by Sam Koplinka-Loehr, community organizer with Clean Air Council
“Well, there’s a gas glut right now” is usually not the reason someone ends up in jail. And it definitely isn’t the sexiest reason to end up in jail. Gas glut sounds more like a bowel problem that would land you in the hospital. But during the first week of November, it led hundreds of people to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, DC.
But wait. Let’s back up. What the FERC is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission?
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is a federal agency that oversees the approval of interstate gas-transmission pipelines and export facilities. In eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey there are five proposed transmission gas pipelines right now before FERC. Each one is three to four feet in diameter and requires a swath of cleared land 100 feet wide and hundreds of miles long. Massive projects.
And then you have the compressor stations, industrial facilities with engines totaling up to 40,000 horsepower for pushing the gas through the pipeline. Living near a compressor station is obnoxious at best and horrific at worst. During releases of gas directly into the air due to excess pressure in the pipeline—known as blowdowns—residents report headaches, dizziness, nosebleeds, and respiratory problems. Air testing near these facilities has recorded benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde. Starting to sound like gas glut actually can land you in the hospital? All signed, sealed, and delivered by the federal government. Cheers.
Okay. But what about this gas glut?
In Pennsylvania, thanks to hydraulic fracturing, the state is producing more gas than the state needs or can use—so much gas that there are up to 1,500 wells that aren’t producing because there simply isn’t a market for the gas. At least, not here in the United States; overseas, though, gas prices are much higher. In Europe, liquefied natural gas sells for twice as much as it does in the United States. In Japan, four times as much. So, there’s a lot of money to be made. Just not here.
Here’s where FERC comes in. The federal commission is approving transmission pipelines and export facilities at record speed. So many pipelines that in tiny Dallas, Pennsylvania, there are four proposed pipelines, and some residents have had multiple notices from different companies that want to run pipelines through their property.
These notices are not polite requests to use your land, but instead a declaration that, with FERC-approval, the private company can sue you using eminent domain to acquire the rights to build the pipeline on your land. This issue has caused the political left and right—anti-frackers and Don’t-Tread-on-Me-ers—to come together in outrage. This combination certainly makes for interesting community meetings where people only agree on one thing: This pipeline will be built over my dead body.
Fast-forward to November 2014, and residents along dozens of proposed pipelines have gotten together and decided that FERC is approving projects not for “public convenience and necessity,” as the Commission proudly claims, but rather, to protect the ability of private corporations to take people’s land in order to sell gas around the globe to the highest bidder.
So, now for the fun part: In the first week of November, hundreds of people descended on FERC’s offices in Washington DC, demanding a moratorium on all new pipeline infrastructure and export facilities due to the health, environmental, and economic costs to communities in the way. FERC didn’t listen, so impacted community members and their supporters shut down the offices on Monday. And again on Tuesday. This continued until on Friday morning, when all of the entrances to the office were blocked completely and hundreds of employees were standing outside, forced to face the families that are being impacted by these projects and listen to their stories.
Many of these protestors were arrested, but in the meantime, the FERC employees heard from Maggie Henry, a resident of North Beaver Township, Pennsylvania, who has fracked wells, a cryogenic gas-processing facility, pipelines, and a natural gas power plant close to her home. They heard from dozens of other people from communities in the shale fields, along the pipeline routes, and next to the export facilities about the daily health impacts that come from living next to these facilities. It was one of the first times that people from affected communities have been able to share their full stories with the agency that is making decisions about their lives.
These are average people. The blockaders are simply people who one day got a notice in the mail that a pipeline company wanted to build through their backyard or that a gas company was going to drill next door. They are not people who typically think of themselves as activists, but folks who don’t see a need for seizing average people’s land in order to build a private corporation’s project. Any one of them could just as easily be you.
Sam Koplinka-Loehr is a community organizer with Clean Air Council, a nonprofit organization in Pennsylvania that works to protect everyone’s right to breathe clean air. He works primarily with communities facing shale gas infrastructure projects, including pipelines, compressor stations, processing facilities, and refineries. Contact: SKL@cleanair.org to get help, info or to lend support.