The People Know Best, Should We Listen?
by: Cliff Willmeng, East Boulder County United Posted on: October 08, 2013
Editor’s Note: Willmeng, actively working to pass a Lafayette, CO Community Rights Act to prohibit all new oil and gas extraction, asks questions of the movement in opposition to hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking). Specifically, Willmeng responds to a Denver Post op-ed written by a local Congressman and questions the movements’ awareness of public opinion.
An excerpt: “I am submitting these questions because I feel that the public, over the last year, has become increasingly sophisticated about the oil and gas industry, and about the corporations that claim that mineral rights are superior to either human or civil rights… I believe that the public is already ahead of us as a movement in terms of the role of corporate power and the need for a direct challenge to that… Something needs to change fundamentally, profoundly, and urgently about how the environmental leaders discuss, conceptualize, and formulate the challenges we now face.”
Congressman Polis recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Denver Post to address Colorado’s oil and gas extraction. I think the piece helps to clarify our ideas as a movement, and rather than offering my own analysis of the ideas, maybe we can explore some of the questions that the Congressman raises.
Read the op-ed here: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_23769998/frack-is-four-letter-word
For the sake of time I’ll drop the ideas the congressman raises about hydrofracking being good for America and its reduction of energy costs and our reliance on foreign oil. I think the industry does a good job of making those points.
But the Congressman does raise the idea of better-regulated oil and gas extraction quite clearly. He goes on to make the statement that, “The industry isn’t going to be able to deny the public’s concerns about health and quality of life. Instead, it will only flame the fire leading to more local bans and extended legal uncertainty.” Perhaps I am taking this statement out of context, but it seems to me that the Congressman is hoping to avoid bans and challenges to the legal system, and perhaps to corporate rights themselves, by addressing the fears of the public before they take matters into their own hands through bans and maybe even structural legal challenges.
Polis continues through what he calls five “Common sense suggestions,” which pretty closely echo the wing of the Democratic Party that believes in hydrofracking, and the industry’s continued dominance over public will, with only some general measures to make people feel more secure in their future and their role. He does not go on to suggest how these measures will or should be implemented, but it could be assumed that we should place our hopes on the state legislature to enact these measures, even though his own party rejected many of them just months ago.
His first suggestion is a more representational composition of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Coalition (COGCC). This would be nice, but its difficult for me to understand how the Congressman expects this to occur. The second point addresses “local control.” He states, “Local control should be respected. Counties and municipalities are already regulating drilling in a manner consistent with their local economy and goals, and we need to explicitly allow them to do so.” But in his hope to avoid bans, it is clear that the congressman does not mean to imply that future control over our communities should be taken from corporations and returned to municipalities, only that existing regulations should be respected. Do we believe that regulations as they stand protect the public and environment, or that hydrofracking can be done in a manner to avoid global climate change? What regulations would make hydrofracking safe in a more than superficial way?
The third suggestion states that, “The rights of homeowners and their neighbors should be respected. Surface property rights should mean something, and if someone wants to drill on your land or in your neighborhood, they should have to consult with you beforehand.” The industry already has no issue with consulting with surface owners, and has more than likely done so in thousands of well-documented cases. But is the consultation what we are after? What if the conditions of this dialogue mean that the drill is going into the ground no matter what? The fourth point is Polis’ indication that setback distances should be increased. But as he does not indicate any figure here we do not know what a safe setback distance is, at least in the Congressman’s view. No one knows what a safe setback is, and to indicate something concrete leaves a public figure open to scientific scrutiny. Do we believe hydrofracking can be done safely with adequate setbacks? If so, what are they and why?
The Congressman closes that fines should be increased so as to be a deterrent to industry. But a deterrent so as to prevent what? Hydroracking? All pollution, leaks, explosions, fires, casing failures, etc? If we believe hydrofracking should occur, how should fines be assessed to make it safe? How do we feel about this type of hopeful regulation?
Also, there seem to be at least a few things worth mentioning here. The Congressman does not acknowledge at all the community of Longmont that banned hydrofracking last year and that, through the industry and leaders of the State Democratic Party, is now being litigated. If silence implies consent, what does this suggest about the Congressman’s position? There are also four additional communities stepping up to make charter amendments to either slow or stop hydrofracking from occurring on the ballot this November. Why would the Congressman forget to mention them? And the industry is already organizing dialogue around a state ballot initiative in November of 2014, which Congressman Polis does not mention. Why not?
And who does ultimate political authority reside with, according to Polis? We don’t know for sure, but it seems awfully possible that the reason for his type of maneuvering around the industry would suggest that, in the Congressman’s view, the hard reality is that we are ultimately subservient to the oil and gas corporations. Do we agree with this idea as a movement? How about as a people?
I am submitting these questions because I feel that the public, over the last year, has become increasingly sophisticated about the oil and gas industry, and about the corporations that claim that mineral rights are superior to either human or civil rights. I don’t believe that a well-articulated discussion about the public positions of elected officials is something that the public is either not ready for, or that would be seen either as a distraction or unproductive. On the contrary, I believe that the public is already ahead of us as a movement in terms of the role of corporate power and the need for a direct challenge to that. If I am correct, how do we align with that and take advantage of it? Even Fox News has become a class warrior; when they wrote on Polis’ piece they said, “The Boulder Democrat, one of the richest men in Congress, has also made somewhere between $1-5 million from investments in the industry.” Why aren’t we pointing out who the big winners are in this new catastrophe? Fox New continues with claiming that the industry is actually about the common working people -“Gardner told FOX31 Denver that Polis is essentially demonizing an issue that employs thousands of Coloradans and enriches landowners who choose to lease their property rights for oil and gas drilling. These people aren’t millionaires. They’re not ‘big oil’,” Gardner said. “They are not bogeymen as some would have us believe.”
Clearly we may be behind even Fox News on utilizing the landslide of public opinion against the wealthy not only in Colorado but nationally and internationally as well.
I believe these discussions are fundamental to our understanding of our role and potential as a movement. Honestly, I do not feel like we have had enough of them. And given the incredible catastrophes that we all face now, not just as activists but as an entire species, I believe that we need to become far better at these hard, sometimes stark conversations. Clearly behaving as we did yesterday will only land us in the situation we face today. Something needs to change fundamentally, profoundly, and urgently about how the environmental leaders discuss, conceptualize, and formulate the challenges we now face. And that isn’t something we are all born with, it’s a skill that is developed through practice. As a movement we need more practice.
And finally, I hope that we can move beyond the position where criticism is seen as an attack. I don’t think this is either productive or true. As someone who helped to start one of the smaller community groups to fight hydrofracking and corporate power in Lafayette, I know that we are new and are going to make our share of mistakes and errors. This is a testament to a truly grassroots movement that in some ways is going where no one in Colorado has gone before. Should we be removed from criticism and suggestion? I really hope not. If we are, how are we supposed to grow and become stronger? Indeed, most of our internal conversation is a perpetual ongoing assessment of our work and analysis. Why would we want valid points to be removed from our consideration? Furthermore, if our strategies and analysis do not hold water, why would we continue with them? I understand there are some nuances and there are differences between debate and defamation. But we in Lafayette consider the movement against hydrofracking our family, and we trust that discussion will be done with the people’s will in mind, and that poor formulations or outright attacks will be reshaped by the process of debate itself. In this way we are like every movement that has ever occurred. Let’s take advantage of those connections and lessons.
These are some thoughts I have been tossing over since the oil companies paid our Congressman a visit.
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