A funny thing happened at the Trinity Trees Public Forum at Capstone Church in Fort Worth last night. Civility broke out.
A crowd of around 400 people watched as speaker after speaker had their say on the whether the eight-acre tract of old growth urban forest would be preserved or go to the bulldozer. District 9 City Council representative Wendy Davis, the event's emcee, struck the tone early: "We want to have a constructive dialogue with Chesapeake." After all, she said, once this grove of trees is lost, it is lost forever.
And, as the different sides had their say, the tone of civility prevailed. Julie Wilson, the spokeperson for Chesapeake Energy, gave a slick presentation about how drilling on the Trinity Trees site is actually a good thing for the City of Fort Worth. She explained how the company believes it can minimize the environmental impact and make improvements.
Jim Bradbury with Trinity Trees explained the group's position: urban gas drilling has unknown consequences, connected tree canopy is important and alternative drilling sites exist on the Union Pacific site next door. They aren't against drilling, they are in favor of finding a third way, an alternative.
But that wasn't the funny thing. The funny thing was this -- the only extremist in the room is the guy who should know better, Tom Price, Jr., the Senior Vice President of Corporate Development for Chesapeake Energy. He's El Jefe for Chesapeake on this deal. But he comes off like Montgomery Burns -- corporate fatcat who always says the wrong thing and then doesn't understand why people get angry.
Price is shocked that the community would suggest that Chesapeake would "take" Union Pacific property and that moving the site wouldn't work. "For all of you to say that the answer is for Union Pacific to give up their property, I think is overreaching," he said.
The response was whatever the opposite of a standing ovation is. Honestly, I've never seen that many people boo someone who wasn't wearing a referee's uniform.
That's sort of where things got off track for the Chesapeakers. Wendy Davis immediately jumped on Price's comment. "Colonial and Union Pacific stand to benefit greatly from this, yet the community will bear all of the burden." Davis seems to be more and more outspoken on this issue as her tenure on the Council grows shorter. I like this side of Wendy Davis, and I hope to see more of it in Fort Worth, and maybe in Austin if she wins in her run for the State Senate.
Fort Worth State Representative Lon Burnham (pictured above) also encouraged finding a third way and scolded Union Pacific for not helping offer an alternative. "Union Pacific has not been a good corporate citizen in Fort Worth over the last year on this issue," he said.
Last night confirmed a couple for things for me. There is a growing base of community support against drilling on this site. The issue for these people isn't about drilling -- it's about drilling right there. And these people aren't a bunch tie-dyed, unicorn-hugging wackos, these folks look like your neighbors. Probably because they are your neighbors.
Also, Chesapeake has committed to a strategy: portray this as inevitable and portray this as infringing on the rights of private property owners.
In truth, it is neither.
Folks, this ain't a done deal. The insiders I spoke to last night indicated that the mood on the City Council seemed to be moving toward trying to slow this thing down. Chesapeake can't do anything until they get a permit, and a permit may not be coming quickly. As Wendy Davis mentioned, there is City Council meeting on Tuesday night. Folks need to get down there and let the Council know how they feel on this issue.
This also isn't infringing on the private property rights of anyone. When throwing out ideas for a third way, what's mentioned is a land swap or buying the land or finding some way to compensate Chesapeake of Union Pacific for the inconvenience. What Chesapeake wants you to imagine is Tom Price is a minuteman uniform, defending private property rights for all good Americans. The reality is this: when it comes to protecting private property rights, we the people have more to fear from gas companies than they do from us. Exhibit A: The Case of Billy Mitchell, or "Who's that guy with the eminent domain billboard?"
So who's the victim here? Well, as it stands right now, Chesapeake's reputation as good corporate citizen in Fort Worth appears to be teetering. As Bernie Scheffler, an opponent of urban gas drilling and a candidate for Wendy Davis' District 9 seat on the council said, "Why would Chesapeake Energy, who has spent millions polishing its public image in Fort Worth with commercials and billboards ... why would they blow all that goodwill on this?"
Why indeed. That is a funny thing.
To read the Startlegram's take, click here.
P.S. Big, big shout out to Jenna for helping me take notes. I'm buying you dinner, girl!