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The People Win Over Shell in Fracking Water Withdrawal Case

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Just south of the Finger Lakes region in New York's Steuben County is a valley where three waterways meet to form a fourth. In the 18th century, this confluence of rivers (the Cohocton, the Tioga, the Canisteo and the Chemung) was marked with a wooden post.

According to the description of one explorer, the post's elaborately carved surfaces featured 28 figures painted in red that depicted captured enemies and 30 headless figures that depicted, well, dead guys.

The Cohocton, one of four rivers that meet in Painted Post, New York. Photo credit: Rachel Treichler

Art with a warning label.

The Village of Painted Post (pop. 1,842) now occupies that legendary spot. And, given the news that broke on the last day of 2015—a small band of citizens defeated the plans of fossil fuel behemoth Shell Oil—it might be time to carve a new post.

In a unanimous New Year's Eve ruling, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in Rochester ruled against the Painted Post water withdrawal project. That project, which supported hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania, sold up to one million gallons per day of municipal water from the drinking water aquifer that underlies this quartet of rivers to a Shell Oil subsidiary (SWEPI LP) for use in drilling and fracking operations in Tioga County, Pennsylvania.

Represented by Shell attorneys at every stage, the Village of Painted Post had classified the water, which was transported across the border by rail, as “surplus property" in an attempt to avoid an environmental review of impacts. Those sales are now halted via injunction.

In a case brought by People for a Healthy Environment—along with the Coalition to Protect New York, Sierra Club and five local residents—petitioners claimed the combined impacts of the project had not been considered, as is required under New York's State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The appellate court ultimately upheld their argument.

Frank Potter, current acting People for a Healthy Environment president, noted that the water-filling station and the water-filled rail cars that rattled through the village late at night had created additional impacts that needed to be considered together with the impact of the water withdrawals. The court agreed.

Co-petitioners John Marvin and Mike Finneran at the water-loading site in Painted Post, New York. Photo credit: Mary Finneran

“We are very pleased that the court acknowledged what is so obvious to us—that the Village did not follow procedures under SEQRA and that the people who live near the railroad tracks have legal standing in the courts," Potter said in a phone interview. “This water grab by Shell threatens our quality of life through multiple pathways, including noise and light pollution [from train traffic], and all of these impacts need to be considered together."

Attorney Rachel Treichler of Hammondsport, along with Buffalo attorney Richard Lippes, represented the petitioners, said she anticipates further involvement in the issue: “This ruling invalidates the current water sale agreement and issues an injunction against any further water sales until an environmental review is done. We assume the village will go back to the drawing board and do a new environmental review in compliance with SEQRA. My clients plan to be deeply involved in that new review process. If so, we will ask the Village to examine the environmental impact of water withdrawal not only on the local aquifer but also where the water is used to frack in Pennsylvania."

Indeed, Treichler almost seemed to relish the teachable moments that ongoing legal battles provide. “This is a great opportunity for us to present the facts to the public about how the Corning aquifer works," she said. "This is a highly stressed aquifer. Withdrawals in one place could potentially impact the quality of drinking water to people in seven municipalities."

This Painted Post water withdrawal case, first filed in 2012, has followed a winding path.

In the beginning, in trial court, the ruling favored the petitioners both on standing and on the merits of the case. But then, on appeal, Shell's lawyers once again challenged the legal standing of the petitioners and, on this technical point, prevailed. They argued that the petitioners were not being harmed in a way that was different from the general public, including petitioner John Marvin, who lived within 500 feet of the rail-loading facility. (Under New York State environmental law—but not under federal law—a petitioner must demonstrate special injury in order to have a right, a.k.a. “standing," to bring a case to court).

The appellate court agreed with Shell's attorneys, and the lawsuit was dismissed. The petitioners asked for a rehearing. They were denied. So, they took their case to the New York Court of Appeals—the highest court in the state, which agrees to hear only 7 percent of all cases brought before it.

In a huge break for the plaintiffs, the Court of Appeals agreed. And then it went on to overturn the decision of the appellate court on the issue of whether the special harm requirement for noise effects had been met, arguing that the appellate court had applied an “overly restrictive analysis."

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Suddenly, petitioner Marvin had standing once again. That reversal resurrected the case and bounced it back down to the appellate division to make a ruling on the merits. And, on Dec. 31, 2015, this is what it said:

First, the appellate court rejected the notion that the water being sold was “surplus property" not subjected to environmental review according to SEQRA protocols:

“On the merits, we agree with petitioners that the Village's determination that the Water Agreement was a Type II action and not subject to SEQRA review was arbitrary and capricious. First, we reject respondents' contention that the withdrawal and sale of surplus water from a municipal water supply is not an “action" for SEQRA purposes (see 6 NYCRR 617.2 [b] [1]). Second, we conclude that the Water Agreement constitutes either a Type I or an Unlisted action."

Second, it ruled that the review had to consider all the impacts combined:

“[S]egmentation, i.e., the division of environmental review for different sections or stages of a project (see 6 NYCRR 617.2 [ag]), is generally disfavored (see Matter of Forman v Trustees of State Univ. of N.Y., 303 AD2d 1019, 1019). We thus conclude that the court properly determined, on the merits of the first cause of action, that all of respondent Village's resolutions should be annulled and that a consolidated SEQRA review of both agreements was required."

(More details on the case can be found here).

So, what does this court victory mean for the rest of us?

At least three good things. First, here in New York State, it means that the highest court in the land has, in its ruling on standing, loosened the special harm requirement that is its basis. That more liberal framing may make it easier for New Yorkers to file suit in regards to other harmful fracking infrastructure projects.

In the Court of Appeals' own words:

“Standing is not to be denied simply because many people suffer the same injury….To deny standing to persons who are in fact injured simply because many others are also injured, would mean that the most injurious and widespread Government actions could be questioned by nobody. ... That result would effectively insulate the Village's actions from any review."

Second, by rejecting the notion that drinking water can be labeled it as “surplus property" and sold off for export, like so many extra snowplows—sans environmental review—the court shines a bright light on the whole issue of water rights.

In the words of Treichler, “This court decision affirms what is, in fact, already the law: that is, you have the right to use water, but you don't own water. Water is not a property right. Water is not a surplus property of the village."

What we do have here in the eastern U.S., said Treichler, are riparian rights, which is a system, based in common law, for sharing water among those who own land along the paths that water flows.

Unlike property rights, riparian rights are correlative. If there is not enough water for everyone—as when water levels fluctuate in times of drought—then everyone has to adjust accordingly. But if one entity claims to own a set amount of water that it is entitled to use in all circumstances, then, in times of drought, there is much less for everyone else—human users and ecosystems both.

“New York law, in my view, does not provide that," said Treichler, who is an authority in water law. “But industrial entities want to interpret it that way. There are various interests at work here."

The basic hydrology of upstate New York shows why claiming outright ownership of groundwater—and then selling it—is so reckless. For all the abundant rain that falls, New York's aquifers are not capacious—the underlying bedrock on the hillsides is too close to the surface and not sufficiently porous to hold much water—and the aquifers we do possess resemble squiggly underground skeins of yarn, not round, deep pools.

In other words, in times of drought, we don't have long-term storage of water in our aquifers and our aquifers are not geographically extensive.

The Corning aquifer that lies beneath Painted Post, is shaped like a spindly X chromosome, with its four branches lying directly beneath the four riverbed valleys. The rain falling on the surrounding hillsides is funneled into it.

In times of plentiful rainfall, the groundwater bubbles up into the rivers. (Indeed, 60 to 70 percent of the flow of New York's surface water originates from upwardly mobile groundwater). But when groundwater is pumped and sold for fracking—removed entirely from the hydrologic cycle—the amount of groundwater discharging into streams is sharply reduced.

Startlingly enough, groundwater pumping can sometimes be intense enough to reverse the direction of flow—as when the water floating along the sunlight surface of a stream is sucked right back down into ground to recharge the aquifer. This backwards movement not only causes streams and rivers to dry up but can also draw chemical contaminants into the aquifer.

This effect has already been observed in the Corning aquifer, which is a drinking water source for multiple municipalities, including the city of Corning, which is just downstream from Painted Post.

So that its residents can drink, wash dishes and take showers, the Village of Painted Post pumps 220,000 to 400,000 gallons of municipal water per day. Under the sale agreement to Shell, it provided up to one million gallons a day for Pennsylvania fracking operations. That's a 2- to 5-fold increase in the rate of groundwater pumping.

“Before climate change," Treichler noted, “New York had steady sources of water [because of predictable rain], but we don't have deep aquifers. Because there is a worldwide shortage of water, and because water can be exported and taken away from the aquifer, New York's aquifers can be easily depleted. Painted Post says, 'we are poor, we need the money, our citizens need help paying taxes.' But they are selling water that belongs to everyone. Rain falls into the whole area; it happens to come to them, and they say that it is theirs to sell."

Treichler points out that bulk water sales are not unique to Painted Post. Other New York municipalities (e.g. the Town of Erwin) are also selling water for out-of-state fracking operations—including to Shell. While the appellate ruling is not retroactive, the case does affirm that, going forward, municipalities must comply with SEQRA for such sales—and that requires an assessment of the cumulative impact of water withdrawals on the aquifer and all existing users.

And the third lesson from the Shell No! victory in Painted Post, New York? Surely, it's the power of unflinching citizen activism.

When the Corning Leader—a small-town daily that is a rare beacon of excellent journalism—first reported on water sales to Shell, a handful of alert citizens began attending village meetings. One was so outraged at what she heard, she decided to become a petitioner and wrote a guest editorial that caught the attention of still others. The League of Women Voters held a forum. A legal team was assembled.

And for years upon years, even when the case was dismissed in appellate court, even when the headlines read “Stop Painted Post Water Sales? It's Not Likely," no one gave up.

Let's carve those scenes on a wooden post and plant it near the place where four rivers meet.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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