I was hoping that our intrepid Fish Out Of Water would write a diary about the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) meeting for public comment about their draft proposal for natural gas mining in NC. Since he hasn’t and although I am a lurker, did not intend to write about the meeting, taking no notes, I believe there are good reasons to talk about this event so I will.
My husband and I arrived early hoping to sign up to speak but by the time we got there we were beyond 85th in line and had no chance of being called. So with time on our hands we mosied over to a gazebo to wait until the door was opened for seating. With us in the gazebo was a woman from the Sanford area. She and her fiancé had 40 acres that they wanted to farm and in the future pass on to their kids. They were raising cashmere goats and starting to grow cranberries. She told us that many of her neighbors had already sold gas leases to the industry. Her plans for the future were very much in doubt and she was scared. She told us earnestly that if it came to it they would sell their property and leave. I thought that if it ‘comes to it’ she may not be able to sell and will have to walk away from a hellish situation having lost everything. Her name was Laura.
The meeting was packed; every seat in the auditorium was taken and easily 90% of the audience held some kind of anti-fracking sign or sticker. NC DENR gave an outlined expository of its report and the floor was opened up for comment. For those who weren't thoroughly familiar with the 444 page draft report DENR's presentation was not informative. Though it came out in a justification for the preliminary nature of the draft report, DENR's power point did not address the fact that there have been staff cuts in DENR field inspectors, as well as air, water and waste programs and also other massive budget cuts. They presented none of the relevant geologic graphics that would have allowed people to ask questions regarding contamination plumes that might develop in groundwater. They showed none of the graphics regarding crime increase in Pennsylvania and other states where the industry has been established. There were no maps of the affected areas such as water sources, population centers, recreation areas. There was nothing showing the geology of the gas deposits, their shallow nature or the nature of the basaltic dikes surrounding these deposits. No effort was made to explain exactly how fracking would be done in North Carolina's particular geology. Indeed in the draft report, I did not see that explained, period. The only illustration I saw pertained to deep drilling. And the draft report is simply not accessible to the general public in terms of its language and the methods described. Only the introduction with its platitudinous comments and conclusions is readable without some effort by a non-scientist. What is readable by the general public is the conclusion it draws on page 26:
After reviewing other studies and experiences in oil and gas-‐producing states, DENR believes that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place.The paragraph goes on to mention that we need better understandings and better regulations. But the caveats, such as they are--and the whole report, as much as I understand it, is a huge caveat--is lost in that single (as one commenter pointed out) tautologous sentence. That is to say--fracking can be done safely if and only if fracking is done safely.
One could be fairly certain that the Tea Partiers with their "shale yes" signs had not read or understood the meat of this report. None of them as long as I was at the meeting stood up to speak--though one fellow who spoke denied sea level rise. (I guess he hadn't been to the Maldives or Ho Chi Minh City.) None of them when questioned by the media had anything other than the vague talking points corporate interests had fed them. But they were there in numbers and visible at the entrance to the meeting where the TV trucks were parked. And they were treated by the TV media with the false equivalency we have come to expect.
The Raleigh News and Observer's coverage of the event was tentative and non-committal. There was no real discussion of the numerous catastrophes that have resulted from fracking in other states. Along with remarks from Bill Weatherspoon head of the NC Petroleum Council, it contained a long quote of industry talking points from a FreedomWorks representative. This is what we can expect as a "tempered" response to what was a highly charged and passionate meeting. In fact, the meeting was so highly charged that our own Fish Out Of Water was ejected, for pointing at his representative as he made his way to speak to the N&O's reporter.
What struck me about the reader comments immediately after the N&O article was posted was the presence of dismissive attacks on the people of Chapel Hill, who were certainly among those present at the meeting. It was described as a circus, a freakshow populated by hysterical leftists. Beyond general Tea Party hostility to those more educated than themselves, the reason for these remarks stemmed from two things that happened at the meeting. One, which was mentioned in the N&O piece, had to do with booing and hissing directed at the supporters of fracking--which I will return to later.
The second, I think, had to do with the performance by the Raging Grannies at the beginning of the comment portion of the hearing. We can applaud the fact that these citizens are political, that they want to draw attention to important issues and generate concern for them, but is a public informational meeting the place for performance art or guerrilla theater? Their performance did not set the tone for a serious discussion of the issues. Given a choice between a lecture and a circus, the media will always choose the circus. Comments at this event were the most densely informative of any in my experience at any public meeting and I have been on a planning board where technical issues abound and feelings run high. So the reporters had plenty of spectacular information about the hazards of fracking and heard the questions that MUST be asked. Nonetheles they reported slavishly the industry platitudes and the mildly stated remarks of the Sierra Club. The Raging Grannies made it to TV and the front page of Durham's Herald Sun. Laura who we met in the gazebo did not.
The mostly restrained and occasional booing was unfortunate but came in response to two features of the meeting. The first was the genuinely tepid presentation and perfunctory conclusion of NC DENR the background to which is the fact that NC Republicans are trying to ram this bill through before they might lose their seats in the election. So the blasé attitude shown by DENR who ignored in their presentation all of the challenging data of their own report was simply infuriating to those who understand the stakes. If the obvious and least damning conclusion to be drawn from the draft report, namely GO SLOW, had been the most visible and urgent message from the government, would tensions have been so high? Maybe not.
But the most provocative moments were supplied by those industry proponents who uttered blatantly political comments. Bill Weatherspoon, asserted that “Ninety percent of North Carolinians support energy development.” Of course he did not specify the kind of energy development but in the context of his remarks he meant to imply support for hydraulic fracturing. People were rightly enraged. Had he or any other industry spokesman attempted to rebut or explain any of the myriad nightmarish instances in which fracking has destroyed the environment, would people have been so frustrated? Maybe not. Indeed had industry spokesmen not shown complete disregard for the issues brought up by the public would the public have felt the need to boo? Maybe not.
What we experienced at this meeting from those who should have answered our questions was inanity or contempt. There was a mindless sanguinity on the part of DENR that was echoed in the comments of the gas industry supporters who parroted the talking points always brought up in these disputes about development. "Jobs, growth, energy independence"--and in the case of environmentally destructive activities--"'no' is not an energy policy." I emphasize there was no attempt by the industry to respond to any fracking leak, as in Pavillion, Wyoming where the EPA has documented the contamination of the groundwater by fracking fluids, or anywhere else. There was no attempt to respond to the concerns about specific sites mentioned by the citizens who had experienced firsthand in Pennsylvania the noxious results of the fracking industry. Instead the CEO of the NC Chamber of Commerce, Lewis Ebert discoursed about how we must think about development, growth, jobs. He spoke about an economic 'ripple effect' from hydraulic fracturing. He ignored the impact on infrastructure and water supply, which are surely parts of the economic equation that should concern him. But because of the way this meeting was structured we couldn't question him on presumptions. We could just sit there and hear him utter empty statements as if they were facts.
The worst of the industry spokesmen (and men they all were) was the aforementioned Bill Weatherspoon. After giving the same industry-determined platitude-laden commentary he turned to the crowd and made the statement about 90% of the state wanting energy development. To this he added the sneering inference that though we outnumbered him in the auditorium, we did not outnumber him in the state. His demeanor dripped with arrogance and contempt. The room came alive with anger and someone called him liar. He personified perfectly how the industry does not believe it has to respond to the public. It does not need to tell us the why's and how's of past water and air contamination. It does not need to be specific about regulations, because it believes the fix is in. It will buy its regulations and the public can be damned. Booing is then the only action that restores ‘public’ to the idea of a public meeting.
Laura, whom I mentioned meeting earlier, spoke with great passion and eloquence. She talked about being approached by a gas industry spokesman who was sitting in the room about leasing her land. He denied that he had done it—that it wasn’t part of his job description to do such things. Undeterred by his lying, she pointed at him and described his mile and a half drive up her driveway, pretending when he got to her door he was lost. Caught and shamed he had no response. Then she turned to her congressmen (Republicans) and asked them why they hadn't talked to her about this proposal. “Why wasn't SHE involved in the decision that could ruin her future?”she wanted to know. She accused them of ignoring their constituents who would be affected by fracking. It was an uncomfortable moment for them and they were silent. When she left the microphone she got a standing ovation. She had put her finger squarely on the problem--we the people are not considered by many to be a part of the decision-making process anymore.
In the end I hope all the information delivered by those intelligent and well-informed souls such as our own Fish Out Of Water will make a difference in how the NC Legislature views the bill that would allow fracking. I hope Laura’s message will be properly registered and respected. But any other confrontations with the industry must insist the industry deliver the information to us and if they cannot then the world needs to see it.
So we must hold the Bill Weatherspoons to account, “How are you going to clean up the water in Pavillion Wyoming?” And tell us Bill, “How will you get the carcinogens out of the water in Dimock, PA? What will you do about the earthquakes near Youngstown , Ohio or in Arkansas? What exactly are the regulations that will prevent such catastrophes?” If they won’t answer, we must demand that they do.
Booing is just the beginning.
Mon Apr 02, 2012 at 7:22 AM PT: Thanks for putting this on the rec list! I will be able to answer comments a bit this morning and then this evening.