On Tuesday a group of Shalersville residents attended a meeting of its trustees to voice their objections to fracking. Video of all the statements can be seen at the Shalersville No Fracking web site. There was a three minute speaking limit so the clips are short. (If you cannot watch video where you are, this is a rough transcript of my own remarks.) Here is just one of them, and note how the resident talks about her opposition to fracking from both a technical and visceral perspective. There are logistical, technological and environmental reasons to not want a fracking operation in your town, but there are emotional ones too:
Those speaking out at the meeting were prepared. In general people were not speaking off the cuff, but working from a prepared statement or note cards. We did our homework on this.
One of the recurring themes environmental activists have been hearing at the local level is that fracking is a state-level issue and that municipalities have limited ability to address it. That has been true in Portage county generally, and it was the case in Shalersville on Tuesday night. At the start of the meeting, one of the trustees announced that the speakers were strictly there for public comment and that no questions would be permitted.
The trustee then stated that they were essentially powerless to do anything because the state of Ohio had eliminated most mechanisms of local control (which incidentally is in defiance of the state constitution’s guarantee of home rule – more on that here). Fortunately, one well prepared resident addressed that issue head on in her response. Namely, at times in our history we have had immoral laws – ones that permitted slavery and banned universal suffrage, to name just two:
Simply declaring that the law must be obeyed under all circumstances is not persuasive. It’s fair to ask first if the law is right and just. And if a great many people are persuaded it is not, that is an issue that ought to be addressed instead of swept aside.
There is another aspect to the “our hands are tied” argument that has not received a whole lot of attention: that our conceptual horizon of what is possible is greatly – maybe even primarily – influenced by the degree to which we favor an outcome. In other words, if you are adamantly opposed to policy A, then your idea of what is possible in regards to permitting it will be far narrower than it is for supporters of policy A.
Here is how that plays out with fracking. An official who favors fracking is approached about a home rule-based bill of rights for a village that bans fracking. What will be the most likely response? “Nope, the state makes that call. Case closed. Thanks for coming.”
What about an official opposed to fracking? That person might also believe that invoking home rule will not work in this case and might be opposed to going down that road. But then s/he might say, OK – what else can we do? Why don’t we try this, and if that doesn’t work then try this other thing? In other words, the decision not to pursue the first suggestion doesn’t mean an end to the effort; it just means it’s time to try something else.
An official’s conceptual horizon of what is possible often implies that official’s policy position. So when a council says “our hands are tied,” I think that gives a pretty good idea of what their preferred outcome is. In this case, I think Shalersville trustees are generally supportive of fracking operations in our township, which means those of us opposed to fracking are really up against it.
One last note on the meeting. There weren’t any questions allowed, but someone in the audience managed to sneak one in after all the statements had been given: Was it true that two of the trustees had signed fracking deals with gas companies? One of the trustees responded that it was true, but the deals were on the trustees’ private lands and not on those owned by the township. Because of that, the deals were not germane to the topic at hand, represented no conflict of interest, and presumably didn’t restrict their understanding of how able they were to respond to residents’ concerns.