by Molly Dunton, Earthworks
On Thursday, January 18th, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) held it’s monthly meeting at its sleek office building in Northeast DC. As FERC staff, industry reps, and members of the press filed in, the mood in the room was noticeably jubilant. Hushed conversations took place between first time attendees, who wondered out loud how these meetings work, while veteran staff debated who would win the weekend’s football games. At the top of the hour, a silence fell over the room as the Commissioners took their seats at a large round table. The livestream kicked on as the FERC Secretary opened the meeting by reading an excerpt from the Sunshine Act*:
“Members of the public are invited to observe, which includes attending, listening, and taking notes, but does not include participating in the meeting or addressing the Commission.”
Secretary Bose finished her attempt to outlaw public participation in the meeting, banged her gavel, and hurried on to the agenda, which included proposals to approve several permits and certificates for infrastructure projects our nation does not need. It was then, after being told that I was allowed to witness but not engage with matters directly harming people and places I care about, that I decided to stand up and actively participate in this public meeting.
My name is Molly Dunton and I live and work in DC, not far from FERC headquarters. I have the pleasure of working for the national environmental non-profit Earthworks, and I have the privilege of working with residents around the country that have been negatively impacted by extreme energy development. In other words, my job involves supporting communities that have been forsaken by FERC in the name of corporate profits. I may not live in a frontline or fenceline community, but I carry the voices of my partners on the the front lines with me into my work. My home is not currently threatened by one of FERC’s reckless project approvals, but when might it be? Regardless of how much or how little physical stake any of us has in a given project on FERC’s docket, this fight is personal.
FERC’s continued assault on American communities is not only unsustainable and financially unviable, its unjust. What’s worse, barring the public from participating in the proceedings that decide our collective fate has created a culture of invincibility at FERC. When the opportunity arose to attend the January FERC meeting with our partner Beyond Extreme Energy (BXE), I jumped at the chance to disrupt these opaque proceedings and challenge that notion of invincibility. That morning, I was a bit intimidated about entering a federal building knowing I would not be leaving on my own accord, but whatever apprehension I felt was quickly replaced by confidence and strength instilled in me by those that had gone before and others who showed up to support us.
BXE has been disrupting FERC meetings on a regular basis for years, and has perfected an almost formulaic approach: 1) know your message, 2) keep it short and sweet, and 3) disrupt early in the proceedings before Commissioners have a chance to rush through their docket and conclude. As mentioned earlier, as soon as I was told by the FERC Secretary that I and other members of the public would never be given the chance to speak or ask questions during these meetings, I knew it was my chance to stand up, reclaim that space, and speak my truth to their purported power. My statement, yelled above the chaos that erupted in the room, was as follows:
“FERC recently announced it would review its process for pipelines. We the people have drafted for your consideration an 8 point plan for a pipeline review process where the wellbeing of people and the environment actually matter.”
At this point, I attempted to hand our plan to the Commissioners. Needless to say, they did not accept. As I was escorted out of the room by security, I could still actively participate in the non-participatory meeting, so I continued with increased urgency in my voice:
“Protect our resources! Protect our women! Protect our children! Stop being a rubber stamp for industry!”
(Photo Credit: Phil Ateto)
The past year has been difficult for our movement to say the least. Beyond FERC, our leaders are increasingly out of touch with the on the ground reality of their policies. The FERC meeting on January 18th provided me with something I had been desperately seeking: a chance to look those leaders unwaveringly in the eye and try to hold them accountable. Being able to scream at corrupt FERC Commissioners and staff, and call them out for servicing the fossil fuel industry over the American people, was cathartic. Knowing that my actions had contributed to challenging FERC’s paradigm, even in some small way, was uplifting and empowering, feelings that have been hard to come by as of late.
My disruption was brief, maybe 30 seconds, and the Commission resumed the meeting almost immediately. But a few minutes later, my co-conspirator and from West Virginia stood up to take her turn. And next month, there will be more allies signing up to participate in FERC’s regular meeting. So long as FERC continues to approve projects that put profits before people, and continue to ignore the voices of those it truly works for, we the people will continue standing up and speaking out.
*The Government in the Sunshine Act was passed by Congress in 1976 with the goal of creating more transparency within government agencies and federal commissions. The full text of the section that pertains to meeting transparency can be found below.
(a) General rule. Except as provided in §375.206, meetings of the Commission will be open meetings.
(b) Public participation in open meetings. (1) Members of the public are invited to listen and observe at open meetings.
(i) “Observe” does not include participation or disruptive conduct, and persons engaging in such conduct will be removed from the meeting.
(ii) The right of the public to observe open meetings does not alter those rules which relate to the filing of motions, pleadings, or other documents. Unless such pleadings conform to the other procedural requirements, pleadings based upon comments or discussions at open meetings, as a general rule, will not become part of the official record, will receive no consideration, and no further action by the Commission will be taken thereon.
(2) To the extent their use does not interfere with the conduct of open meetings, electronic audio and visual recording equipment may be used by a seated observer at an open meeting.
(c) Physical arrangements. The Secretary shall be responsible for seeing that ample space, sufficient visibility, and adequate acoustics are provided for public observation of open meetings.
[45 FR 21217, Apr. 1, 1980, as amended at 80 FR 13225, Mar. 13, 2015]