How is it that time after time governmental process and policy results in harm to the public? Hearings are held, reports commissioned, experts consulted, and yet decisions are constantly made that endanger health, despoil the environment, cause economic hardship and erode public confidence in the very institutions created to insure the public’s welfare. One need not search too far; the answer is almost always money.
Take hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” the high pressure injection of material deep into shale deposits which releases natural gas. The first of these shale deposits to be so exploited is in Texas, and of personal interest to me because it is called the Barnett Shale, an onshore natural gas field of 5,000 square miles. Since its discovery, shale deposits have been discovered throughout the United States, and a shale gas “rush” is in full swing.
Like any “rush,” the current one is fueled by greed, buttressed and rationalized by fears about dependence on foreign energy sources in the Middle East. Accordingly, research, rules and regulations pertaining to shale gas exploration and exploitation have been rushed as well. Nearly 500 chemicals, many of them classified as among the most toxic known are used in the fracking process, and their harmful effects are well documented. However, the 2005 Energy Bill signed by G.W. Bush exempts the fracking industry from most lawsuits or the disclosure of the precise chemical components used, making monitoring and regulation nearly impossible. That bill, of course, was subject to “the process in place.”
Saying that the process in place is corrupted is not the same as saying the people involved are corrupt, though that also happens. The process in place is corrupt because economics and issues of money completely dominate policy decisions, and this is corruption of the public trust. Protecting the public health and welfare requires more than economic analysis, which provides solely one perspective on a topic.
The recent “impact report” requested by the Sonoma City Council illustrates the problem and the unfortunate bias of the system. Faced with an initiative measure to limit the size of new hotels, and endorsed by enough voters to place it on the ballot, the City Council could have ordered a report months ago when the citizen effort was first announced but chose to wait until it qualified for the ballot. At that point, and facing a 30-day deadline, the City Council left it to the City Manager and the only consultant willing to produce a report in 30 days to define the scope the report. Not surprisingly, the system in place resulted in a report about economics alone. No cultural, environmental, infrastructure-related or quality-of-life issues are included, despite their importance.
Fracking and tourism share the characteristics of a “rush.” Both happen in an atmosphere of fear and haste. As the desire to exploit an opportunity reaches a fevered pitch, economic and competitive aspects become elevated in priority, and all other considerations are subordinated. The politicians, government, paid consultants, lobbyists and industry experts line up for their share of the outcome, while the public’s input is generally reduced to playing “beat the clock” against a three-minute timer.
Corruption, then, is revealed not as “pay-offs” or illegal activity, but rather the way the institutional process in place is biased towards money, relegates all other considerations as secondary and often renders critical decision-making a charade.