those jobs are expected to end up in places like this”) from industry consultants. But none of the spin is given any kind of scrutiny, it is just uncritically passed along.

Look, I’m as happy as the next guy that the New York Times decided to parachute in and give the area its unvarnished appraisal (“Youngstown and surrounding Mahoning County is hardly Silicon Valley or even Pittsburgh”), but getting a story like this right requires a little more than a visit to the chamber of commerce and a deli. The next time they pack up their pith helmets and mosquito netting for a trip here, it would be nice if they brought along a little curiosity too.
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by danps

Speaking to public officials about fracking

3:39 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Several weeks ago members of the group Concerned Citizens Ohio met with a state representative to discuss fracking, injection wells, pipelines and the natural gas industry in general. Here is something I’ve noticed about these meetings: If you want officials to take action, figure out how to put them on the spot. For instance, when we met with township trustees about injection wells, they were pleasant if slightly exasperated. The state controls all that, our hands are tied, they assured us.
P1110366
But when we asked them to sign a purely symbolic statement urging the state to return siting authority for injection wells back to local communities, boy howdy did the sparks fly. When they could claim they were powerless they were very nice, but when we asked them to do something they were clearly able to – even something harmless like a nonbinding gesture to Columbus – their backs went up.

Now, a heated exchange like that is not my idea of success; I’d much rather have them willing to work with us. That won’t always be possible though, and getting reluctant officials on record as being unwilling to even lift a finger is useful too. If nothing else, it lets you know who you can count on. Either way, though, the idea is to bring to officials something they have unquestioned authority to act on. And make sure to keep the “something” singular. With a multiple part question or request it’s easy to pick the most favorable one, address that and ignore the rest. I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave wiggle room like that; better to pick the best available issue and stay on it.

That approach seems best suited for a legislative session or other official meeting, though. At a town hall or arranged date with a group, the best you can probably get is a promise to introduce something or a pledge to work on it. On the other hand, a more informal setting can be useful for “what the heck are you people doing, anyway?” type questions. When it comes to fracking, Republicans are usually on board, while Democrats are equivocal allies at best. In Ohio, a handful of representatives have been good on the issue, but others are already cashing in – and the national party is increasingly siding (via) with the oil and gas industry.

So approaching a Democratic officeholder with environmental or quality of life issues, no matter how heartfelt and sincerely expressed, is probably not going to accomplish much. The response will be, different studies say different things, and any anyway look at the big picture: things have really improved over the last few decades (the river never catches fire any more!) Unless some urgent problem is happening, arguments about long term risk and degradation will unfortunately not get much traction.

It seems better to go right at the main pillar of their support on the issue – jobs and the economy. The right approach can put them on the spot. Here is an adapted version of my comments (as I best remember them) at the meeting with the state rep. (Greetings etc. omitted.) Feel free to adapt them for any meetings you may have, and let me know if you have any thoughts on how to improve them:

It really bothers me to see how timid Democrats have been on fracking. Any time a Republican says “jobs” Democrats dive under the desk, but the promise of jobs is largely a mirage. Last summer the Plain Dealer reported that employment had increased less than one percent since drilling began in eastern counties. In January the Dispatch noted that the jobs aren’t there, and even the industry has started touting “auxiliary economic activity” instead. Transients come into town while the infrastructure is being built, leave when it’s done, and the community has little to show for it.

There’s a temporary bump in sales receipts for restaurants, hotels and strip clubs, but no long term benefit. It isn’t like a steel mill that employs thousands of locals at good wages year after year (and supports ancillary business as well, incidentally). Fracking has been going on here long enough for the results to be in. It doesn’t create jobs in the way citizens would like to believe, and it should now be a political for any officeholder to say so. Democrats have the evidence to hit back, and hit back hard, on those claims. A handful of exceptions like Nickie Antonio and Bob Hagan have spoken out on the issue, but most have just done a whole lot of shutting up. And it’s enormously frustrating.
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by danps

America: Canada and Europe’s willing chump

3:45 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Apparently it’s no longer a stain on the national honor to play us for a fool.

One of the more memorable turns of phrase I’ve heard in the past few years came during the effort to unionize an Ikea plant in Virginia. In the same way that Mexico became an attractive location for American capitalists because of lower wages and less stringent environmental standards, some European employers began finding America more to their liking. Or, put more colorfully:

During its successful campaign to organize the Danville workers, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), through its Machinists News Network, produced a web video called “Same Rules, Same Respect.” It charged that “when on American soil, IKEA is playing by a very different set of rules than when at home.” In the video, IAM Woodworking Division director Bill Street says, “We’ve become Sweden’s Mexico.”

That isn’t Europe’s approach across the board, of course; heaven knows Volkswagen did its best to give its American workers more of a voice. But there has definitely been a willingness for other Western nations to take advantage of America’s willingness to put itself at risk or a disadvantage. This has been especially pronounced with fossil fuels.

For instance, Canada has been at best ambivalent about building pipelines for its Alberta tar sands. On the one hand, its political and media elite is not only firmly in favor but vigorously lobbying for them. On the other, the combination of grassroots activism and court challenges has made building them in-country dicey. So it looks like Ottawa might just decide it’s easier to build what Charles Pierce called a death-funnel down the spine of the United States. Since Keystone has the enthusiastic support of climate science-denying cretins in both the House and Senate, it just might succeed.

(Post intermission #1: Canadians’ flattering image of themselves as unfailingly reticent and polite is wearing a bit thin lately. The actions above are not those of a reserved and self-effacing people but an aggrandized and obnoxious one. Please own your new identity and stop insulting our intelligence, thanks.)

A similar dynamic is playing out with fracking. It turns out there is a new trade agreement under negotiation called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), not to be confused with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) except to the extent that both are awful. The TTIP would, among other things, greatly increase American energy exports to the European Union. Since Europe is still acting like Hamlet on fracking, the effect is basically this: Let America bear all the hazard with unconventional extraction and let EU countries get the benefit. And since fracking enjoys roughly the same political constituency as Keystone, there are plenty of takers in Washington.

(Post intermission #2: These international pacts have gone from going from “free trade agreements” to “partnerships.” Maybe that’s because free trade agreements now have such a foul odor, but in any event the change of nomenclature is useful. Monstrosities like TTIP and TPP have less to do with trade than with forcing all participants to abide by individual signatories’ worst practices.)

Incidentally, the push to get Europe off of Russia’s energy supply line is also leading to some fairly scary developments in Ukraine. While it would be lovely to think Hunter Biden’s recent employment with a Ukrainian gas giant is a noble attempt to beat back creeping isolationism in the States, there is unfortunately a more plausible and disturbing explanation.

Since neither Keystone XL nor fracking are long term job creators, it isn’t even like the US is selling out on these issues. “Selling” would imply some kind of profit. American workers will have virtually nothing to show for either, and the economy will be similarly unmoved. Extraction industry executives will make out like bandits, and that’s about it.

Anyway, let me conclude by being very clear on something: The point here is not to demonize Europe or Canada. Neither Keystone nor TTIP will happen without the substantial, ongoing support of America’s political system. No one is pulling a fast one on us here. We know exactly what’s happening. But here’s what I find curious: There are a whole lot of “my country right or wrong” types who bristle with indignation if they believe America is being taken advantage of – yet they have been silent on both of these issues. Apparently it’s no longer a stain on the national honor to play us for a fool. I’ve never been a fan of that antediluvian notion, but it sure picked a bad time to fall by the wayside.

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by danps

Big Data meets civic engagement

5:30 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The “wait until it fails” model of regulation doesn’t seem like a winner

About a year ago the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) had an information session in Portage county about a recently permitted group of injection wells. The presentation by Tom Tomastik, ODNR’s lead geologist for the injection well regulatory program, wasn’t very helpful, but other ODNR personnel offered some useful assistance.

I spoke with ODNR’s Tom Hill about the difficulty in finding inspection reports, and he basically said requests needed to be made on an individual basis; there was no way to go online and browse them. One of his colleagues referenced a downloadable database called RBDMS, but didn’t give a location or other information. I should have pursued that a little further, but what I had been able to find at the ODNR site to that point had been sufficiently difficult to use that I didn’t think it would be worth it. A few weeks ago, though, a friend sent me a link to RBDMS, and it turns out that it’s very helpful – if you know how to use it.

The Risk Based Data Management System (RBDMS) database tracks all of ODNR’s inspections, includes each well’s information and history, and can be downloaded free at ODNR’s site. This is actually a very good and useful thing for ODNR to make available to the public. Good on them for doing it (insert golf clap sound effect). The problem, and this obviously is not ODNR’s fault, is that there’s a lot of data. If you want to look at it yourself, download the setup program – or just download the Microsoft Access database if you have Access on your PC and know the right version to grab – and then download the weekly update. Create the directory C:\Rbdms on your hard drive and put everything there.

The weekly update is around 200 MB as a zip (compressed) file, and over 1 GB uncompressed. Again, lots of data. The “setup” database is the one presented for public use, and it links to the weekly update database. The weekly update has the raw data. Use the setup DB for querying, overwrite the update DB as needed, and the new data will be visible to the setup DB. I didn’t find the setup DB very useful because I was interested in inspection reports, and couldn’t find an interface for that.

In the weekly update database (Rbdmsd97.mdb) there are three tables – “well,” “wellHistry” and “tblInspection” – recording the relevant data. Making sense of it is another matter, though. Microsoft Access is what’s called a relational database management system (RDBMS, an unfortunately similar acronym to RBDMS), which means it structures data by relationships between tables. Think of each table as a spreadsheet. A business might have, say, a Customers table with one entry for each customer. Typically each entry has a unique identifier, often an auto-number field that exists solely to uniquely identify the record. So the first entry in the table for, say, Company X would get assigned Customer ID 1.

Then you might have an Orders table, where each customer’s order is placed. The order will have, say, quantity, price, and other data – and the Customer ID number from the Customer table to identify who made the order. There will be a one-to-many relationship between the tables because one customer can have many orders. Storing only the Customer ID in the Orders table – and not the customer name, address, etc. – is a more efficient way to store the data. There’s no need to repeat customer data in the Orders table, which would only make the database larger and slower, when you can just set up a relationship between the two tables and use the unique Customer ID to identify who placed the order.

Unless you are very familiar with the tables, though, you won’t know that the Company ID of 1 in the Orders table corresponds to Company X is the Customers table. It’s possible to set up querying and reporting that will join the appropriate fields and present the data in a more intuitive way, but you need to know how to join the tables in the first place to make that happen.

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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.
(Back)

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by danps

When job creators create lousy jobs

4:17 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The relevant question is, are meaningful jobs created?

One of the most interesting links I found while researching last week’s post on Teach For America was the item on how TFA hiring in Connecticut was denying job opportunities to local residents. It occurred to me that the author was getting an on-the-ground look at a similar phenomenon I’ve observed with the oil and gas industry in Ohio (and presumably elsewhere): both TFA and fracking rely on short term, out of state labor.

(I know TFA recruits have the opportunity to extend beyond their initial two year contract, but the very fact of a two year contract sends a strong message that the job is not intended to be permanent.)

The degree to which this is happening makes aggregate reporting on job gains inadequate. Necessary but not sufficient. With fracking, for instance, the numbers are terrible – and what were considered dire warnings from activists a few years ago about the dubious economic benefits of it are now blandly accepted as conventional wisdom.

Last summer the Plain Dealer reported that “employment levels increased by less than 1 percent in 15 eastern Ohio counties where the highest number of horizontal shale wells have been drilled.” Then it followed that up a few weeks ago with an article that painted a very rosy picture of a dismal reality: Jobs are going to migrant workers, and the main economic impact is bumping up business to the hotels and restaurants that serve them.

As a side note, moving the goalposts appears to be a feature of crappy job boosterism. In the August PD article, note that we are once again just a step further down the resource extraction path away from JOBS: “Future job growth will depend on whether Ohio’s shale wells produce ‘natural gas liquids,’ or NGLs, which are used by industry and whether the price of ‘dry gas’ used for heating, power production and manufacturing increases beyond the current prices.” Meanwhile, an industry flack mumbles that jobs were never the point anyway: “I think the real indicator is sales-tax receipts that have grown in the eastern counties where this activity is taking place.”

So the relevant question is, are meaningful jobs created? I’d say a meaningful job has three characteristics: It employs locally at a living wage for the long term. As I’ve written before the oil and gas industry would like the public believe fracking does all three, and will be an anchor for communities much like steel mills once were. The reality is far different.

Jobs created for migrants or in a boom town – where there isn’t sufficient housing for the influx of new workers, and those lucky enough to have a roof over their heads often have no toilet or running water – don’t seem like much to celebrate. (To be fair, it’s been positive for at least one ancillary industry.) Similarly, TFA’s transition from plugging individual vacancies to wholesale replacement of local workforces seems like a really raw deal for the communities targeted by it.

This process has been happening for a good long while now. A scrap of folk wisdom from the Clinton years shows how many people intuitively understood that. Deals like NAFTA (which ought to be called free capital agreements since trade is incidental to their purpose (via)) destroyed hundreds of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs, while new positions were created in the lower-paying service sector. The running joke went something like this: “I know they’ve created millions of new jobs. I have two of them.”1

That trend – which again, folks were very much aware of from the start and had no illusions to the contrary about – is our new reality. We should take that into account the next time we are assured that a good jobs report means that this time, for reals, pinky swear, the Great Recession is totally over. The jobs number by itself is not nearly enough.

We also need to know how much those jobs pay, who is filling them and for how long. It may not be possible to break it down to that level of detail, in which case fine. But such reports should be seen as of limited utility. People need steady work nearby at good wages, and a report that doesn’t address that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) of much interest.


NOTES

1. Additional appearances:

  • Here: “He said I created 11 million jobs. Well, I met a guy the other day that got three of them. “
  • Here (PDF): “President Clinton has created millions of new jobs–I have three of them!”
  • Here (PDF): “Oh sure, America is creating millions of new jobs. And I’ve got three of them.”
  • And I remember seeing it in an editorial cartoon as well (that’s where I first read it) but don’t remember who or where.

(Back)

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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

Eminent Domain and Corporate Need

3:57 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Thanks to rjs for the help in researching this post.

The Work Around: Build the pipeline ostensibly for oil but leave wiggle room to change that later.

Last week I linked to this article detailing how the relative lack of pipelines in Ohio is preventing fracking from taking off as the extraction industry would like. This means pipelines have moved front and center in some communities. Since the fastest way to assemble the land for one is to pressure citizens to sell under threat of seizure via eminent domain (ED), ED law is starting to get a much closer look.

The short version is that ED can be used for oil but not liquefied natural gas, meaning yes for traditional drilling but no for fracking. Companies have taken note of the distinction:

the eminent domain statute says only companies that ship ‘natural or artificial gas, petroleum, coal or its derivatives, water, or electricity’ through pipelines have a right force Ohioans to sell easements on their land. The eminent domain law doesn’t mention natural gas liquids.

To get around that, the company uses a different definition for the ATEX in court cases where it is citing eminent domain power, calling it a “petroleum product derived from natural gas extraction process.”

So here’s the conundrum for the fracking companies: they want to use the threat of ED to pressure homeowners into giving up their land, but they can’t invoke ED for the purpose the pipelines are being constructed for (until they can once again fix the law to their liking, that is).

The workaround appears to be this: Build the pipeline ostensibly for oil but leave wiggle room to change that later. Of course, an oil pipeline is troubling enough. Sunoco has demonstrated over and over and over again that its Ohio pipelines are leaky. Looking strictly at their track record around here, there is little reason for Portage County residents to feel confident in the soundness of this new pipeline.

As problematic as an oil-only pipeline would be (why here and now, incidentally? Have vast new petroleum reserves been discovered in eastern Ohio?), it appears Sunoco is at least leaving the door open for alternate uses:

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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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