A student’s experience at a public comment hearing
by Meredith Jacobson
Two weeks ago, I attended Oakland’s public hearing on the scope of the Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR)’s environmental impact report regarding fracking in the state of California. That’s a mouthful, but an important one, so read it over again. On December 10th, I joined several peers from CSSC and Students Against Fracking at UC Berkeley to raise our voices in a “controlled” setting.
The purpose of the hearing was to allow members of the public to voice what they believe needs to be addressed in a Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which is scheduled to be finalized and certified in July 2015. California Senate Bill 4 (SB4) requires DOGGR to research and create an EIR on the impacts of “well stimulation,” another term that basically means fracking, in order to regulate the process in a more scientifically informed way. The regulations put into place, informed by the final EIR, will affect the entire state of California. As fracking is already taking place in certain locations in the state, thanks to SB4, DOGGR will be putting “emergency regulations” into place in January 2014, to hold over until the EIR is completed and able to inform the regulations. You can find out more about the process, and the other hearings happening around the state, here.
The hearing had been widely advertised by various local environmental organizations, especially Californians Against Fracking, who organized a rally outside the Oakland City Center where the comments were heard. Californians Against Fracking is an umbrella organization for organizations and activists across the state mobilizing against this dangerous and polluting extraction method. Other organizations in attendance included 350 Bay Area, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club California, and CREDO.
Not a positive word about fracking was spoken at the hearing. Of course, that’s the nature of the game – if you are pro-fracking you’re not going to take the time to go to a public hearing on an environmental impact report. Even so, the breadth of the types of comments presented made a powerful statement about the potential for coalition-building and mobilization on this issue. In attendance was a refreshing mix of young and old citizens who care about our collective future.
After a presentation about DOGGR’s timeline, the regulatory environment, and the mechanics of “well stimulation,” each interested member of the public was given five minutes to bring up issues or concerns that he or she thought needed to be addressed in the EIR. Almost everyone voiced concern about the process itself. I heard important questions raised:
Why are we delving into this process, which is scheduled to take more than a year, without first placing a moratorium on fracking?
What is the “no project alternative”? (this is a phrase commonly used when conducting EIRs, referring to an alternative solution if the EIR provides strong evidence against the project taking place at all)
Can we trust an EIR researched and written by the department that is economically invested in fracking?
Can something as dangerous and polluting as fracking really be regulated to the point where we can call it “safe”?
Why are we wasting time and resources on an EIR that will be released in July 2015 when regulations are scheduled to be implemented in January 2015?
All important questions, and ones that the DOGGR officials weren’t really able to answer. Nonetheless, more than fifty people took advantage of the opportunity to make public statements that an official recorded word by word on her computer. DOGGR has to address each and every “relevant” issue brought to the table: so even if it’s a rocky, tilted table, we can still stir things up a little.
People brought up a range of issues. Impacts on waterways. Localized air pollution from the extractive processes. Impacts on human health, especially disproportionate impacts on low-income and minority communities. Impacts associated with offshore fracking (I didn’t even know this was a thing!) Climate change, and all the associated risks and health effects. The strain on an already stressed water supply in California. Personally, as a forestry student, I brought up potential effects on the forests of California: from the fragmentation that road systems create, to water and air pollution’s impact on trees and wildlife, to positive feedback loops in climate.
[Roberta Giordano, of CSSC and Students Against Fracking at UC Berkeley, delivers her public comment.]
These are just some of the issues brought up, and each five minute speech was passionately voiced. Many people made it clear that above all, they believed in a ban on fracking, or at least a moratorium until the statistics and science are out. Some people called out the inherent bias in this process. While these sort of comments were technically not relevant to the scope of this public hearing, they were still important to voice, to get out on the table. The hearing gave every local citizen a soapbox and a little wiggle room into the bureaucracy, into that mysterious government-land. I’m not going to lie, it was frustrating to hear DOGGR admit that they weren’t quite sure of the purpose of this EIR, and clearly a ban on fracking was not being seriously considered. Even so, I’m happy I went. It felt good to speak and be heard, to be standing and addressing the Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. I was proud of all the engaged and passionate citizens around me. Clearly we will take every chance we get to make our voices, the ones that should truly matter, are heard. Hopefully, the EIR will be conducted thoroughly and honestly. Then, even if DOGGR fails to act according to the science, our anti-fracking campaigns can cite facts and figures from the report – so it’s still a step forward.
After my friends and I finished our comments inside, we went outside to join the rally. What a different world. Beautiful people were holding brightly colored signs, singing “carols” of resistance and of hope, joining hands, meeting one another, becoming stronger. That contrast, between inside and outside, epitomizes so much about this movement. We can put on our business casual and our professional voices, and bust out some show-stopping facts inside the city center. And then we can walk outside and the river of creativity flows with so much hope and no abandon. Just months into the game, the fight against fracking in California is building strong connections and momentum. It’s bringing people together. That’s the greatest strength the fossil fuel resistance has going for it.
[Activists of all ages and affiliations rally outside Oakland’s City Center.]
Do you have a comment for DOGGR about what should be included in their Environmental Impact Report? You can submit it electronically by emailing it to DOGGRRegulations@conservation.ca.gov. Find out more information about the whole process here: http://www.conservation.ca.gov/dog/Pages/WellStimulation.aspx
Interested in getting involved in anti-fracking work?
If you’re a Berkeley student, contact Ella Teevan of the Center for Biological Diversity and Students Against Fracking at UC Berkeley, at email@example.com
If you’re a CSSC student at a different campus, looking to start a campaign or get involved, contact Katie Hoffman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out Californians Against Fracking to get the full picture of what’s going on in California.