LOMAX: Hardline groups use hardball tactics to vilify, manipulate state oil and gas regulators
The interview was unusually candid. Quite possibly, the interview subject — one of the nation’s top environmental activists — forgot he was on the record.
“New injunctions … and new bad press take a terrible toll on agency morale,” he said, describing his group’s legal and political tactics against environmental regulators. “They feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed — and they are.”
“So they become much more willing to play by our rules and at least get something done,” he continued. “Psychological warfare is a very underappreciated aspect of environmental campaigning.”
The activist in question was Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., and he was speaking to the High Country News in late 2009. In the years since that interview, CBD has become one of the nation’s leading “keep it in the ground” groups, seeking national and global bans on oil and natural gas development.
Here in Colorado, CBD is working with other national organizations — including Food & Water Watch of Washington, D.C. and New York-based 350.org — through a coalition they created: Coloradans Against Fracking. And the tactics used by this coalition, which demands “a statewide ban on fracking,” come right out of the CBD’s playbook.
Anti-oil and gas groups have vilified state energy regulators in Colorado for years, but in recent months, their efforts have escalated. At regulatory hearings, protests organized by Food & Water Watch and 350.org are becoming routine. These tactics were once reserved for federal agencies, to help the CBD and other groups block energy development across large areas of federal land. But increasingly they are being used against individual, state-level hearings and permitting decisions.
During recent official hearings, activists have accused state officials of “killing” their fellow citizens and “destroying lives.” They have donned facemasks with anti-fracking slogans and tried to shut down proceedings of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission by shouting: “No more drilling! No more permits! Stop the appeal!” According to the Denver Post, activists led by 350.org even pounded on the doors after they were escorted out of the COGCC hearing room by the Colorado State Patrol.
“Stop the appeal” refers to a lawsuit brought by anti-oil and gas activists in 2013 seeking a statewide shutdown in oil and gas permitting. The COGCC and the Denver District Court rejected the lawsuit, but in a 2-1 split decision this year, an appeals court handed a partial victory to activist groups, sending the case back to the lower court and the COGCC for reconsideration.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who effectively serves as the COGCC’s lawyer, has challenged that ruling and appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, which has rejected the “ban fracking” agenda before.
The activists are pressuring the COGCC to drop the appeal, hoping the legal fallout will bottleneck the permitting process so badly that oil and gas development will stop altogether. That’s not speculation — it’s a matter of record. “I think our chances are really good of getting a statewide moratorium, I mean a statewide ban, on fracking,” the lead plaintiff, a teenager recruited by activist groups and environmental lawyers, told Denver CBS4 when the lawsuit was first filed.
Therefore, while activist groups like Food & Water Watch portray their protests to the news media as spontaneous, they are in fact highly calculated. They are meant to weaken the resolve of the energy, environmental and public health professionals who sit on the COGCC, and the public employees who work for them, until they cave into the demands of the activists.
At this month’s COGCC meeting, the theatrics included a stocking full of coal being left for the commissioners, an activist singing an anti-fracking ballad during public comment, and cries of “shame on all of you cowards,” according to the Denver Business Journal. A video uploaded by the pro-industry Energy In Depth program showed Lauren Petrie, Food & Water Watch’s Rocky Mountain regional director, demanding the immediate resignation or firing of COGCC director Matt Lepore.
Watching these antics, you would never know that governors backed by the environmental communityhave overseen the COGCC for almost 12 years in Colorado, or that candidates backed by environmental groups have dominated the state legislature for an even longer period.
For more than a decade, Colorado’s oil and gas laws and regulations have been revamped and toughenedagain and again, making them “the most stringent and protective standards in the country,” according to Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), and a “model for the nation,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
But for groups on an ideological mission to ban — not regulate — the state’s oil and natural gas industry, none of this matters. Instead, they are making a mockery of the permitting process, and making it as politically painful as possible, to bring that process to a grinding halt. It’s all there in the CBD’s playbook.
“I’m more interested in hiring philosophers, linguists and poets,” CBD’s executive director told the High Country News in the same 2009 interview, explaining his distaste for college graduates with environmental conservation and wildlife management degrees. “The core talent of a successful environmental activist is not science and law,” he continued. “It’s campaigning instinct. That’s not only not taught in the universities, it’s discouraged.”
To be sure, I don’t believe for a moment that Colorado’s energy and public health regulators will submit to these political pressure tactics and start playing by the rules of anti-oil and gas groups.
But before the next round of anti-oil and gas protests, let’s at least be clear about where these tactics are coming from, and what the activist groups really want.