Emboldened anti-fracking activists follow U.S. regulator home

Tony Clark is commissioner of the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Image: Gulf Coast Power Association

Tony Clark was wrapping up dinner with his family when the doorbell rang.

He didn’t need to answer. He already knew who it was. Anti- fracking activists had followed him home, taping “WANTED” posters with his face plastered on them across his leafy suburban neighborhood outside of Washington. Coming up to his front door was the last straw. He called the police. And as they arrived, Clark’s 9-year-old son asked: “Why are the police here? Is it because you work for the government?"

Clark is one of four members serving on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It’s not the first time his agency has been the subject of high-profile attacks. In the aftermath of the California energy crisis, the panel took heat for failing to clamp down on power-market manipulation by the likes of Enron Corp. It has been so resented by opponents that they’ve used its acronym to say they’ve been “FERC’ed.” But at no time until now, as the commission oversees an unprecedented expansion of the U.S. natural gas pipeline network, have these campaigns been so personal.

“Tracking you down and trying to figure out where you live and basically stalking you to your house is something beyond what would be considered acceptable behavior," Clark said by phone. “It’s a sad commentary that, even at a fairly young age, kids can kind of sense just because you work for the government you might become the target of something like that.”

“I don’t remember anyone coming to my home -- that’s beyond the pale,” said Curt Hebert, who served as the commission’s chairman 15 years ago, at the time of Enron, and is now a lawyer at Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes PLLC. “I never really felt threatened.”

Today, the commission is facing attacks on a lot of fronts. For one, Public Citizen, an advocacy group that bills itself as the people’s voice in Washington, has called out the agency for employing people who later left to take jobs at the companies it regulates. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network is accusing the panel of bias because its pipeline program is funded by industry. The agency denies the charge and says safeguards are in place to avoid conflicts of interest by staff. The commission barred the public from attending a meeting in May after the activists said they would step up their protests against the agency.

It was around that same time that Clark’s home and those of other commissioners were targeted.

Taking Land

Beyond Extreme Energy, made up of people fighting an oil and natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have taken particular issue with the energy commission’s use of eminent domain, whereby the government has the right to seize private land for public use. That’s why they’ve brought the fight to the doorsteps of commissioners, said Ted Glick, a co-founder of the group, which has taken responsibility for orchestrating the protest at Clark’s home.

“We would not be going to the commissioners’ homes if FERC was not enabling the taking of the land, and sometimes the destruction of the land, and the health, and the property values for easily thousands, if not tens of thousands,” Glick said.

Environmental groups were emboldened by President Barack Obama’s decision to reject TransCanada Corp.’s planned Keystone XL oil pipeline last year.

In some ways, the agency really has the shale boom to thank for the unwelcome attention. The panel has been consumed by its mandate to oversee a sprawling network of oil and gas pipelines criss-crossing the nation. The surge in energy production from previously untapped shale formations has entirely upended how energy flows in the U.S., creating the need for new systems to bring supplies from places like North Dakota to market.

887 Miles

The commission has approved 887 miles (1,427 kilometers) of lines this year alone, the most since 2010.

“The timelines for major projects has gotten longer because there’s a lot more process they’re going through with heightened levels of interest and opposition,” Clark said.

UGI Corp.’s 118-mile PennEast gas line in the Northeast is expected to start up about a year later than planned. Williams Cos.’s 113-mile Dalton Expansion gas project that would feed gas to utilities in Georgia also risks delays.

By now, the protests and personal attacks are just “a new fact of life” for both pipeline developers and for the commission, Don Santa, head of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America trade group, said by phone. “Pipeline applicants are now fully aware of the magnitude of these challenges and I think they plan for them from the very start.”

That may be one of the few things industry and environmentalists can agree on, as Glick said he expects the protests will continue.

“It’s definitely not over,” he said.

© 2016 Bloomberg L.P