No Merit Badge for This Scout

by Walter Brasch

     Rex W. Tillerson, a resident of Bartonville, Texas, like many of his neighbors was upset with his city council. That’s not unusual. Many residents get upset at their local governing boards. And so they went to a city council meeting to express their concerns that the council was about to award a construction permit.

     The residents were upset that the Cross Timbers Water Supply Corp. planned to build a 160-foot tall water tower. That tower would be adjacent to an 83-acre horse farm Tillerson and his wife owned, and not far from their residence. The residents protested, and then filed suit to stop construction. The tower would store water to be sold to companies that needed it for high-volume horizontal fracturing of oil and gas wells, the process known as fracking. Each well requires three to nine million gallons of water, up to 10,000 tons of silica sand, and 100,000 gallons of toxic, often carcinogen, chemicals. The process of horizontal fracking, about a decade old, to extract oil and gas from the earth presents severe health and environmental problems; although it is touted as “clean energy,” it still contributes to global warming.

     But, the residents of Bartonville weren’t concerned about the health or environmental impact, or that the protective casings that surround the pipes that go more than a mile underground have a documented failure rate of more than six percent. They weren’t concerned that the pressure of the toxic water that fractures the underground shale can cause earthquakes. They didn’t seem to be concerned that the fluids then brought up from deep in the earth contain radioactive elements, that the storage of these fluids in open-air pits can itself lead to ground and air pollution. They didn’t care that trucks that carry the toxic waste fluids can leak, or that there have been increased derailments, with explosions and fires, in the past year of trains that carry crude oil and natural gas from the fields to processing plants.

     The residents, all of whom are in the visual distance to the water tower, said that construction of the water tower would impact their views. They argued that during construction and after the tower was built, there would be excessive traffic and noise.            Michael Whitten, who represents Tillerson, told the Wall Street Journal his client was primarily concerned about the impact the tower would have upon property values.

     Rex W. Tillerson isn’t your typical resident. He’s the CEO and the chairman of the board of ExxonMobil, the third largest corporation in the world, and the company that leads all others in exploring, drilling, extracting, and selling oil and gas. It’s also a company that has had more than its share of political, social, and environmental problems. Tillerson was an engineer when the Exxon Valdez fouled the western shore of the United States in 1989. By 2004, he was the company’s president.

     In 2012, Tillerson earned $40.3 million in compensation, including salary, bonus, and stock options, according to Bloomberg News. His company that year had $453 billion in revenue, and a net income of about $45 billion, according to Bloomberg.

     When you have that much money, every million or so dollars matters, especially if a large ugly tower impacts not just your view but your quality of life and the value of your property.

     Large ugly rigs, the kind that go up when ExxonMobil and other companies begin fracking the earth, also affect the people. The well pads average about eight acres, all of which have to be cut mostly from forests and agricultural areas. Access roads, some of which upset or destroy the ecological balance of nature, need to be built. Other roads receive heavier-than-anticipated damage because of the number of trucks, often more than 200 a day, that travel to each well site. As early as 2010, a PennDOT official told the Pennsylvania state legislature that the cost, at that time, to fix the roads was over $260 million. Increased diesel emissions, concentrated in agricultural areas, also affect the health and safety of the people.          

     The noise from the traffic and from around-the-clock drilling affect the people, causing stress and numerous health issues, according to psychologists Diane Siegmund and Kathryn Vennie, both of whom live in the Marcellus Shale part of Pennsylvania.

     When the rigs go up, property values decrease. Banks and mortgage companies are refusing to lend money to families who wish to take out second mortgages or who wish to buy property that has wells on it or is even near a well pad. Insurance companies are not writing policies, even if the homeowner opposes drilling but whose home is near those well pads.

     In 2012, Rex W. Tillerson said that opponents of fracking are manufacturing fear, and then laid out a corporate truth when he said that his company has in place “risk mitigation and risk management practices . . . to ensure [oil and gas development] can be developed in a way that mitigates risk-it doesn’t eliminate it, but when you put it into the risk versus benefit balance, it comes back into a balance that most reasonable people in society would say, ‘I can live with that.'”

   Thus, the energy industry is telling the people there will be accidents. There will be deaths. There will be health and environmental consequences. But, they are acceptable because “mitigation” allows a corporation to accept errors, injuries, illnesses, environmental destruction, and even death if they believe there is a “greater [financial] good” that outweighs those risks. It is the same argument that Ford used in the 1970s when it decided not to recall and repair the Pinto because it estimated the cost to pay compensation for injuries and deaths from faulty construction would be significantly less than the cost of a recall.

   There is something more about Rex W. Tillerson. He’s proud of his association with the Boy Scouts. He’s a former Eagle Scout and was president of the national Boy Scouts of America. (Both the Boy Scouts and ExxonMobil have their headquarters in Irving, Texas.) Part of the Scout Oath is to “do your duty to God and your country.” A partial interpretation of that is “by working for your country’s good and obeying its laws, you do your duty to your country.” Within the past six months, ExxonMobil has paid more than $5 million in fines and penalties for not obeying the country’s laws.

   The 12th part of the Scout Law is to be reverent. A widely-accepted interpretation of that law, according to Scouting Trail, is: “As a Scout experiences the wonders of the outdoors, stormy weather and calm blue skies, pounding surf and trickling streams, bitter cold and stifling heat, towering trees and barren desert, he experiences the work of God. . . . We need to play the role of steward rather than king-tending and caring for our world instead of taking all we can for our own comfort.”

   Protesting the construction of a water tower because it might lower property values, even for selfish purposes, is Tillerson’s right as a citizen. But, destroying God’s world to maximize your profits is not his right.

   [Dr. Brasch, an Eagle Scout and an award-winning journalist, is the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the economic, political, environmental, and health effects of fracking.]


The Summit Debate

Six Democratic candidates for Governor debated last evening at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit here in Harrisburg.  Jack Wagner jumped into the race too late to participate.  Jo Ellen Litz’s comments about growing up in a hunting family and eating wild game resulted in many squirrel jokes in the lobby afterwards.  And here I thought she only ate chocolate!  There was no mention from the other candidates about her anti-choice positions.  No one went after Katie McGinty for her close ties to fracking either.  All in all it was a rather collegial discussion more than a debate.  Most of these candidates obviously like one another.

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Jo Ellen Litz

Following a question on fracking (they don’t support the official Democratic Party position for a complete moratorium) a large group stood up in the center of the ballroom holding signs saying “Ban Fracking Now.”

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Rob McCord

John Hanger was clearly the most liberal candidate repeatedly saying he’d legalize marijuana to raise revenues and save costs.  McGinty turned the common sense gun safety issue (I loved everyone using a term I coined) into a discussion of her renewable energy record as DEP Secretary.   She appeared to be a one trick pony.

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Katie McGinty

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John Hanger

Wolf was also clearly progressive and McCord raised some eyebrows when he mentioned pragmatism instead of progressivism at one point.

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Tom Wolf

I spent the day at a campaign field training seminar put on by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (more on that later) so by the time the debate began both my video camera and iPhone batteries were low.  I did manage to capture a considerable amount of video.  I expect to see a lot of Allyson Schwartz’s comments about running a women’s health clinic this fall if she is the nominee.

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Allyson Schwartz

Update:  John Hanger won the straw poll at 31.5% and the others as follows:  McCord 24%, Wolf 22.8%, McGinty 10.9%, Schwartz 9.4%, Litz 0.4% and Jack Wagner 0.1%.  None of the above received 0.7%.  Allyson Schwartz hasn’t attended either of these Summits since she announced except for appearing at this debate.  Only Hanger and McCord attended the Keystone Progress fund raiser following the debate and that was noticed by many of those in attendance.

The room was packed and, all in all, the debate was a two hour live show on PCN showcasing progressive issues and values.  In that regard I thought it a huge success.