'Fracking' War: Lobbyists in the Vanguard.
By Jim O'SullivanIf we are to have any chance of stopping large areas here being despoiled by “fracking”, we must learn how the battle in the US is being fought.
A rally was held in Washington at the end of July organised by people from across the US whose towns, villages and farms are now being targeted by the major oil companies seeking to expand their “fracking” activities---a process that many experts say releases harmful chemicals into the air and known carcinogens into private wells and underground aquifers.This latest protest was organised by people from New York and Pennsylvania, they live in the firing line of energy companies who have gotten their hands on leases for both private and public lands along the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation, which extends south and west into Ohio and West Virginia. Much of the area in which drilling is permitted is in the Delaware River watershed.
Protesters carried water samples of discoloured water the result of “fracking” in their area. They also told a story that is becoming familiar across the US, the reticence of politicians to take firm action to prevent the spread of “fracking” despite their, mainly pre-election, stand on the matter. A good example of this reluctance is the case of a Bill that was passed a year ago by The New Jersey Legislature---which bans waste produced by the hydraulically fracturing of gas wells---but has still not been signed into law by the Governor.
During the debate on the issue it was shown clearly that hydraulic fracturing waste from gas wells being discharged in New Jersey was poorly regulated and highly toxic. In addition, there was no facility designed to clean all the pollutants in this waste. On foot of the evidence, the state legislature acted to protect drinking water and communities by passing the “Frack Waste Ban Bill” which was supported on a cross party basis. The Bill, as currently written, would permanently prohibit “fracking” in New Jersey.
However, when presented with the bill 12 months ago, Governor Chris Christie issued a conditional veto for one year on it saying that there was “need for proper study of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing” (Sound familiar?) Governor Christie is acting contrary to the wishes of his constituents and this points the finger to where the “war” is being won and lost---the activities of Lobbyists at all levels of governance.
The protest sought to focus attention on this activity---following a short vigil at the home base of the American Natural Gas Alliance---by marching to the headquarters of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s lobbying arm. Marchers put up a 10-foot replica of a “fracking” rig and then toppled it over to demonstrate their determination to stop this method of gas extraction.
The realisation that powerful forces were at work in the background was underlined by the actions at federal government level. In 2005 the “Energy Policy Act” was enacted which exempted “fracking” from the provisions contained within the “Safe Drinking Water Act” and the “Clean Water Act”. The Bill was the brainchild of then Vice President---and former Halliburton executive---Dick Cheney. It was extraordinary that no one seemed to notice the serious conflict of interest given that Halliburton are major players in this method of gas extraction to which Cheney has very close ties.
The amendments to the safe water acts extended to very powerful energy companies a licence to explore almost without restriction. The consequence has been the erection of thousands of drilling rigs across the US which are pumping enormous quantities of water, sand and chemicals into the land at a time when many scientists are warning that the process is extremely dangerous with the potential to pollute water and despoil fertile land.
And the red flag was raised even higher when current president Barack Obama signed an executive order recently establishing an “intergovernmental task force” for the support of “unconventional” gas exploration and extraction including “fracking” The fact that a Democratic President would invite Republicans onto such a task-force was of itself enough to raise concerns that Obama was looking to muddy the waters and take a “neutral” stance on the issue thereby allowing existing laws stand which would by and large benefit the oil companies. This unease regarding where Obama stands on the issue is compounded when the fact that he accepted a campaign donation of €1 million from the oil and gas industry in 2008 is factored in.
It is now clear that the energy industry has shifted its strategy away from arguing that “fracking is safe” into spending huge amounts of money “buying” local “acceptance” and swaying those with decision making powers on these issues. The battle in New York State over legislation to authorise the process showed that the energy industry spent 4 times the amount that organisations proposing a moratorium until additional study could be undertaken had spent. To give some idea of the money involved here, in 2009 a proposal to limit greenhouse gases---that the overwhelming majority of scientists claim is the leading cause of global warming---saw the energy industry spend $175 million to “kill the bill”. It is extremely troublesome for those who believe in democracy to note that they succeeded.
Another example for which figures are available concerns the lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline. (a system to transport crude oil and diluted bitumen from Alberta, Canada to multiple destinations in the US.) In the first three quarters of 2011, oil and gas companies spent a total of $59.8 million pressing for the pipeline's approval.
What must give rise now to real concerns that the “fracking” fight has already been lost in the US is the Supreme Court decision (Citizens United case) which essentially removes almost all limitations of expenditures by outside groups on political elections. An unsurprising outcome is that from 2008 to 2010, 30 “Fortune 500” companies spent more on lobbying than they paid in federal income taxes.
Given all this, it may be a reality of life that the case against “fracking” may not in itself be sufficient to prevent it from occurring here. And there can be no doubt that splashing money around will now be the tactic of choice for the oil and gas companies. We have already seen one company throw money at a local community group who, it is reported, accepted it. The fact is that there are many naive people who still believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch.
But apart from this the most dangerous aspect is the prospect of money being dangled in front of politicians and political partys hungry for power. Armed with a highly paid for soundbite argument that “fracking is safe”, produced by the energy companies, will they have the moral courage to do what is in the countries best interest instead of their own and/or their political party. It appears that the Minister, Pat Rabbitte, has placed primacy on what he refers to as “fuel security” which has the same ring to it as Obama’s decision to set up a “task force”. Are the waters being muddied here too?
While it remains important to get across the great dangers associated with “fracking”, attention must be paid to the fact that money is a powerful, and probably the key, player and the only counter to that may lie in ensuring that the way decisions are arrived at are explained in great detail and in the public eye. Also, some way must be found of ensuring that those taking decisions remain accountable for them into the future.
In the meantime, citizens should ask for details of all lobbying activity and demand that, given the very serious nature of this particular issue, the Minister should not meet with corporate lobbyists who represent the interest of the oil and gas companies but rather give instructions that all desired contact be made in writing. All such correspondence should then be immediately posted on the Department’s website so that it can be accessed and scrutinised.
Prior to the last election both Fine Gael and Labour promised that if elected they would change how government does business to ensure openness and transparency. Here’s a glorious opportunity for them to start doing just that.