Fracking Update: Pizza and Politics in Pa.

Categories:  Features    Environment    Community
Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 at 8:37 AM
Fracking Update: Pizza and Politics in Pa. by Ryan Smith

"True immorality," wrote great novelist Gustave Flaubert, is this: "Ignorance, and stupidity."

And true "inhumanity," – the consequence of true immorality – "is the keynote of stupidity in power," wrote great anarchist Alexander Berkman.

Those sorts of statements, made long, long ago by thinkers far greater than myself, have been flying around in my head since I took up this story – one of industrial power, political play-ins, and pizza pies – a couple of weeks back.

By now, you've likely heard something of it: After a natural gas well at a hydraulic fracturing operation in Greene County exploded on Feb. 11 – killing one worker and injuring another in an intense, skyward-shooting inferno that blazed for days – mega-corporation Chevron, the well's owner, saw buying a bunch of coupons for free pizzas and soda as a fitting apology to the Bobtown-area community.

Stupid, a lot of people thought at that. Ignorant.

Chevron, the well's owner, saw buying a bunch of coupons for free pizzas and soda as a fitting apology to the Bobtown-area community.

Then, as I worked my way through this piece last week, my editor passed along another story, a report from The Daily Beast detailing "How the Kings of Fracking Double-crossed Their Way to Riches," mainly by taking the liberty of massively chopping royalty checks due to unsuspecting landowners in fracking states – including Pennsylvania.

Immoral, I thought at that. Inhumane.

It occurred to me, then, that it's the same kind of (un)thinking and disconnection making some suits in high positions believe that pizza was a suitable outreach in the Greene County incident – a stupid mistake – that is perpetuating the really scary and wicked practices and actions – immoral and inhumane – on the parts of the "kings of fracking" in general.

The state Supreme Court made a decision late last year that promises to put some previously-taken power back into the hands of local residents and leaders when it comes to deciding where and how the fracking industry will affect their communities.

Here's to hoping that say will be taken, and, further, that it will be heard, and have effects as well – if nowhere else, then at least on the thinking of the big power players who are changing the landscape of Pennsylvania under the feet of the people who call it home.

***

I called Bobtown Pizza one day a couple weekends ago – around mid-afternoon, sometime between the standard lunch and dinner rushes – and the guy on the other end of the line sounded pretty busy.

He was, too. The co-owner of the place, he was putting on a one-man show that afternoon, tossing all the pies, answering all the call-ins, cashing out all the walk-ins, and doing everything else it takes to keep business moving in and out the door on any given Saturday.

That's a small-town pizza joint for you, I thought.

And small-town Bobtown is: Unincorporated, with a Census-registered population of just a handful over 750 people, it's not unlike a lot of other little spots in Greene County and elsewhere around the southwestern-most tip of Pennsylvania's map. A lot like the rest of the big but quiet, rural Appalachia region known mostly before (if for anything) as coal-mining country, and mostly these days (if for anything) as Marcellus Shale gas-drilling – fracking – country.

The Bobtown area started making headlines around the country recently for the latter, however, after a Chevron-owned natural gas well in nearby Dunkard Township exploded on Feb. 11, resulting in the death of one worker while injuring another, creating an intense, massive, skyward-shooting inferno that reportedly took workers and emergency responders days to safely approach and finally extinguish.

Oddly enough, it was in the days following the explosion – as responders continued their efforts to control the fire's related impacts physically, and industry officials attempted to quell the commotion in other ways – that Bobtown's local pizza started making it into those headlines too.

And with it, the commotion only grew louder.

See, it went something like this: The folks in charge of local community outreach for Chevron (the U.S.-based, multinational energy mega-corporation that's one of the world's six largest oil companies, ranking 11th on Fortune 500's list of the biggest companies in the world) apparently decided to buy some pizza – well, a bunch of gift certificates for pizza – from that little shop I called up over the weekend.

The free-pizza vouchers, also good for a two-liter of soda, were reportedly dropped off, along with Chevron company-headered letters, to 100 local households around the immediate area of the incident – just a simple "token of appreciation," the company's spokespeople said.

"Chevron recognizes the effect this has had on the community," stated the letter (photos of it, along with the pizza coupons, have since seen heavy circulation around the Internet). "We value being a responsible member of this community," the statement read in part, and "we appreciate the strong support we have received from nearby residents as we work to respond to this incident in a safe manner."

Turns out, Chevron's semi-apology by pizza left a bad taste in a whole lot of people's mouths. And soon, comments and criticisms started flying around town, and then, through social media sites and mass media outlets, and everywhere else around the country:

"Worst apology ever," said one Tweet, quoted in a CNN feature online.

"Nice community relations," another sarcastic Tweet stated. "If you are frightened by fire and explosion, relax, have a pizza!"

I hear Stephen Colbert even ran a segment on the whole pie thing.

Yeah, there's been a lot of talk about that pizza recently, Greene County Commissioner Archie Trader told me when I called him for an interview a little earlier this month.

He and Greene County's two other commissioners had since spoken with Chevron's local community outreach staff, Trader said, and even they acknowledged that "it was a huge mistake."

At first, with local residents having been forced to endure the well explosion itself and all the following effects – the noise of the fire, the disruptions of the ongoing emergency response, the fears about what that fire might be putting into the air, and more – Chevron apparently just "thought [the pizza coupons would] be kinda nice," a friendly gesture, said Trader.

And, in the end, "that really blew up in their face."

When it comes down it, from what he's been hearing, it seems most people who were on the receiving end of the vouchers just "thought they were very cheap," Trader said.

Talking with Trader, I get the impression a lot of people may mean that in more ways than one. And, to me, it speaks of a real, scary disconnect between the fracking industry's talking heads and its decision-makers and the communities in which they're currently doing big, big business.

There's generally no regular data-reporting or even informal discussions about local operations between fracking officials and Greene County's board of commissioners, Trader said, and, to his knowledge, such talks don't usually take place at the county-level of government elsewhere around the state, either.

Don't get him wrong; Trader's no enemy of the industry, and generally had good things to say about its positive impact on local economies – but he’d “like to see more of our county's people be involved" in what's happening, Trader said.

And, before too long, "I think we will," he added.

That could increasingly be the case in other fracking towns around the state, too, after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided late last year to throw out significant chunks of a 2012 law, Act 13, (crafted by industry-friendly Gov. Tom Corbett and other friends of fracking in the state legislature) that had, by its function, essentially amputated any abilities of cities' and counties' leaders to have some hand in regulating the industry's actions on the local level.

A couple of key features of Act 13's major changes to the rule book that were ruled unconstitutional: One section of the law required municipalities throughout Pennsylvania to allow for oil and gas industry development in all zoning areas — not only those zoned for industrial development; another deemed that state-issued rules on fracking could preempt all local zoning rules and regulations.

"Few could seriously dispute how remarkable a revolution [was] worked by [that now-changed] legislation upon the existing zoning regimen in Pennsylvania, including residential zones," Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille was quoted as stating in a Dec. 20, 2013 Associated Press article. It was an unprecedented "displacement of prior planning, and derivative expectations, regarding land use, zoning, and enjoyment of property," Castille further stated.

Basically, Act 13, gone unrevised, could have marked "the no-return point" for communities' rights when it comes to fracking, said Tom Fuhrman of the Lake Erie Region Conservancy. And "that impacts Erie," he said, "because we're in the Great Lakes watershed."

Now, as Fuhrman sees it, "there's no reason, logically, to ever drill" for natural gas in any area of that vast, and vastly important, watershed. Because logically, "it's just not worth the risk."

But if you're not quite thinking logically – if, say, vast amounts of potential untapped profits are getting in the way of that vital function – then you might be able to come up with reasons to drill (baby, drill) here, there, and, hell, everywhere.

And that's where, gone unchecked, that old Act 13 could have gotten really scary.

As it now stands, there are still no provisions allowing any municipality in Pennsylvania – including Erie and its neighboring communities – to effectively zone fracking out entirely, but the court's decision does at least put a measure of discretion back into the hands of community leaders to decide where such development may occur.

There in Greene County, for example, fracking's boom has meant way more development – and development of different kinds – than the county's comprehensive planners and leaders had ever previously anticipated.

And there are other concerns that, for the past couple of years and under the former law, had generally gone unheard.

Overall, Trader's opinions on fracking and the companies leading the industry are positive, he said. "I can only speak for myself," when it comes to that, he said, but "I am concerned" about its potential impacts on environment and health in the areas where it takes place, Trader said. For example, he said he has “a deep concern with how much water we've been using [millions of gallons of chemical-laden wastewater are produced as part of the fracking process], and what we're going to do with it.

"That bothers me a little bit," Trader said, and it's the kind of thing he'd like the county's leaders – as well as its engineers and other hired experts – to have more of a say-so in, have some leverage in.

Now that the state Supreme Court has thrown out some of the rules that had taken most of the teeth out that, Trader says he’s glad that local leaders effectively have their voices back.

That could be a good thing for the industry's leaders, too. Maybe next time one of their incidents or accidents or operations calls for a humane, civil, and respectful response to a community affected, they can stop in to talk with the local leaders – who are usually pretty accessible, ready to talk, and give their opinions – and see what they think of pizza.

Speaking of, the very-busy owner of Bobtown Pizza, just before he got off the line and back to work, told me that, so far, only about 15 of the 100 coupons had been redeemed.

Ryan Smith can be contacted at rSmith@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @RyanSmithPlens. 

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