A lot of friends know I write this blog, and to help me out they send articles, papers and videos they come across on subjects related to oil and gas drilling. I really appreciate this, since it’s a vast topic and no matter how many alerts or subscriptions I have, it’s impossible to keep up. I have to pick and choose what I write about, and I try to do more than just re-post articles. I hope nobody is offended when I don’t get to a topic they think is interesting. But be patient — sometimes posts percolate for weeks before they finally see the light of day.
There’s also a certain democracy to what I write about. If I get the same article repeatedly, I know it’s a topic that really resonates, and I consider it more carefully as having post potential.
Two stories stood out last week
Last week there were two articles that I received over and over. And it wasn’t just my inbox — they were re-posted all over the Internet. Both concerned corporate insensitivity to how the oil boom affects communities.
- In Bobtown, Pennsylvania, residents were awakened by the sound of a huge blast at a well site where Chevron was fracking for natural gas. The blast shot orange flames high into the air, the paper reported. One rig worker was killed and another was injured.
Chevron’s rather remarkable response was to send each resident of the area a coupon entitling them to a free pizza and a two-liter drink at a local pizzeria. The letter said in part that
Chevron recognizes the effect this has had on the community. We value being a responsible member of this community and will continue to strive to achieve incident-free operations….
- Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Corporation, who has publicly complained that “dysfunctional regulation of hydraulic fracturing is holding back the American economic recovery, growth and global competitiveness,” joined with his neighbors in a lawsuit to block construction of a 160-foot water tower next to his Texas home. The water tower would be used to fuel fracking operations. The lawsuit complains of noise and truck traffic associated with fracking, and the associated reduction of his property value.
There are nine wells near Tillerson’s ranch that rely on water for hydraulic fracturing, including one managed by Exxon subsidiary XTO. I wonder if Tillerson appreciates the irony in the fact that XTO is currently facing criminal charges for illegally dumping 50,000 gallons of fracking wastewater in Pennsylanvia. The company also spent at least $2 million lobbying the state of New York to allow fracking, despite widespread opposition.
Why these stories resonate
There’s no mystery as to why these two stories caught the attention of so many people. They not only expose the hypocrisy of the oil and gas industry, but they show just how out of touch they are with the impact their operations have on the communities in which they operate.
But I think there’s more to it than that. These incidents point out the most fundamental issue we deal with as communities in trying to protect ourselves from the damage done by hydraulic fracturing operations: the benefits and the costs of hydraulic fracturing don’t match up.
The benefits are clear and specific. They are economic, and it’s easy to determine who comes out ahead. Oil companies, mineral rights holders, people who get jobs in the oilfields all come out ahead.
But most of these benefits occur far from the communities where the drilling takes place. The oil and gas companies and their executives bank their money in other states, not Montana. The oilfield workers come from all over the world; few are local.
The costs fall primarily on the local communities. Despite the short-term boost to the overall economy that may occur, the rural and small town way of life in a place like Red Lodge is lost to rapid population growth and all that goes with it — traffic, crime, inadequate government services, water depletion and contamination. When the boom ends, what’s left is a shell of what existed before. Those who profited have left, as have those who couldn’t afford to stay when the boom hit.
So it’s not surprising that an oil company exec would be wildly pro-drilling professionally, but anti-fracking when it happens in his back yard. Nor is it surprising that a company might think a free pizza might somehow make a community feel better about being awakened by fiery explosions down the street. They’re reaping profits and this is a minor bump in the road for them.
People tend to act in their own self interest. What is required are neutral brokers who can make sure that there is an appropriate balance when outsiders attempt to profit at the expense of local communities. Normally this is a role that government fills, but it appears that in Montana government officials in Red Lodge, in Billings and in Helena have cast their lot with the corporations at the expense of the citizens who elected them.
If the communities along the Beartooth Front are going to be protected, it’s up to citizens to act.