What’s the Deal with Common Cause and Big Fossil Fuels?


The ostensibly citizen action-oriented, anticorruption nongovernmental organization (NGO) Common Cause appears to be helping fossil fuel industry shareholders to “fight” Big Oil Big Gas. But it’s a sham — nothing more than more calls for “regulations” and “reform” of what can’t be regulated and can’t be reformed.

James Browning, regional director of Pennsylvania state operations for Common Cause, published an op-ed on April 15 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He was touting a movement, supported by his organization, by shareholders of the gas and oil corporation EQT to “challenge the company’s participation in the pay-to-play environment that has determined so much of fracking policy at the state and federal levels,” as he put it in an email announcing the op-ed’s publication.

In the piece, Browning said EQT would be challenged during its April 17 shareholders’ meeting. “The agenda includes a resolution that asks whether pay-to-play politics is a sustainable way to run a business,” he wrote, “and calls on EQT to ‘assess the financial risks of refraining from political expenditures.’ “

Big Numbers

He went on to cite the outrageous amounts of money spent by Big Gas/Big Oil on lobbying, advertising, and public relations: “From 2001 through 2012, the natural [sic] gas industry gave $8 million to political candidates in Pennsylvania and more than $20 million to the state’s members of Congress. The industry put another $750 million into lobbying [U.S.] Congress during this period . . . Since 2007, the industry has spent more than $15 million lobbying in Pennsylvania.”

These are powerful, hard-hitting stats that illustrate how industry pushes its propaganda and ropes in legislators and legislatures. But Browning does nothing more than spin numbers himself. He and Common Cause might be expected to propose that shareholders really shake up EQT, but instead he obfuscates, going on to call for “regulations” and “reforms” and “transparency” on fracking.

Common Cause would better spend its time, energy, and resources aggressively pursuing bans and serious consequences for those who break them (re-criminalization of something that was — until the fossil fuel industry was exempted in 2005 from many environmental laws — illegal to do: poison people and toxify water, air, and soil) than to push for “better regulations” of something that can never be regulated and a Wall Street “remedy” of something that can never be remediated.

Surface Slick

Although this campaign seems a noble effort on the surface — getting stockholders to exert pressure from within — Common Cause is putting a lot of effort into something that can never reap the reward we need if we are to survive as a species — and this is not hyperbole, as the cradle-to-grave process of fracking is as dirty as or dirtier than the extractive processes of coal or oil, and there are myriad documented cases of harms to human health from fracking and related activities.

Common Cause is pursuing a slight alteration in business as usual at a time when we need radical change. Gentle pressure on and from stockholders will make little dent in the way EQT or any other fossil fuel corporation does business and pursues profits.

“Transparency” be damned. It’s not going to help us to know that there are so many parts per million of a single endocrine disruptor, neurotoxin, or carcinogen in the well being drilled next to the elementary school in our town. The only remedy to the harms of fracking is to make them not happen in the first place. The only way to do that is to ban fracking permanently.

That’s what Common Cause should be doing — urging permanent bans on fracking and related industries within the unfracked (as yet) states, such as New York, and then working to reverse these industries in the many states where it is already taking place. And it should do so with all its might.

Anything less is collusion with industry and corrupt politicians. The mere fact that Browning can write sentences like these,

As the resolution to be introduced by EQT shareholders states, “Without regulatory reform that is accepted as trustworthy and fair by the public, operators will continue to encounter community concerns and challenges that create instability for shareholders … [and] the greater extent to which the industry is perceived to be trying to buy influence, the longer it will take for regulators and politicians to establish reforms that are accepted by all”

shows that Common Cause is not committed to eliminating fracking, its related and peripheral industries, and their well-documented and myriad harms. Instead, the organization is working within the broken / corrupted / collusionist / crooked / inept / impotent / all-of-the-above regulatory-state labyrinth.

There is no such thing as “regulatory reform that is accepted as trustworthy and fair by the public.” Nor can “regulators and politicians . . . establish reforms that are accepted by all.”

Mission: Invisible

Common Cause should know better. When launching it in 1970, founder John Gardner declared, “We are going to build a true ‘citizens’’ lobby – a lobby concerned not with the advancement of special interests but with the well-being of the nation. . . . We will suggest when and where to bring pressure to bear.” And it’s had a strong voice in getting corporations out of politics, with campaigns to overturn Citizens United and stop ALEC.

Tens of thousands — probably vastly more — of members of the public have educated themselves sufficiently to recognize that fossil fuel corporations’ power is staggering, and We the People indeed need to seize back power where it belongs, in our hands. They also understand that we cannot accept regulations because they simply do not work. We do not want regulations. We want a full and permanent ban on fracking for shale gas and on any other fossil-fuel based exploitation on this planet, whether it’s onshore or offshore, in North America or elsewhere.

Mr. Browning and Common Cause: When we — that is, environmentalists, people who would never have called themselves environmentalists, rightwingers, conservatives, farmers, foresters, parents, nonparents, leftwingers, and the myriad diverse people who are actively fighting this industrial onslaught — say No Fracking, We Mean No. Fracking. No. Fracking.

Not Here. Not There. Not Anywhere. Not Now. Not Later. Not Ever. No.

Common Cause and other big NGOs need to stop obfuscating, stop playing politics, and get back to their stated missions.

And we must call them out when they sell us out, just as we call out collusionist, shortsighted politicians and greedy, amoral fossil fuel pushers.

And if they don’t immediately come out full force against fracking, tar sands extraction, silica sand mining, pipeline proliferations, and related industrial assaults, they deserve to lose every penny of support and every hour of volunteer sweat equity they have enjoyed from the grassroots.

Our money and effort are better spent on the ground in our communities, doing the hard work of educating our fellows, overturning corrupt legislatures on the local and state levels, and fostering new leaders who will tackle bravely the many crises we face on so many levels — the most daunting of all of which, I’d wager, are climate change and our reluctance to get off fossil fuels.

We must not be hoodwinked by wolves in sheepskins, or by Gang Green.

Note: According to the ID in the Pittsburgh Star-Gazette, which published the op-ed that provoked this response, James Browning is regional director of operations for Common Cause. His phone number, (215) 605-6315, and email address, jbrowning@commoncause.org, were published along with the story.

Maura Stephens is a freelance journalist, educator, and grassroots antifracktivist based south of Ithaca, New York, in what she calls the “spleen of the Marcellus Shale.” Write her at maura@maurastephens.com.

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