A recent letter in a Washington County newspaper in support of a local attorney and friend of Rep. Jesse White raises many issues about who is really behind natural gas opposition in the Marcellus Shale.
There was an unusual letter to the editor in the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pennsylvania that tells us a lot about how activist natural gas opposition works throughout the Marcellus Shale region. Namely, they intentionally mislead, and use more aliases than Sean Combs in doing so. The letter, ostensibly written in support of Rep. Jesse White’s favorite lawyer, Attorney John Smith, and targeting Range Resources, was signed by Veronica Coptis, “community organizer with the Mountain Watershed Association.”
Coptis uses her letter to sing the praises of Smith, the author of the Act 13 challenge now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, as a selfless solicitor for Robinson Township, Washington County, but manages to direct most of her attention to Jesse White’s favorite cause; attacking Range Resources. The words come off the page like they were written by Smith or White for someone else to sign but this is beside the point. We know Coptis is no ordinary citizen making observations to her neighbors. Rather, she is an activist with an agenda.
Follow the Money Trail to the Pickle Aisle
Veronica Coptis does identify herself as a “community organizer” with the Mountain Watershed Association (MWA), but that hardly explains the extent of her activism. The Association describes itself as “an advocacy organization, and our advocacy work centers on local issues and national issues having a local impact. MWA is also home of the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper.”
Riverkeeper groups, of course, exist in several places around the country. They are self-appointed guardians who would have the public believe they arose organically in support of a threatened river, but a little digging typically reveals some special interest agenda runs through it. The MWA is no exception.
The very first rule for discerning what a non-profit group is really all about is to follow the money, of course. The MWA’s 990 tax return for 2010 indicates it has nearly $1.2 million in assets, unusual for a group with such a local focus. Moreover, that figure was up more than $300,000 over 2009, which also reflected its revenues net of expenses. Gross revenues were nearly $780,000. Yet, it only took in $2,470 in membership dues, about one-tenth of what my country church takes in from its annual calendar sale.
So where does the money come from? It netted another $17,500 or so from fund-raising events and the like, still leaving well over three-quarters of a million dollars that had to come from somewhere.
The MWA’s audited financial statements for the years ended March 31, 2010 and 2011 offer the answer. The first clue is provided by this statement:
Hmmm…who might that be? Well, another comes from the next page where we find this:
The fact $137,150 of the MWA’s restricted assets come from the Heinz Endowments for “gas well oversight” and “activism” suggested this was the major sugar-daddy for MWA. Sure enough, a quick check of the pickle-maker heirs’ donations reveals this notorious funder of all things opposed to natural gas development gave MWA $59,170 in 2010 “to facilitate and host a pilot project for training citizens to provide gas-well oversight” and another $380,500 in 2011 “to expand citizen engagement in and oversight of the Marcellus development in Pennsylvania.” We’re not talking beans or ketchup anymore, but real money, and MWA, by its own admission, probably wouldn’t be in business but for that money. And, it’s pretty darned good business when you can net over $300,000 off assets of $1.2 million. MWA owes its soul, if not its very being, to Heinz.
Heinz, along with another funder of MWA, the Colcom Foundation, also fund the Clean Air Council, which attacks natural gas from the air while MWA and others fire their volleys over water. Colcom also funds the Damascus Citizens, another Potemkin village initiative against natural gas, along with American Rivers, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Earthworks and PennEnvironment while investing in oil and gas to do so (including the Russian state owned company Gazprom).
Heinz also helped fund a sham study of economic impacts of the Marcellus Shale by Cornell University and gave over $2 million in 2010 and 2011 to Marcellus Shale opposition. This includes support for the infamous Conrad Volz’s advocacy parading as research (now mercifully ended) and the financing of Earthjustice, which shows up just about everywhere to oppose natural gas and infrastructure development.
It’s clear Veronica Coptis, when she speaks up for Attorney John Smith and his work with Robinson Township in challenging Act 13 on behalf of MWA, isn’t just some innocent citizen speaking for a river she loves. Rather, she is the not so indirect representative of Heinz Endowments, a special interest group if there ever was one, with assets of roughly $1.4 billion. She’s doing the bidding, in fact, of two foundations virulently opposed to natural gas development in Pennsylvania and New York. She has also traveled to Maryland carrying their water.
The Marcellus Shale Opposition Corn Maze
Veronica’s and the MWA’s networks go well beyond Heinz and Colcom, however, and even deeper with these entities. The MWA, for example, identifies itself as part of the Waterkeepers Alliance, headed by none other than Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. who distinguished himself as a natural gas advocate a few years ago and then reversed course when he saw political correctness in his world (NRDC Senior Attorney, Hudson Riverkeeper, et al) demanded conformance to the party line of opposition.
She shows up, too, as board member and secretary of something called the Center for Coalfield Justice, which received $655,000 from the Heinz Endowments over the last four years and, like MWA, is also funded by the Colcom Foundation. This organization, despite its name has a page devoted to fighting natural gas development and, according to the Commonwealth Foundation, led the formation of a group of anti-gas allies operating collectively as Marcellus Shale Protest:
Many local efforts to oppose hydraulic fracturing in Western Pennsylvania are promoted via the Marcellus Protest project, established by the radical Center for Coalfield Justice. Marcellus Protest was created “to stop the destruction of our environment and communities caused by Marcellus Shale gas drilling as well as to support other directly affected communities.” On Nov. 3, 2010 the group launched a protest in Pittsburgh against the gas industry (proclaiming “a revolution”) which included punk music artist Justin Sane who performed his song “Gasland Terror,” which (by CCJ’s own description) “equated the gas industry with terrorists.”
The Center describes its Marcellus Shale program as “committed to making citizens aware of Marcellus Shale gas drilling activities and its negative impact on local communities and the environment” through, among other techniques, “special outreach meetings to educate the public about fracking and other harmful practices by the gas industry.” There seems to be no definitive list of the allied groups and individuals involved in its Marcellus Shale Protest initiative, but we notice all the usual suspects have connections to it, including the Responsible Drilling Alliance, Alex Lotorto and PennEnvironment to name just three. Tracking these groups is like trying to find your way through a corn maze; no matter which path you take, you end up bumping into the same folks over and over again, just operating under different names.
Jesse’s Friend and Lawsuit Cook
One of those names that keeps popping up is that of Attorney John Smith, a possible source of the distorted statements from depositions used by Rep. Jesse White to bash Pennsylvania DEP over a trumped up disclosure issue. He represents Jesse’s junkyard plaintiff in the case that generated those depositions. Smith is also a campaign contributor to the flamboyant politician who likes to cite Kesha in his speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives. White returns the favor with a wink and a nod in this Facebook post where he says he can “empathize with Mr. Smith and thank him for the work he has done for the community.”
No doubt Jesse does “empathize” with his campaign contributors, but this little post implying Smith and letter writer Veronica Coptis are merely acquaintances he admires and with whom he happens to agree, can only be taken seriously by someone with the gullibility of a Gomer Pyle. It suggests, in fact, the Coptis letter defending Smith and attacking Range Resources, Jesse White’s favorite target, was no coincidence.
Smith is also, and surely not by coincidence, attorney for four of the seven municipalities who are challenging Pennsylvania Act 13‘s zoning pre-emptions. John Smith represents Cecil, Mt. Pleasant, Robinson and South Fayette Townships in the matter. Robinson Township was lead petitioner. East Finley Township, another Smith client, signed a letter of support backing the filing of the Act 13 lawsuit. The MWA, unsurprisingly, also joined in supporting the challenge as did the NRDC, EarthJustice (which got $50,000 from Heinz in 2011) and the usual cast of characters.
Fighting natural gas development has been a good gig for Smith. Not only has he been able to represent clients such as Loren Kiskidden, the junkyard plaintiff referenced above, but he has also been able to substantially raise the value of solicitor appointments in the communities he represents, as the following chart illustrates:
Veronica Coptis and Smith’s clients may well be very satisfied with his representation and we certainly don’t suggest he’s anything but competent, but tilting at the natural gas windmill isn’t cheap if you’re a township. Moreover, trying to understand the connections between the Heinz Endowments, the Colcom Foundation, Jesse White, the MWA, the Center for Coalfield Justice and Marcellus Shale Protest, not to mention Loren Kiskadden and four lawsuit-waving townships is like trying to figure out what’s in stone soup. I wonder if Heinz cans that stuff?