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The Fracking Industry's Contempt for the Public Is Finally Coming to Light

Recent disclosures reveal little else but a interest in making profits.
 
 
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Exxon CEO and unlikely fractivist Rex Tillerson
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum

 
 
 
 

Phrases like, “natural gas,” “cleaner than coal,” “energy independence,” and “radical environmentalists” were deployed to create a popular mandate for shale gas development, and to discount fracking critics. While it seems likely that gas-industry spin doctors honed these deft marketing terms prior to the nationwide explosion in fracking, neither reporters nor the public have been privy to the behind-the-scenes machinations, until now.

This past week a leak, a report and a lawsuit have given a rare glimpse of what the gas industry really thinks about the public (easily manipulated), environmentalists (extremely effective) and fracking (not in my backyard).

These developments also shine a harsh light on the untenable role of many state environmental departments. While some might naïvely assume that in government agencies, the public good still stands foremost, that assumption fails to probe: “How can a department charged with both environmental protection and business development effectively protect public health and the environment?”

It seems it can’t. The dysfunction built into this contradictory yet all too common structure places regulators in the awkward position of collaborating with industry, while assuring the public that the commons, health and the environment are protected. The corruption inherent in this structure was revealed this week by an August 2012 memo produced by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), which regulates drilling in Ohio. Intended to spearhead a PR campaign to promote fracking in state parks and forests, the 10-page memo (which was published last week in the Columbus Dispatch) sought to develop “precise messaging and coordination” to “blur public perception of ODNR’s regulatory role in oil and gas.”

Specifically, the plan sought collaboration with gas and oil industry allies like Halliburton to foil Ohio citizens opposed to fracking. After this memo surfaced, Ohio Governor John Kasich denied any knowledge, but the publication of an August 2012 email confirmed that his senior staff had been invited to attend a meeting for the PR campaign. This week a spokeswoman for ODNR’s Natural Resources department, which spearheaded the PR effort, defended it, saying:

Any responsible organization plans in advance what it is going to do, especially when it knows it is going to face fierce opposition to progress. The fact that these secretly funded extremist groups are attacking us today validates the wisdom of anticipating the attack and planning for it.

Secretly funded? Grassroots fractivist organizations subsist on grants and small supporter donations. But what about the state’s proposed PR outreach? Would Ohioans have been footing the bill for a campaign to support gas companies and target citizens?

The original memo language echoed the implication that citizens opposed to fracking are extremists, calling them “zealous” and “skilled propagandists.” Opponents of hydraulic fracturing would “attempt to create public panic” requiring Ohio government to be ready for "sustained legal countermeasures and crisis readiness.” It’s also clear from the spokeswoman’s statement where ODNR’s misleadingly titled Natural Resources office stands. Industrial development = progress. Citizens who want to protect water and air quality, property values, and communities are labeled “extremists.”

In 2011, Governor Kasich had signed into law permissions for drilling on public lands, including state parks and forests, but thus far these have not been implemented. In the wake of these recent revelations, Kasich withdrew his plan to frack on these public lands. Meanwhile Democratic legislators launched an investigation into the PR plan, asserting that the Kasich administration “is working with the oil and gas industry instead of independently regulating it.”

The real question? Is Ohio’s dysfunctional environmental regulatory agency an anomaly or the norm?

In the original Gasland film, filmmaker Josh Fox visits John Hanger, then head of the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), another agency with the conflicting mandate of protecting the environment and supporting the gas and oil industry. Fox asks Hanger what the department will do to address complaints of well water contamination by nearby fracking operations. Hanger claims that he stands ready to discuss them, but he hasn’t heard of any.

Hanger hadn’t heard of any because the department offered neither a citizens’ hotline nor any form of oversight or data gathering to afford a public record of reported problems. Even though leaks, spills, explosions, water contamination and migration of fracking fluids into aquifers are now well-characterized fracking aftermaths in Pennsylvania, there was no feedback system to detect or track these— that’s how well PADEP was enforcing its mandate to protect the public and natural resources.

When water contamination from drilling wiped out the water supply for a significant part of the town of Dimock, PADEP required the offending gas company, Cabot Oil & Gas, to build a water pipeline to the town— and then dropped the idea, leaving dozens of families without water permanently. (For a time, the company delivered water buffaloes to homes, but stopped in 2011.) One homeowner sought to contact the state government for help after his water supply was cut off. Due to the lack of reporting mechanisms, there was no one to call but the PADEP head—and the governor, Tom Corbett. He called daily, until state police ordered him to desist. Ultimately, his family left their home and moved out of state.

A 2012 internal EPA report used technological methods that “fingerprint” gas sources to trace the real migration of gas. It concluded that fracking had indeed contaminated Dimock’s water. However, the report was never released by the EPA, which instead gave Dimock water a clean bill of health. After the report was later leaked to DeSmogBlog (in 2013,) 50,000 signed petitions were delivered to the EPA asking the new administrator Gina McCarthy to reopen outstanding investigations into fracking related water contamination in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Texas.

When 50,000 citizens call attention to vast omissions in oversight, monitoring and enforcement, this is called citizen engagement in democracy. But Pennsyvlania has steadfastly declined to put its money into environmental protection, instead funding other priorities. For example, in 2010, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, a Philadelphia firm, acting as a consultant to the Pennsylvania’s Homeland Security Department enacted a plan to collect the names of citizens who attended public meetings or who went to see the film, Gasland, characterizing attendees as “environmental extremists" who pose an "increasing threat to... the energy sector.” This attempt to squelch First Amendment rights by crushing citizen participation in government backfired and then-governor Ed Rendell canceled the contract.

Recently Chevron awarded a coupon for a free pizza to residents of Dunkard Township, PA as compensation for a fracking-related gas explosion and fire that burnt for four days. This “let them eat pizza” moment got national media attention.

Nevertheless, without any change in real policy to prevent such accidents, the PADEP website appears to have gotten a PR tuneup. Among other statements designed to reassure, PADEP’s mission statement promises to “protect Pennsylvania's air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment.” Hanger, who left his job as PADEP chief, is now a gubernatorial candidate.Many Dimock residents still have no water supply.

Chevron’s pathetic offer of pizza in response to a life-endangering industrial accident reveals why the gas industry has lost— and as more such incidents occur— will continue to lose the public’s trust. A report prepared for the gas industry by global analyst Jonathan Wood (and reported in Forbes) accurately reveals that the industry’s multimillion-dollar PR campaigns have been ineffective in winning the good opinion of the public:

As shown by local bans in the US and Canada, national moratoriums in France and Bulgaria, and tighter regulation in Australia and the UK, the global anti-fracking movement has mounted an effective campaign against the extraction of unconventional gas through hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’). Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has largely failed to appreciate social and political risks, and has repeatedly been caught off guard by the sophistication, speed and influence of anti-fracking activists.

Although it is unclear who funded this report, and why, the report reveals a few home truths about why this is so:

[A]nti-fracking grievances are broader and deeper than water contamination. They also encompass health and safety concerns, and issues of economic development, cultural integrity and political legitimacy, which pertain directly to the question of who wins and who loses from gas development. Secondly—and crucially—companies have lost public trust by discounting the legitimacy of grievances, prioritising trade secrets over transparency and engaging governments rather than communities.

The industry’s success in engaging governments is the subtext for the divided allegiance of state environmental regulators, in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. (In 2011, the state of New York, without proper prior environmental or health assessment, issued a set of guidelines for gas development which presumed fracking would occur in NY. Due to the response of the public and medical advisors, NY had to backtrack and look into public health consequences.)

On the national level, the same divided loyalties are visible via the censoring of EPA scientific findings about Dimock’s water contamination. Not to mention the President’sunrealizable promises to discuss climate change while promoting energy independence via gas development, which accelerates climate change thanks to methane releases at every stage of the gas drilling and transport process.

Industry or governmental PR may temporarily minimize the risks and dangers to the public, but it won’t make them go away. These dangers are not the inventions of a few extreme environmentalists. They are real. Only full assessments, bans, regulations, laws, and enforcement will protect the public. And the public continues to demand that.

In New York State, a massive public reaction stalled the forward path of the SGEIS (Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement), New York State’s proposed fracking guidelines. By the close of the comment period, it had received over 66,000 public comments, the vast majority of them opposed to fracking, including a particularly cogent one from Earthworks.

Minimizing serious concerns—by attempting to characterize people as extremists— is not a formula for winning credibility. PR pronouncements cannot hide fracking’s manifold consequences, its destruction of homes and communities, its contribution to climate change. Deploying a fear-mongering Joe McCarthy-esque playbook in response to such concerns reveals a vast sense of entitlement, of being above the law, which has been the case ever since fracking was exempted from standard regulations by the Halliburton Loophole in the 2005 Energy Act. With dysfunctional environmental agencies and without any solid regulatory levers, it is true that the industry has been exempted from accountability. If the industry had sought to cultivate a better public image, they could have corrected the damages wrought by their activities, rather than withhold water or offer pizza.

When natural gas development exploded in 2005, the collusion with government agencies endowed with contradictory agendas was less apparent than it is today. As more of fracking’s downsides have emerged, the concerned public is too vast to buy into the accusation that anyone who opposes fracking in any location is an extremist. If that were true than Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson is the latest in a long line of extremists. With Exxon, the number-one multinational gas and oil corporation, Tillerson has been a leading proponent of fracking—before it came to his own backyard.

Along with his neighbors, Tillerson is now party to a lawsuit to halt construction of a fracking water tower in Bartonville, Texas, the town where Tillerson and his wife own an 83-acre horse farm valued at $5 million. The suit seeks $40 million in damages for the disruption to their upscale community by fracking infrastructures that might “devalue their properties and adversely impact the rural lifestyle they sought to enjoy.”

“You and I love the places where we live, but in the end, if they are ruined by fracking or frack water tanks, we can afford to pack up and go someplace else,” former Mobil executive Lou Allstadt patiently explains in an open letter to Tillerson published last week. “However, many people can’t afford to move away when they can no longer drink the water or breathe the air because they are too close to one of your well pads or compressor stations.”

Allstadt urges that Tillerson take this object lesson and redirect Exxon’s investment toward renewable energy development.

In a recent appearance on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, Gasland director Josh Fox shook his head at the irony of Tillerson’s legal action to protect his own backyard. “I hope he wins, and sets a legal precedent,” Fox said.

Alison Rose Levy @alisonroselevy writes on health, food and the environment. Her website is healthjournalistblog.com and her weekly radio program on Progressive Radio is Connect the Dots.

 
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