FERC’s calendar listed it as a “public comment meeting.” Later, FERC said it wasn’t a public meeting, but a “listening session” to which the public was invited. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulates things like interstate pipelines and powerlines, and has been no stranger to controversy in recent years. In Wilson, N.C., the night of February 14, 2017, FERC officials would not allow the news media to work inside the auditorium where a “public” listening session was being held.
The Society of Environmental Journalists today wrote FERC expressing concern about the procedure.
The issue was the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. The purpose of the Feb. 14 meeting was for FERC to gather public comments on its draft environmental impact statement for the pipeline. Agencies are required by regulation to solicit such comment.
There were only two reporters present at the meeting, one from the Wilson Times newspaper and one from the Progressive Pulse of the NC Policy Watch. According to Lisa Sorg of the Progressive Pulse, FERC would not allow news media to take pictures, interview citizens, or record comments inside the middle-school auditorium where the session was being held, although they were allowed to be present. Reporters were allowed to work outside the auditorium, according to Sorg. A FERC spokesperson verified these details.
Once inside the auditorium, people could sign up to give comments, and when their turn came, they were ushered individually into a side room where each had three minutes to give a statement to a court reporter.
FERC in recent years has struggled with increasing obstruction of work at its offices and increasing disruption of its meetings by protesters. Before its May 19, 2016, monthly meeting, FERC commissioners voted to exclude the public, upon learning that protests were planned to disrupt the meeting. Or, as they put it, the meeting was "open to the public via webcast only." Credentialed news media were allowed to attend. Protesters were objecting to hydraulic fracturing and interstate gas pipelines. The meeting closure came after protesters had been demonstrating at FERC commissioners’ private homes.
At the center of the protests has been a group called Beyond Extreme Energy. The group uses nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic, and seeks to organize in communities across the U.S. It is part of a wider anti-fracking and anti-pipeline network.
For years, since Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act in 1969, the development of environmental impact statements has involved public meetings. Regulations implementing NEPA require opportunities for public comment. Meetings are not the only way agencies can receive public comment -- they routinely get them in writing via postal mail or electronic dockets. Each federal agency runs its own public participation process.
Sometimes, the meetings got rowdy.
The issue that arose in Wilson was not merely about press access, but about maintaining order or control of the forum. FERC had switched from the traditional “town hall” meeting format to the “listening session” format almost two years before the Wilson meeting. This came in response to incidents in which protesters had taken over or disrupted meetings.
Protestors had not only targeted the Wilson meeting, but actually several of the series of 10 listening sessions FERC is holding on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline draft EIS. Beyond Extreme Energy, Clean Water for North Carolina, and the Alliance to Protect Our People and the Places We Live had all encouraged members to come to the sessions. A protesters’ umbrella group called Popular Resistance explained the strategy in an online post before the Wilson meeting.
The post contended that FERC aimed to prevent community organizing, quoting Beyond Extreme Energy organizer Steve Norris saying: “One approach has been to turn public meetings where people speak out and hear from their neighbors into non-public meetings. People are ushered into one-on-one meetings with officials or industry representatives so that no one else hears their testimony. This keeps people isolated and feeling alone, not realizing they are part of the majority of their community….” Instead, the groups sought to turn the occasion into “people’s forums,” holding alternative meetings nearby.
FERC spokesperson Tamara Young-Allen said the Sorg article’s statement that media were “shut out” of the Wilson meeting was “completely misleading.” “We’re not excluding reporters,” she said. Young-Allen said one rationale for the “listening” format was that less-structured “town meeting” formats often did not allow time for everybody who wanted to comment. “The goal is to allow members of public to speak freely and give their comments without disruption.”
The public could talk to reporters outside the room. But the news media in Wilson (and other meetings like this) could not hear or know immediately what the public was saying to FERC. Transcripts of the public comments would not be posted for more than a week (except for a fee).
In the end, one story that didn’t get told -- or at least told well enough in the media -- was the story of significant local community opposition to the pipeline itself. Many people objected to having easements on their land taken by eminent domain, or not being compensated enough, or having to worry about safety. Also not told was a story of environmental justice, Sorg suggested, about the many poor, rural, African-American, and Native American people whose land the pipeline impacted.
“I think we can all agree it's important for everyone to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to express themselves,” said Tim Wheeler, chairman of the SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force. “But the way FERC is handling this impedes the ability of the press to cover the government's fact-finding and decision-making process on projects that are clearly of great public interest.”
“The fact that federal government representatives have come to a community to take the public's pulse about a controversial project is news,” Wheeler said, ”and the news loses its immediacy when you must wait weeks to report what happened or was said then and there.”
“There are ways to deal with this public-meeting challenge without trampling on the newsgathering process,” Wheeler said. “One is to properly control the meeting, by setting clear ground rules and enforcing them. Arrangements can be made for press to witness or hear the speakers, even if the commenters are secluded or sheltered from the crowd.”