Dispatches from the Kangaroo Court | Green Arkansas

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dispatches from the Kangaroo Court

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2008 at 2:58 PM

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Friday morning, the Strategic Growth Institute at the University of Central Arkansas held a panel discussion (The Shale Summit at UCA) to talk about the economic impact of natural gas exploration in the Fayetteville Shale. There are many issues related to gas exploration, some of which have been detailed in the Times and on this blog, and there’s a hug learning curve to the nature of the business and its potential impact.

A public forum addressing these issues and educating the public on the pros and cons of gas exploration would be of great service to our local communities. However, this particular discussion was nothing more than a Kangaroo Court; a public relations opportunity for oil industry insiders and a chance for local officials to pat each other on the back and talk about how gas exploration was the patriotic thing to do. Not one voice from the “other side” was included.

Senators Gilbert Baker and Bob Johnson provided opening remarks. Baker started off the summit by talking about how the Fayetteville Shale was a blessing from God, but was just the first of many speakers to claim that our natural gas boom was manna from heaven. Johnson was quick to follow, saying the legislature needs to be on the defensive. He stressed that the state did not need to over-regulate the gas industry and drive them out of the state. If there was only one shale play in the US, he said, we could afford to be bossy.

Johnson also said he had yet to see one negative impact of the Fayetteville operations. I’ve been working on this beat for just a little while, and there’s no end to the complaints being voiced by every-day Arkansans over water, noise, land-use, and pollution issues.

John Thaeler, Senior Vice President of SEECO, Inc., talked about the discovery of the gas reserves in the Fayetteville Shale and provided an analysis of what the economic benefits were likely to be. The costs, whether economic, environmental, or costs to public health, were not discussed.

Gene Cauley, of the Home Banc Shares Board, stressed the need for more infrastructure including pipelines and steel pipes for the wells. Taxes on these businesses make it harder for the state to compete, he argued. Cauley’s remarks focused mainly on the economic impact of taxing the gas industry, but were also remarkable because of their religious overtones. Cauley said, “The Bible doesn’t say money is evil. The Bible says the love of money is evil.” He also said he did not think it was a coincidence that the center of the Fayetteville Shale play was in Jerusalem, AR, and that people who invest and work in the shale were as patriotic as our troops. I’m not making this up.

After the presentations and a short discussion, panelists took questions from the audience. Most questions were of the “so, how great is this, really?” variety, but some audience members posed questions on the environmental impact of the drilling. Thaeler said the companies were doing everything they could to abide by governmental regulations set forth by the Natural Resources Commission, the Arkansas Department for Environmental Quality, the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Preston Scroggin, Faulkner County Judge, said there had been some wear and tear on the roads, but gas companies have been “good corporate citizens.” Jimmy Hart, Conway County Judge, also said his county and constituents were benefiting from the boom.

“If you asked me if I’d rather have the potholes and the dust with the economic benefits, or no potholes and no dust without the economic benefit, then I’d say that’s a pretty stupid question,” Hart said.

Out of all the remarks there were a couple of jabs taken at the press and others for raising questions about severance taxes, road quality, or environmental concerns. As someone who has invested a lot of time researching the issue, I think those concerns are valid, and are not worthy of scorn or exclusion from a panel discussion on the impact of the Fayetteville shale play.

I think a lot of people in the environmental community would concede that natural gas exploration here beats buying other forms of energy from the Middle East or elsewhere. The point of having a true conversation is to reach some sort of middle ground, maybe not a win-win, but hopefully a compromise. These drilling operations, according to the companies themselves, and from what I hear from those close to the industry, can be done properly and with minimal negative impact. We have to be sure that proper regulations are in place and that companies are not left to self-police their operations, or those hired out to contractors. It’s time to have a serious discussion about this where everyone, not just those who benefit economically or politically, get the chance to chime in.

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