BETHEL VOTERS COMMENDED ON TAR SANDS
I would like to commend the people of Bethel, not only for their recent passage of a resolution opposing the carrying of tar sands oil through Bethel, but for the decisiveness with which they acted. Reading the Citizen Thursday morning I was surprised to see some otherwise rational people suggest that proponents of the measure somehow cheated to get their way. If that is true, the front-page article and three editorials (all critical of the proceedings) certainly fail to establish it.
As long as the facts were reported accurately, what is actually at issue here is local sovereignty. It is a well-established tradition in New England town meetings that non-residents must request permission to speak – and that townspeople have no obligation to grant them that permission. Nor is it necessary to allow discussion indefinitely if a motion has already been made and a majority of those present have determined it is time to proceed.
Mr. Hynek indicates that he would have liked more information. It is not likely that oil industry representatives would have given him accurate answers to the questions he listed, but more importantly it is not necessary that all members of the town have been fully satisfied – such a threshold is clearly unattainable. It is only necessary that a two-thirds majority of those present feel they are prepared to make an informed decision. Their votes demonstrate that they apparently did.
After all, it is understandable that they might feel that way. The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline captured public attention for months last year, and information about the ecologically devastating effects of tapping tar sands oil (NASA’s Jim Hansen has called it “game over for the climate”) has been readily available. Bethel voters can be forgiven for their apparent arrogance in believing they know all they need to on that particular subject.
Even Mr. and Mrs. Lyon admit that “the conduct of the meeting may have met a narrow interpretation of requirements” yet can’t shake themselves of the feeling that something unfair has taken place. It is certainly worth asking: even granting their legal right to do so, did Bethel voters make the correct choice in silencing representatives from the oil industry?
It is certainly not obvious that they could contribute anything constructive to the conversation. Does anyone truly believe that what is wrong with our current political situation is that corporations are given too little opportunity to make themselves heard?
If someone who did not stand to gain financially from the transport of tar sands oil had a compelling reason in favor of it, it might be interesting and instructive to hear them. However, such a person would be as easy to locate as a pink unicorn. Progressives, libertarians, and traditional conservatives should find little to disagree with in blocking such actions at the local level, which makes regulation by the federal government unnecessary. Furthermore, completion of projects such as this frequently relies on the violation of individual property rights and the very un-libertarian practice of eminent domain.
Mr. Hynek makes the unusual argument that any decision about carrying tar sands oil through Bethel should be put off until the last minute. However, this overlooks two political realities:
-First, if Bethel citizens demonstrate any willingness to accommodate the oil companies they can rest assured the industry will have its opportunity to speak. The example of California’s Proposition 37 is instructive. At the start of the campaign season the act to label foods containing genetically-modified organisms (not ban, mind you, but merely label) was regularly polling with super-majorities of the population in favor. That was before Monsanto, DuPont, and others launched a massive blitzkrieg of television ads, outspending proponents of the measure by a margin of more than 5-1. Astoundingly, by November, 53 percent of Californian voters decided in favor of not knowing what is in their food.
-Second, local resistance is already the last line of defense. If the federal governments of the United States and Canada were at all responsive to the long-term interests of their human – rather than corporate – citizens they would have closed access to the Alberta tar sands long ago. At this point our last best hope is for local municipalities to tell the would-be corporate plunderers as swiftly as possible not just no but, “hell no!” The fact that a majority of attendees in Bethel chose to do just that is a welcome sign that perhaps people are sick of letting corporations frame the conversation.