Intrusions on democracy, big bills for taxpayers, a big gift  for Big Energy

By Ken Midkiff

Some strange things happened at the Sept. 3rd Columbia City Council meeting.

Taking the role of Mayor away from the Mayor, city manager Mike Matthes allowed a representative of Clean Energy to speak, thereby opening a public hearing, normally the Mayor's job (5:42 in this video).   Clean Energy is the Boone Pickens company that will operate a new compressed natural gas station, aka a filling station for a natural gas fleet of trucks and buses the city has already ordered. 
Without an invitation, the Clean Energy dude took to the public podium.   When he started speaking, I loudly questioned whether the public hearing was now open.   Mayor Bob McDavid called me out of order.

"This is the staff report," the Mayor barked.   Except that Clean Energy's employees are not city staff. 

His company is out to serve the public, the Clean Energy rep explained.  Natural gas will make consumers less dependent on gasoline.   All in all, this latest offering from BP -- Boone Pickens, who calls himself a "reformed" oilman -- is the best thing since sliced bread.
I've never seen this sort of intrusion on our Council's normal democratic process before.  It was unprecedented.

No one other than the company hack -- given a rare privilege by the Mayor and city manager -- spoke in favor of the project that night.
Many opposition speakers were not opposed to natural gas, per se, but to natural gas obtained by a process known as hydrological fracturing  aka "fracking."   Fracking uses water, silicone and various toxic chemicals to bust up rocks far underground, which then releases natural gas (or oil).
But flammable gas is hard to control.  Once released, natural gas can burst in flames through indoor faucets.   Fracking can also contaminate drinking water and destabilize bedrock enough that earthquakes occur, as in Arkansas and Texas recently. 

Despite these misgivings, Mayor McDavid exhorted those who spoke not to talk about fracking.  Council members  were cognizant of its benefits and liabilities, he explained.
It was verbal censorship during a democratic process, made worse when it became clear the City Council was relying on reports from fracking companies, who labeled contrary information from unbiased scientists "inconclusive".

Fortunately, most people who spoke ignored the Mayor’s warnings and talked about the ills of fracking anyway.

No doubt, burning natural gas releases less carbon dioxide – implicated in global warming – than burning gasoline does.   But considering the lives of those exposed to fracking's hazards, natural gas is a costly alternative. 

A contract that gives most of the economic benefits to Clean Energy and most of the liabilities to the City of Columbia will make it even more costly here.  

The contract requires the City pay for 15,000 gallons of natural gas, every month.  Clean Energy gets to set the price, presumably based on market demand.   It doesn’t matter if all that gas is used or not.  The City -- i.e. we taxpayers -- are on the hook for all 15,000 gallons.

It also doesn't matter if the gas is fracked or not. The contract does not prohibit the sale of fracked gas, nor does it require reporting how much natural gas we're buying through fracking or conventional, safer extraction.

Finally, in a dubious partnership 5th Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser questioned, Clean Energy's facility will be constructed on City land, with the City contractually obligated to do the preparation work.

"If this was such a great market idea, why does Clean Energy need a partner?" Nauser asked.

During the hearing, it came out city manager Matthes and his team already ordered natural-gas powered garbage trucks and buses.  They set delivery to coincide with the opening of the compressed natural gas facility, even though it hadn't yet been approved!

Everything will cost much more than City Council members had originally been told.   And it will take four years to pay off the natural gas fleets, not the one year Mr. Matthes earlier promised.

And even though natural gas is cheap and plentiful now, economists warn that once we start exporting it, prices are likely to rise.

Even with all this to consider, Matthes and company warned that any delay approving the contract would result in all these vehicles sitting around, gathering dust.

The fix was clearly in for Clean Energy's sweet deal, but one final strange thing happened that night.   Three members of the City Council voted against what was clearly a pet project of the city manager and his minions.

On second thought, given everything we know, it wasn't so strange after all.