The Rapidian

West MI Fractivist: Jeff Smith and the 'People's EPA' indict the oil & gas industry

Jeff Smith opens up about fracking, corporate media, and his efforts at GRIID.

/courtesy of Jeff Smith

Underwriting support from:

Fracking from Multiple Perspectives

Michigan Oil & Gas Producer's Educational Foundation:
Industry's 5-minute "Shale Gas" video

US Energy & Commerce Committee (2011)
"Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing"

MDEQ Oil and Gas Division
Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan

NPR Series on Fracking
The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers

Michigan Citizen Activist - Education Sites
Ban Michigan Fracking
Don't Frack Michigan
Know Fracking West Michigan
Michigan Land Air Water Defense 



With a welcoming smile and laid back attitude it’s difficult to imagine that a few short months ago Jeff Smith, founder of Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID), was in jail for occupying the downtown office of Wolverine Oil and Gas. The scene was something to behold. Hard hats, caution tape and men in suits reading off the “charges” they issued on Wolverine Executives. The charges ranged from profiting from environmental destruction, contaminating groundwater and soil with toxic chemicals to poisoning plants, animals and humans all while contributing to what the protesters called the most urgent crisis of our times: Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan.

“We were part of the People’s EPA,” Smith explains of the stunt still available to watch on Youtube. “The fact that they can do this to our land, water, and public health- that’s a crime.”

What exactly has Jeff Smith up in arms over a lawful energy extraction process by Wolverine and companies like them? Horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, has fast become Michigan’s environmental talking point. It is a process of fossil fuel extraction that drills deep into the earth’s shale layers and then turns horizontally to drill up to two miles across the earth’s crust. Once the drilling is complete, explosions are set off through the horizontal well and a cocktail of undisclosed chemicals chased with millions of gallons of fresh water are shot through the site to collect gas and oils buried deep below. 

Upon collection, those millions of gallons of fresh water used in the process are so toxic that another well (a deep injection well) must be drilled down into the earth to inject the water never to be seen or reused again. This is the process for just one extraction. Each site can repeat the process up to 18 times. If multiplied out, that is up to 36 million gallons of fresh water for just one well site.

Environmental organizations from the Sierra Club to Food & Water Watch warn that the potential hazards of this process are numerous and not fully known. While fracking in Michigan has been done in various forms and on smaller scales in the last several decades, the process and chemicals used have been transformed in the past couple of years.

“They are drilling deeper and the impacts can’t be quantified yet,” Smith explains. He says that there are reports of chemicals left on site, poor clean up, and studies showing contamination of water, as well as livestock in nearby areas being affected. These issues came to a head in 2011 when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality put together a list of regulations to address potential hazards.

With the few and documented known risks, says Smith, it is still difficult to understand why fracking continues. Fracking has been banned in several countries already, as well as the state of Vermont. Smith explains that fracking has been excluded from many of the federal and state regulations, most notably in the “Halliburton Loophole” from 2005’s Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts meant to regulate the oil and gas industry’s impact on our environment. By declaring the chemical mixtures as trade secrets, the oil and gas industry does not have to disclose the contents to the public or government for scrutiny.

So what takes a small town boy from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to the heart of the anti-fracking movement in Michigan 40 years later? He came by way of the Peace Brigades International. Jeff Smith served as a transport guard for citizen’s fleeing government death threats in Central America in the nineties when most of the continent was in a state of unrest and on the brink of multiple civil wars.

“If something went wrong with one of our transports, the Peace Brigades had a nonviolent response process," he says. "They would coordinate letters and massive amounts of phone calls to get action.” Smith, it appears, took this model of action and applied it to his own efforts with the same type of nonviolent, written movement at GRIID.

“They had scheduled a press conference for me when I got back to Michigan [after my work with the Peace Brigade in Central America]. Central America was a big topic so we were expecting a lot of reporters. No one showed up. So I started monitoring the press coverage on Central America for the next month," saus Smith. "I found this lack, this void in reporting.” 

Smith attempted to fill the void by writing his own account on the issues in Central America then sent a copy to the editor of the local paper.

“I went to see him about. I asked, ‘Did you get the copy of my report on Central America?’ He answer, ‘Yes, I got it.’ So I asked him what he thought about it and he picked it up and threw it in the trash,” says Smith. This motivated him to grow even louder on topics of social injustice that were not being reported on- by founding GRIID.

“It’s not about making money. We want to educate the public on these issues,” Smith explains of GRIID. He aims to influence critical thinking and motivate others to action. “There are all these interviews in the media with government officials and industry professionals taken at face value. We dig into what they are saying. We research the information and provide the other side of the conversation.”

GRIID’s efforts are not limited to the oil and gas industry. It covers a multitude of social topics including war, race, gender inequality, health, the environment and elections. Smith views them all as intersectory and urgent. GRIID offers classes, articles, in-depth research and media on all of these topics in the hopes to fill the void in corporate media.

In the state of Michigan, fracking has come to the forefront because of the industry emphasis over the last year. In May, 2012 Barry County residents were given a 10 day notice of the county auction leasing out mineral rights on public land. With little knowledge on the process and even fewer days to prepare a response, residents all over Michigan met in Lansing to attend the May 8, 2012 MDNR public auction. Smith was among them.

Holding true to public forum, Smith notes that these residents attempted to discuss and stop what they considered to be a rushed and uninformed decision to lease of public property to the highest bidder. Many residents were removed or arrested after being told that it was not up for debate, just up for lease. This lack of response to public outcry is what continues to motivate self-described “fracktivists.”

“There is a complete lack of democratic process,” Smith says of the auctions. “There is so much power and money behind the legislation that they refuse to hear the public.” 

What was once segmented by regional attempts to stop horizontal hydraulic fracturing in Michigan is quickly becoming a collective movement. People are realizing, Smith says, that multiple levels of response to this process are needed.

“It’s going to take a combination of greater public awareness, commitment of grass roots groups to influence local levels of government, groups like MLAWD and people putting their bodies between the machinery,” he says. 

According to the legislation and industry documents, fracking in Michigan is the economic boost we need. Those documents say it will create jobs, energy independence and generate income for the state.

“It’s easy to see that side of it because that’s what is being reported," Smith responds. "But the product they extract is mainly for export. This is not for domestic consumption.” 

In Smith’s mind the idea of energy independence and economic stability is lost in the overwhelming health effects and loss of significant natural resources. The millions of gallons of water forever gone, the possibility of chemicals leaking into our groundwater supply and the unknown concoction of trade secret chemicals that are beyond the reach of our EPA. Smith leans forward to convey the urgency of the bottom line. 

"We need to reduce current carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 or we will be beyond of point of no return,” he says, and fracking is not the way to do it. He plans to continue his work with GRIID and direct action stunts like the one at Wolverine to bring this and other issues to the forefront of public media and press on towards social justice.

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