Shilling for shale?

EPA admin-turned-corporate-consultant touts benefits of fracking to Chico State students

J. Winston Porter, during a recent visit to Chico State.

J. Winston Porter, during a recent visit to Chico State.

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Check out Frack-Free Butte County or Chico Citizens Action Network on Facebook for information on the effort to ban fracking in Butte County.

Though “frack” is something of a four-letter word to those concerned with the consequences of hydraulic fracturing to remove fossil fuels from the earth, a man billed as an environmental expert last week gave Chico State students a lesson on the practice’s benefits.

According to J. Winston Porter, the advent of fracking in the last decade is a “game changer” for American energy production that has led to lower gas prices, the creation of tens of thousands of jobs and a reduction of the nation’s dependency on coal.

“We’ve done enough fracking and produced enough natural gas to surpass Europe in terms of reducing greenhouse gases,” said Porter, an administrator at the federal Environmental Protection Agency during the 1980s and current operator of a Savannah, Ga.-based environmental and management consultant firm called Environmental Strategies. Porter was also at one time a high-ranking employee of Bechtel Corp., the largest construction and engineering company in the United States.

“The bottom line on fracking … I think it’s a pretty good technology,” he told about a dozen members of the school’s Collegiate Entrepreneurial Association at its weekly meeting on Thursday (April 24), the last of four on-campus presentations he made throughout the day. “It’s got a lot of good things going for it, but there’s still going to be a lot of fights over how we go about doing it.”

Porter fielded questions from students concerned about fracking, which in the North State led the Butte County Board of Supervisors to recently move toward banning the practice, and is the subject of an ongoing community effort urging voters to do the same. He said there is no convincing proof the process—in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped roughly a mile below the earth’s surface to fracture shale rock formations and release pent-up oil and natural gas—can cause earthquakes, as some critics have suggested.

“I’m not a geologist or a geophysicist, but I think that, even though this particular operation might be new, we’ve been doing hydraulic drilling for more than 100 years with no problem,” he said.

Regarding the potential for contaminating groundwater during the process, Porter claimed he isn’t aware of any cases, despite some students citing news reports to the contrary.

“I haven’t seen any problems like that,” Porter insisted. “I haven’t heard of any such cases.”

Some students at the meeting seemed shocked by Porter’s pro-fracking message. Jerry Hight, the assistant dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management who arranged for Porter to appear on campus, said students and faculty at his three previous on-campus appearances that day were similarly surprised.

And, Hight admitted, so was he.

“I don’t want to cast any aspersions on the man, but I definitely feel like his pre-publicity was less than honest,” Hight said.

Regina Conley, of the Rockville, Md., public relations firm Van Eperen & Co., invited the CN&R by billing Porter as an “energy expert.” Porter’s pro-fracking message isn’t alluded to in the information provided by Conley, which appears carefully crafted to tout his credits as an expert on environmental issues.

“I certainly don’t personally agree with his viewpoints, and one of our professors actually engaged him in some lively debate,” Hight said. “As a campus we’re dedicated to environmental awareness and sustainable energy solutions, certainly not a continued dependence on fossil fuels.”

Hight noted classroom presenters are not paid by the college, and said contacts at Innovate North State first tipped him to Porter being in the area. He also said that, though he took Porter’s appearance as a lesson to be more careful about inviting speakers to campus, the presentation wasn’t a total wash.

“Even though his message isn’t something we as a campus really embrace, he did start a meaningful discourse,” Hight said. “But, I think from the standpoint of opening a dialogue, his appearances actually had some value.

“But it certainly was not what we anticipated,” he continued. “If he’s funded by the people we expect he’s funded by, then it makes more sense.”

Though Hight didn’t spell out who he thought might be bankrolling Porter’s mission, Dave Garcia, spokesman for Citizens Action Network, which is currently gathering signatures to put a fracking ban on the November ballot, didn’t hold back with his suspicions.

“The oil companies are the richest corporations in the world, and they spend millions of dollars hiring guys like [Porter] to push their agenda,” said Garcia, who didn’t see Porter speak but watched some of his videos online. “Unfortunately, people think he’s believable and telling the truth, but you have to wonder who’s paying him to say this stuff.”

A cursory Internet search reveals Porter makes similar appearances throughout the country, as well as submits op-ed pieces to newspapers with strong sympathies toward the fossil-fuel industry (recent examples include titles like “We need to keep coal in our energy mix,” “Fracking is key to a better energy future” and “For a clean energy future, let the market work”). An April 22 article on Wisconsin political satire blog Political Capital referred to Porter as “an antiquated dude the Gas N’ Go fuel stations dredged up from Ronnie Reagan’s administration.”

The Environmental Strategies website lists communication activities, including “delivery of speeches to a wide variety of audiences” and “preparation of opinion pieces for major newspapers” under consulting services the firm provides.

Conley didn’t answer emailed questions about who is funding Porter’s current trip, or if Porter’s company serves clients in the gas or oil industries.

Garcia said he believes successful local anti-fracking campaigns have attracted the attention of big oil, and expects more pro-fracking activity here in the near future.

“Butte County is the [one of the] first [counties] in California to actually ban fracking,” he explained. “We’re the first domino, and they’re going to put a lot of money into this county to make sure this domino doesn’t fall, because they’re afraid others will follow,” he said. “The momentum is starting to build here, the oil companies realize that, and they’re starting to bring in their disinformation campaigns.

“I predict we’ll see a lot more people coming soon, some billboards, and a lot more advertising geared toward convincing people fracking is a good practice.”