Fitz Gives Keynote Address To 24th Annual Heartwood Forest Council Gathering Posted: May 28, 2014
CHANGING THE CLIMATE: ACTIVISM IN THE ERA OF SHALE GAS
Heartwood Forest Council
May 24, 2014
I always like to begin with full disclosure of my background so that you may appropriately discount all that I will say after this. I am in my thirtieth year as Director of the Kentucky Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization providing legal and technical assistance without charge to low-income individuals, to community organizations, and to local governments on air, waste, water, land use, utility, and resource extraction issues. I began as an advocate working with an Episcopalian Minister in Southwest Virginia, lobbying Congress for banning coal strip mining in 1972, and my perspective has been forged by thirty four years of representing those who live downhill, downwind and downstream of mining operations. In that time, I have buried one friend and client who was crushed to death by slurry from a coal waste dam collapse – and I have seen the lives and peace of mind of countless others subject to avoidable injury and damage from development and utilization of coal, oil, and gas.
Those of you who were at the Heartwood Forest Council in 2009 when I spoke to those gathered will recall that I am very fond of Margaret Mead - in fact I could have titled our conversation tonight as “Margaret Mead is still right.”
Let me share Margaret Mead’s list of things to do that she would give her students:
Study primitive people
Have a religious conversion and get over it
Have a psychotic episode and get over it
Have an affair with an Old Russian.
(Ms. Mead later qualified this, in response to a student’s inquiry, and said the Russian did not have to be old.)
It is an honor to be here with you today to celebrate the 24th Annual gathering of the Heartwood Forest Council, focusing on information sharing, networking, and strategies for combating all types of resource extraction that threaten our forests, our water, our climate and our communities.
To say that the development of shale gas from tight shale formations that prior to the marriage of hydrofracing and horizontal drilling had been thought commercially impractical, has had and continues to have a dramatic impact on our nation, is an understatement. The development of shale gas has dramatically altered the nation’s electricity mix in a brief period of time, and has accelerated the inevitable decline of coal mining and coal-related employment in southern Appalachia. Its impact has been, one might say, seismic in proportion, and it has effected a delay in efforts to advance energy efficiency and the transition from a fossil-fueled economy to one grounded in sustainable, renewable energy. It has brought economic stimulus to some areas, along with new economic and social pressures that have torn the fabric of many towns and villages, pitting neighbor against neighbor and haves against have-nots.
From the Bakken oil shale in Montana and North Dakota, to the Barnett shale beneath Dallas and Fort Worth; from the Eagle Ford in southwest Texas to the Fayetteville in Arkansas; from the Haynesville in East Texas, Southwestern Arkansas and Western Louisiana to the Marcellus in New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland and the underlying Utica shale that underlies those same states and Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and parts of Ontario, the acceleration in production of natural gas, oil, and natural gas liquids threaten to create new energy sacrifice zones, where traditionally it was the southern Appalachian and Illinois basin coalfield communities that had borne the brunt of the impacts of our lust for artificially cheap power.
Fracing – the process of inducing fractures in a formation in order to facilitate extraction of oil and gas resources, is not new. In Kentucky, for example, most of Kentucky’s shale wells since the 1920’s and 30’s have been fractured. It was common practice as recently as the 1970s in Kentucky to explosively fracture shale wells to propagate fractures in order to stimulate increased production, using nitroglycerine, TNT and similar compounds. Beginning around 1975, water-based hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracing) was used, but it was quickly discovered that the clays in the Kentucky shale wells didn’t react well to the water and tended to expand and cut off production. By 1980, almost every Kentucky shale well was fraced with nitrogen, and Kentucky’s shales are sufficiently brittle that this works well. Nitrogen isn’t very viscous and doesn’t transport sand (that is used to keep the induced fractures “propped” open) so, over the last decade or so, the industry has been using a “foam” frac in which water and some chemicals are added to the nitrogen to create a foam so it carries the sand into the formation better. Instead of the 3-5 million gallons of water per job used in hydrofracing, Kentucky’s operators use several thousands of gallons.
Rather it is the scale of recent development of the shale gas formations, and the introduction of these industrial extractive practices into communities where historically little or no oil or gas extraction, or only conventional extraction, had occurred, that has set many communities back on their heels. All of the environmental effects of development of shale oil and gas can be mitigated to some extent, but in the absence of a comprehensive regulatory scheme to require internalization and mitigation of these impacts, the impacts will continue to fall heaviest at the local level. From the potential for conflicts in water resource availability and quality, to the potential for disruption and contamination of groundwater aquifers through improper well closure and through other pathways; from the generation and disposal of significant volumes of contaminated wastewater to air pollution from drilling equipment, well completion, and transportation, to local impacts on the human environment and social fabric of communities, and finally, to the seismic risks posed by well development and wastewater disposal, the impacts of poorly controlled and underregulated shale gas development give lie to the image of natural gas as a clean fuel.
And the impacts of the shale gas development are not limited to the producing communities. Spills, releases, and explosions along rail lines carrying produced oil, gas, and natural gas liquids, are a continuing problem. For the past year, Kentuckians in the central part of the state, from the Ohio border near Cincinnati through the Bluegrass Region and into the heart of Kentucky’s bourbon industry, Nelson, Marion, and Bullitt counties, have worked to defeat a natural gas liquids pipeline proposed by a limited liability company whose partners, Williams Company and Boardwalk, sought to construct a new pipeline into the Marcellus and Utica shale plays to connect with an existing natural gas pipeline what would be “repurposed” to move 400,000 barrels a day of undifferentiated pentane, ethane, butane, isobutane, and propane to the gulf region for processing and sale or export.
That project, now on hold, was competing head to head with another proposal from Kinder-Morgan and Markwest to repurpose a Tennessee Gas pipeline for that same purpose. The impacts of spills, releases, and explosions from new and repurposed pipelines on the heavily karstified region of central Kentucky, and the complete lack of any comprehensive federal or state siting process to assure that the route was the safest, and not merely the most convenient, caused significant pushback, and while the company would never admit that a 100 or so average folks (or as I would say, remarkable folks), including two orders of nuns and an abbey of monks, working with existing organizations to educate residents, media, and local government, and to successfully challenge the claim of eminent domain, had a significant impact on the decision to suspend further capital investment, there is little doubt that it did. Margaret Mead was right, when she said “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does!”
Margaret Mead was also right when she reflected that “[i]t may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good.” Natural gas development from shale formations will continue to expand during the foreseeable future, and it will likely continue to displace coal-fired power, with lower-emission natural gas-fired plants. Our great challenge during this period of transition from carbon-intensive power to more sustainable energy services, is to work together, utilizing existing tools in local, state and federal law, and where necessary to craft new tools, to demand full accountability from the energy industry for the footprint they create on land, air and water resources and on community and workplace safety and health, and to move beyond shale gas to energy efficiency and renewable energy as the cornerstone of our national policy.
So how we get the job done? What can we do to effect positive change?
As the members of the Heartwood Forest Council well understand, the day belongs to those who show up, and continue to show up, every day. We begin by acknowledging that we are, in answer to Cain’s question of God, our brothers and our sisters keepers – responsible ultimately for each other and to our children’s children for our choices in how we live and what we value.
We have the power - as consumers, as voters, as citizens, neighbors, mentors, students, as participants in electoral politics. We must become that “smart grid” we hear of – a community over time and distance linked by values, by passion, by compassion, and by principle.
We must work at the state and local government levels towards development of effective safeguards for oil and gas development that protect our health and land and water resources, with effective limits on development of sensitive land and water area, standards for prevention of methane leakage during well completion, effective well drilling and construction standards, eliminating the proprietary claims to fracing additives and requiring full disclosure of wastewater composition, and assuring that local communities retain the power to assure compatibility of oil and gas extraction with other land uses through comprehensive zoning and planning.
Beyond this, though, we need to continue to work to speed the transition to an energy future marked by energy efficiency and deployment of renewables, reforming utility regulatory policies to require that they more fully cost and account for environmental and social costs, and help to end the artificial subsidies that skew the market by allowing those costs to be excluded from consideration and make fuel choices that cost the environment and public dearly, seem inexpensive. Energy efficiency, and not gas-fired electricity, is the best bridge to a sustainable energy future.
We need to continue to push our public utilities to diversify their portfolios and to offer green power options. If you purchase natural gas from a local utility, it is probably part of the American Gas Association, which claims to environmental responsibility in natural gas supply. Push them to reform the upstream practices of the developers of the oil and gas resources.
Build and strengthen coalitions. Retail (issue or crisis-centered) organizing campaigns are exhausting and unsustaining. Durable (wholesale) change comes through the creation and recreation of institutions to meet community needs and to sustain and uplift communities. Respect distinctions while working towards consensus, and make your tent larger by engaging those who might not have been traditional or natural allies. All up and down the supply chain of natural gas, we should be united in demanding accountability and in supporting each other as we work on various pieces of the bigger picture.
Connect the dots and work for reform in governance. When offices go to the highest bidder and the wealthiest candidate, decisions reflecting the broader public interest over the insular interests of those investing in the candidates are rare. When we aspire to mediocrity in governance, when democracy isn't working, the poor, children, the environment, the public's interest suffer. As we go forward together, we must remind ourselves always that accommodating injustice never made the unjust more just.
Get your hands dirty. Roll up your sleeves and run for office.
Create contexts for elevating environmental justice and health issues during electoral cycles. Quiz candidates on their environmental platforms – support those who stand for improved environmental quality, and oppose those whose records justify that opposition. Go door to door for those who share your values. Educate those candidates who don't.
Hold your elected officials accountable once they are in office.
Bear witness, risk being thought a fool, lest your silence in the face of injustice be regarded as complicity. Our failure in stewardship of natural resources, and the careless and at times horrific damage inflicted on nature in war and in peace, reflects a moral crisis. Our policies must be driven by values more enduring and more robust, than the quarterly bottom line. Reflecting on a life of advocacy for children, Marian Wright Edelman penned this prayer:
God did not call us to succeed, but to serve.
Not to win, but to work.
Not to be happy, but to be hopeful.
Not to fame, but to faith.
Not to seek power, but to seek peace.
God did not call us to loot the earth and each other,
God called us to love our earth and each other.
Margaret Mead was right when she said “Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.”
Think about the behaviors you pattern. Sit at the feet of those who came before you and learn their wisdom. Mentor those who follow. Learn from the past in order to make sense of the present and to inform the future. Elders, teach your children. Children, teach your elders.
How do we build a more sustaining, a more just political, economic, and natural environment?
As Mother Teresa told the interviewer who wondered how she persevered in the face of overwhelming need – "one soul at a time" beginning with our own. Never despair that your efforts are too small; too little to make a difference.
Recall this prayer from Marian Wright Edelman:
Lord, help me not to be a taker but a tender,
Help me not to be a whiner but a worker,
Help me not to be a getter but a giver,
Help me not to be a hindrance but a help,
Help me not to be a critic but a catalyst for good.
Be creatively intolerant. Just as accommodating injustice never made an unjust person more just, tolerating mediocrity in environmental performance never made a polluting industry or an indifferent politician more responsible. Join Heartwood, if you are not already a member, and if you are, give a membership as a gift next birthday, next anniversary, next holiday.
And last, but certainly not least, approach problem solving with an open mind, since it is in dialogue, in engagement, that we arrive at solutions. Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote these words in the early 1950's at a time like now when, it is at times difficult to find evidence that we have made progress in those things that matter:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime
therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing that is true and beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint; therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
Let us aspire to be less acquisitive, less aggressive in our relationships with each other and our environment. Let us face our tomorrows with hope and humility and continue together in struggle and in fellowship to improve the environmental legacy we will leave to our children’s children.
May your time here be productive, and your communion with fellow advocates be as a tonic, restoring your spirits. Thank you for letting me be a part of this weekend.