By Lonnie Barlow
This summer, the temperatures have been through the roof hot…in more ways than one. The month-long picketing of National Fuel Gas (NFG) headquarters in Williamsville has come and gone. For those not hip to the situation, it breaks down like this – for about two years, members of the National Fuel Accountability Coalition (NFAC) have been trying to meet with NFG executives and CEO David F. Smith about how to reduce homeowner’s high gas bills. Up to this point, we have not yet met with Smith or his executives. The NFAC promised to picket outside of NFG headquarters one day a week for each week during the month of July.
Week 1: Children and Families Speak Out & Vigil
In the first week of July at the “Children and Families Speak Out & Vigil,” we went to NFG headquarters and peacefully let NFG executives know that we meant what we said when we told them that we would be back. Buffalo resident Sherry Davis told her story of living in an older home. Despite doing all the things she could to afford to do to conserve heat, like ”putting plastic on my windows, placing insulation on my hot water tank, closing off unused rooms, and hanging blankets or plastic in doorways,” her house still had “Swiss cheese for walls and windows.” Her story is not an unfamiliar one. Luana DeJesus, who also spoke, described her experience of living on disability and struggling to pay her bills. We came, we picketed peacefully and we went home.
Week 2: Holding National Fuel Accountable
In the second week of July at the “Holding National Fuel Accountable” picket, it was all about holding NFG to some sort of corporate accountability. Holding signs like, “Honk if gas bills R too high” and “CEO Smith, God is watching you,” we once again gathered peacefully to let NFG executives know how the community felt. Shawn Davis reminded us yet again that Smith makes “$3,500/hour” and that NFG has made a profit of more than $1 billion since 2009. We also learned that NFG’s PAC (political action committee) has been very active in the corporate special interest game. In the last two election seasons, NFG has given more than 530 campaign contributions to various political campaigns. The company’s top five executives have given more than $250,000 to political campaigns across New York State. With this inside track, it’s no surprise that the gas company received a $63 million tax break despite making more than $1 billion in 2009. And, as if making all this money wasn’t enough, NFG has been staunchly advocating for the environmentally harmful practice of hydrofracking in New York State! Yikes!
Week 3: Weatherization, Not Fracking
In the third week of July, the NFAC held a “Weatherization, Not Fracking” picket that shined a spotlight on NFG’s advocacy of hydrofracking in New York State. We were joined by our friends from Food and Water Watch, UB CLEAR, and Western New York Drilling Defense, as well as by speakers like Wales resident and Western New York Drilling Defense member Sarah Buckley. During the picket, Buckley spoke about NFG’s compressor station that is being built to take fracked gas from Pennsylvania to Canada. We also learned from Cayden Mak, a graduate student at the University at Buffalo, about a gas industry-sponsored report issued by the school which claims that hydrofracking is getting safer. Mak closed the picket by stating that, “The natural gas industry is trying to frack Western New York because they don’t hold anything sacred.”
Week 4: Community Partnership Rally & Camp Out
The “Community Partnership Rally & Camp Out,” the fourth and final picket of the month was clearly the most interesting. At the three previous pickets, the weather was so hot we could have definitely used a “slip n slide”; everyone who picketed had been very peaceful and we had no incidents with police.
Same thing here.
The only thing different was that we decided to camp out overnight. We set up camp on the publicly-owned side of NFG headquarters. Everything was going well until the sprinklers were activated. This seemed kind of strange because the sky looked as though it would pour down rain at any given moment. The other oddity was that the sprinklers were only turned on at the section of grass where we were. It’s as if Dr. Claw was sitting at a security monitor saying to himself, “There he is – I finally have you, Inspector Gadget, these water sprinklers will finally destroy you.” Whatever the case, this final act seemed to be the “highlight” of our month-long picketing. After a few hours (and after it started raining) the sprinkler was finally turned off. (Too bad they were activated again in the morning…)
While the battle still continues, we know that we still have a long way to go. Power concedes nothing without some type of struggle. In this case, the same is also true. A hot, hot summer month ends with a cool shower, or in our case, sprinkling. Thanks for being considerate, but we won’t go away that easily. If this is what it takes to get a meeting with one of the area’s top CEOs about finding sensible solutions to reduce high gas bills, then so be it.
See post also on thegoodneighborhood.com