The Delaware River Basin Commission is a regulatory panel that decides what may be removed from or discharged to our Delaware River watershed. Members represent the United States (Corps of Engineers), New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Each entity has a seat at the table and a vote. But the individuals, the people who sit in those powerful chairs do not vote based on their personal conviction or discernment. The speak and vote for each of the Governors, and the President of the US.
Sure, most of the routine permitting of water companies and waste treatment operations is left to the staff these board members oversee. But issues like fracking are highly politicized. Lobbyists and industry lawyers make it their business to influence the policy that determines how these board members decide things.
The tension was palpable when the Colonel representing the Corps of Engineers voted against the motion that directed the staff to draft rules banning and regulating fracking in the Delaware River Basin. Everyone knew that she was following her orders and had no discretion whatever. As the roll call proceeded, other panelists made it clear that they too were speaking for those in higher authority.
As a courtesy to the many concerned citizens present, the panel permitted a public comment period after the meeting adjourned. It was not on the record, and it would not be heard by the real decision makers unless those who sat on the dais were extraordinarily committed to reporting the passion the various speakers expressed. These commissioners, many of the second or third alternates for the primary commission members, were there to take the verbal punches and try to remain civil and be cordial sparing those for whom they are surrogates.
If any one of them experienced themselves as guardians of a public trust, the moral injury they personally sustain should earn them a medal. When a person is ordered to do something that violates their deeply held moral and ethical convictions, when such an order comes from one who has absolute authority over the person, and when the stakes are very high, doing that abhorrent thing tears at the soul of one’s humanity. It’s a high-risk job if you really care about doing the right thing.
There will be enormous pressure for the DBRC to create loopholes and wiggle room in the regulations so that the energy industry can drill their wells and build their pipelines. The process will happen without public scrutiny, except when leaks happen. Insiders and influence peddlers will seek to influence the phrasing and the content. Political deals may be made. And, when the proposed rules are finally published and opened for public comment, it will be damned hard to get any meaningful changes adopted. Why? Again, because the people in those chairs listening to the public are not empowered to vote using their discernment and conscience – they will be under orders decided by a political bureaucracy and given before the hearings even begin.
The Pope speaks about climate change and morality …