Questioning Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Air Policy Director N. Jonathan Peress in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing last Tuesday, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming had a few choice words about Beyond Extreme Energy (BXE).
What did the senator find so “troubling?”
Recently, Wyoming has been in the news regarding the negative health impacts of fracking on people in the state. In April, for example, scientists found dangerous levels of chemicals in the groundwater of Pavillion, a town in central Wyoming. The scientists reported that the town’s 230 residents were drinking water that contained levels of benzene 50 times above the allowable limit. The source of this contamination–fracking. Similarly, just last week, the Coming Clean coalition released a report showing how volatile organic compounds from fracking near Pavillion have been absorbed by residents.
But the harm from fracking to residents in his state wasn’t what drew Sen. Barrasso’s ire last Tuesday. Nor was it the questionable connections between the EDF air policy director he was questioning and NRG Energy. Recently, DeSmog Blog published an article revealing how contractors hired by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to review a new Spectra fracked gas pipeline worked for Spectra on a related project, and therefore had a stake in its approval. This contractor was none other than NRG Energy, which, according to EDF’s website, was a former employer of current EDF Air Policy Director N. Jonathan Peress. More specifically, Peress was NRG’s director of environmental services. Now, he represents EDF in environmental proceedings before FERC. Given the fossil fuel industry’s reliance on incestuous relationships with the government, the private sector, and in this case, the nonprofit sector as well, it’s no wonder that a former employee of NRG now represents an “environmental group” at proceedings before FERC . But Senator Barrasso wasn’t commenting on that either.
Instead, it was Beyond Extreme Energy’s efforts to end the deadly practices of the fracking industry that caused Sen. Barrasso alarm. More specifically, he was disturbed by the group’s willingness to hold the government accountable for its disregard of human life.
Over the last several months, Beyond Extreme Energy has sought to circumvent FERC’s purposeful intransigence to the needs, wants, and rights of the people. This has meant bringing their nonviolent campaign to the homes of the FERC commissioners. In February, for example, members of the group sent Valentine’s Day cards to the commissioners at their homes. Then, in May, the group held dinners and vigils on the sidewalks in front of the commissioners’ houses in Washington, DC.
When pressed by a reporter to respond to Sen. Barrasso’s concern about the safety of the FERC commissioners, and particularly the group’s responsibility in putting the commissioners’ addresses out into the world, BXE responded with the following statement:
“The addresses of the commissioners were easy to find using an online search, so by asking folks to send Valentine’s Day cards to their houses, we were not in fact exposing anything that wasn’t already out there.
“The greatest danger, however, lies in not using every nonviolent means available to stop the permitting, building, and use of fossil fuel infrastructure. Holding potlucks at the commissioners’ homes and sending them Valentine’s Day cards is not dangerous. Approving fracked-gas infrastructure is, however, and puts millions of lives on the line.
“If we lose the fight to stop FERC’s rubber-stamp machine, the physics of climate change will take devastating revenge. The FERC commissioners are responsible for the rubber-stamp machine, and their actions threaten our lives and livelihoods. It is perfectly acceptable, using purely nonviolent means, to defend ourselves. In fact, due to the extreme danger FERC puts us in, anything less than strong, bold, nonviolent action is immoral.”
Just days after Sen. Barrasso made his statement about BXE, the group held another event outside the Washington, DC, home of FERC Chairman Norman Bay. BXE called it “Potlucks, Not Pipelines.”
According to the Facebook page where the event was advertised, the potluck was held “because he (Norman Bay) and the agency he stands at the helm of have ignored the deadly consequences of their corrupt, industry-driven practices for far too long.” It went on to explain the purpose of the event.
“FERC hurts communities across the United States by working for the oil and gas industries that fund them! They rubber stamp fracked gas infrastructure and put millions of lives (present and future) on the line due the horrific consequences of climate pollution. In response to a growing public rebellion against their horrific practices, FERC commissioners have been dismissive. Perhaps their complicity in so much suffering and death has led to denial. We’re hosting a peaceful dinner to talk about this and other issues related to FERC. You’re invited, and so is Norman Bay.”
Pennsylvania organic farmer Maggie Henry talks about the potluck as others enjoy the food she prepared:
Armando Diello from the DC area, who contributed chips and hummus, explains his motivations for attending the potluck:
Greg Yost, a high school math teacher from North Carolina, talks about FERC, Barrasso, and his need for answers:
Last Thursday, ten members of Beyond Extreme Energy visited the Washington, DC, office of Sen. Barrasso to formally respond to his misguided statements. The group spoke to Sen. Barrasso’s Legislative Director, Bryn Stewart.
Here, Cathy Strickler of Harrisonburg, Virginia reads the letter she wrote to Sen. Barrasso on behalf of Beyond Extreme Energy:
Clarke Herbert, a member of Beyond Extreme Energy from Arlington, VA, told the legislative director why the group goes to the FERC commissioners’ homes.
Maggie Henry, the PA farmer, responds to Sen. Barrasso’s slanderous statements by telling Stewart how fracking has destroyed her life:
Charlie Strickler of Harrisonburg, VA, and Steve Norris of Asheville, NC, explain that BXE comes from a place of deep love:
Bryn Stewart was quite dismissive of the potential negative health harms of fracking and other forms of extreme energy on the people of his state.
Stewart responded to members of BXE, in part, by referencing a number of his friends who have lost jobs to a declining coal industry in Wyoming.
Several days after BXE’s visit to Barrasso’s office, an article appeared in the New York Times called “As Wind Power Lifts Wyoming’s Fortunes, Coal Miners Are Left in the Dust.” The article highlights the devastating effect of a declining industry on working class families in a rapidly changing energy environment.
The article quotes Jillian Balow, the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction. She was speaking before a crowd of hundreds at a public hearing held by the Interior Department to collect input on the current halt to new coal mining on public land. Reading the article, one could imagine the weight of this moment in history present in her voice.
“We have reached the point where the restrictions and regulations for the industry are past our ability to adapt. It has put thousands of hard-working people out of work and is devastating families. Give us a chance.”
This reality presents a challenge to groups like BXE that are seeking to transform the world into a better, more just place. Without working with labor to address challenges like this, the fossil fuel abolition movement will have to climb an even steeper hill.
In her letter to Sen. Barrasso on behalf of Beyond Extreme Energy, Cathy Strickler, equating the work of getting off fossil fuels to a form of surgery, put it well:
“With Wyoming’s vast majority of jobs connected to fossil fuels, this surgery will not be easy but in good hands can be successful. Right now the fossil fuel lobby continues to break more climate bones. These fractures are difficult and take a very long time to heal. Complications from these fractures are painful and deadly for millions of people.”
Will Beyond Extreme Energy and the movement it’s a part of be able to catalyze this surgery with justice and love for all, including workers in the fossil fuel industry? To facilitate such a drastic shift, isn’t everyone needed, including the workers?
Time will tell, but it grows short. And to tragic consequence.
Beyond Extreme Energy’s Letter to Senator Barrasso
Dear Senator Barrasso:
As a former member of the American Medical Association Council for Ethics and Judicial Affairs, we are sure that you hold ethics is high esteem. We do, too; it is a strong value we share with you. Medical ethics would lead one to embrace the best possible health of all citizens which comes with a stable climate, not one that is destroyed by fossil fuels.
As an experienced orthopedic surgeon you are used to fixing that which is broken. Orthopedic surgery is difficult and can only be done by the most skilled, educated, and experienced people. Now we have an energy system that is broken and will require people to fix it that are also skilled, experienced and educated. With Wyoming’s vast majority of jobs connected to fossil fuels, this surgery will not be easy but in good hands can be successful. Right now the fossil fuel lobby continues to break more climate bones. These fractures are difficult and take a very long time to heal. Complications from these fractures are painful and deadly for millions of people.
We call on you to live up to your professional medical ethics and preserve life.
We call on you to understand that BXE is trying to heal the broken bones of our climate and our energy system.
Beyond extreme energy is a group of concerned people – engineers, college professors, nurses, teachers, a farmer, a dentist, and young educated professionals who care enough to be involved and believe that we, as individuals, can make change happen to help people much less fortunate than ourselves.
We call on you to support our efforts and to thoughtfully consider the consequences of your extremely important position in the United States Senate.
Concerned members of Beyond Extreme Energy