The Speech I Gave to FERC From Baggage Claim Area 3
Author’s note: On Wednesday, I was part of a citizen delegation that met with the chief commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner (FERC), Cheryl LeFleur, and eight of her staff. Led by Ted Glick of Beyond Extreme Energy, who had requested the meeting, our group included Tracey Eno from We Are Cove Point and Jocelyn D’Ambrosio of Earthjustice. I represented We Are Seneca Lake. Sadly, my flight from upstate New York was delayed for hours by bad weather. Hence, I ended up delivering my remarks to Commissioner LeFleur by speakerphone, while standing just outside the baggage claim area of Dulles International Airport.
FERC disallows ex parte conversations with staff about projects that are still under review in some way—and that’s a policy I agree with. Thus, I spoke not about the specific risks and harms of the Seneca Lake gas storage expansion project, but instead addressed my comments to larger concerns about the agency’s capitulation to the oil and gas industry. Ulimately, FERC is overseen by President Obama and reflects his failed energy and climate leadership, in spite of good rhetoric. The administration’s unquestioning devotion to natural gas is reflected in remarks made by Commissioner LeFleur in a recent speech before the National Press Club, and her words became the starting point for my own:
We're very fortunate to have abundant and relatively affordable domestic natural gas ... But utilizing that gas to meet climate goals require the expansion and construction of gas infrastructure, both pipelines and compressor stations, to get it to where it needs to be to keep the lights on. But while gas is critically important to our climate goals and other environmental goals, it has issues of its own. Pipelines are facing unprecedented opposition from local and national groups including environmental activists. These groups are active in every FERC docket, as they should be, as well as in my email inbox seven days a week, in my Twitter feed, at our open meetings demanding to be heard, and literally at our door closing down First Street so FERC won't be able to work.
We have a situation here. We take the views of all stakeholders seriously and try as hard as we can to thoroughly consider issues that are relevant to the decisions we're required to make. But FERC’s responsibility under the Natural Gas Act, because we're a creature of Congress, is to consider and act on pipeline applications after insuring that they can be built safely and with limited environmental impact.
My remarks prompted no questions from FERC staff. At the end of our meeting, I did ask one question of Commissioner LeFleur: “What message would you like me to bring back to the people of Seneca Lake?”
Her answer: “I would hope that you would tell them that you were listened to.” And then she added, “Of course, I can’t tell you how to feel.”
Here is the script of my prepared remarks:
I am a mild-mannered biologist and mother of two. Although I would much prefer to let the data speak, I have now twice received a 15-day jail sentence for trespassing in opposition to a FERC- approved project.
Before all that, I helped direct hundreds of written comments to FERC from concerned members of the public and have spoken at multiple public hearings and helped prep many others, including fellow scientists, to do so. What I learned from these experiences is that FERC doesn't listen to impacted citizens or to independent science. It now seems to me that the public hearings and the collection of data are just boxes for FERC to check on its way toward indiscriminate, foreordained approval of whatever plan the oil and gas industry puts before it.
The data tell me that climate change—and the fossil fuel infrastructure that stokes its fires—are existential threats to my children and the entire generation of which they are a part. The World Health Organization is very clear on this point, and I have spent my professional life studying and writing about this evidence.
The Seneca Lake gas storage project near my home poses multiple risks to the safety and health of my children, as good science shows.
Yet FERC ignores and sweeps aside independent science that we submit in response to this and other proposed projects. It is this willful deafness of FERC to matters of ultimate concern and its willingness to play the role of good German in the face of an unfolding climate catastrophe that is the reason for the ongoing protests and civil disobedience.
We have now reached the straw-that-breaks-the-camel's-back moment in the climate change story, and FERC is widely perceived—both inside the scientific community and out—as the agency that permits the piling on of even more straws even while blithely claiming that each straw poses only negligible risk for harm and must be evaluated individually and on its own merits.
The government's job is to protect the citizenry and assure its security and well-being. And yet, by this blindered approach and by its commitment to further entrenchment and investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, FERC is a branch of government that seems satisfied with recklessness and reductivist thinking precisely at the moment in which ethos and wisdom are required.
FERC’s atomized, compartmentalized approach to decision-making likely served it well in the past. But a continuing refusal to look at cumulative impacts over time and space is anachronistic, dysfunctional and downright treacherous in 2015.
That is why I and many others are becoming reluctant civil disobedients in the face of FERC projects that are rolling over our communities and jeopardizing our health and our climate.
I am a founding member of Concerned Health Professionals of New York and co-author of a massive compendium of evidence documenting the multiple harms and risks of fracking to public health and to the climate. In that capacity, I have seen the power of science at work in public forums wherein science informed a powerful citizens movement that, in turn, served as a megaphone for science. I have seen the power of science at work within our regulatory agencies as the state of New York deliberated the question of whether to permit or prohibit shale gas extraction via high-volume hydraulic fracking. This was a long decision-making process. Over the years, many researchers and health professionals brought emerging data to the people directly, via teach-ins and the mass media, and to our public agencies and elected officials, via hearings and comment periods.
In the end, the evidence of the emerging science was determinative. Our state’s Department of Health, Department of Environmental Conservation and Governor Cuomo looked at the best data and made a wise, ethical and science-based decision. I am grateful to our governor for his courage in making it.
It is also a popular decision that enjoys the widespread support of a majority of New Yorkers, including those who live in frontline communities that would have been the first to get fracked. As a state, we are now engaged in a vigorous, creative transition to renewable energy. We are on the path, and we are on the march. It is very exciting. There is a new zeitgeist in Albany.
But, at the same time, from Port Ambrose to Seneca Lake, we are being threatened by FERC- approved, fossil-fuel infrastructure projects. They are a ball and chain that keep us bound to a ruinous past and thwart our progress. Pipelines. Compressor stations. LNG terminals. Gas storage in crumbly, lakeside salt caverns in the middle of wine country. These projects fly in the face of public health and climate science. They undermine democracy and self-determination. They undercut investments in renewable energy. They are out of step with our statewide ban on fracking and are turning our state into a storage and transportation hub for an export-oriented fossil-fuel industry.
And even our governor, our wise governor who is listening to the science and trying to lead our state to a renewable energy future, cannot say no to FERC. Your jurisdiction supersedes his. No state government can reject a FERC- approved project. [Author’s note: Governor Cuomo does have veto power over the Port Ambrose LNG terminal off the coast of Long Island.]
This, then, is the problem:
You don't say no to the fossil fuel industry's ideas through a process of wise, selective discernment, and we and our elected officials can't say no to you. That is why you have a situation.
Click here to read Ted Glicks article about our meeting.
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Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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