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December 10th, 2012

Fracking Companies Seek Exemption from Democracy

By Scott Edwards

Scott Edwards, co-director of the Food & Water Justice project

While the nation was largely focused on the presidential election in the swing state of Colorado, there was another very important vote taking place in the state in Longmont, a city of about 86,000 people located just northeast of Boulder. On the same day Obama carried Colorado, the citizens of Longmont voted overwhelmingly to ban the harmful practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as a method of extracting local gas deposits in their community. Longmont’s ban of fracking was nothing short of heroic given the undue influence, massive amounts of money and open threats of financial ruin thrown about by the oil and gas industry and the state’s governor leading up to the vote on November 6th

Each day brings new, irrefutable evidence that fracking is poisoning our communities. Data released just last week shows that 17 percent of the over 2000 fracking chemical spills and releases reported in Colorado resulted in groundwater contamination with cancer-causing chemicals like benzene. None of that, of course, gives the industry or its supporters any pause. In fact, groups like Environmental Defense Fund and the fracking companies have once again shamelessly joined hands and are sharing talking points in Colorado in response to this new evidence. They’re jointly calling for a testing protocol to raise “public confidence” in fracking when the only thing the public can be increasingly confident about is that fracking is threatening their communities and clean water. 

The passing of the ban was the latest step in Longmont’s battle to keep the oil and gas industry from polluting their drinking water and poisoning their community. The next fight will be in the courts, where industry will dispatch its high-priced lawyers to ask a judge to quash the rights of tens of thousands of Longmont residents and allow the big gas companies to do what they want, where they want, without regard for the citizens of the state or the democratic process which enacted the ban in the first place.

On one level, this will be a legal battle about fracking and the devastation it brings to our public health and precious resources. The fracking companies like to pretend that fracking is harmless, but the truth is the fracking “debate” ended in 2005 when the industry deployed their lobbyists and got Dick Cheney and Congress to exempt their inherently harmful gas extraction process from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Their need for an exemption from the one federal law that protects our aquifers was an open concession that they couldn’t engage in fracking without poisoning our drinking water supplies. That fact was just proven with the latest Colorado contamination data. The SDWA free pass added to their exemptions to parts of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and virtually any other public health law with the words “safe,” “clean,” “conservation” or “environmental” in it.

But even all these regulatory exemptions aren’t enough for the industry; they’ll be walking into court any day now in Colorado seeking an exemption from democracy, the last great hurdle in their effort to poison and pollute with absolute impunity.  And that’s the other important aspect of this upcoming case – its about the fundamental rights of people in communities in Colorado, and elsewhere, to decide what they want their towns and cities to look like, what kinds of activities they want taking place next to their schools and playgrounds, how safe they want the water they drink and the air they breath to be.

Whether you’re for fracking or against it, whether or not you’re paying attention to study after study which shows that fracking is having detrimental impacts on ground and surface waters, airways, climate, property values and public health, and regardless of whether you think extreme fossil fuel development is worth the price we’ll all have to pay if fracking is allowed to proliferate even more, the one thing we can all agree on is that we live in a country where voting and the democratic process should count for something. All, that is, except for industry and the bought-and-paid-for politicians who are so willing to sacrifice the rights of their citizens for the profits of fracking companies. 

Just as EDF has lost its way in the fight to preserve our environment, Colorado’s governor, John Hickerlooper, has forgotten who elected him when he recently stated that that he would support industry if they sued his own citizens in Longmont over the fracking ban.  Perhaps Hickernlooper should take a lesson from the authors of Colorado’s State Constitution; they understood the rights of local citizens in ways that the governor doesn’t seem to grasp. This document, written in 1876, grants the people of Longmont and everyone else in the state “essential and inalienable rights,” including the right to enjoy and defend their lives and liberties and protect their property, to seek and obtain safety.  They also understood that these inalienable rights can never be eclipsed by the financial interests of industry. Article XV of the Constitution says that the state can never use its powers to “permit corporations to conduct their business in such a manner as to infringe the equal rights of individuals, or the general well-being of the State.”

Once the will of corporations take over the rights of citizens, we lose the power to determine our own future. When industries get to decide how safe our water and air is, we no longer control our own health and safety. And if the fracking companies who seek to profit in Longmont area allowed to undo the November 6th fracking ban, we can no longer pretend to live in a democracy.

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