Over a seven day period last week there was a flurry of step-it-up activity on the East Coast in opposition to the planned expansion of fracking and fracking infrastructure.
It began with a three-day walk over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in sub-freezing, wintry weather in rural western Massachusetts against Kinder Morgan’s proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline. Upwards of 200 people took part in the walk, with an average of about 80 people walking 11-12 miles each day. The spirit and energy of the group was powerful.
It continued on Wednesday in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with a successful disruption of the last meeting of Gov. Tom Wolf’s gas-industry-stacked pipeline infrastructure commission. The commission was set up to sell the plan to build even more gas pipelines and expand fracking in the state.
And it ended on Thursday in Washington, DC with the 15th consecutive Beyond Extreme Energy disruption of the monthly Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Commissioners’ meeting. This action was followed by one right near the White House at a Bank of America branch. Bank of America is a major funder of the being-built Cove Point, Maryland Liquified Natural Gas export terminal.
Also this past week, on Monday, seven people were arrested at the latest blockade organized by We Are Seneca Lake in Ithaca, New York at the Crestwood gas storage facility; many hundreds have been arrested over the last year and a half in a campaign that shows no signs of letting up.
The movement against FERC and the expansion of fracked gas pipelines, compressor stations and storage and export terminals has made great strides over the past year and this past week’s actions are an indication of what will be happening this year.
FERC’s outrageous behavior—it has rejected only one proposed interstate gas pipeline in the last 10 years, according to former FERC employee and attorney Carolyn Elefant—and the broad and growing movement against it are prompting senators, congresspeople, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to speak out and take action:
• Bernie Sanders has come out against the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline.
• Hillary Clinton, at a town hall meeting in Keene, New Hampshire last October, said, “If we’re going to have a national commitment to do something about climate change, FERC needs to be part of that commitment. It’s not just the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that needs to be focused on combating climate change, every part of the federal government needs to be focused.”
• Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) wrote about FERC in September to the Department of Energy Inspector General, leading to an audit of the FERC permitting process, currently underway.
• In late November five Congresspeople from New England wrote to FERC calling upon them to review all proposed energy projects across the region in tandem to determine how New England’s energy markets will best be served and to prevent any potential overbuild.
• In late October four members of the Georgia Congressional delegation “sent a letter to FERC asking the commission to change the route of a 516-mile natural gas pipeline slated to run through impoverished communities in Georgia.” (Politico’s Morning Energy, Oct. 27, 2015)
• On Nov. 18, 2015 Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey published a study which concluded that there is no need for increased gas capacity to meet the state’s electric reliability needs for at least 15 years to come.
• Also in Massachusetts, State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg wrote to FERC Chairman Norman Bay, writing that federal regulators “should consider the interest of the Massachusetts citizens in establishing an energy sector based substantially on reduced emissions and clean and renewable energy as an initial test for determining whether any proposed project is in the public interest.”
• And then there is President Obama, a big booster of fracking throughout his Presidency, not mentioning fracking or natural gas or all-of-the-above during his final State of the Union speech. When added to other developments over the past year, it is clear that the White House is at least having doubts about its strong support for fracking all these past years, a process which needs to deepen and accelerate this year.
There is more:
• On Jan. 14 a letter signed by 165 organizations was sent to Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren asking them, in their role as members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, to formally request a U.S. Government Accountability Office investigation of FERC. The groups said that “the request for an investigation notes that FERC is entirely funded by the industry it regulates, resulting in a demonstrable bias in favor of the energy industry’s agenda over community and environmental concerns.”
• At an early December Congressional hearing, “FERC Commissioner Tony Clark told members of Congress that … a recent increase in opposition to infrastructure projects under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission threatens to further impede this development.
“FERC Chairman Norman Bay, fielding a question from an Energy and Power Subcommittee member, noted the increase in opposition to infrastructure projects, including protesters attempts to disrupt recent FERC meetings.
“‘I think at FERC we have clearly seen increased opposition to infrastructure. One of the things that has happened at FERC over the last, at this point it’s probably been 15 months or so, is that our open meetings have been interrupted by protesters who will suddenly stand up during our meeting and try to interfere with our meeting, so we are clearly seeing that,” Bay said. “Even in the field when we’re holding scoping hearings, it is not uncommon for the staff who do those hearings to report back that there seems to be a great deal of opposition in many communities to the construction of more infrastructure.”
• There are the beginnings of signs that all of this pressure may be causing small cracks in FERC’s rigid unwillingness to serve the public interest rather than the interests of the gas industry.
One example is something which happened in October. In an unprecedented move for FERC, they suggested that two proposed pipelines in a similar area in the northeast should combine together. As one long-time FERC observer wrote in an email, “Something seems to be happening behind the scenes because it was FERC which first raised the issue of combining them.”
• And just a few days ago as this is written, the EPA called upon FERC to “require applicants seeking approval under the Natural Gas Act to provide more information on a project’s indirect impacts, including potential increases in gas production and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The EPA submitted comments on FERC’s Draft Guidance Manual for Environmental Report Preparation for Applications Filed Under the Natural Gas Act. FERC released a revised version of its guidance manual, which had not been updated since 2002, last month … The recommendation echoes calls from environmentalists for FERC to review cumulative regional impacts of the multiple transmission projects that have been proposed in response to the rapid growth of production from unconventional shale development.”
There is a growing wing of the climate movement that has been working over the last several years to prevent a build-out of fracked gas infrastructure, allied with widespread community opposition in localities where this infrastructure is proposed. Fracked gas pipelines, like all fossil fuel pipelines, are not popular. They lead to landowners being forced to deal with certain negative impacts if a pipeline would end up going through their land. They bring the threat of leakage of poisonous chemicals or explosions. Construction brings community and environmental disruption. That is why elected officials are speaking out, because they are hearing from voters who don’t like what the gas industry wants to force upon them.
The fracked gas industry, just like the coal, tar sands and fracked oil industries, is in deep debt and serious trouble. Part of this is due to wind and solar growing quickly as a percentage of new installed energy sources. It is also due to a huge drop in oil and gas prices, something which shows no sign of a rebound anytime soon. This is huge; it makes a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewables and efficiency much more possible than it looked just a year ago. When all of the negatives about fracked gas lead to a realization on an even bigger scale that it is in no way a hopeful “bridge fuel” but a dangerous “bridge to climate catastrophe,” we can finally get very serious about that critically-needed shift right now.
With an infusion of energy, resources and people it is realistic, based upon all that exists at present and the way things are moving, to see some very real victories this year in the battle against FERC and new fracking infrastructure. It’s time for the climate movement to focus on FERC.
Ted Glick is a co-founder and one of the leaders of Beyond Extreme Energy. He has been a climate activist since 2003 and a progressive organizer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found here and he can be followed on Twitter.