Gasland Star Sees His Shadow in Michigan; Good News for Shale?

What do you do as the ex-mayor of a community of 120 people to get attention when your term has ended, you’ve moved out of town, and your 15 minutes of relative fame have expired? You search out new places to go, looking for opportunities to generate press clippings in areas that haven’t yet been subjected to your now predictable routine.

That’s what happened in Michigan this past weekend, as Calvin Tillman — the former mayor of tiny DISH, Texas (famous for selling its name for free cable) — did a quick strike tour of Northern Michigan to pitch his message to anti-shale activists about the supposed hazards of natural gas.  Organizing the weekend tour were two anti-gas groups; “Don’t Frack Michigan” and “Ban Michigan Fracking.”  As the videos below will show, the comments and questions posed by these groups provided a great deal of entertainment — and in some ways actually overshadowed Tillman, who, to his credit, came off as a fairly polite sort of guy – even as did his best to avoid the truth.

In what’s become his standard operating procedure in other parts of the country, Mr. Tillman only shows up in areas where genuine shale development is still considered nascent – picking and choosing places where the potential for a massive influx of shale-related jobs, revenue and opportunity is greatest, and then doing his best to stop that progress before it can even get started.

Understood in those terms, the fact that Mr. Tillman would choose to come to our state to peddle his distortions should be seen as tremendous news for Michigan energy consumers, mineral-owners, and small businesses – after all, he wouldn’t have come here if he thought we were sitting on a dud.

The EID team in Pennsylvania and Ohio have followed Tillman closely over the years, and you can read some of their takes on him here and here.  He got his first taste of fame a few years ago when Josh Fox put him in Gasland, where he claimed natural gas facilities were spewing massive volumes of benzene into the air and causing health problems for his family. Well, it took several months, but state health officials in Texas eventually debunked his claims. See this document here, and in particular the section about how the DISH residents’ “exposure to certain contaminants was not greater than that of the general U.S. population.”

Back up in Northern Michigan this past weekend, Tillman didn’t have a whole lot to offer on this tour, even though he was the main event.  His circuit involved four stops: Harbor Springs, Gaylord, Charlevoix and Traverse City, where he repeated previously debunked statements from earlier performances.  He argued, for instance, that large-scale fugitive emissions from natural gas compressors and other infrastructure had impacted his family’s health, despite evidence from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) indicating “the highest maximum benzene concentration is below the health effects level observed in animal and human studies.”  Here’s some more of what he offered:

Although the event organizers hyped the tour as a chance for Tillman to talk about how “hydraulic fracturing” forced “him to move his family away from DISH,” Tillman, for his part, had very little to say about fracturing. Maybe that’s because, for all the hand-wringing, there actually isn’t many oil or gas wells in or near DISH to be found.

Instead, Tillman mostly focused on air quality in DISH, which he says was adversely impacted by pipelines and compressor stations – citing a study written by another anti-shale activist that has since been discredited by state health and environment officials in the state. Indeed, Tillman blithely dismissed (9:49) conclusions to the contrary from the TCEQ study, which he described as being conducted to “protect the industry” – a common rhetorical tactic employed by folks who don’t have anything of substance to rebut it with.

Curiously, Tillman insists here that EPA “reneged” on its enforcement duties in Parker Co., Texas, Pavillion, Wyo. and Dimock, Pa., never disclosing that each of these situations represented instances in which EPA had to back off on its initial claims because of faulty procedures or bad data.   He also suggests (0:55) that a homeowner in Dimock was told by EPA that his water was fine, but not to drink it. What he doesn’t say is that the reason EPA offered that recommendation is that the water supply in question had elevated bacteria, from a malfunctioning septic system. You can learn all about that one here (see 8:35 in the video) and decide for yourself what kind of credibility Tillman and his Dimock activists actually have.

You can also watch this video to get more of Tillman in Michigan, as he makes one unsubstantiated assertion after another: claiming 5,000 people came out to a Washington rally when the actual numbers were about 20 percent of that; (3:12), quoting Martin Luther King and Teddy Roosevelt; and otherwise presenting himself as some sort of hero and martyr. Someone who actually matters.

What was most fascinating to me, though, was the hyperbolic conversation that both preceded and followed Tillman’s presentations. There was the gentleman in the video above, for example, who makes it explicitly clear (2:45) that what makes him “really mad about it (natural gas development) is that it’s going to destroy prospects for alternative energy” – apparently unaware that, thanks to shale development, the U.S. is actually leading the world in CO2 reductions.

But I was especially taken by this Harbor Springs introduction, offered by a local activist:

Notice how this woman argues for rejection of science in favor of making decisions based on the heart: “Don’t be intimidated by the facts or the science because in your hearts I think you know we don’t want this.” Thankfully, this woman doesn’t work at DEQ.

Then came the monologue from a fellow named Ellis Boal, a perennial candidate for just about every elected office in our state, and someone who apparently wasn’t satisfied with the purity of a group called “Don’t Frack Michigan” – explaining (5:00) why he formed his own group called “Ban Michigan Fracking.” Later, Attorney Jim Wilson of an outfit called “Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation” makes an impassioned over-the-top argument (15:49) that hydraulic fracturing represented the “end game for the planet.”  How’s that for hyperbole?

One great question came from the audience in Traverse City, however, captured in this video. As you’ll see, a polite gentleman inquired of Tillman where he might find evidence that hydraulic fracturing had actually polluted water (7:10).  Tillman’s answer was to “go home and watch ‘The Sky Is Pink,’” Josh Fox’s latest theatrical farce (debunked here by EID), which of course provides no such substantiation.

This was perhaps the defining moment of the entire Tillman tour.  Brought in as an expert who would link hydraulic fracturing to every conceivable ill known to man, when asked by a supporter for evidence, he could do no more or better than to refer to a Josh Fox movie-short that, itself, offered nothing new whatsoever.

But then, that’s Calvin Tillman: a purveyor of recycled and unfounded assertions that, when actually tested, when actually asked to produce data or documentation or substantiation, fails to deliver – every time  Thankfully, his message landed with a dull thud in Northern Michigan – netting only a single mention in a small, local paper despite holding four separate events across four separate venues over three full days. Maybe folks up here are actually smarter than he thought.


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