Something that justifiably undercuts the public’s confidence in the way our government at any level works is when it comes to light that corporate entities are deciding public policy and in fact even writing the regulations and laws under which public business is done. What is so troubling about this is that it virtually always serves to help the private corporate interest at the expense of the interest and economic well being of the American people.
The examples of this sort of corruption of the democratic process are legion and in many cases mind boggling. The net result is a mosaic of tax exclusions or eliminations, cash subsidies, and regulation exemptions that create a giant picture of “corporate welfare”. This annual failing to collect and giving away of hundreds of billions of dollars is a substantial part of the revenue shortfall that has significantly contributed to the creation this country’s recent massive budget deficit and debt problems.
But the cost to the American people doesn’t stop there. Many of these economic gifts have significant additional downsides hidden in the non-transparency of the construction of the legislation that industry representatives are allowed to craft. Not the least of these is the environmental consequences of some of these regulations, or more frequently the absence thereof. It is very often the specific exemptions given certain corporate interests that have the most severe consequences. Some of these consequences are extremely expensive to mitigate or repair, and sometime the destruction is even impossible to remediate. They also frequently present a real and present danger to human health and safety.
The whole concept of letting industry representatives (lobbyists) make the tax policy and/or the regulations under which they do business is absurd on the face of it. It is letting the lunatics run the asylum. They are being allowed to do whatever they want, which is to make as much money as they can; without having to give any consideration to the costs or dangers to which they are exposing the American people. This disregard of the basic responsibilities of government to serve and protect the public interest has recently expanded beyond any reason. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case has all but allowed the private interests with the most wealth to pick and chose who gets nominated and elected to public office at any and all levels. And equally as important it allows them to decide who doesn’t get to represent the people in the halls of government. Sometimes the mere threat of throwing unlimited amounts of money for or against a candidate can effectively control the candidate’s policy positions, and most importantly, their votes. These votes in turn allow the corporate interest to become advanced by laws or eliminate laws that protects the public from damage by these interests.
One of the most egregious recent examples of this kind of political power exerted by an industry can be seen in the secret meetings of a cabal of oil and gas industry executives and then Vice President Dick Cheney that resulted in the 2005 revision of the Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water Acts. These changes, in what was for over forty years and six administrations established environmental policy, resulted in the exempting of the oil and gas industry from the Federal EPA’s power to control their disposal of toxic waste. This exemption from laws that still apply to every other industry in the country was designed specifically to allow the oil and gas industry to move forward with the natural gas extraction process of horizontal high volume slick water hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. Absent this unprecedented exemption from long standing environmental law, the disposal of the billions of gallons of chemically contaminated toxic waste produced by the fracking process would be impossible. If the oil and gas industry had to conform to the EPA guidelines for handling the disposal of toxic waste under the Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water Acts that apply to all other industries in the country; the many environmental, health and safety dangers that can and have resulted from fracking would have made processed as currently practiced a non-starter, period.
The pernicious influence and corruption of private and corporate interests into public business and policy have even infiltrated down to the most local levels of government. In small towns all over the Southern Tier of South Central New York State; neighbor is pitted against neighbor on either side of the fracking issue. Less than 10% of the local population has a vested economic interest in fracking being allowed to go forward, by virtue of their having or hoping to have gas drilling leases on their land. The other 90% of local citizens will have to pay the cost of; broken roads from thousands of overweight trucks hauling toxic fluids through their towns; reduced property values because local and national lenders won’t give mortgage on properties with gas leases, or sometimes even adjacent to leased land; increased local taxes for everything from police and fire to HazMet services. The 90% who don’t benefit in any way will bear this financial burden in addition to the inconvenience of the massive influx of industrial traffic and noise 24/7, plus the ever potential health and safety danger of toxic waste spills and dumping, drilling rig accidents and wellhead or compressor station explosions.
The shadowy influence of private and corporate meddling in local politics can be seen in the attempt by several local town councils to pass a resolution stating; the town will not create any rules or regulations that will prevent or impede fracking. This resolution, which is identical in virtually every town considering its passage, was drawn up lawyer(s) representing landowner’s coalitions, which are groups of gas lease or wannabe gas lease holders who have or are arranging contracts with big oil & gas conglomerates. In some of the Southern Tier towns members of the town council who will be or are pushing these resolutions are gas lease coalition members themselves and/or have family members in coalitions. That creates a very obvious conflict of interest and potential for corruption. Claiming voting pro-fracking by three out five council members, (some of whom stand to economically benefit from gas lease payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars), truly represents an entire town welcoming it, is a very broad stretch of and may even be a making a travesty of this country’s concept of representative democracy. It makes it appear as if the corporate and private interests have their own local representatives and the majority of actual local citizens are not being represented at all.
NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo has floated trial balloons regarding the idea of allowing fracking in a few selected counties of the Southern Tier as a demonstration zone. Cuomo has indicated he will take into consideration local wishes, as represented by such coalition proposed resolutions, when deciding in which towns in these counties fracking may be allowed to proceed. The demonstration zone idea, which might occur in only what is coincidently the most potentially profitable part of the Marcellus Shale Play, is in direct conflict with the exemption of the watersheds of New York City and Syracuse because the entire fracking process is considered too dangerous to the drinking water of these areas. Letting a few local council members, (some of whom have substantial vested economic interest in fracking), speak for tens of thousands of potential victims; is a cynical and transparent attempt by Cuomo to side-step full responsibility for the potential disaster that can result from fracking. It will not work.
Home rule does not equal home responsibility. The local officials will in turn say they only have deferred to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, which is the agency charged with making the rules under which fracking (if allowed) will go forward. The NYS DEC should not be confused with the state version of the Federal EPA. The Federal EPA‘s mandate is to protect the people living in the environment from any health and safety risks due to environmental degradation or contamination. The NYS DEC’s mandate is to allow the development of the state’s natural resources while keeping an eye towards minimizing the environmental damage that may occur. The Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, referred to as the SGEIS, that the NYS DEC is currently trying to finish does not address in a complete or comprehensive manner any of many health and safety risks presented by the fracking process. The disposal of the liquid and solid toxic waste resulting from the fracking process is likewise not appropriately addressed. The minimal economic benefit addendum added to the SGEIS was created by an outsourced company with ties to mineral extraction industry. Many of the “regulations” in the SGEIS are merely suggestions, but not required rules or laws. There is no funding in the NYS budget for any water or air testing personnel or an increase in the handful of drilling or mining inspectors now working for the DEC. The local towns will not, because they will say they cannot afford and are thus unable to, continually monitor their own water sources or inspect for environmental contamination due to the fracking they “welcome”.
The NYS DEC and the Federal EPA have two very different approaches to providing the citizens of this country with health and safety protection by protecting the environment they live in. Fortunately the EPA is also currently doing what will be a much more complete, comprehensive and thorough set of studies of the processes involved in fracking on a nation-wide basis. They are studying all aspects in the many states (including Texas, Arkansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Ohio, W. Virginia and New York’s next door neighbor Pennsylvania) which have already been subjected to an instructive demonstration of the safety or lack thereof involved in fracking; and thus advisability of allowing the process to continue as it is presently conducted. Some of the preliminary results of the EPA’s studies indicate significant multiple risks including various kinds of air, water and ground contamination, higher than normal incidents of cancer clusters near fracked areas, earthquakes linked to fracking and more. These findings have been corroborated and supported by several independent studies conducted by several major universities. Major organizations of scientists, medical groups and environmental experts have also published and spoken out about the diversity of risks and dangers to human health and safety that can result from fracking. Some additional and definitive preliminary results from the EPA studies should be available in the very near future.
In spite of and also because of the science that is being developed about the dangers of fracking, the pressure from the gas and oil industry conglomerates, along with a handful of leaseholders (some of whom aren’t even residents of the Southern Tier) have push the Cuomo administration to look at all sorts of unequal, unfair and undemocratic political solutions to a problem that can only be truly resolved by adhering to the prudent and wise decisions that mounting scientific evidence about the multiple dangers of fracking are pointing to; to ban (at least temporarily) fracking as it is currently being done. Any move to implement a plan to frack in the Susquehanna and/or Delaware River basins, which supply the water for tens of millions of citizens in more than half a dozen states, before the EPA completes its studies, would be beyond any objectively reasonable determination. Any attempt to pass off a decision that could result in environmental disaster as “home rule” by a three out five local council members won’t hold up in court, or more importantly for a would be Presidential candidate, the court of public opinion. No amount of private or corporate money or influence will overcome or can cover over the responsibility for the human and environmental disaster fracking could be. As fracking continues to prove as dangerous as the science indicates, it will only underscore, once again, the dictum that; corporate interest shouldn’t make public policy.