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Interview with Therese Vick – Sentinel Award Winner

Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker’s Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement, interviews Therese Vick, one of FracTracker’s 2015 Community Sentinels Award Winners.

Therese Vick is a highly-regarded community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in North Carolina. A big part of her work is serving BREDL chapters in Stokes, Anson, Lee, and Chatham counties – all frontline communities threatened by shale gas extraction. In these communities, she offers organizing assistance, training programs, and strategic campaign planning for local groups. Watch-dogging state regulatory agencies is also a significant part of Therese’s work, about which she publishes extensively on in her blog, From Where I Sit: Reports From The North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission Meetings. Therese lives in Raleigh, NC, with her cats Savannah and Charity, and a very opinionated bunny named Stella.

Q: To start, can tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to the world of environmental advocacy work?

Therese: Well, I actually started out in a small town in Eastern North Carolina, working at a pharmacy. This was back in the very early ‘90s and a proposal for the world’s second largest hazardous waste incinerator landed on our county about six miles from my home. And this is a county that had no hospital. We had a volunteer fire department, but we had no haz-mat, none of that kind of infrastructure. That’s how I got involved in grassroots environmental work. I was a volunteer for years. Then I came on staff with Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) and was supported by a local organization – the North Hampton Citizens Against Pollution -through a small grant. I left my job at the drug store after about 15 years and went to work on a bunch of different issues, not just the hazardous waste incinerator, which we eventually defeated. I worked with BREDL for about three and a half years, then went back to work with my husband in his business and raised my kids but stayed active with local community groups off and on. I came here to the Triangle to complete my education in psychology and human services. I called the executive director of BREDL to let them know I was living here in Raleigh; I knew that they came to Raleigh sometimes. They offered me a job, I graduated, and I came back to work for BREDL. So that’s kind of how I ended up where I am right now. I have been volunteering and working on grassroots environmental issues for over 20 years.

Q: Now that you are back with Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, what sorts of projects have you been working on?

A: It can change from one day to the next, but my biggest areas of work are on fracking, of course, disposal of coal ash, and air quality in particular. I’m also working on pipelines. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is proposed to go through North Carolina. My co-worker and I are working with communities opposing that. And we work on myriads of other issues. We are community organizers, but we not only doing the organizing, we do a lot of research and technical assistance and watchdog regulatory agencies and things like that as well. That is another big part of my job, is public records and investigations and things like that.

Q: You also do a lot to communicate your findings to the public by way of your blog, From Where I Sit. How do you think that work has made a difference in helping community to understanding the political landscape of gas development?

A: How that blog came about was, I was attending many, many meetings. I can’t even tell you how many, I would say 100 meetings of the Mining and Energy Commission and their various committees, which were very hard to sit through and very frustrating. I wrote this really sarcastic report to our executive director and it was kind of funny too. He said, you know what, you need to start writing a blog before you lose your mind. So that is where it started. It was fun, but also serious. It’s a good organizing tool. In the court of public opinion, it is a good tool for communities to use and to let the general public know that this is something good we are doing for the community, for our community. I mean, it’s something that has to be done because we are just not being protected like we should be. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Fighting for Government Transparency

Q: How has all of this work that you are involved in shaped your feelings on the importance of making information and data available to the public?

A: Back in the ‘90s there were these proponents of the incinerator who were very assertive about how we needed the incinerator and how it was going to help the state and all of this stuff. People just had never known them to be active politically so they knew something was going on – all the proponents said, “oh we have nothing to gain from this, nothing. We just think it’s a good idea and blah, blah, blah.” So when I went to the state to do a file search, the first one I had ever done, nervous as I could be, and I found three options from three of the biggest proponent land owners with the company – they were selling their land to the company for the hazardous waste incinerator. Nobody knew this. And I so I paid my 25 cents a page, copied them, and hurried back home from Raleigh to the little town I lived. Long story short, it was a really big story. It was a statewide story and I got some threats, some anonymous threats, and I had a lawyer that call me saying I had no right to those documents. I ended up hanging up on him. Anyway, that kind of got me hooked on the power of having information.

Q: Have you found a similar sense of importance in working with oil and gas related data? I know, for instance, you have done a lot of writing about Halliburton having deep political ties in your area.

A: Well the Halliburton one, Greenpeace did some reporting on that piece and it got national attention. Most of the Mining and Energy Commission stuff is pretty mundane, but this one commissioner was not careful. I requested specific information about if they had met with certain individuals—all the commissioners, it was a request to all the commissioners. I wanted calendar entries and all that stuff. It took them a little bit to get me the information. But then this one commissioner he had it all in a folder that was marked Halliburton. I was stunned. There was this guy, Bowen Health, and he was a registered lobbyist for Halliburton. And this Commissioner, George Howard, he was on the Mining and Energy Commission. He had this folder marked Halliburton. Now, compared to other places of the country we had a pretty strong chemical disclosure law. And Halliburton essentially nixed that. They got that backed up. But this commissioner, he had a calendar entry on December 5th, 2012, from 5:30-6:00pm, there with Bowen Health, the Halliburton lobbyist. All of the commissioners had just maintained, over and over and over again, “We haven’t had any contact with Halliburton.” That is what led me to request the records and there it was, just in black and white. And, I tell you what, it made some of them really mad at him.

Q: What would you say, at this point, is the biggest challenge moving forward with this work?

A: I think the current anti-regulatory frenzy at the state level, the lack of care and concern for public health and the environment at the state level, and the rush to exploit oil and gas in North Carolina at any cost. Those would be the three biggest challenges you have to battle every single day. You’ve got the same philosophy at the head of the environmental agency that you have in the governor’s mansion and in the legislature. People that don’t—at least say they don’t—believe in climate change. People that think that fracking is fine. People that think that offshore drilling is great. Conservative folks, and I’m not political, but that’s one thing that kind of astounded me at the beginning of this. Forced pooling is legal in North Carolina, and it has been since the ‘40s. The fact that people who consider themselves believers in personal and private property rights support, or don’t repeal, that law just was stunning to me. I’m seeing the same thing with imminent domain and the pipelines. So the fact that all this stuff can be ignored, and with the legislature, the governor, and the Department Environment and Natural Resources having that same philosophy, makes it difficult, but not impossible.

Q: So how do you overcome the challenges of anti-disclosure and anti-regulatory sentiments?

A: You have to continue to try to expose what is going on. And, actually, I have got a huge request that I have been going through on coal ash that has some of what I was just telling you about. You have to expose what is going on to educate the public. You have to develop strategic plans within the bigger organization and at the community level, because you just have to be prepared for whatever comes next. And working at the grassroots is the most important thing – folks working in local communities with their local governments, that is the most important thing.

Q: If there was one thing that you would communicate to people or groups that are getting off the ground to deal with similar problems in other parts of the country, what would you say to those individuals?

A: We only have to last one day longer than they do. In other words, don’t give up. If you need to take a little break then take a break, but try to celebrate along the way because it’s hard work. It’s very, very hard work and it can be very depressing and stressful, especially when you are living in a targeted community or you are living with a problem. Try to have fun when you can find it.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to mention that is important to you personally?

A: I just wanted to say – about the Community Sentinel Award – I wanted to lift up the communities that I work with. Over time they become friends, and they are the heroes. They are the heroes, and I couldn’t do the kind of work that I do without them.

Interview with Craig Stevens – Sentinel Award Winner

Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker’s Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement, interviews Craig Stevens, one of FracTracker’s 2015 Community Sentinels Award Winners.

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Craig Stevens (on right) with actor Mark Ruffalo

Craig Stevens is a 6th generation landowner from Silver Lake Township in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Craig and his neighbors have experienced first-hand the truck traffic, noise, air pollution, and water contamination issues that often accompany shale gas extraction. Beginning in 2011 Craig began arranging tours of Susquehanna Co. to share affected residents’ stories with the press. This work has attracted citizens, journalists, elected officials, and celebrities from all over the world who now see Susquehanna Co. as an example of what could happen in their own backyards. We spoke with Craig about his work.

Q: Perhaps we can start by telling the readers your story, how you come back to Pennsylvania and how this led to your advocacy work related to oil and gas development?

Craig: Well, I was born in California in 1960, lived there for 46 years. Then my dad got sick in 2006; he was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. My brother and sister and I ended up inheriting the ancestral 115-acre property. I had visited there my whole life, every couple of years, but I knew nothing about oil and gas or coal or any extraction methods and pretty much grew up at the beach in Southern California. Nobody in the family wanted to keep the family property, so I moved up here in January of 2010. The first thing I did was to check the deed to make sure that it had been transferred to our names. That’s when I found a gas lease for the property. On my father’s deathbed, he told us not to have anything to do with the industry, that he had refused to sign a lease. But then I did my research and found out Chesapeake Energy had signed my 95 year old grandmother, who was living in a nursing home, to a ten year oil and gas lease. My grandmother was a tenant but did not own the property. In Pennsylvania, and many other states, you can’t transfer mineral rights to anybody that’s a life tenant because that is part of a real estate deal. But they did it, they recorded it on our deed, tying up all of our mineral rights and giving it to Chesapeake Energy.

The second thing that got me fired up was when I was riding my three-wheeler and found a company had staked out a half-mile area right down the middle of our property. They were looking to put in a 16-inch pipeline without our permission or knowledge. So I pulled all the stakes out, went into town, and found the company. They right there offered me money. They said, well, we are going to put this in and we appreciate it if your family signed up, because we need to get this gas to market. After I refused their offer they told me all my neighbors had signed along the route already and I was going to be holding things up. Then they said, the state wants us here and they are going to give us Certificate of Public Convenience, so we are going to take your property either way. So that was my introduction to the gas industry.

Q: You have said in the past that we need to think about how we deal with shale gas extraction’s impacts as a matter of helping each other deal with civil and human rights abuses. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A: I was raised always to think globally, but act locally. Because everything that happens in our lives happens in our backyard and that is where things go. I was very politically active from a young age. My father got us all politically active. My older brother and my younger sister, at 10 years old, 8 years old, we were going to city council meetings and town council and county commission meetings, just because my dad was interested in what was going on in his community. Back then my neighbors in Dimock, PA, were having a problem. So I thought, I better find out what’s happening. Not only help them, because they are having a problem that doesn’t look like it’s resolved, but also to help prevent it from coming to Silver Lake Township. I always try to help people that are having a problem, especially with big people and bullies. So it was natural for me to stand with them and I started to tell my own story at the same time.

The Citizens’ Perspective

Q: Tell me about some of the projects you have been involved in that bring the public into shale gas debates. For instance, I know you organize regular tours of gas fields. Who attends these tours? What do you think they learn from visiting gas communities?

A: We’ve had 40 sitting assembly members and 8 state senators from New York State visit Susquehanna Co. We have had hundreds of mayors and town supervisors and country commissioners come and see first hand from a citizens’ perspective. We have had 60 countries come and send their public television stations. One of our tours was with Sean Lennon, Yoko Ono, Susan Sarandan, Arun Gandhi (Gandhi’s grandson) and Josh Fox. They had 35 journalists with them, including Rolling Stone. When they come we tell these people, also go take an industry tour, so they can see the other side. We encourage it because we don’t want them to think we are just bashing them and that they don’t get to defend themselves. Our thing was, if we highlight what is happening in our little neck of the woods then we could educate by showing the truth and affect the debate. Of course we were attacked viciously by the oil and gas industry, and by Energy in Depth, but also by the local elected officials that were pro-gas.

Q: This obviously requires a community effort. How have people and organizations in the area come together through these actions, and have they been able to develop more power by not just working as individuals?

A: Well here is the interesting thing. When I moved here, there were about 50 people that would show up at public meetings to discuss their first-hand experiences. These were people from Dimock, PA, and other surrounding areas. Besides that, there really was no collective organizing in Northeastern Pennsylvania. But we found that, by telling our stories, we brought the interest of organizations like New Yorkers Against Fracking and Mark Ruffalo’s group, Water Defense. They started to adopt us. I and other families started to travel all over, not only in New York but also in New Jersey and Ohio, to educate people. I realized that I was meant to take these stories further out. I took them to all these State Houses — North Carolina, Florida, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Ohio. In California I was allowed to go and sit with the Governor’s entire Cabinet in his executive office. I was very proud to go there since I grew up in California.

Q: In the bigger picture of protecting our environment, why do you think it’s important for concerned citizens to get involved in these kinds of activities?

A: I have four children who will not live on the same clean planet that I did; as dirty as we thought it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s when I grew up, this is going to make that look like the heyday of environmental cleanliness. I’m doing this because I really believe this is a generational suicide we’re experiencing. By not telling this story, I would be complicit. When people see the gas company’s commercials and hear the radio ads, it sounds like the truth because it’s coming from credible people. By facing up to these giants, and showing people that you can do it and win like in New York, that can start a grassroots fire all around the world. And that has happened if you look at what is happening in England and Poland and Spain and France and Germany. We are proud to be part of that movement.

Q: What would you say is the most valuable insight you have learned from working with people fighting the gas industry?

A: The most valuable lesson for me is that people power trumps corporate power. People sometimes just don’t realize that they have an inner strength – that an average person who knew nothing about this five and a half or six years ago can get involved and become leaders. I’m more excited today than ever. I went to Florida. They have some very bad chemical non-disclosure bills. Right now we have 15 counties and 35 cities in Florida that have passed resolutions for bans of fracking for oil or gas in Florida. Maryland is safe until October of 2017 because of their moratorium. So what we are doing is working. I try to remind people, and everyone out there should know this, that you are a federal citizen, the same you are a citizen of the state or Commonwealth or republic that you live in. You are protected constitutionally and legally as a federal taxpayer. So the federal government can’t just throw us to the wolves of these individual states. They have to act. If they don’t, then they need to step down and let somebody get in there that has the health and safety of their citizens at the top of their list of what they are supposed to be doing every day in their position of power.

 

 

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Interview with Dorina Hippauf – Sentinel Award Winner

Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker’s Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement, interviews Dorina Hippauf, one of FracTracker’s 2015 Community Sentinels Award Winners.

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Dorina Hippauf is the Chair of the Research Committee for the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition (GDAC) of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and a contributing member of the Shale Justice Coalition. When a landman came knocking on her door in 2010, offering riches in exchange for a gas lease, Dory took the old saying of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t” to heart. This was the starting point that led to her dedicated exploration of the industry’s practices and the creation of the Shale Players project, which now contains over 10,000 entries of who is connected to who in the industry. Dorina is one of three recipients of the 2015 FracTracker Community Sentinels Award. Here we talk with Dory about her work to connect the dots between board rooms, lobbyists, PR firms, astroturf organizations, and government agencies that promote the agendas of the gas industry.

 

Q: Dorina, perhaps we can begin by your telling me a bit about what brought you to advocacy work related to oil and gas development?

Dorina: What got me into the whole issue of gas drilling was, one, when I was driving to work, I would see flares on hillsides and I didn’t really understand what was going on.  You know, there were big, large flames and my first thought was, something is on fire. Then I realized that from the way it was flaming, it was contained. But I still didn’t know what was going on. And then we had a land man come knock on our door and start offering us a lease. And we only have three quarters of an acre. Originally he was offering $1,000 an acre and when we said we only have three quarters of an acre, he dropped the price to $750. Everything just didn’t sound right. So I started doing some online investigating. I came across the GDAC, which is a local grassroots group in our area. I started attending meetings and I got involved from there.

The big driller here that was signing everybody up was Encana, which is of course based out of Canada. They did three test wells in our area. All three came up dry. Basically we are right at the edge of the productive end of the Marcellus Shale. Encana, shortly after they finished up the last test well, released everybody from their leases and left town in 2011. But I remained active with GDAC because I realized they have to get the gas to market. We’re located along the Transcontinental Pipeline, an ideal place for them to connect to gas hubs for gathering lines. So I knew the whole issue of gas drilling wasn’t going to be over with just Encana leaving our area.

 

The Shale Players Project

Q: I know that one of the projects that you were instrumental in founding was the Shale Players project. Tell me more about that project, how it began, and what its status is presently?

A: I was at a GDAC meeting and somebody was talking about Encana and the question was asked, who is Encana? So I started Googling them and getting some information and this lead to other connections and I realized that just jotting things down on a piece of paper wasn’t going to give the whole picture. A lot of these companies are all interconnected one way or the other. I created this spreadsheet that grew into the Shale Players project. I have lists of the executives that work at these companies, the Board of Directors, politicians that are connected to them, other front groups, trade agencies, Astroturf, PR firms, and lobbying groups. It has grown to over 10,000 entries now.

Dorina explains Shale Players in her video “Connecting the Dots”

Q: How have you disseminated your findings and what are some of the results that you have seen come from this research?

A: Anyone who wants it, I give it to them. It’s also online on Google Docs. What I hope to do eventually is find someone that is able to put this into a format so it’s searchable online. So that when you type in somebody’s name or a company, it shows all of those connections. I update the online version every three or four months. As for what we’ve done with the results, the Public Accountability Initiative used it when they did their expose on Pennsylvania and gas drilling. Walter Brasch also cited a lot of my work in his book Fracking Pennsylvania. Other groups are using it because they go looking for information on a company that they may be dealing with.

Q: You also do a fair amount of blogging too, correct?

A: Yes, my blog is Frackorporation. When I blog, I usually try to show the connections to the genealogy of some of these organizations to give people a better idea of who they are really dealing with. So many people are looking for a single villain to blame. But it’s all interconnected. And that’s what I’m trying to show people, that this is more than just drilling and fracking and dealing with one company, it also extends to the whole issue of lobbying, the citizen united decision, and with unlimited donations to candidates. A lot of money gets passed around. Alec is involved, the Koch brothers are involved. A lot of big names.

 

 

We’re in for the long haul

Q: How do you think your work has made a difference in the public’s understanding of the political and economic landscape of the gas industry?

A: Well, to some extent, it discourages people because they see how large and involved it is. But on the other hand, it also makes them angry and they realize that you have to deal with this issue on a lot of different levels, both in terms of environmental impact, getting the community involved, and that its important to get involved politically. Also, it helps them to determine who to contact if they want to write a letter to a company. Too often we will just send it to the spokesperson who is just reading a script, but that is not whose attention you want to get. Also, the shareholders, they often don’t realize what the company is really doing. If you own one share of a company, you can go to their meetings and make a lot of noise.

Q: So this really is about building community and not just about collecting data. This relates to another project you are involved in called the Shale Justice Coalition. Can you tell me more about the Coalition?

A: The Shale Justice Coalition is a coalition of grassroots groups. Our overall objective is to stop the practice of fracking and to promote alternative energy as a better option. We have members in four or five in the states now as well as some from England and Ireland. Lots of information gets passed around as a result of the coalition — things that are going on in Ohio that we may not know about, things that are going on in New York — we try to share the information, get people interested and make them more aware of the bigger picture of the industry. Many of these groups will get a hold of me personally and ask me to write up a blog post about what is going on in their area. The media is not paying attention. With the Seneca Lake gas storage project there was some emails that were uncovered where Crestwood was telling its employees to boycott all businesses in the towns surrounding the lake that opposed the storage facility. Local groups had tried to get it to reporters who put it on the back burner and didn’t follow-up. I blogged about it, then it got picked up on social media, then the papers finally picked it up. Yeah, I mean, sometimes you have to rattle the cages.

 

 

Q: How has this work changed your perspective on the role of making information and data available to the public, in terms of making for better environmental protection?

A: It’s important to get this information out there, to make it readily accessible, easy for people to find and to use. I always thought when I first started this, that I could find one website where I could do a search on companies specifically for fracking and gas and oil drilling. But there wasn’t any. So in a way, with the Shale Players project, I’ve had to fill that niche. Also, a lot of the information I tend to find online I don’t know where they got their information. I take great pains to make sure whatever I put out there has the source link to it, so people can go and look for it themselves.

Q: So what is next for you Dory? What kind of new projects are you planning?

A: At the moment we are fighting the pipelines. I’ve been going around doing presentations at the request of organizations. Talking about what is going on with FERC and how the FERC process works. Letting people know what they need to be aware of the easement agreements and that they do have to negotiate. Just saying “no” to the easement and taking it to the point of imminent domain, if that is the course the company takes, isn’t enough. You have to show good faith and some attempt at negotiating an easement. Otherwise, when you go before the judge, he’s going to side with the company. Unfortunately, I think with these pipelines, unless we get more action from people, these pipelines are going to go through.

 

 

Q: Is there anything that you would communicate to other people and groups that are trying to get off the ground to deal with issues related to oil and gas?

A: Yes. One of the biggest things I keep hearing from people is that, when we have meetings or presentations or newspaper articles or whatever, we are only preaching to the choir. But what these groups have to realize is that the choir is growing. Every pipeline and every gas well sparks a new group of concerned people. So, the choir is growing and people are listening. It does get discouraging. It feels like you are losing at Whack-a-Mole. You are not going to get your cookies right now. And there is no one magic bullet that is going to fix everything. You have to deal with FERC, you have to deal with DEP, you have to deal with the government agencies that are involved. You have to consider who your legislators are. And you just can’t get discouraged. Take a break, stay off the computer for a week, recharge your batteries, and get back into it. You are in it for the long haul and you have to be able to make that commitment.

Q: Do you have any concluding thoughts for our readers?

A: People need to get local and be vocal. Tip O’Neil said, all politics are local and that is where it’s going to start. It’s like that movie, Groundswell. That’s grassroots. It starts from the bottom up to make real change. You can’t look at the federal government to fix it for you and the state government isn’t going to fix it either. You have to start locally and building the momentum there. And don’t give up.