Vibrations from the fiddler’s bow ricochet off the hot concrete canyon walls of First Street near Union Station. About a dozen people lounge on sleeping bags and lawn chairs on the sidewalk under a blue awning, sipping salt water. They toss a few bucks into a pot for a wager on who has lost the most weight since their public fast began five days ago. Fifteen pounds dropped since Labor Day wins the prize.
It’s come to this. Eighteen days of virtual starvation to draw a line under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s intransigence, its refusal to do much of anything to address controversy, protest, and mass mobilization against the stream of permits it issues to greenlight gas. In other words, rubberstamp approval for the infrastructure projects it takes to transport fracked gas from the shale fields.
The hunger strikers, organized under the name Beyond Extreme Energy, have already attended public hearings; made comments on the FERC dockets; organized petitions; disrupted Commission meetings; protested outside of FERC headquarters for two full weeks with banners, props and art displays; and blockaded its doors, resulting in more than 100 arrests.
“There are so many ways to make a stand, from talking with our friends in church to fasting,” said Carolyn Shaw, 71, a retired educator from Middleton, CT, who joined the fast for four days last week at FERC.
The fast will end at noon on September 25 with a celebration after the Pope has made his speech on Capitol Hill. They will deliver copies of the Pope’s Encyclical on the environment to FERC Commissioners. It calls climate change “a global problem with grave implications.”
My impotence has been gnawing at me of late. It will go immediately the fast is undertaken. -Mahatma Gandhi, 1948
Charles Strickler, 72, a retied dentist from Harrisonburg, VA, said he feels pretty good for having gone five days without food. “This is one small part,” he said of the fast. “I don’t know if it will have an effect on FERC. We need to make systemic changes.”
Their ages range from early 20’s to early 70’s. Many people around the country are fasting in solidarity for part or all of the time. By Day 5, everyone is rough around the edges. Their brains don’t work as fast, word recall is harder. The younger ones are feeling the pain more.
By the end of the eighth day, the four youngest are suffering. All of them–Lee Stewart, Jimmy Betts, Sean Glenn, and Mackenzie McDonald Wilkinson–walked in the 3,000-mile Great Climate March, but they agree: this is much more physically and psychologically difficult. “The Climate March was hard, but at least I could eat,” said Stewart of Washington, DC. He’s getting stomach cramps when he drinks the mildly salted water.
They lay on sleeping bags with yoga mats underneath while the last Metro train pulls out of Union Station for the suburbs.
Elder fasters peer into a future altered by climate change. They worry about the next generation, and the next, and the next.
“I fasted [for] the imperiled future of my grandchildren, who will not know many of the beauties I have experienced in my life and will suffer from the effects of a compromised earth,” Carolyn Shaw said.
Jerome Wagoner from New Jersey has three daughters, two grandchildren and “one on the way.” He fears his great-grandchildren will have a bleak future. “I’ve started to think if we don’t take effective action now, it will be irrelevant,” he said.
“Observe” does not include participation or disruptive conduct, and persons engaging in such conduct will be removed from the meeting. -Order 806, “Disruptive Conduct at Open Meetings,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (March 9, 2015)
A FERC employee thumped his heart with his fist as a sign of solidarity as he passed by. “I am not supposed to talk to you,” another said over and over for 20 minutes as Ted Glick of Chesapeake Climate Action Network explained to him why they were there, told him about the pipelines and how they prime the pump for fracking.
Passersby–including FERC employees–smile or ignore them, take flyers or push them away, offer feedback or pass in silence.
FERC, the somewhat obscure agency better known for regulating interstate electricity markets, at first seemed confounded by the protests targeting it a year ago. In public remarks, former Commission Chairwoman LaFleur said, now infamously, “We have a situation.” Current Chairman Norman Bay cracked down, enforcing the new gag rule at public meetings and calling protesters “disrespectful” and “a turn-off.”
Chairman Bay nonetheless stopped when Ted Glick flagged him down. By Glick’s account, Bay told him that he respected what they doing, and it reflected the commitment of their beliefs.
The same mind that creates the Corporation in society creates the bureaucracy in the state. Thus as soon as the corporation mind is attacked so too is the mind of the bureaucracy… -Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843
Bay however doesn’t like protesters disrupting the Commission’s monthly meetings and asked them to stop. Glick continues his account:
I responded: How can we do that when there’s no change at FERC as far as permitting gas pipelines and fracking infrastructure, one after the other, with virtually no exceptions.
His response: these are just pipelines. We’re a regulatory agency. Blaming us is like blaming the steel companies that make pipes. It’s the production of the gas that you need to deal with.
My response: how can you say you have no responsibility for the expansion of fracking? Without pipelines and infrastructure the fracked gas industry couldn’t be expanding and the gas wouldn’t be sent around the world. And you have a legal responsibility to do environmental impact statements and assessments which address the climate and environmental impacts. You also are supposed to be acting in the public interest, not the interests of the gas industry.
At that point, he checked out on the conversation, said something to the effect of “we should talk more,” and he headed off down the sidewalk.
Glick, in an interview with DC Media Group in August, complained about FERC’s “culture of coziness with the gas industry.” The Commissioners continue to be “willfully ignorant of the harm that they are doing.”
So, isn’t it nice to be consulted? Stakeholders, how would you like to be cooked: roasted, deep fried or barbecued, or, for the lucky and compliant ones, moved sideways into the salad bar? Put your order in now before we decide for you. This is “consultation”. This type of Negotiation from a position of powerlessness can have only one outcome. -Paul Tyson, “The iron cage closes“
This summer, FERC published suggested best practices for industry personnel to conduct outreach to stakeholders affected by a company’s gas infrastructure project. FERC and other agencies initiated the guide because they were “interested in increasing public involvement in the pre-filing process,” FERC spokeswoman Tamara Allen-Young said via email. “FERC staff believed that it made sense to see if industry’s voluntary outreach programs can be made more effective across the board to ensure the highest level of public participation.”
Ted Glick took a look at the guide. “I kept looking for something new, something other than this being a manual for a more effective public relations effort, essentially, for the gas companies, the pipelines companies to sell their product, to get support from people locally,” he said. “ I couldn’t really find anything. There was nothing that indicated that they see these proposals than anything other than good proposals that just need to be sold better to people in local areas.”
The guide is concerned not only with public participation and transparency but with the project’s credibility and maintaining schedules. “Public perception can determine whether a project follows a path of predictable success or contentious uncertainty.” says the publication (page 7). “[W]e believe that the absence of public outreach in the planning of a project leads to unnecessary delays. A formal company program for stakeholder outreach… greatly increases the chances that a project will proceed in a timely, efficient, and credible manner.” (Page 5)
“The fact that they’re doing it shows that they realize that they need to be responsive. But this kind of responsiveness is just a sham, just really a sham,” said Glick.
[T]alking about rational efficiency becomes a way of avoiding talking about what the efficiency is actually for; that is, the ultimately irrational aims that are assumed to be the ultimate ends of human behavior. Here is another place where markets and bureaucracies ultimately speak the same language. Both claim to be acting largely in the name of individual freedom, and individual self-realization through consumption. -David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
“An Interstate Natural Gas Facility on My Land? What Do I Need to Know?” is a 28-page brochure FERC offers to the public as a guide to its approval process. In contrast, at the beginning of October, FERC will hold its third three-day seminar this year for industry personnel on how to successfully navigate the FERC environmental review process.
“Any alterations to FERC’s review process would be the result of legislative changes by Congress or by a rulemaking by the Commission. The Commission has not implemented any rulemakings with regard to its review process,” said FERC’s Tamara Allen-Young.
FERC isn’t in the business of change. Its business is “reliability,” keeping the electrical grid flowing to supply millions of Americans with as much energy as they want. It’s usually referred to as “keeping the lights on.”
Over-consumption is a “compulsory habit we don’t even think about,” said hunger striker Clarke Herbert, 66, a retired teacher from Ohio. “We have to change our thinking about energy and the way we live our lives.”
Fasters are giving up “conveniences and routines” as well as food, explained Jerome Wagoner. “It has actually made me question my habits of eating, why do I eat as much as I do and would I get away with one meal a day?” He intends to become a vegetarian after he ends his fast.
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. … A number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. – Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis
Charles Strickler admits to being a climate denier previously, but that changed after he and his wife volunteered in Biloxi for Katrina relief in 2008. “All of the climate denier scientists were being paid by the fossil fuel industry,” he said.
“Dreaming of a world free of fracking,” reads the white board in front of the FERC fast. It seems appropriate on the eve of the Pope’s visit to choose the civil disobedience tactic which overlaps with religious and spiritual purifying rituals.
“Yet all is not lost,” reads a passage of Laudato Si’. “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”
Note: This article was formerly entitled, “Scenes from a Hunger Strike”