Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Transparency Is Not Accountability, More Comments Does Not Mean Anyone's Listening: Pennsylvania HB 2318 and the Ancient Greek Chorus

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee
In the plays of Ancient Greece, the chorus helped to make transparent the motives and actions of the main characters on stage. 

Though undistinguished as individual actors, standing off to one side, the chorus offered comment and insight into the drama, helping the audience understand the tragedy unfolding and unpreventable. Indeed, while the chorus could sound lament, the message of its song was very clear: while you can know what is about to transpire, while you, like Cassandra, can call out the tragic future, you can change nothing.

Cassandra, seer--but disbelieved
HB 2318 reinvents the Greek chorus. 

It offers a similarly ineffectual function—greater transparence without any meaningful hope that transparence can become translated into change. 

According to the bill, DCNR shall provide to the public a comment period, a public hearing, and access to relevant environmental review. 

Audience, Democratic
Committee Hearing,
PA HB 2318
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee
But absolutely nothing in this bill requires DCNR to take heed of that public comment—even outcry—any more than the actors in a Greek Drama are expected to heed the chorus.  

The chorus does not sing its lament for the sake of warning or informing the actors; they don’t even hear the lament, much less change their course of action at its warning. 

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

Neither is the provision of the extended comment period or the greater transparency of HB 2318 intended to be taken as warning to DCNR in the hope of preventing that tragedy called slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing.  
Richard Mirabito, 83rd District,
PA House of Representatives,
Sponsor HB 2318
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

No—the chorus exists only as a therapeutic device to placate the audience about a future they can do nothing to alter. HB 2318 similarly offers to allow the public to exhaust itself in comment, only to then be told to go on home by an agency—DCNR—that operates as a wholly owned subsidiary of the gas companies.

Were I a gas company executive reading HB 2318, I’d be laughing. I’d be thinking about how profitable a thing it was for my company that the public could be duped into thinking that just because they got to speak that somehow their lament of the ecological destruction and the sickness and the community erosion would actually matter to my company’s plans to convert their public lands into a gas factory. 

Greg Vitali, 166th District,
PA House of Representatives
Photo wendy Lynne Lee

I’d be amused at the prospect that this public could be suckered into believing that just because the permitting process might be slowed by their chorus of complaint, this would make a difference in the ultimate execution of my plan to drill. 

And compress. And pipeline. And export. And offshore the dividends. And then abandon the refuse. I’d say “Let them lament!” Because once they’ve had their say, they’ll go home, tell themselves they did everything they could, and go back to watching game shows and talent contests.

"Hiking" at Tiadaghton State Forest
thanks to PGE and the failed efforts
of our representatives to priotect it
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

HB 2318 is naught but a perversion of the democratic process. It pretends to offer us power—but it in fact strips us of our voices and leaves us like the Ancient Greek chorus—sounding an alarm all the while knowing there’s no one listening.

It empowers the gas companies by pretending to regulate them—making their actions seem more transparent—all the while doing nothing whatsoever to forestall their appropriation of public lands.

Audience, 7.28.14
Democratic Committee Hearing, HB 2318
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee
We are left like Cassandra—knowing what is about to befall us on our own lands, in our own forests, on our own waterways, but able to do nothing but lament. 

That is a perversity, and we are morally obligated to offer it nothing but contempt.

Indeed, if we asked the question: how seriously does DCNR--the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources--take this bill?

Answer: they didn't even show for the hearing. How's that for listening?


1Amending the act of June 28, 1995 (P.L.89, No.18), entitled "An
2act creating the Department of Conservation and Natural
3Resources consisting of certain functions of the Department
4of Environmental Resources and the Department of Community
5Affairs; renaming the Department of Environmental Resources
6as the Department of Environmental Protection; defining the
7role of the Environmental Quality Board in the Department of
8Environmental Protection; making changes to responsibilities
9of the State Conservation Commission and the Department of
10Agriculture; transferring certain powers and duties to the
11Department of Health; and repealing inconsistent acts," in
12Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, further
13providing for forests.

Halliburton in Tiadaghton State Forest
Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

14The General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
15hereby enacts as follows:
16Section 1. Section 302 of the act of June 28, 1995 (P.L.89,
17No.18), known as the Conservation and Natural Resources Act, is
18amended by adding a subsection to read:
19Section 302. Forests.
20* * *
21(b.1) Unconventional gas development.--The department shall
22provide notice and seek public input before leasing State forest
1lands for unconventional gas development or otherwise
2authorizing any major unconventional gas development project on
3State forest lands. Specifically, the department shall provide
4for the following:
5(1) A public comment period.
6(2) At least one public hearing or meeting.
7(3) Public access during the comment period to detailed
8development plans, including locations of all well pads,
9impoundments, access roads, pipelines, compressor stations
10and other related structures and facilities.
Tiadaghton State Forest
PGE Well Pad, Photo Wendy Lynne Lee

11(4) Public access during the comment period to a State
12forest environmental review that:
13(i) Analyzes potential impacts of the proposed
14development on ecological, recreational, cultural and
15aesthetic resources and public health.
16(ii) Discusses avoidance and mitigation measures.
17(iii) Analyzes development alternatives.
18* * *
19Section 2. This act shall take effect in 60 days.


Citizen Sane said...

Well said. This is a feel-good politically motivated, toothless bill designed to give people the illusion of "having a voice", albeit a voice that will echo and fade.

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

Thank you Mr. Trallo. This bill looks good--but it is an unwitting Trojan Horse in that by making us feel like we have a voice--but allowing us to vent our frustration only into the wind--we will ultimately become even more disillusioned--a win for a DCNR that is ill-equipped to deal with the real issue of its debauchery and for an industry who thinks itself injured even to be slowed by an hour.

Dean Marshall said...

I believe Any opportunity to make comments and ask the important questions under the scrutiny of the Media can be beneficial in educating a wider segment of an ill-informed Public.

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

I understand your point, Mr. Marshall. But, first, there is no guarantee that there will be any media paying attention, nor that there will be a media whose attention is objective.

Second, the point of registering comment is not to educate the public--even if it can have this effect. After all, the vast majority of these comments will never be heard out loud at a hearing, but will be sent to DCNR electronically.

Third, we can do much of what you describe now--adding volume into the void does not make for more or better comment. This bill IS duplicitous--and it is exactly the sort of bill of which we should be the most wary.

As Mirabito put it himself: "This is not an anti-fracking bill."

And it's not. This goes well beyond fracking. Giving the people a voice means listening to them. Nothing in this bill demands that. It's like telling folks that regulations will protect the public health--when all it does in fact is facilitate the industry.

We don't need one more concession.

Wendy Lynne Lee said...

Response to story posted at the Williamsport Sun Gazette (http://www.sungazette.com/page/content.detail/id/613712/Committee-hearing-draws-crowd-in-city.html?nav=5011)

MIrabito's bill does little more than pander to an audience who wants to believe the Democrats actually care about something more than their own re-elections. Fact is, neither more transparency nor volume of comment will make DCNR listen. Evidence? DCNR didn't even show up for the hearing--so deeply is the agency in the pockets of the gas companies. As for the industry response--this is nothing more than their predictable rant against anything that might reveal the fact that they're poisoning us for their profits. But what good does it do us to know that if we cannot prevent it?

The industry rejects this bill because it may (though unlikely) expose their polluting our water and air more fully. That's good. But if we are disempowered to ACT on that knowledge--as Mirabito says "This is not an anti-fracking bill," what good does it do us? It's like telling someone that there's arsenic in their soup--but that they have to slurp it up anyways. And THAT is perversity. No, this bill is one more of the DEMS efforts to have their cake--appear to actin the public interest--and eat it too--be in the pockets of the gas. But this industry ought to be shown only one way--the one that's truly in the public interest--and that's OUT THE DOOR.

Jay Sweeney said...

Brilliantly written! Thank you Dr. Lee!!