Wenonah Hauter: 'It’s Time to Ask for What We Want'

photo from Wenonah Hauter

As participants gathered to Stop the Frack Attack in Washington, I met with Ecocentric Hero Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, to get her take on fracking and farming, whether natural gas is actually a bridge fuel and why it’s a big deal if Governor Andrew Cuomo approves hydraulic fracturing in New York State. During our brief but wide-ranging conversation, it was clear that (in her words) "it is time to ask for what we want, not the best we can get" best represents Hauter’s underlying organizing philosophy. The recent endorsement of "safe" fracking by Mayor Michael Bloomberg aside, there aren’t likely to be many surprises coming soon (we expect Cuomo to lift the moratorium). Hauter and I also discussed what comes after that decision, as well as what advice she'd give to people anywhere who wake up to find they're living next to a frack site.

You can listen to our conversation by clicking the box to your right. Below you can read an excerpt of our conversation (click here for a transcript of the entire conversation).

Well, the first thing I wanted to ask you was how do you see the connection between farming and fracking - why this is an issue that’s of interest to farmers and food folks?

Well, you know, we have had forty years of increasingly bad farm policy, and we're now at a place where farmers can’t make a living. And so to maintain the family farm, to keep their land, in many rural areas of the country they are selling their mineral rights for energy projects. So we're basically turning our farms into industrial sites because of bad food policy.

If the governor comes forth with something in New York and there is a good chance that he will, not all is lost, there will be lawsuits, and there will be massive organizing. And so people can’t give up hope, because this is just one step in a long fight.

And really, if we want to solve our - if we want to address our bad food system, our dysfunctional food system, we also need to address energy policy because factory farming, industrialized farming, is so energy intensive that - and so dependent on fossil fuels, that really the only way to solve our energy crisis and to get off of fossil fuels is to change our food system and have a local, more sustainable method of farming that’s not dependent on fossil fuels for both the tractors, but also for the chemicals.

And so this is a real tragedy. I attended the first global, water, oil and gas summit, and they actually taught, at this summit, about the enormous amount of polluted wastewater created. And the goal of the water services industry is to start profiting from waste water, and they see one of the ways that they are going to profit from it is using it for irrigation. And also just dumping it back into waterways.

And it was clear to me at this meeting, that the oil and gas industry, they are going to frack for every last drop of oil and natural gas if there is not a resistance and if we can’t hold our policy makers accountable. And it’s also clear to me that a lot of our policy makers believe that technology is the answer and that technology is going to solve any problems that there are with fracking.

But one of the things that I also learned at this conference is the enormous cost of even getting rid of a small amount of the chemical contamination.

So they were very honest at this summit with one another because they didn’t know an opponent was there. And first of all, they talked about the enormous amount of wastewater being created: 8.1 trillion gallons daily, enough to cover the United States in three feet of wastewater and it’s increasing by 8 percent every year.

And then they talked about the cost to just make it so that their injection equipment, you know, they inject this waste water deep underground - to just get the chemicals out that cause corrosion depending on the well site, costs from $24,000 to $242,000. And it’s roughly 5 percent of developing a well.

So, knowing the oil and gas industry, they are not going to get most of this contamination out. And things like the radioactivity that’s left in the water, the radioactive elements that are picked up deep underground. That’s never going to be cleaned up - or many of the chemicals that we have to have very expensive technology to address and it’s unlikely that this water could ever be pristine again.

So it’s not just the pollutants getting in the water today, it’s the amount of water that’s being used and the air pollution. And we know that in farming areas that animals are dying. That livestock is dying, that people are getting sick, and that there is an affect in states like Pennsylvania on the amount of milk that’s being produced. And people are getting sick too. And basically we've seen so much money spent by the oil and gas industry, that they are actually keeping our federal agencies from doing their job.

So over the last five election cycles, and that’s not counting this one, there have been $240 million given to federal candidates for office. And over the last five year, they've spent 2/3 of a billion dollars lobbying.

And you know, the other day one of my staff was pointing out that to count to a billion actually takes 30 years. A billion dollars, two-thirds of a billion dollars, that’s a lot of money.

So they are putting so much pressure on the EPA that when the agency investigated water pollution in Pavilion, Wyoming, and found it associated with fracking, that the propaganda machine has started up and they are trying to discredit the agency, put pressure on the agency.

When you spoke with Robin from Ecocentric last fall, you touched on the issue of financing and I was wondering if you could speak to the connection perhaps between the finance issue and the amount of money that the industry is putting in, which is the larger problem that Bill McKibben and others are really leading the way on in terms of saying: we're at the tipping point and this is the moment, in capital letters. And is one possible direction that you see for the movement for people in opposition to fracking to work really more on capping finance reform or from the financial end do you think?

Well I think we have to do that, but you know, we - basically what we have to do to change federal policy, if we were going to win on the facts we'd have already won. We have to organize in every congressional district and we have to do that based on the issues that motivate people there. And in the places where there is fracking going on or that it’s been proposed, that is the issue that’s grabbing people and we need to make the connection to campaign finance reform.

But it’s immediate threats that really galvanize people and we need them to connect these issues that are important in their everyday life to the elections. And the way that our system has devolved, the vested interest benefits from people being apolitical and feeling that there’s nothing that they can do and not participating in elections and you know, basically vegging out in front of the television set, I think it’s about on average of five hours a day.

So it’s our job as activists and organizers to motivate people on the issues that affect them in their daily life. And to do that and build that movement nationally.

Now the finance - the campaign finance reform is key and I'm excited to see people, other organizations addressing Citizens United, and trying to deal with this situation that we have of legalized bribery for campaigns in this country. And I think that there is a long road on that, that we have to keep at it and every issue that people are working on, we need to bring it back to campaign finance reform.

You know, I think the other thing is that we are at the tipping point, we are messing with the planet in such a serious way, that it’s an emergency, it’s a crisis, and we do not want to be in a place where we are spending public dollars to build fifty more years of infrastructure for the natural gas industry. Because one of the things that was really clear to me at this summit, is you know the energy industry is snickering at the public interest groups that are talking about natural gas as a transition fuel and it’s a bridge fuel.

This is all about drilling for every last drop and we don’t want to see the infrastructure develop that’s going to enable that. So incentives for gas-run vehicles in New York City, the attempts to move all of the large apartment buildings to gas, there are a lot of reasons, even health and safety reasons that that’s not a very good idea from explosions and fires in such an intensely urban area. So we need to make these connections and we need to have people realize that it’s for our children and our grandchildren that we need the action today. And New York is such a critical state, fracking isn’t going on there, except in a very limited way, and not very deep for oil, and oil has been drilled for in New York for a number of years. But this is a new kind of fracking that will go very deep, completely different, it’s not being done in New York, and New York is a bellwether state. Governor Cuomo wants to be president. We don’t want another president who is close to the natural gas industry or beholding to the natural gas industry.

Governor Cuomo needs to know that he will not be president if he allows fracking in New York. New York is important because it is where our national media is located and if we can’t stop fracking in New York, it makes it so much more difficult to do anything federally or in other states. And that’s why the industry is pushing so hard for fracking in New York.

In terms of getting involved, I'm thinking of folks in Northeastern Ohio where I'm originally from, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to just watch what’s happening there. And so say one of my family or friends who live in that area who didn’t sign a lease, a neighbor did, and now suddenly this has come literally to their doorstep. What are some things that you would suggest that people might do who've never been involved in anything as far as an activist movement, or I mean, what - if that person was sitting here and they said, "I don’t know, what do I do?" What would you say?

Well, first of all I think they can get involved in their local political situation so they can work, depending on the community, work for a resolution at the local level in their township, in the county that they live. And if they can’t pass the resolution immediately they work at the political level as volunteers and public interest groups can’t get involved in elections, unless they are a c(4)[tax designation] and these local groups wouldn’t be able to. And they get those people unelected. I mean, I really think that this is about holding officials accountable for what they are doing. I think they document the pollution in their own community, and then they start networking with other communities in the state, and there are groups that are helping to coordinate the statewide effort so that there can be state legislation.

And it may take a couple of years, but we need to do that in a number of states and build to take federal action. You know we believe that fracking is so dangerous that it needs to be banned everywhere that we can possibly ban it. You know, we recognize it’s happening some places, that this is very difficult. But we do think it’s time for us to start fighting for what we really want, not the best that we can negotiate. There has been too much dependence on advocacy that’s centered on negotiations and trying to have a seat at the table and you know, it’s good that there’s some groups doing that, but we need a grass roots movement that’s kind of rowdy and it’s going to hold elected officials accountable. And elected officials don’t like to be held accountable. So they make a lot of trouble for people and organizations that do that and we need to be strong and offer support to everyone who is trying to hold these officials accountable, at every level of government from a township to the presidency. I mean, we don’t want another president like President Obama who says fracking is okay. And we need to build the political power before the next legislation and if we don’t connect elections to issues, we're lost in the long term.

If the governor comes forth with something in New York and there is a good chance that he will, not all is lost, there will be lawsuits, and there will be massive organizing. And so people can’t give up hope, because this is just one step in a long fight.