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Fracktivism forum in Allegan generates lively discussion, but not enough concrete action

November 13, 2012

Nicole Berens-Capizzi contributed to this story.

Last night about 150 people came to the Griswold Auditorium in Allegan to be part of a forum to discuss the practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. The forum was co-sponsored by Michigan Land, Air and Water Defense Committee, FLOW and Food and Water Watch.

Three speakers addressed those in attendance, with the first speaker being Maryann Lesert, a professor of environmental studies at GRCC and one of the leaders in the anti-fracking movement in Michigan.

The focus of Maryann’s presentation was on the important of writing to generate awareness that truly matter. She talked about her own investigation and research on this issue throughout the state, which included meeting with grassroots groups, local stories and public meetings, most of which have been organized with a pro-fracking bias. One example of such a meeting was the one we attended in Rockford last month.

One issue the Maryann said was seriously lacking in these “public” meetings was the environmental impact of fracking. She said that when the DNR had announced the public land auction, which would include land in Barry County, this raised the level of urgency. Maryann and others created a press release and a document that the public and news agencies could use on as a resource to question the practice of fracking.

Maryann then talked about ways to connect with local media on this issue, whether that was formal news agencies, blogs, environmental and conservation groups. Maryann also addressed other tactics that could be useful for connecting with the news media and getting the world out.

Having a media strategy can lead to other organizing opportunities, which since this began last spring it has led to additional actions, protests and groups being formed across the state. Maryann herself said that this work has led to her being asked to do lots of fracking presentations, in a variety venues.

Maryann then showed a series of pictures she has taken from fracking locations across the state, images that helped provide visual clarity about the real environmental impact of fracking.

Maryann again emphasized the importance of what she called “writing out,” which was documenting and disseminating information about the ongoing resistance to fracking.

The second speaker was Jim Olson, an attorney is with FLOW, which previously challenged Nestle North America when the company began stealing ground water to sell under the brand name of Ice Mountain.

Water should be held in the public trust and that private interests should not override the public good. This is the basic principle which guides the work of FLOW.

He then spoke about the fact that there is a massive push for energy around the water, most of it in an unsustainable fashion. In addition, there is a global push for access to water, which presents its own problems. The when you mix the burning of fossil fuels with water one realizes that in addition to the contamination of water, there is an increase in water evaporation, which leads to more intense dry spells.

Jim then talked about the ecological impact of hydraulic fracturing, which includes not just the drilling, but the construction of the gas pumping plants, deforestations, road construction and water diverting that takes places when the drilling process begins.

Olson then made the point that each community needs to address this, since the federal law doesn’t stop fracking and the state regulations are not adequate to address the risks. Olson suggested that local communities need to pass local ordinances. While local communities can not ban drilling, they can ban certain kinds of industrial activity, land use, chemical use and wastewater disposal. Olson contended that local communities need to try any and all possible regulatory possibilities through ordinances.

Olsen thon said that communities can file lawsuits, what he called Citizen Suits, to require environmental assessment and disclosure of water baseline and chemicals. Ultimately, what Olson was wanting people to take away from his presentation, was that local communities can organize to challenge fracking through legal and regulatory means, since both state and federal law does virtually nothing to prevent horizontal hydraulic fracturing in communities.

The last speaker was Wenonah Hauter, the Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. She began by talking about the recent elections and said that Obama was re-elected by a progressive mandate, even though she provided no evidence of such a mandate. In fact, one could argue that Obama’s re-election was based on the “lesser of evils” political philosophy. Hauter also said that the oil & gas industry was not able to buy every vote, but that they did spend $200 million to influence the elections.

She then talked about the media influence of the oil & gas industry money and cited a study done by fair, which showed that the major TV networks have not given much attention, but that the oil & gas industry ran lots of ads on those networks during this same period of time, thus influencing public opinion on the issue of fracking.

Hauter then discussed aspects of the environmental impact of fracking and the industry arguments about the “benefits” of fracking. While some of this information may be useful in motivating people to oppose fracking, it shifted the focus away from action onto just what is “wrong with fracking.”

There was some time for Q & A at the end. One audience member asked about House Bill 5565 and whether or not the speakers thought we could influence the passage of this bill. Jim Olson didn’t believe it would pass with the “current political climate” in the state and that he doesn’t see “regulation going anywhere.” He also said that even if the bill does pass, chemicals used in the process will still be considered trade secret.

Maryann Lesert echoed a similar idea and stated that chemicals still won’t be disclosed with this legislation.  She also mentioned that no part of the bill says that doctors are required to disclose anything (about frack chemicals, etc.) to patients who see them and believe they are sick because of fracking. Wenonah Hauter mentioned that so many people have gotten sick because of fracking and have sued (in PA) that the industry is trying to silence individuals through bills such as these.

Ellis Boal questioned Food and Water Watch on their “grassroots” efforts and their lack of support for the Committee to Ban Fracking, even something as simple as including a link for Committee to Ban Fracking on their (FWW’s) website.  He also questioned Jim’s comments on local ordinances and said that the DEQ isn’t interested in zoning issues.  He said there’s already a ban in Charlevoix, but the township won’t recognize it.

Wenonah said that organizations (such as FWW) have to decide how to spend resources and won’t participate in initiatives unless they have done the leg work themselves and believe it will pass.  She used Prop. 37 in CA and big money from pro-GMO companies having more power in the election (through advertising) and citizens not being educated enough on the topic (so big money won over).  Her point was that people won’t vote in their own self-interest unless they have been educated to do so, otherwise money from companies spent in advertising/lobbying will win over.  Lastly, she said she didn’t believe it was “strategic” to have it on the ballot.

LuAnne from the Committee to Ban Fracking tried to comment and give a general update on the campaign (which is still going on) and was repeatedly interrupted by Wenonah, Tia, and Jim who didn’t want to give her the opportunity to give an update but move on to other questions instead.  The audience pushed for the speakers to allow LuAnne the opportunity to speak.  LuAnne pointed out that the petition campaign was doing what’s not being done by the state: bringing the issue to the voters.  The campaign also served as a protest.  She encouraged everyone to check out the website for the campaign and stay involved.

Maryann stated that as of September, there are 40 well permits (for vertical and horizontal fracking) and 15 pending in the state.

The last question they took was from a young man who said he supported all action but didn’t hear anything in the presentation on nonviolent civil disobedience and asked the speakers if they thought this would play in role in anti-fracking actions.

Wenonah said she supports all forms of activism, but direct action/nonviolent civil disobedience has to be more than “just walking out and getting arrested”, it has to be part of a larger strategy.  She said we may not always agree on strategy and tactics, but we have to work together. Maryann said she wasn’t trying at all to diminish the importance of protests and believes this is an extremely important part of the process.

Several other groups such as Kent County Water Conservation and Mutual Aid GR were present and the representative from Mutual Aid GR encouraged all who were interested in direct action to talk to them afterwards.

It was unfortunate that time was not set aside to discuss tactics and strategies, as well as ways that people from Kent, Ottawa, Allegan and Barry County could collaborate and building solidarity to fight fracking in each of these counties.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2012 4:30 pm

    Thanks Jeff and Nicole, and thanks to everyone that came out. It was a great evening and there was some really meaningful conversations with folks in attendance, thank you all for your passion and drive. I do agree that this event did not live up to it’s full potential, and I look forward to taking lessons learned from this one and moving forward to continue this fight and work together. Due to timing constraints we did have to restructure the event and cut the break out session on strategies and tactics, which was unfortunate, even with that cut the event ran over two hours. Perhaps something this ambitious needs a full day meeting on a weekend? It is definitely something to think about. However – I still thought there was a ton of very important information shared at this event that have added tools to our tool belt to take on the oil and natural gas industry and fight against fracking in Michigan. Thanks again for your reporting, it is always appreciated.

    -Tia Lebherz
    Organizer, Food & Water Watch

  2. November 13, 2012 4:38 pm

    Thanks for the feedback Tia. I agree that good information was shared, but considering the pace at which this is moving it would have been nice to:

    1. Identify which groups were working on this issue in their communities
    2. Gather a list of tactics being used
    3. Develop of network for sharing best practices and resources
    4. Set a date for a strategizing forum so that we can have a more coordinated plan of resistance

    This is what Mutual Aid is planning to do with groups in West MI.


  1. WOOD TV 8 gave the DEQ a platform to respond to the Fracktivism forum, even though they were not present « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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