outbursts in Annapolis

February 27, 2013

senate fracking hearing photo

We looked excited before we knew what was ahead: about six hours of waiting and a harsh rebuke. //photo by Megan Jenny of Chesapeake Climate Action Network

At least half a dozen Western Maryland residents rose in the dark, left home as an ice storm approached, traveled 200 miles to Annapolis and waited, along with environmental and health activists, for nearly six hours yesterday to testify in favor of a moratorium on fracking in the state.

For their trouble, they were screamed at repeatedly by state Sen. Joanne Benson, a member of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

“We are going through an exercise in futility,” she shrieked. And then she yelled again: “We are going through an exercise in futility here. It’s a dead issue.” And, “Nothing is going to happen.” And “The decision has already been made.” (Oddly, Benson is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 514 that would ban fracking in Maryland.)

Before that, the chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, also lacerated Sens. Jamin Raskin and Robert Zirkin for co-sponsoring the bill, Senate Bill 601, that would create a legislative moratorium in the state and put into law the governor’s executive order requiring studies.

“We all know there will be no fracking in Maryland,” she shouted. She said she had a letter from the attorney general in which he had assured her that Maryland was at no risk from industry lawsuits. “We have no liability,” she said. The governor has put $1.5 million in the budget to study fracking, and until the study is done, she said, “There will be no fracking in Maryland.” The state will not issue permits, she said. For good measure, she added again, “You cannot frack in the state of Maryland” until the studies are done.

Zirkin defended the bill, asking for “the imprimatur of the General Assembly” on the governor’s executive order, which expires in 2014. He said Maryland has only a “backdoor moratorium” that industry could challenge. Already, Dominion has sued the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the town of Myersville for rejecting a permit for a compressor station for natural gas. That suit involves “the same game with the same players,” Zirkin said.

Raskin said the moratorium is like a yellow light in Maryland: “Let’s guarantee we don’t frack until we do the studies.”

But Conway disputed that the Myersville case had any relevance to the fracking debate. She clearly wanted to dismiss the entire discussion. She said that the governor has included money for the study and that previous bills have liability covered. If fracking is ever permitted, “we are very protected,” she insisted.

Nevertheless, the testimony proceeded, with numerous witnesses imploring Conway to let the bill come to a vote in the panel and send it to the full Senate. For most of the testimony, Conway and Benson disappeared from the room. So this is what democracy looks like.

“Those who came from Garrett County came with the sincerest of intentions,” said Nadine Grabania, who owns Deep Creek Cellars with her husband, Paul Roberts. “We are asking for protection.”

She said she doesn’t want the studies to be rushed to completion before the executive order expires next year. “Give us a bit of a guarantee,” she said. “We just want the bill brought to a vote.”

Without protections of a moratorium, she said, “powerful interests who stand to gain will just bulldoze us. “

Ina Hicks, born 83 years ago near the Youghiogheny River in Garrett and still living nearby, said she wants the river to stay pristine. “Until these things are law, your wonderful chairwoman – she isn’t God,” she said. “We are talking about humongous corporations who can bring in tons of lawyers to do whatever they want with my home.” She said she was approached by a landman who gave her his phone number on a scrap of paper torn from his legal pad. She refused to lease to her land for fracking, but others did.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the bill is a “reasonable, common-sense” approach. “Do we have sufficient legal protections?” he asked. “With all due deference, that is an open question.”

He also cited results of a new CCAN-commissioned poll released Monday showing that 76 percent of Western Marylanders support environmental and health studies. Those counties are on top of the Marcellus Shale, but other shale lies under Charles, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties and the Chesapeake Bay, so this is not just a Western Maryland concern, he said. (The poll showed that 78 percent of Marylanders believe the General Assembly should require safety and environmental studies.)

“All we are asking for is added insurance,” he said.

Matia Vanderbilt said she had been to Annapolis to testify on various fracking bills for the past 3 years, with only the governor’s executive order to show for her efforts. “That is all we have. His word and the 2014 deadline approaching.”

“The gas industry works hard to kill our bills,” she said, and in 2014 a new governor could pressure MDE to issue permits. “This is our only insurance,” she said. If not for its importance, “we wouldn’t leave our county in the middle of an ice storm,” she said.

Linda Herdering, who owns Husky Power Dogsledding, said, “Our voices need to be heard, and our reason is that we don’t feel safe. You can yell at us, but [circumstances] can change.”

“Thirteen hours ago, I left my house to be here,” said James “Smokey” Stanton of the Youghiogheny River Watershed Association. The moratorium bill “strengthens the executive order.”

Richelle Brown of the Sierra Club said she had talked with people near fracking sites in West Virginia. “I wish I could convey to you the misery they have undergone.” she said. “When the frackers came, the misery started.  …. Western Maryland deserves the strongest protection,” she said.

Katie Huffling of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments said the American Nurses Association and Maryland Nurses Association back a moratorium on fracking until further studies are completed.

Those opposed to the moratorium, who also waited for hours but at least didn’t get yelled at, said the executive order was sufficient and that Maryland was walking away from jobs. They criticized the moratorium as just one more delay. “This is not simply a yellow light; it’s a red light. I wonder if the light will ever be green, ” said Merlin Beitzel, vice chairman of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce.

“This bill sends the wrong message,” said James Raley, a Garrett County commissioner who is also a member of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission. Trained workers go to Pennsylvania and West Virginia rather than getting jobs in the industry in Maryland. “We don’t need a moratorium.”

Jeffrey Kupfer, a senior adviser at Chevron and a member of the study commission, called the bill “a solution looking for a problem.”

Billy Bishoff of the Garrett County Farm Bureau said, “The call for more studies is simply more smoke.”

Shawn Bender, division manager at Beitzel Corp., president of the Garrett County Farm Bureau and member of the commission, said, “We’re confident … we can come up with the gold standard.”

One big question our pro-moratorium contingent had was why the Senate committee members scheduled so many controversial bills to be heard in one day. At the start of the hearings, we were told the quick bills would go first. Well, none of the bills was quick. Many people signed up on both sides of a bill designed to reduce the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals used for meat; a bill to ban the selling and buying of shark fins (yes, some in the restaurant business want to retain the right to sell shark fins); and the so-called bag bill, designed to encourage reusable cloth bags and setting a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags at stores. Donna Dempsey, from the 1984-ishly named American Progressive Bag Alliance, criticized made-in-Chinese-sweatshop reusable cloth bags that would also carry germs and make people sick. Made-in-America-of natural-gas plastic bags are the “most economical” and “most sustainable,” she asserted. And their manufacture creates jobs. Sen. Paul Pinsky aptly called out the Alice-in-Wonderland aspects of that and similar testimony, saying he was having flashbacks to the cigarette industry’s threat of job losses. “We’ve got global warming,” he said, and noted the energy consumed to produce, collect and process even recycled plastic bags. “You’re holding onto a technology we are going past,” he told the bag people.

Those in favor and those opposed to the fracking moratorium found common ground on Senate Bill 766, which would protect Marylanders from fly-by-night, unscrupulous landmen wanting landowners to sign leases to frack land. If passed, the law would require the landmen to registered in the state.

And about 8 p.m., we also got the news that the Senate Finance Committee had passed Senate Bill 275, the Offshore Wind Energy Bill, sending it to the full Senate for a vote. The House of Delegates approved its version of the bill Feb 22. A bit of good news to end the day.

–elisabeth hoffman


A protester cools off in the fountain at Franklin Square.
//photo by Liz Visser.

The Stop the Frack Attack march ended fittingly, with perhaps a dozen hot, sticky protesters slipping into the basin in Franklin Square and splashing around under the fountains. Some raised soggy signs that said, “Keep the Frack out of my Water.” Someone yelled, “Whose water?” and the crowd around the edges of the pool yelled back, “Our water!” “Whose water?” “Our water!”

This day in the nation’s capital was about water. About protecting it from the certain damage done by hydraulic fracturing. We couldn’t stop thinking about water. And the relentless sun only served to remind us how much we need clean water. Water to drink, water spritzed on us by sympathetic bystanders. Water from ice cubes handed out by volunteers along the march route so we could rub them on our arms and faces and necks.

And a chant rose up from the crowd:

Poison water

poison air

we get sick

and they don’t care

“Anyone thirsty?” “Gasland” filmmaker Josh Fox deadpanned to the crowd. “Here. I brought some water from Pennsylvania.”

From Maryland, Ohio, New York, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Michigan and other states, and even Australia, people concerned about fracking’s effects or already harmed listened Saturday afternoon to speakers and music and then marched from the U.S. Capitol to the offices of the American Petroleum Institute. Although people in numerous states have protested locally, Stop the Frack Attack was the first national rally against fracking.

Our Maryland contingent had a pre-rally at Spirit of Justice Park, a few blocks from the main rally on the west lawn of the Capitol. As we stood in the shade of a few trees, Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, listed some of the planet’s warnings: last month’s derecho storm that brought all the impacts of a hurricane but none of the warning, our winter that never was, last fall’s damaging Tropical Storm Lee, a March that broke warm temperature records for April, flooding in Beijing, droughts out West. Everywhere, it’s “too hot, too dry, too wet,” he said.

Driving all this extreme energy is extreme energy extraction, from “barbaric” mountaintop removal that crushes communities before the extracted coal is even burned; to drilling in the ocean with rigs the size of the Eiffel Tower; to tar sands oil extraction that requires “peeling back” the surface of land; to fracking, which causes forest fragmentation, contaminated water, earthquakes from reinjecting toxic wastewater, endless truck traffic over country roads and water from faucets that bursts into flame. And if we burn all that natural gas from shale, Tidwell said, and send all that methane into the atmosphere, we will raise the temperature of the planet 6 degrees F by 2100. What we thought was a bridge fuel to renewables is instead going to cook the planet and wreck the climate.


CCIHC members attended the Stop the Frack Attack rally.
//photo by Ruth Alice White

He said that Delegate Heather Mizeur will introduce a bill in the next General Assembly that will call for a statutory moratorium on fracking. Garrett County and parts of Allegany in Western Maryland lie atop the Marcellus Shale. Unless the oil and gas companies can prove that no harm will result, fracking wouldn’t be allowed, Tidwell said. In the last General Assembly, the American Petroleum Institute “parachuted in and told our legislators that Western Maryland doesn’t care about clean water,” he said, “and Montgomery County doesn’t care about climate change.” As a result, 11 bills that would have regulated fracking died during the session.

API will call us radical, Tidwell said, “but what could possibly be more radical than changing the atmosphere?”

We marched together to the main rally, where hundreds, maybe thousands, had gathered. Some people huddled at the tree-lined edges of the lawn, desperate for a bit of shade. But then one of the rally organizers said that unlike the oil and gas industry, everyone should “get out of the shadows.” So, into the sunlight we moved.

“We are standing together for justice in our country’s oil and gas communities,” said Gwen Lachelt of EARTHWORKS. “We are honoring Americans who bear the impacts of energy development. We want a new energy economy.”

Kari Matsko, a landowner from the Marcellus Shale region of Ohio, was among the harmed. Six years ago, she told the protesters, she awoke in severe pain, unable to move. She was in her 30s and had been healthy; a series of tests produced no diagnosis. But her home was 2,500 feet from a hydraulic fracturing site, and her windows had been open during those July days. Soon, she learned that a neighbor’s children had been rushed to the hospital the same week. That family lived 1,000 feet from the drilling site. Hydrogen sulfide gas, a natural byproduct of some wells, was the culprit. It can cause symptoms from dizziness and headaches to breathing difficulties and even death. We have all seen the warnings that accompany television ads for medications, Kari said, but the oil and gas industry, in its promotions for natural gas, never says “may cause imminent death.”

A sign along the way:

It’s hard to live well next to a live well.

Laura Amos of Colorado came with her daughter Lauren. “Ten years ago, the gas companies proved that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong,” she said. Her family’s water well blew up during drilling on her land, she wrote in an EARTHWORKS essay. The water in their previously abundant well turned gray and bubbly and smelled awful. They didn’t even own the mineral rights.

The industry turned their neighborhood into an industrial zone, she said. “We’re afraid to drink our water. We’re afraid to breathe the air. We’re afraid to let our kids play outside.”

“We found out you’re not good neighbors,” she said of the oil and gas industry. “We’re afraid of living with you, but we are not afraid of you.”

Water is our right. 

Josh Fox asked the crowd if anyone had been to a fracking site. Some hands went up.

Well, everyone has now, he announced, “because this is the biggest frack site in the country.” The Washington Monument looks a lot like a drilling rig, he said. After much investigating, he’s figured out that T. Boone Pickens and other oil and gas executives must have drilled down through that monument, then drilled horizontally under the Capitol and injected money. Lots of it. And with that money, they bought exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental laws. We might not have an extra $747 million to buy back our government, Fox said, but “we have bodies, and we have minds and we have hearts.”

Fox also had some advice. He had spoken with a landowner in Arkansas whose artesian well had been contaminated from fracking. The landowner spoke not of “America” but of “our America.” “Who’s going to fight for our America?” he would ask. That landowner also said to never look at the size of the enemy.” If you think you can win, you will.

The solution, Fox said, is solar and wind energy. “We can do this now, and in the process we can change the world.”

“We can take back our power. We can take back our America,” Fox said.

“We are fighting the biggest fight human beings have ever fought,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. The fight will be close and hard, and we will have to go to the core, the heart of the oil and gas industry, he said: “If [they’re] taking away our planet and our future, we’re taking away their money. … Money is the only thing that hurts them.” He seemed dismayed that more people weren’t there to fill the lawn. Next time we will, he said.

Jameson Lisak from Pennsylvania spoke in particular to the teens and 20-somethings in the crowd, saying, “It’s for us that everyone is fighting.” He and his generation wonder what life will hold if the water is contaminated and the climate damaged. “I don’t want to be here [at the rally]. … None of us wants to be here,” he said, “but we don’t have the option to sit at home safe … because we fear losing our water, we fear losing our land, we fear losing our health.”

Respect existence or expect resistance. 

Catherine Thomasson, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the protesters would save more lives than doctors, because changing policy saves lives. She encouraged everyone to get five more people to fight fracking. “We’re here to demand change,” she said.

In 2009, Doug Shields was a Pittsburgh councilman when the mayor started rhapsodizing about the jobs from fracking. The mayor assured the council members, “We would prepare for well fires and pollution and other disasters.”

“I’d say, ‘I’d rather not.’ ” Shields said. “We want to prepare for future generations.” Pittsburgh is now a frack-free zone, having passed legislation making it the first city east of the Mississippi to ban the drilling.

The oil and gas industry has always said it needed predictability and uniformity, Shields said. So does he. “I like to be able to predict that when I turn the faucet on, that water will come out,” he said. “I need predictability. And I need uniformity of the application of our laws.” He decried the “arrogance of the oil and gas industry” and its friends in government. “We don’t have an oil and gas problem. We’ve got a democracy problem here.”

I stand with Dimock.

And then we marched and chanted to the front of the impassive, glass-windowed headquarters of the American Petroleum Institute on L St NW. Some protesters held signs up to the doors. Others knocked over a replica paper drill erected for the protest. A participant was supposed to leave a gallon of fracked and brown faucet water that no one would dare drink, but no one from API was there to receive it.

Heading to Franklin Park and buses or the Metro home, protesters listened to Ohio folksinger Zach Freidhof, who had biked to the protest from Williamsport, MD, with Tour de Frack. From atop the Bus for Progress, he sang what should be the anthem to the anti-fracking movement, although the sound was not quite loud enough. “I Want a Future Too” needs a bigger audience, so here it is once again: 

I Want a Future Too
(c) Z. Freidhof 2012

Dont tell me that its alright
I know the truth inside
Don’t tell me about oversight
I know the truth you hide

This heres a beautiful place
This heres my only home
No time to make mistakes
No time to get it wrong

I don’t want your poison
I don’t want your money and crew
I don’t want your future
I want a future too

Don’t tell me that the waters safe
That the smell wont sicken me
Don’t wanna explode my place
Trying to make some tea

Well this heres a beautiful place
Its home to more than just me
Once you break this place
No fix we’ll ever see


Ohh oh-oh oh oh ohh oh-oh oh

Don’t tell me about the jobs
That youre gonna bring
This town needs sustainable work
Not raping and pillaging

This heres a beautiful place
Our own liitle Shangri-la
You wont move into this place
So take your trucks & get off our lawn

I want t a future too

Ohh oh-oh oh oh ohh oh-oh oh …

–elisabeth hoffman