Environmental coalition pools resources to fight fracking

cjarvis@newsobserver.comJune 10, 2014 

  • Contentious issues in TV ads

    The four senators voted to fast-track tracking: A 2013 bill that passed the Senate would have allowed fracking to begin before rules governing the industry were adopted. A bill signed into law this year accelerates the process. Both have been widely described in the news media as “fast tracking” fracking. Supporters dispute that characterization.

    Chemicals: The ads say fracking uses “toxic chemicals including benzene, silica, and formaldehyde that can cause cancer and birth defects.” Supporters say benzene is banned and not used in fracking, that silica is not a chemical and no more harmful in the industry than it is to quarry workers, and that formaldehyde is used at such a small concentration that it is not harmful. Opponents dispute all of those contentions.

The tone of the TV ads was damning, singling out a handful of state senators for their support of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

“The Fracking Crew,” as they were dubbed in spots that ran on major stations and cable channels in the Triangle, Triad and Fayetteville this spring, portrayed them, in sinister terms, as politicians who didn’t care about people’s health. The lawmakers say they were unfairly targeted.

They can brace for more.

A new round of TV ads, mailers and an Internet campaign will launch Tuesday, for a second time calling out Republican state senators Chad Barefoot of Wake County, Ronald Rabin representing Johnston, Lee and Harnett counties, and Wesley Meredith from Cumberland County.

“Tell them to protect us, not the polluters,” the new ads say.

The “accountability campaign” was developed by a coalition of nine environmental groups in North Carolina, with an unprecedented infusion of money from a powerful national advocacy organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s a response to what they contend has been the dismantling of environmental safeguards since Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011.

“Small groups in North Carolina, statewide groups and even national groups realize we’re just getting beat up on the environment,” said Mary Maclean Asbill of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We need to let people in North Carolina know what’s going on.”

Barefoot said environmentalists opposed to energy exploration are out of the mainstream. He had two things to say about their campaign:

“One, it’s a marginalized group that is trying to bully state legislators around in states that are considering energy legislation. Second, it’s politics: Distract people from the No. 1 issue, which is the economy.”

Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in Raleigh, says the ad campaign marks a significant development in North Carolina politics.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen in North Carolina since the legislature changed hands an organization investing a substantial amount of resources in holding individual members accountable,” Jackson said. “For an environmental organization to lead the charge is a big deal for the environmental community.”

Groundwork for the North Carolina campaign began at least as far back as 2012, when the Natural Resources Defense Council identified it as one of five states in an anti-fracking project, according to its most recent tax filing. The council, based in Washington, D.C., receives close to $100 million in annual revenue. It spends $1 million a year on lobbying in addition to funding grass-roots organizing, such as the $10,000 it gave to Boone-based Appalachian Voices, according to the tax record.

A significant amount of the NRDC’s money has come from retired hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer of California, a longtime Democratic donor whose focus is the environment. His Next Gen Climate Action political action committee plans to spend more than $100 million in a climate-change advertising campaign this year, according to Politico. He has also targeted a few key Senate races this year, although not North Carolina.

The organization’s campaign director, Rob Perks, said it has paid for advertising and grass-roots campaigns in other states but never to the extent it has in North Carolina. Planning for the assault began in 2013, he said.

Holding people accountable

In February this year, the NRDC ran TV ads featuring singer James Taylor sounding a general alarm about the environment and urging viewers to get involved. Another ad asserted that Gov. Pat McCrory had to answer for the Dan River spill – saying he had coal ash on his hands, with the image of a muck-covered palm.

“That didn’t translate into a lot of action,” Perks said. “People weren’t mobilized because, frankly, they didn’t know who to call, other than the governor. A lot of people don’t know who their legislators are.”

Perks said the campaign kicked it up a notch working with the new coalition calling itself the N.C. Environmental Partnership. The partners decided it was time to shine the spotlight on lawmakers through TV ads, mailers and websites. “We actually had to hold people accountable, single out people who are leading this assault on the environment in North Carolina,” he said.

The “Fracking Crew” ads hit the airwaves for six weeks. A series of polls afterward indicated a marked change in public opinion. One survey found a shift in Barefoot’s district from 45 percent of respondents who approve of fracking in January to only 30 percent in April.

The organizations always planned a two-phase campaign, Perks said, with the second part waiting until the legislature’s short session ended this summer. But they changed strategy with the rapid approval of a fracking bill signed into law by McCrory last week.

“After session, we were going to go back up on whatever the hot-button environmental issues were,” Perks said. “The legislature kind of jump-started the session with this very controversial fracking bill.”

It’s unclear how long the new ads will air. The two phases of the ad campaigns have so far cost more than $1 million, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC chipped in more than half that amount, and the rest came from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Sen. Trudy Wade, a first-term Republican legislator and veterinarian from Greensboro, was the target of two ads calling her out this spring because of her support for fracking and for a bill easing landfill restrictions. One ad went like this:

“Trash. Big mega-trash. Not our trash. Wade sponsored a bill to let New York, New Jersey and other states to dump here. Tell Trudy Wade attracting New York trash doesn’t pass the smell test.” The ad that earned her a spot on “The Fracking Crew” said she “voted to put our families at risk.”

Ads called misleading

Soon after, she received a long, profanity-laced message on her home phone excoriating her because of her vote for fracking, ending with the caller’s sentiment that he hoped she would die a slow and painful death just like fracking will inflict on “thousands” of others in the state.

She blames the level of discourse at least partly on the TV ad campaign, which she calls misleading.

“I live here like everyone else and I am also concerned about the environment,” Wade said in an interview last week. “I feel the ads are misleading the public.”

Wade turned to James Womack, who is on the state commission that is writing fracking rules. Womack, who has an engineering degree from West Point, issued a point-by-point refutation of the fracking ad. “I found very little content that was accurate and truthful,” Womack wrote.

Asbill of the Southern Environmental Law Center says everything in the ads, mailers and Internet campaign is factual. Perks also stands by the ads, saying they are extensively vetted through the national organization’s in-house experts and disagrees that they are exaggerations.

“We’re not just crafting ads on the fly that look good and get people’s attention,” Perks said. “I guarantee our people know a lot more than they do.”

Barefoot has another issue with the ads. He points out that his Democratic opponent in the general election, Sarah Crawford, is married to a lobbyist for the N.C. League of Conservation Voters. That organization is not part of the N.C. Environmental Partnership, but Barefoot says it shows the real motivation behind the campaign. Democrats who have voted for fracking haven’t been targeted, he noted.

“I have an opponent married to a lobbyist and all the sudden I’m the recipient of a bunch of negative ads,” Barefoot said. “This is just straight-up hardball politics. Have they been successful trying to mislead voters on this issue? Probably.”

 

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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