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Democracy's Most Dangerous Moment

How To Frack An Elected Official

by JAMES BROWNING

“It’s not your enemies who corrupt you, it’s your friends.”
Bob Edgar, 1943-2013

Before I went to work for Bob Edgar, the President of Common Cause, who passed away in April at the age of 69, all I really knew about him was that Ronald Reagan once called him “the most dangerous man in America.” Reagan said this in 1986 after members of both parties in Washington had spent many years watching in horror as Bob, then a Congressman from southeastern Pennsylvania, challenged some of Washington’s most corrupt practices, such as doling out billions for pet Congressional projects through pork-barrel spending.

Bob also challenged the status quo when it came to corporate influence over environmental policy, and it is ironic that Reagan would feel compelled to sign a bill which included the Community Right-To-Know provision, which Bob wrote to establish “reporting requirements for providing the public with important information on the hazardous chemicals in their communities.”

Bob once told me that his views on the environment were shaped by the fact that his father’s death at the age of 56 may have been the result of working in a factory where his hands were often submerged in chemicals. And beginning in 2007, when Bob came to Common Cause, it became clear that the intersection of these two issues on which he had worked for most of his career—corruption and the problem of environmental laws written by and for corporate America—would be key to exposing how the natural gas industry is convincing Congress and many state legislatures to ignore the dangers of fracking.

According to research by Common Cause, the natural gas industry has spent $8 million on campaign contributions in Pennsylvania and $15 million on lobbying there since 2001 to keep fracking legal in the state, to defeat a proposed severance tax on natural gas extraction, to defeat a moratorium on drilling in state-owned lands, to defeat or delay tougher environmental regulations, and to keep information about exactly what mixtures of chemicals are used in fracking secret.

A major challenge for people fighting back against the natural gas industry has been the fact that, long before there was fracking in many states, the industry was deep-drilling its talking points about fracking into the brains of elected officials while lavishing them with campaign contributions. One of the biggest promises made to elected officials was that the industry had found a “clean” source of energy; then, when the “clean” myth was debunked, that it had found “a bridge fuel” until cleaner energy could be developed. And now, in addition to three-quarters of a billion spent on lobbying Congress between 2001-2011, the SuperPAC’s spawned by Citizens United have given the fracking industry even greater power over elections and public policy, namely the ability to scare their opponents by giving or merely threatening to give millions to defeat candidates who threaten their interests.

The numbers on political spending—or the public’s inability to get the numbers, due to weak campaign finance and lobbying laws—for other fracked states are just as alarming. In Ohio, Common Cause found that some of the biggest recipients of the industry’s generosity in recent years were its biggest champions in Columbus, including Gov. John Kasich, House Speaker Bill Batchelder, and Senate President Tom Niehaus. (Niehaus has since left the Senate and recently joined a law firm whose clients include companies involved with fracking.) And in Illinois, a separate study estimated that the state is failing to capture more than 90% of all spending by lobbyists—including fracking lobbyists—because it does not require them to disclose how much compensation they receive from each of their clients.

The industry has also wielded enormous influence through ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC drafts model legislation on dozens of issues, including bills to strip unions of collective bargaining rights, bills to strip public schools of funding, and fracking “disclosure” bills that let corporations avoid disclosing fracking chemicals they deem to be trade secrets. Yet incredibly, ALEC denies that what it does is lobbying, does not comply with lobbyist registration laws, and continues to exist as a 501 (c)(3) corporation that can receive tax-deductible contributions from its members—including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Koch Industries.

Oil and gas officials like to say that they have been “successfully” fracking since the 1950s. What they don’t say is that fracking has never been done on such a large scale, has never been done so close to so many people and the water they need to live, and has never been done so close to so many environmentally sensitive areas. And of course the difference between the vertical fracking done in the past and the far more environmentally-damaging high-pressure horizontal fracking happening now is a little like the difference . . . the difference is so great in terms of the potential impact on human health and the environment that it’s hard to capture in a metaphor.

As Bob says in Groundswell, a new documentary film about fracking by director Renard Cohen, “This is the most dangerous moment in American history for democracy. We are either going to be a nation that is of, by, and for the people, or a nation that is of, by, and for large corporations and the wealthy.”

James Browning is the Regional Director of State Operations for Common Cause and can be reached at jbrowning@commoncause.org.