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by danps

Capitalism takes on democracy

2:50 am in Uncategorized by danps

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

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


NOTES

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

Don’t Frack Ohio starting this weekend: three days of education and activism

4:24 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Activists across Ohio are preparing for a weekend of activities in the northeast part of the state. On Saturday and Sunday, July 27th and 28th, at the First Congregational Church in Ravenna, there will be two days of trainings designed to give us the tools we can use to build a powerful movement that will achieve our right to clean air and water and democracy. At the “Don’t Frack Ohio 2″ Rally in Warren on July 29th we will tell our policymakers that we do not want to be a fracking wasteland. Music and info at 11:30 and the rally starts at 1:30 at the Trumbull County Courthouse in Warren.


The post below was originally submitted as a letter to the editor of the Record Courier.


In January of this year a drilling operation in St. Marys Township (Auglaize County) suffered a significant spill. The county’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director, Troy Anderson, was unable to obtain any information about it. No one from the agency knew what was in the spill, its volume, or any other basic information required to safely clean it up.

Anderson had this to say about his agency’s inability to assess the damage: “EMA has no paperwork on this, and we should have had. This is no different than a factory…we should have a list of any hazardous conditions at the site, a drawing, how it operates and who to call in an emergency.” But unlike the spill, his not knowing what was happening was no accident.

The federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 established basic hazardous chemical inventory reporting, and in 1988 Ohio passed a more stringent law (now in chapter 3750 of the Ohio Revised Code). Unfortunately, in 2001 Ohio House Bill 94 (HB 94) opened up a loophole stating that companies which have filed well log and annual production statements to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) have satisfied the inventory reporting requirement.

The spill at St. Marys shows how problematic that loophole is in the real world. Instead of having hard copies available in case of emergency, counties are expected to cobble together their own hazardous chemical inventories for each operation based on much more general production reports and logs. If for some reason they don’t have even that skimpier information at the time of an emergency, their only recourse is to navigate the ODNR website trying to track it down. In practice emergency planners and first responders are essentially blind when confronted with an actual spill.

Last year Ohio’s Senate Bill 315 (SB 315) put communities even further in the dark by making it more difficult for doctors and nurses to obtain chemical information in an emergency, and also by placing a gag order on them prohibiting them from disclosing those chemicals. So even if medical personnel responding to a chemical contamination know exactly what has spilled, and what danger it poses to the wider community, they are prohibited from letting anyone know.

The oil and gas industry claims a trade secret exemption for the gag rule, saying that their proprietary formulas need to be protected. Spokespeople often compare their trade secrets to that of popular colas, but no one ever had to be evacuated from a Pepsi spill. These toxic cocktails pose a real risk to the communities where they are used. Neighborhoods that might bear the brunt of those hazards have a more urgent claim on knowing the composition of those fluids than the companies have in keeping the formula from competitors and maximizing profits.

In response to the spill at St. Marys the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled that HB 94 violated the EPCRA. If HB 94 violates federal law then SB 315 would seem to be untenable as well. If, as the Record Courier editorialized Tuesday, Portage County is indeed going to become Ohio’s fracking dump, then we need to take a hard look at what the consequences of sweetheart legislation and industry-friendly regulation might be for us.

The spill at St. Marys shows just how weakened emergency preparedness has become in Ohio, and that weakness is by design. It’s time to change the design. Substantial reform or outright repeal of HB 94 and SB 315 needs to be one of the most pressing tasks of our elected representatives.

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

Getting to know ‘FrackNation’ – the new industry-friendly film

5:12 am in Uncategorized by danps

Natural Gas Fracking

Natural Gas Fracking

Freelance journalist Phelim McAleer has a new film called FrackNation that has been getting positive notice on the right, though it is flying under the mainstream radar to a certain extent. It does not appear to have had a theatrical release, and aside from an airing on the satellite channel AXS TV in January it hasn’t been before the general public in any substantial way.

The main channel of distribution seems to be conservative groups. This past weekend the local Tea Party (which is still alive and well despite recent pronouncements of its death) sponsored a screening. Pen and paper in hand, I attended and made some notes as it played. (I believe that all the quotes below are verbatim, but since I was scribbling in a darkened room with no chance to rewind, some may be a word or two off. Even if that happened, though, the context and intent have been preserved.)

Through many encounters with pro-fracking individuals I have learned to spot one particular argument that causes my brain’s real-time bullshit detection software1 to pop up a huge red alert: the claim that fracking has been going on for a long time. It’s not the only discrediting claim pro-frackers make, but it is definitely one of the most common. And it is such a piece of rhetorical flim-flam that anyone who uses it is either not knowledgeable on the subject or is trying to put something past the audience.

What is generally thought of as fracking is the deep and horizontal drilling that has only been in widespread use for the last decade or so. That technology did not exist until the late 90′s, where it was first used in Texas’ Barnett Shale. After several years of development it made its way east, initially to Pennsylvania. FrackNation focuses primarily there, and it was not until 2004 that Range Resources drilled the first Marcellus Shale well. These new wells are fundamentally different from shallower, vertical wells because the industrial activity they require is much more intensive.

Here are just two examples. Horizontal wells require enormous quantities of water, and after mixing the water with toxic chemicals the flowback must be disposed of. The competition for water, and the hazards posed by getting the waste to some final, reliable resting place is a substantial difference from vertical fracking.

Second, horizontal fracking is much more damaging to the air than vertical fracking. Chemical release on site combines with diesel fumes from the fleets of trucks required to transport materials to create ozone. (There are other effects from this as well: Noise pollution created by the constant traffic and the associated degradation of roads and other infrastructure – which, it should go without saying, the industry does not compensate communities for.)

A speaker who says we’ve been fracking for decades has just gone a long way towards discrediting himself on the subject. So when, early on in FrackNation, McAleer says fracking has been around since 1947 and is “not new technology,” he tips his hand as to just how straight he aims to be with his audience. The rhetorical slipperiness of the “we’ve been fracking since the 40′s” line is characteristic of much of the film.
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by danps

In praise of local TV news

5:29 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

I will admit to having had a snobbish view towards local TV news for most of my adult life. I think it is at least somewhat justified; local TV news frequently has a disreputable whiff. Whether it’s the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, sweeps week stunts (this item is in almost all American households AND IT COULD KILL YOUR CHILDREN), large doses of pabulum delivered as News You Can Use, and so on – there is a lot to look down on.

(I won’t even go into the disturbing tendency of weather forecasters to insist to viewers that the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists are charlatans.)

That perception seems to be fairly common. Maybe it’s a demographics issue; this study (PDF) from Pew shows (p. 37) daily newspaper readers with higher aggregate educational levels than local TV news viewers. It also shows (p. 38) newspaper readers having higher incomes. So to put it crudely, newspaper readers are smarter and richer than TV news viewers.

Without even seeing such statistics I definitely internalized a sense of newspapers’ superiority over the years. That bias is silly though; TV, like newspaper, is a medium. It’s what you do with it that matters. The New York Times is printed on newsprint, and so is The Onion.

The degree to which my assumptions about print and TV are faulty has been brought home over the last year or so as I’ve become more involved fracking-related activism. For instance, Youngstown NBC affiliate WFMJ has done a very thorough job covering the issue. When a company illegally dumped toxic fracking waste in a waterway, reporter Michelle Nicks filled her report with detail: Not just the event itself, but the response (such as it was) from regulators, from state political leaders and national ones as well.

Even more impressively, CBS affiliate WKBN filed public records requests and discovered the company in question has received dozens of citations, violations and injection well suspensions stretching back to the eighties. WKBN is doing exactly the kind of investigative journalism we normally associate with newspapers – not just reporting the news but really digging into it in order to give viewers a better understanding.

In Cleveland, NBC affiliate WKYC has set up an entire section of its web site for fracking and done a great deal of reporting on it. Multiple reporters there, including Monica Robins, Dick Russ and Lynna Lai, have reported on the issue from a variety of angles. While you could say that flaming water from a tap is the kind of arresting visual that conforms to the worst stereotypes of local TV news, there’s nothing especially dramatic about a cracked foundation or a politician’s legislative proposal. If it was all about sensation they wouldn’t have run most of those reports.

Newspapers have a spotty record on this issue. Some reporters cover it well. In northeast Ohio, Bob Downing of the Akron Beacon Journal has been on it for a while now (recent reports here, here and here). In other fracking-intensive regions I’ve found reporters like Bruce Finley at the Denver Post doing similarly admirable work (here, here and here for example).

But the largest newspaper in our area – the Cleveland Plain Dealer – has been considerably less thorough. There is less coverage overall, and the stories tend to center around fracking initiatives or headlining industry propaganda. While they occasionally look at the political fight over the issue, they rarely look at the effect it is having on local communities. (Perhaps the publishers don’t feel the concerns of blue collar-skewing populations in rural or semi-rural areas are of interest to their more (sub)urban and upscale readership.)

This is especially striking because the paper has repeatedly touched on an issue that seems ready made for a little Truth To Power type initiative. Jimmy Haslam, the new owner of the Cleveland Browns (and brother of the Tennessee governor, incidentally), owns a trucking company that stands to handsomely profit from fracking. Shortly after buying the Browns he stepped down as CEO of the company. Or didn’t. (“I’m still going to be CEO of Pilot Flying J.”) That detail was never ironed out exactly.

He’s definitely back in the saddle now though – which raises the same question his heading the company originally raised: Should the owner of such a high profile and beloved franchise be profiting by visiting environmental hazard on a significant portion of his fan base? There are lots of Browns fans in Youngstown. Maybe they wouldn’t be too crazy about knowing the team’s owner is a key part of the industrial chain that just befouled their community.

The PD is not going there, though. For whatever reason the community impact of fracking has been of zero interest. Again, this lack of coverage is not characteristic of all newspapers; some are doing a really good job. My point is that on this urgent, substantive issue, newspapers have been a mixed bag – as have local TV stations. (In Cleveland, WKYC is head and shoulders above its on-air competition at the moment.) In general the reporting matrix doesn’t break along expected lines. Sometimes papers provide better coverage. But in some cases the supposedly low-rent local TV stations have left their ostensibly more respectable print counterparts in the dust.

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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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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

“You quickly realize that no one is there for you but you know who? You. That’s all you have.”

7:12 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Paul Feezel

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

One of the under appreciated hazards of fracking is its effect on democracy. Fracking is a big, intrusive process – one that sucks up lots of water, creates enormous amounts of traffic and an ungodly amount of noise, etc. Setting aside the environmental dangers and health effects (!), the heavy industrialization involved in fracking guarantees that communities will be abundantly aware of it.

In other words, it will be extremely controversial. Those who have leased their land or are otherwise profiting from it will be inclined to support it. Those who aren’t, not so much. It divides the community, which was one of the messages driven home this past Saturday at a public meeting on what happens when fracking comes to town.

The meeting was organized by Shalersville Against Fracking; its members recorded the presentations and posted the clips to its You Tube channel. One of the presenters, Tracy McGary, spoke about how her rural part of Columbiana County (Ohio) had been transformed by fracking – including how it has set neighbor against neighbor.

One of the reasons these disputes are so bitter is because industry and government have collaborated to strip citizens of the usual means of working out contentious issues. In Ohio, the 2004 House Bill 278 stripped localities of the ability to regulate wells. In Colorado, the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has actually sued a town that passed legislation regulating drilling.

This has created the ludicrous and perverse scenario where townships are, ahem, empowered to make pissant decisions on business issues of interest to almost no one but are prohibited from doing anything on issues of great interest to many citizens. Does the local drug store want to widen its driveway five feet? It must approach the city council, hat in hand.

But if you want to know how much Hydrochloric Acid or Ammonium Persulfate is being injected into your community’s ground, well, too bad. The inability of citizens to meaningfully weigh in on these most consequential issues – and hold elected officials accountable – creates free floating anxiety, anger and frustration that manifests itself in long running, bitter and unresolvable disputes.

The ill will is directed elsewhere, too. One of the other speakers was Maria Payans of The Community Action Forum on Marcellus Shale Gas, and she spoke of her experience dealing with state officials (transcript here). After talking about the unwillingness of representatives and regulators to act she says:

We believe that we have agencies put in place that are supposed to protect us; people that are out there that are taking care of us. And then, when you become the person that needs the help, you quickly realize that no one is there for you but you know who? You. That’s all you have.

Some might think that is a depressing commentary, and I suppose looked at from one angle it is. Sure, it would be nice for our officials to be responsive to public sentiment, but there is also a certain liberating quality in giving up on them. Our government at all levels has made it abundantly clear we are on our own with this issue. Why keep beating your head against the wall trying to get an agency charged with protecting the environment to protect the environment? If it’s starved of resources, a revolving door for the industry and a victim of cognitive regulatory capture, is it really a good use of activists’ time trying to get it to move?

We have each other, and that’s all we have – which can imply many things. It can mean finding ways to publicly shame those who are so resolutely unhelpful or engaging in direct action. These are examples of working outside of the establishment and around institutions. But as Payans noted, it can also include a component of change from within:

You need to write letters to the paper, get on committees, get on local commissions, run for office. No one’s going to protect our democracy but us in the end. It’s really the truth. What I will say is that we know that problems are there. We know that jobs, you know, are being provided – to a degree. We’re not counting what we’re losing, though. And I tend to think a lot of what we’re losing is more than what we’re gaining.

However it’s done, though, the status quo is untenable. Fracking has distorted democracy to the point that democracy no longer really functions in the places fracking has taken hold. People are starting to realize that, though, and as the scales fall from their eyes Payans’ exhortation rings true: all we have is each other.

by danps

Home rule on that ballot this election season: activists versus institutions

4:18 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Ohioans have experienced a number of different frustrations in trying to get their government to be responsive to their concerns about fracking. The biggest one may be the state’s usurping of home rule of home rule on the issue. Ohio’s Constitution had home rule – basically, the right of cities and towns to self-government – enshrined in it back in 1912, but in 2004 the state passed a law stripping localities of the right to legislate on the issue.

On the face of it, that wouldn’t seem to be something that would pass judicial scrutiny. It would seem to be problematic to go to all the trouble of amending the Constitution to spell something out, then have the statehouse come back later on and say “yeah, not for that.”

On the other hand, it’s all just words on a page without anyone to respect it, right? The US Constitution says Congress shall pass no law regarding the establishment of a religion, but the only thing preventing Congress from doing just that is its sense of forbearance and its respect for tradition. It isn’t as though representatives would be struck dead by bolts of lightning from Avenging Lady Justice if they did so.

Similarly, nothing requires the Supreme Court to overturn such a law. Certainly the current court is no great respecter of precedent; more often it seems to start with its preferred political outcome and work the jurisprudence back from there (corporations are people! money is speech!)

As long as legislators are brazen enough to pass whatever they want and defy the court to tell them no (and here in Ohio our leaders won’t just dare the court to overturn them, they will actually ignore court decisions reversing them), everything in the whole wide world is grey area. Just imagine how muddy it gets on an issue like municipal home rule, where the state actually admits (PDF) “situations are open to court interpretation on a case-by-case basis.”

The only way for a town to figure out if it really has home rule, then, is to challenge the state and assert the right to self-government. This has recently been happening in the form of citizen-led initiatives, and they have a very interesting characteristic: more of an outsider-versus-establishment dynamic than a liberal-versus-conservative one. For the most part, Republicans are enthusiastically pro-fracking and Democrats are acquiescent. Columbus is wired to serve the oil and gas industry, and the next big challenge to it from the capitol will be the first.

So efforts like those in Mansfield and Broadview Heights are happening with essentially zero political support. If you want to see honest to God grassroots political activism, this is a great example. For an even more dramatic example, look at the communities that have not yet secured home rule. In Randolph Township (Portage County), two activists worked to get a vote for limited home rule on the ballot and they are doing their best to whip up support for the measure. One of them, Newt Engle, spoke at a public meeting last week, and here is his explanation of how it came about:

Then listen to how he describes the pushback they got from law directors, commissioners, and so on:

The political establishment is completely aligned against these people, and that makes their efforts a tall order. In addition, home rule has certain requirements (here is a nice primer (PDF)), which opponents are using to raise the specter of big, scary taxes. That talking point is something between wildly overblown and flatly untrue1, but getting the word out is difficult – especially without a political base of party support to stand on.

Without that base of support, activists are left to raise awareness on their own. Their efforts have generated a decent amount of local media coverage, which obviously helps to spread the word, but the industry has the resources to flood the airwaves with ads. There are lots of commercials about the wonderfulness of natural gas on both TV and radio. The industry has that filed pretty much to itself, and it has made extensive use of it.

Considering all those disadvantages, there may well be more failures than successes on these initiatives. Supporters would probably be wise to set their expectations to that effect. It would be easy for a few defeats to create an outsized sense of discouragement. If activists see themselves as settled in for a ongoing effort though, it could lead to some interesting developments. At a minimum, a long term effort with zero party support would create an increasing demand for something to provide that political backing. And politics, as nature, abhors a vacuum.


NOTES

1. Engle looked into the additional cost and posted an extended comment on an anti-home rule site. The comment was deleted, but Engle saved a copy of it before it went away. This excerpt address the cost of police protection, which one trustee put at $376,000 (really!)

Now let’s look at the issue of police protection. Yes, the trustees have a quote of nearly $376,000 for the Sheriff to provide 48 hours of police protection a week for a year. Truth is we could probably get the cost up to over a million dollars if we asked for 24-7 coverage. But let’s be real. The ORC (Ohio Revised Code) does not specify how many hours the police must be in the township if we have limited home rule. The “fact” is the ORC only requires the township to provide police protection on a regular basis. Furthermore the ORC stipulates several different ways this requirement can be satisfied. When I went and talked to Sheriff Doak, he indicated he was only asked to provide a quote. He was not asked about any other options or if he would be willing to keep patrolling the township just like he is now. But let me stop here and let you know that the Sheriff’s office is so poorly funded that Randolph Township is very rarely “patrolled” by the Sheriff’s department at all. Most of the time the deputies only come to our township to take a report. Therefore this idea that limited home rule would require the township to pay for 48 hours of police protection is simply not true. Our Sheriff and his deputies are currently doing a fine job in our township. Why change a thing? With a little negotiating the township will be able to allow the Sheriff to keep providing the same police protection we are enjoying now at little to no cost.

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