Environmental watchdogs worried about the criminalization of dissent
By Adam Federman, Earth Island Journal
Anti-fracking activists protesting a natural-gas conference in Philadelphia last fall were being monitored by a private security company that sent a photo of a demonstrator to the Pennsylvania State Police, according to an email obtained by Earth Island Journal.
A few months earlier, at another industry-led conference, state Trooper Michael Hutson delivered a presentation on environmental extremism and acts of vandalism across Pennsylvania’s booming Marcellus Shale natural-gas reserves. He showed photographs of several anti-fracking groups in Pennsylvania, including Shadbush Environmental Justice Collective protesters demonstrating at an active gas well site in Lawrence County in western Pennsylvania.
That same Pennsylvania state trooper visited the home of anti-fracking activist Wendy Lee, a Bloomsburg University philosophy professor, to question her about photos she took of a natural gas compressor station in Lycoming County. Remarkably, the trooper earlier had crossed state lines and traveled to New York to visit Jeremy Alderson, publisher of the No Frack Almanac, at his home outside Ithaca, to accuse him of trespassing to obtain photos of the same compressor station.
The photo, presentation and house visits are part of a little-known intelligence-sharing network that brings together law enforcement, including the FBI, state Homeland Security agencies, the oil and gas industry and private security firms. Established in late 2011 or early 2012, the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee (MSOCC) is a group of “professionals with a law-enforcement background who are interested in developing working relationships and networking on intelligence issues,” according to an email sent to group members by James Hansel, regional security manager for Anadarko Petroleum.
The MSOCC has taken a keen interest in environmental activists and anti-fracking groups, according to documents obtained through a state Right to Know request. The collaboration raises questions about the increasingly close ties between law enforcement and the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania, and whether law enforcement has violated the civil liberties of protesters and environmental groups in its effort to protect the state’s most controversial industry.
The production of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that underlies several states, is a multibillion dollar industry that has grown dramatically over the last four years. In Pennsylvania alone, there are now more than 7,000 active wells.
The “Shale Insight” conference, held at the Philadelphia Convention Center in September 2013, brought together industry leaders, politicians and media figures for two days of networking and panel discussions. Opponents of fracking – or hydraulic fracturing, the controversial technique of injecting water, chemicals and sand deep underground to break apart the shale and release gas – staged their own teach-in just down the street. But the activists intent on watchdogging the industry were themselves being spied on.
According to documents obtained by Earth Island Journal, the Pennsylvania State Police Criminal Intelligence Center received an update from a private security firm, the Global Security Corp., about protest activity near the convention center.
On Sept. 25, 2013, Don Peters, a former state trooper who now works for the Oklahoma-based security firm, sent the Criminal Intelligence Center “a photo of the only citizen I can see at the moment exercising their right of protest (located at the main/Broad St. entrance of the convention center.)”
The email was sent to Douglas Jackson, an intelligence analyst with the Pennsylvania State Police, and Trooper Hutson, a member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Williamsport.
The Pennsylvania State Police declined to comment on the email or to confirm even an informal relationship with Global Security Corp.
“We do not have a policy regarding contracts with security firms – as we do not contract with such firms,” Maria Finn, a State Police spokesperson, wrote in an email.
Global Security CEO Bill McClure confirmed that Peters works for his company, which has clients in the energy sector. He also added that the company will occasionally seek assistance from law enforcement – most of their employees have law-enforcement backgrounds – but only when needed. “We have not been hired by the Pennsylvania State Police,” he said. “They’re self-sufficient.”
The state police may not contract with private security firms, as Finn says. But they do appear to have received intelligence, in this case of a citizen exercising his First Amendment rights, from one.
Four years ago, the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security was embarrassed by revelations that it had hired a private security company to monitor citizens, including anti-fracking activists. The fact that the intelligence-gathering program had been approved by the agency – apparently without the knowledge of then Governor Ed Rendell – was chalked up to a lack of oversight.
In the aftermath, James Powers Jr., head of the agency, resigned. During a day-long hearing into the program, local and state police presented themselves as defenders of the Constitution and criticized the agency’s actions, which they said yielded little valuable intelligence. (One officer compared the intelligence bulletins to reading the National Enquirer.) “This is one of the problems you have when you contract intelligence work to amateurs,” the state police commissioner testified.
They also made the case that tracking criminal activity, without, of course, trampling on First Amendment rights, was the job of the state police.
But it is now the state police who are collaborating with the oil and gas industry, and continuing to keep a close eye on anti-fracking groups and activists, largely through the efforts of the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee.
Anadarko Petroleum’s James Hansel, a former state trooper, was involved in bringing together industry representatives, law enforcement and prosecutors to develop a “network of intelligence sharing.”
In a January 2012 email to group members, Hansel said MSOCC was seeking the participation of “law enforcement officers assigned a position relating to intelligence and prosecutors at the county, state, and federal level.”
Today, the group sends intelligence updates to more than 150 recipients, including all of the major drilling companies in the Marcellus Shale, representatives of the FBI, state Homeland Security agencies and state and local law enforcement.
In a separate email introducing himself to Hansel in February 2013, Jackson, the state police analyst who received the Philly protest intelligence from Global Security Corp., wrote, “Please let me know if I can be of any assistance and any Marcellus Shale items you send me would be much appreciated.”
Court documents show Hansel once worked with state police Trooper Hutson, who made the home visits to anti-fracking activists. Hutson has been tracking crime in the Marcellus Shale, and is an active member of the MSOCC network.
On February 14 of this year, he showed up at Professor Lee’s home in Bloomsburg to ask about photos she took of property owned by PVR Partners (now Regency Energy Partners), which operates the Barto compressor station in Lycoming County. Lee writes frequently and often indignantly on the subject of fracking and has posted thousands of photos of wells, drilling rigs and compressor stations to her Flickr page. Lee responded that she had visited the site in question and taken photos, but that she had not trespassed. In fact, the Barto compressor station was one stop on a tour she had conducted numerous times to teach students about the impacts of shale-gas development.
On the day these photos were taken, she was accompanied by Alderson, the New York-based activist who has published his daughter’s images of that same station in his No Frack Almanac.
Lee believes the real reason for Hutson’s visit was not to investigate a potential crime but to intimidate her and to fish for information on fellow activists and environmental groups in the region. As she wrote on her blog later that day, “He wanted to know about the activists in the anti-fracking movement – and whether or not ‘they’ commit acts of vandalism and/or violence. He wanted me to give him names of ‘bad apples.'”
Indeed, it is a subject that Hutson has explored before. In July 2013, he gave a presentation before the industry-led, occupational-safety group Steps of PA.
The Powerpoint presentation, which was leaked to the press, starts off with a discussion of domestic terrorism and so-called environmental extremism before moving to an overview of anti-fracking groups active in the Marcellus Shale. The final third of the presentation was devoted to a discussion of several acts of vandalism that have taken place on or near drilling sites – none of which, to be clear, have been linked to environmental organizations.
The incidents included “suspicious charred debris” found near two well pads, two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) discovered on an access road leading to a storage well in Erie County in February 2013, a shooting at a Shell well pad involving a “white Ford pickup” and a pipe bomb found near a well pad in Elk County.
In an October 2013 story about the incidents, posted on the Harrisburg Patriot-News‘ website, PennLive.com, Hutson conceded that, “We don’t know the intent” of those involved and even said that none of the acts of vandalism appeared to be the work of environmental activists.
The organizations mentioned in Hutson’s presentation range from the mainstream Power Shift to more militant groups like Marcellus Earth First!, Shadbush Environmental Justice Collective and Appalachia Resist!. The Shadbush Collective, based in southwest Pennsylvania, combines outreach and education with direct-action campaigns. Hutson’s presentation included two photos of the group staging a protest at a well site near an organic pig farm owned by Maggie Henry. In one photo, Henry wears a sign around her neck reading, “Protect Farms for Our Future.” Protesters locked themselves to a giant paper mache pig, blocking access to a well site in an effort to draw attention to the potential impact of shale-gas development on Pennsylvania’s largest industry, agriculture.
Shadbush Collective organizer Patrick Young says Hutson’s presentation was a “pretty classic attempt to criminalize dissent” by failing to distinguish between different kinds of activism. “What Hutson is doing is irresponsible because it creates the perception among law enforcement, industry and the general public that engaging in public protest is somehow nefarious,” he said. “When you criminalize dissent it’s an incredible tool for shutting up your enemies.”
Hutson does not conduct interviews with the media, according to Finn, the Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson. But she insisted that Hutson’s presentation made “no connection” between “the groups mentioned and the IED incidents, nor was it presented in that manner.”
Finn said Hutson simply was responding to questions about activist groups in Pennsylvania and in the Marcellus Region.
Based on the slides, which include provocative language about environmental terrorism followed by grainy images of protesters with bandanas covering their faces, it is hard to believe that some sort of connection, tacit or otherwise, was not being made among eco-terrorism, the acts of vandalism and peaceful anti-fracking activists in the Marcellus Shale.
Hutson ended his presentation by making the case that information sharing was a key part of any investigation, and said that documents and information are being shared between state police, MSOCC and the FBI’s Oil and Natural Gas Crime Issues Special Interest Group (USONG). According to a 2012 FBI report, USONG “allows for secured communications between the oil and natural gas sector and law enforcement at all levels.”
A month after the Steps of PA presentation, Hutson appeared with Anadarko Petroleum’s Hansel at a Marcellus Oil and Gas Security Workshop sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute. The title of their talk was “Combating Crimes Affecting Energy Exploration and Production.” A public-records request for the presentation was denied on the grounds that it is the exclusive property of Anadarko Petroleum. Hansel signed an affidavit stating that he had drafted and presented the material himself “with a representative of the Pennsylvania State Police providing comment on specific issues. … The Powerpoint presentation is exclusively my work product and belongs to Anadarko.”
In an emailed statement responding to questions about the presentation, an Anadarko spokesperson wrote: “It is our company’s policy that we do not discuss security measures.”
Even as corporations and law enforcement become less transparent – declining to discuss security measures and withholding documents because they are deemed private property – the flow of information through formal and informal networks in the energy sector has expanded greatly. The revolving door between law enforcement, the oil and gas industry and private security firms helps keep the information moving. And organizations like MSOCC provide ways for industry and law enforcement to deepen their connections.
Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says the documents obtained by Earth Island Journal raise troubling questions about police conduct and civil liberties. If police are indeed using information obtained from private security firms like the Global Security Corp., he says, it “poses a threat to basic freedoms and raises questions about why they’re devoting limited resources to tracking activists.” He says the legality of such information sharing is unclear, and notes that police often receive intelligence from a variety of sources, including informants and the private sector.
Regarding the photo of the protester at the “Shale Insight” conference in Philadelphia, he said more information is necessary. In particular, what was the basis for the surveillance? And how is the information being used?
At least one thing is certain: The “intelligence-sharing network” created by MSOCC and facilitated by the nation’s most powerful law-enforcement agencies is still in its early days. This has activists, including Wendy Lee, worried. “They’re really trying to go after us,” she says. “And they’re using the state police to try to silence us. We are an obstacle to the endless profits of this industry and that’s really what this is about.”