By Dan, who lives in northeast Ohio. Originally published at Pruning Shears.
Lambert here. Fracking (“hydraulic fracturing”) is an interesting public policy issue to me, for several reasons. Anti-fracking activism — happening in the swing states of CO and OH, as well as in PA, NY, and WI — goes unremarked by both legacy parties and our famously free press. Leaving aside the implications of fracking for health, water, energy usage patterns, and climate change, coming to grips with a new extractive economy in our own back yards raises issues of corporate accountability, local sovereignty, the nature of private property, and neighborliness. In other words, the future political economy of the North American continent is being fought out on the terrain of fracking county-by-county in the flyover states, just as much as it has been in more storied settings like Manhattan, Montreal, or Oakland.
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On Tuesday the town of Hiram held a public meeting with representatives of the company Mountaineer Keystone (MK). MK, a subsidiary of First Reserve Corporation, is set to begin fracking operations in Hiram next month. The company is a bit of an enigma; for one, it does not appear to have a web site, just a generic landing page at First Reserve. Also, according to Business Week it was founded in 2010 and lists no Key Executives. So who exactly the public was meeting with was something of a mystery.
Before the MK portion kicked off, though, we had remarks from one of the township trustees, and another from its counsel. The subtext of the evening seemed to be, you can’t do anything. (With local officials there was also a leitmotif of “our hands are tied.”) Over and over citizens pressed: we don’t like this, we don’t want this here, what can we do about it? And the answer, over and over again, was: Nothing; this is a done deal. It all smacked of an effort to inculcate a sense of despair, hopelessness, cynicism or at least sullen resignation among citizens.
The town counsel began by taking some questions, and residents tried to probe for different ways to slow down this runaway train. Ohio has home rule nominally enshrined in its Constitution, but the Small Government Conservatives in Columbus have happily chipped away at it whenever it has threatened (as in this case) to result in a messy outburst of local control.
Counsel could have said, yes that’s an option and maybe something we could look into. Instead he hems and haws a little bit, then says it still wouldn’t help to ban fracking. That, though, is a straw man argument. At the start of the clip (around 1:00) a resident asks about keeping the roads in good condition, and seeing trucks sloshing fluid all over. The speaker says, somewhat hilariously, “they’re supposed to prevent that.” Somehow they aren’t, though! And for a township crying poverty – see below – as a reason for why it cannot enforce the law within its borders, perhaps annexation to a larger community might make those resources available. It’s not about banning fracking at this point, just trying to keep existing ordinances observed.
Another resident asked (start of clip) why a noise ordinance couldn’t be enforced. The trustee responded that the township didn’t have the manpower to enforce it, and after a little back-and-forth she says: How about volunteer police officers?
Just like in the Old West, right? Deputize concerned citizens, but instead of handing them Colt 45’s hand them decibel meters. Give them a pad of citations and some quick instructions for how to document them. Let them hand out fines to offenders, or even just mail them. No need to risk any kind of confrontation. It could all be done in a completely peaceful and lawful way. Include a series of escalating sanctions, starting with fines and eventually leading to eviction.
That would be a bit of an unorthodox approach, but this is a circumstance that calls for a little outside the box thinking, no? Home rule has been gutted, town officials are saying they’re broke – why not give it a shot, especially since (KEY POINT AHEAD!) it is a matter of great concern to a large number of citizens?
Both the trustee and lawyer bat her concerns away, though, and her comment at 2:24 is a good summary for the meeting: “That’s my question. I guess you don’t have an answer.” After which counsel points to the next resident. No answer indeed.
The unresponsiveness of the officials brought to mind a concept I first encountered in Dana Nelson’s Bad For Democracy (p. 177): plebiscetary democracy. As Barney Frank described it relative to the Bush years, this is a system “wherein a leader is elected but once elected has almost all of the power” (Cf. Bush’s accountability moment).
These officials continually defer all proposals to the state level. Try getting the industry-friendly government in Columbus to do something about it, they say – which is really just a polite way of saying shut up and go away. By and large local officials bristle at any kind of pressure to act on this issue. There was an accountability moment a couple years ago, is the implication. You had your chance, now buzz off. See you next election day.
Some citizens, though, believe accountability moments happen at more frequent intervals.