Smokey Joe Barton: the Frackers’ Favorite Congressman

bartonvadarsmOn Wednesday the DC-based campaign money watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a report totaling up all the contributions to Congress from the nation's fracking industry fom 2004 to 2012 and found, to absolutely no one's surprise, that our own Smokey Joe Barton led all comers with over half a million of grateful cash collected.

Since he was Chairman of the House Energy Committee for two of those years, and successfully led the effort to exempt fracking from federal environmental laws in the 2005 Energy Act, Barton is a favorite industry recipient.

But even the House Republicans have their limits. After his disastrous 2006 apology to former BP Chairman Tony Hayward for the White House's demand for $20 billion from the company for help in cleaning up its huge Gulf oil spill, the GOP decided that perhaps Smokey Joe wasn't the best face they cold put on energy policy and replaced him as  Chairman. Now he's the senior member of his own Committee but isn't running it. Because this kind of money follows power, most of his large eight year total came before Barton got kicked to the gutter by his own party.

And it's why in just one campaign and less than two years, Texas' junior Senator Ted Cruz has already collected more than half of Barton's total, almost $300,000, from frackers, just shy of the amount our Senior Senator John Cornyn brought in over a much longer period of time. The industry is buying lots of tickets to climb aboard the Cruz presidential campaign band wagon. In another year's time it won't be shocking if Cruz surpasses Barton, even though he's not a Committee Chair or holds nay special influence in the Senate.

Dallas Gas Wars: Residents 1, Joe Barton 0

Suffergette VictoryCan we just admit up front that we're disappointed The Man himself didn't show up to personally lead the Charge of the Light Crude Brigade at yesterday's Dallas Plan Commission public hearing on a new gas drilling ordinance? We thought after Wednesday's passionate personal pleas for turnout at the Society of Petroleum Engineers' monthly meeting, Ol' Smokey Joe would surely have the courage of his convictions. Sadly, no.

Instead, he left the righteous fight against radical environmentalists to seven or eight heavily-outnumbered industry engineers and attorneys who showed-up and told the Commission that a 1,500 foot setback was tantamount to a ban on drilling in Dallas. Almost to a man, (for they were all men) they accused the extremists of persecuting a trouble-free, non-polluting industry that was guilty of none of the awful things being said about it by their opponents. In particular, they sought to tag the environmentalists as uninformed, as out of touch with research and the facts, as hypnotized disciples of Josh Fox. In doing all this however, they could muster no science of their own.

Given over 20 minutes of time to make their industry's case, not one engineer or attorney working within the industry cited even one peer-reviewed, journal-published health study to support their claim of benign impact on public health or the environment. Not a one.

For some time, and through many a fight, we've seen a common thread of industry criticism of the uninformed civilian. It has its roots deep in the pat-them-on-their-well-meaning-head sexism that greeted women like Rachel Carson and Lois Gibbs. It's grown to include anyone that challenges the industry's own cost-benefit analysis. It accuses residents of being "emotional" instead of rational when they disagree with that analysis by asking too many good questions.

And yet…when it comes down to the crunch, it's the industry representatives who appeal to the emotions the most when they raise the flags of jobs and growth and try to get everyone else to salute. It's the industry reps who do the most name-calling and make the most personal charges characterizing their opponents. Call it the Foxifying of industry rhetoric. And it was on full display at the Plan Commission on Thursday. Dallas was denying itself untold riches by effectively sealing off thousands of acres to fracking. It would be a devastating to job growth. No actual studies to prove that mind you, but industry assertions should be treated as facts, especially when they're assertion about economic growth – no matter how self-serving.

There was testimony that parks "are some of the best places to drill." That "there was no way" the industry would ever pollute the air or water. The language was absolutist and, dare we say, non-rational and not supported by the facts. At least, they didn't cite any facts to support those assertions yesterday.

And those radical environmentalists Smokey Joe warned about?

As usual, they included Dallas homeowners association members and presidents, people who owned wells themselves or or leased land for drilling, cancer patients, asthma sufferers, 25 year-olds, 81-year olds, Sierra Club members, Downwinders' board members, long-time Dallas residents and people who just moved here, plus a sprinkling of folks from Farmers Branch, Ft. Worth, Garland and Irving (30 of 35 speakers in favor of a 1,500 foot or more setback gave Dallas addresses) and a lot of women. One of the starkest contrasts between the two sides during the hearing was gender.

And, again, as usual, their representatives did cite studies. Lots of them. Because we've been through this before, because we know we'll be accused of being uninformed civilians, we know what's coming and we load for bear. The most comprehensive epidemiological study in a gas field to date showing increased cancer risks. Check. The most recent CDC study on silica pollution at well pad sites showing ever site tested exceeding federal limits by magnitudes. Check. USGS studies of the small earthquakes caused by fracking and the large ones caused by injection wells. Check and check. Proximity to benzene sources raises Leukemia risks. Check. NOAA study on actual methane releases from gas field being twice industry estimates. Check.

Were there appeals to preserve a good quality of life, clean water and cleaner air? Of course. But in most instances these were backed up by specific facts about fracking that challenged those goals. So that at the end of the day, not only was the Light Crude Brigade outnumbered, they were out-researched by the very bunch of know-nothings they were charging with the crime of misinformation. Most of them women.

That sweetly ironic resonance was the anti-climatic capping of a full day's worth of work for the Commission that included an affirmation of the 1500 foot setback originally agreed to back in June by lunchtime. All of the rhetoric back and forth in the public hearing was over an issue that had been argued and decided behind closed doors in Executive Session some five or so hours before. (You can follow the blow-by-blow live blogging of the Commission's morning meeting at our group Facebook site here, and read accounts of the decision in the DMN, Business Journal, & Observer,)

Winning the second affirmation of the 1500-foot setback at the Commission level now is no small accomplishment, especially since we had staff working against us. Dallas would be the largest city, by far, in the Barnett Shale to adopt such a lengthy setback (Fort Worth has only a 600-foot requirement, with variances even lower than that). As our Vice President might say, it's a BFD.

So if you sent an e-mail to the Commissioners this last week, we thank you very much, because that was the only direct advocacy they saw on this issue from our side before yesterday's decision to stick with 1500 feet was made.

But we've only won this provision as long as we can protect it. That's why it was good to come down to City Hall yesterday and support it anyway. Many of the speakers brought up the example of the last-minute Task Force rollbacks that occurred almost two years ago. With the same staff people who tried to scuttle the 1500 foot agreement still in charge of the ordinance-drafting process and rumors of some vague land swap with Trinity East still floating around, we all need to stay vigilant. And of course, if it reaches the City Council as an official recommendation there's no doubt it will come under fresh attack. But if we can hold it at the CPC, it will make it hard for the Council to change it. That's why it was important to show up yesterday afternoon. Thanks very much to everyone who did.

Another Commission public hearing on the new gas ordinance is scheduled for September 12th in the afternoon – but once again, it's scheduled after the regular zoning cases are heard so no certain start time will be available other than 1:30 pm.  It will concentrate on Air and Water Quality issues, as well as compressors – a subject never broached by the Task Force. We'll be working with our allies in the Dallas Residents at Risk alliance to get information on these issue areas to you, so that you'll once again be able to talk circles around the industry. Stay tuned.

And of course next Wednesday, August 28th will see a final vote on the Trinity East permits we've been battling since right after Thanksgiving. Thanks to the work of council members Scott Griggs, and Philip Kingston, who stopped by and gave a good pep talk to the troops before the hearing began, we believe we have the four council votes it will take to uphold the Commission's denial, but we need your help in bringing other, more reluctant members on board the band wagon. Beginning Monday, Downwinders' featured Citizen Action will be e-mails to the Council, urging them to vote to deny the permits.

After Wednesday's expected final Trinity East permit denial at Dallas City Hall, we're going to have a party to celebrate what is among the most important victories for public health and the environment in Dallas history. We don't know where and we don't know when, but such victories are too few and far between not to officially recognize. Please keep your calendar that night open.

Yesterday's Commission vote was a skirmish, inside a battle, inside a larger war with many fronts. But it was a critical skirmish. And residents won. Next week, we'll bury very bad and unethical gas permits that were "a done deal" as recently as March. Then we'll only have the new ordinance on which to focus.

Slowly but surely, we're doing what we said we would – drawing a line in the Shale in Dallas and stopping the steamroller of industry favoritism that's resulted in so much bad policy and public health harm elsewhere in the region. Dallas is becoming the place where the bad stuff stops rolling east and the good-thinking begins rolling back west.  See you on Wednesday.

Joe Barton Rallies Gas Industry for Today’s Dallas Public Hearing on New Ordinance; Councilman Kingston to Address Citizens at 1pm

photo-30Well lookey here, Ol' Smokey Joe himself was out trying to fire-up the troops in the oil and gas industry yesterday at the monthly meeting of the Dallas chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers.

The theme of the talk was "Hydraulic Fracturing: Shattering the Radical Environmental Lobby, Unlocking America's Energy Future" and a lot of the time was spent trying to convince the audience they needed to show-up at today's Dallas Plan Commission public hearing on a new gas ordinance  to counter those wacky citizens who think living immediately next door to a billowing plume of diesel smoke and dust is a bad idea. Of course, having not attended any of the commission meetings for the past year or so when the topic has come up more than once or twice, their slide show didn't have any real pics of Dallas residents, so they had to use pics from demonstrations elsewhere, like the one above. Tsk, tsk,

It's also a big stretch to tie the "Radical Environmental Lobby" to what's been going on in Dallas, where there's been no serious mention of a moratorium or ban on drilling, and leading opponents have been members of the Dallas Homeowners Association. But for Joe Barton, the World Wildlife Fund is a Radical Environmental Group.

Audience members were told to come to the hearing at 1:30 pm, but to make sure they spoke last, and "were not polite."

Apparently, citizens have been doing such a good job in Dallas that the industry is now concerned about setting "bad precedents" that won't allow for any drilling in Dallas at all, like the 1500-foot setback that is one of the major issues in contention today.

bartonvadarsmYou should always use your opponents reactions to events to judge how well you're doing. From the pleas coming from Barton and others yesterday, it's clear Trinity East is out trying to portray itself as some kind of corporate martyr for the cause. They're trying to elevate the Dallas debate over new gas regulations into a proxy for the national fight over fracking. It's a good sign when your opponent begins to panic like this, but it's also a warning that your effectiveness is now under attack.

And if Smokey Joe's entreaties aren't enough to get you down to City Hall this afternoon, what about the official debut of new Dallas City Councilman Philip Kingston at the 1:00 pm citizens press conference planned right before the hearing's start? Kingston was elected with the help of many of the same citizens that will be showing up today to testify and has pledged to help write a much stronger gas drilling ordinance.  He joins Scott Griggs as leading critics of the Trinity East deal and attempts by the Mayor and Industry to soften the new ordinance.

Industry is getting organized, shouldn't you too? Meet us downtown at City Hall today at 1pm for the press conference and then stick around to say a few words to the Plan Commission on what you want to see in a new gas drilling ordinance.  If you can't join us in person, follow the Plan Commission meeting and hearing on the Downwinders' FaceBook site, where we'll be live-blogging the day's events.

What Texas House Speaker Joe Straus Really Thinks of “Smokey Joe” Barton

Texas Monthly's Paul Burka has written about some e-mails that went flying back and forth among Texas Republican lawmakers as the bitter re-districting battle took place over the last 12-15 months. Some of them have become public. One of these reveals what Texas House of Representatives Speaker Joe Straus thinks about Midlothan-area Congressman "Smokey" Joe Barton and his supporters in their attempts to gerrymander a new, more Republican district for the Congressman (since Arlington is getting a bit too purple for his taste). Welcome to the reality based community Speaker.