Lifting the Curtain on the Pennsylvania Group behind Ohio’s ‘Local’ Anti-Fracking Campaigns
For the past five years EID has been following the anti-fracking campaigns of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a Pennsylvania-based environmental activist group. Although CELDF has claimed that it’s not opposed to fracking, this claim does not withstand scrutiny. In fact, CELDF’s mission is actually far broader than just banning fracking, as its website describes:
“The Legal Defense Fund has now become the principal advisor to activists, community groups, and municipal governments struggling to transition from merely regulating corporate harms to stopping those harms by asserting local, democratic control directly over corporations.” (emphasis added)
The public may not be familiar with CELDF itself, but its campaigns have become quite noticeable. More specifically, CELDF has been lobbying Ohio localities to adopt what it has termed “Community Bill of Rights Fracking Ban,” “Anti-Fracking Bill of Rights” and “Charter amendments or home rule to ban fracking.” It is by design that the CELDF remains behind the scenes, since its campaign is built on the illusion that individual communities are rising up.
Ironically, U.S. shale development has been a gift to CELDF, as it has been able to use “fracking” as a means to an end, using opposition to fracking as a way to attack business and indeed economic development in its entirety. The end goal? Stripping individual rights in favor of providing legal rights to “nature and ecosystems,” all through a bizarre and contradictory campaign platform of “self-government.”
Introduction to CELDF
CELDF Founder, Thomas Linzey
After an internship with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Thomas Linzey graduated law school and founded CELDF in 1995, motivated by his opposition of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, which as he says, “gives people the illusion that something is being done to protect the environment.” The stated purpose of NEPA is:
“To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”
This is important because it sets the stage for the entire premise of Linzey’s and CELDF’s ongoing efforts. In 1995, long before the first lease for unconventional drilling took place in Ohio, Linzey and the CELDF had already started work on its radical “rights of nature” agenda. A look at the CELDF mission statement sheds more light on these goals:
“Building sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature.” (emphasis added)
Building on this mission, Linzey published a book entitled Be the Change: How to Get What You Want in Your Community, a mantra for teaching communities how to ignore laws, going so far as to claim a need for “rewriting” the U.S. Constitution.
Here is an excerpt from Linzey’s book:
“You may be surprised to learn that most of the people who appear in the pages ahead don’t know each other. That will be changing in the years to come, as community leaders across the country join hands to begin a journey that will end with new local and state constitutions, and perhaps even the rewriting of the United States Constitution. These people are convinced-from the things they’ve seen, heard, and experienced – that nothing short of a complete overhaul will solve the problems they face in their communities.” (emphasis added)
After the book was released, CELDF attempted what appeared to be an unsuccessful crowd funding effort to make a film entitled, We the People 2.0 – The 2nd American Revolution. According to Linzey, the purpose of the film was dramatic:
“If you live in a corporate state, there is in only one option left to you, which is to dismantle it, and build something new. This movement is a reboot of American democracy.” (emphasis added)
In 2009, Linzey worked on a project in Spokane, Wash., on a so-called “Community Bill of Rights,” which attempted to create legally enforceable rights for the Spokane River. The ballot measure in Spokane has failed twice. In an interview, Linzey states proudly that CELDF, through its Community Bill of Rights campaign, has taken steps to override certain constitutional rights.
In the same interview, speaking to his work in Ecuador, Linzey added:
“Well it’s this concept that we have never really had an environmental movement in the United States, because our environmental movement has always been based on nature as property. In other words, if you own 10 acres of ground in the United States carries with it the legal ability to destroy the ecosystems on that 10 acre piece of property. What is increasing growing is a realization that for a real environmental movement to occur, ecosystems must have legally enforceable rights of their own.” (emphasis added)
In 2015, Linzey addressed the Earth at Risk audience, where he discussed his organization’s platform when folks approach them on oil and gas development. Linzey appeared to say that “it’s time” to start taking people’s private property:
“If you are going to put all that work into a ballot initiative, why not do a ballot initiative that bans all finance companies in New York City from funding new projects that exasperate climate change? Why not do something real…why not do something real…cause people are saying to themselves, ‘it would be illegal, it would be unlawful, it would be unconstitutional, because you are taking their property’ well..(expletive), it’s time.”
CELDF National Organizer, Ben Price
Nine years after CELDF’s launch, Thomas Linzey is now joined by Ben Price, the national organizer and spokesman for CELDF, who has been tasked with drafting local ordinances.
Serving first as president of the Pennsylvania Consumer Action Network, Ben Priced joined CELDF in 2004.
In 2005, Price detailed his hatred of retail chain stores, providing yet another window into CELDF’s anti-business operating principles. Price’s writing was a mix of anti-corporate rhetoric and paranoia, identifying presumed threats such as “microwave cell phone towers” and even highways:
“You know as well as I do that the problems facing our communities, and this country, do not start and do not end with corporate chain stores. There are other chains, some of them in our minds, which need breaking. Come to Democracy School.
“At Democracy Schools, folks look at the apparently endless ―single issue‖ corporate assaults that communities across the country have been resisting. The focus is not just corporate chain invasions but also corporate toxic dumps, incinerators, factory farms, clear cutting of forests, cyanide mining, power plants, superhighways, quarries, urban sludge spreading, aquifer seizures, corporatization of the commons, microwave cell phone towers, landfills, corporatization of prisons, education, hospitals, and every aspect of what once passed for public endeavors. Several townships have responded to this legislative preemption by beginning the process of changing their legal status as subordinate Second Class Townships and ―going Home Rule.‖ To accomplish this, they are bringing the people of their communities together to write Home Rule charters—that is, to write their communities‘ new constitutions.” (emphasis added)
Price later admitted that CELDF’s strategy failed:
“[V]irtually impossible for us to represent the community. And so we didn’t get the kind of results that folks really wanted, which was the ability to make decisions and to say no to projects… so that wasn’t a very satisfactory place to be.” (emphasis added)
Facing mounting defeats, CELDF went issue shopping, and ultimately amended its strategy to include fracking, giving birth to the so-called Community Bills of Rights that ban various aspects of oil and gas development. However, Price claims that’s not the case, and even suggests they don’t oppose fracking:
“Fracking is not part of our mission, if you will. We’re not an advocate against fracking or for fracking, or for or against anything particularly. I think maybe the extraction industry has unwittingly woken up the sleeping giant.” (emphasis added)
Interestingly, Ban Fracking NY posted a video on their YouTube page, which the group described as follows:
“Second in a series of 16 videos from “Ban Fracking in NY – A Statewide Conference,” held April 16, 2011 in Binghamton, NY. In this video Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund reframes the fracking controversy as a democracy issue.” (emphasis added)
The 30 minute video is essentially a presentation to local communities, which is actually entitled, “We don’t have a fracking problem, we have a democracy problem”.
Although Price claims CELDF is “not an advocate against fracking,” its various efforts throughout Ohio demonstrate that it is pushing communities to ban fracking – not support it.
The ‘Local’ Mission of CELDF
Within the past few years, the “right to self-govern” has been more noticeably named the Community Bill of Rights, which includes extreme anti-development language that prohibits oil and gas development. In addition to the “bill of rights” campaigns, CELDF also continues to set its sights on a host of other targets, using the model they developed post-2005 including: agriculture, mining, industrial wind production, retail chains, corporate operations of all shapes and sizes, and even major economic development projects. In fact, CELDF has also been behind a so-called “Food Bill of Rights” campaign.
Here are a few notable policies that CELDF is pushing:
- Nullify the USA Patriot Act (Federal legislation).
- Deprive all corporations doing business in the community of the protections of the Contracts Clause or Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
- Ban corporations from engaging in agriculture and ban persons from using corporations to engage in agriculture.
- Prohibit use of a corporation or syndicate to engage in product retailing within the Township
Given its interest in broadly attacking American business – both large and small – it should come as no surprise that CELDF has decided to attack shale development, using “fracking” as headline bait to try to advance a much broader and economically-devastating agenda of undermining American commerce.
Lobbying and Campaign Dollars
In Ohio, CELDF is represented by Tish O’Dell, who co-founded Mother’s Against Drilling in Our Neighborhoods (MADION). In a recently published opinion editorial entitled, “Beware of corporate lobbyist advice on your Bill of Rights,” Ms. O’Dell attacks “corporate lobbyists” while apparently neglecting to check the tax filings of the organization she represents.
In fact, CELDF has spent almost a million dollars in lobbying and grassroots efforts, as a result of the more than $3.4 million that CELDF has raised over the past few years. According to its tax filing, since 2009, the organization has seen its fundraising increase by 73 percent.
CELDF’s lobbying and grassroots efforts are not confined to the United States, either. The group has lobbied in other countries like Ecuador, where it engaged the government in a constitutional “rights of nature” campaign.
In short, if you want to build it in any country, CELDF wants to help others stop it, and is prepared to spend big lobbying and grassroots dollars to do so.
CELDF’s efforts to shut down oil and natural gas development – which, again, are actually just a front for a broader campaign against American business – are built around a deceptive messaging strategy, which includes the group denying its intent and making promises to communities that it routinely fails to keep. Here are a few examples of those deceptions in practice.
Example 1: CELDF claims to be neutral on oil and gas development
“When I go into a community, I don’t walk in and say, ‘we need to stop gas drilling’ cause that’s not my position. It’s not my job to dictate” – Ben Price, CELDF National Organizer
CELDF has claimed to be neutral on fracking, despite receiving funding from the anti-fracking Park Foundation and only seeking out opportunities for communities to oppose oil and gas development. The group’s stated neutrality is also contradicted by the group’s actions.
For example, Ben Price from CELDF said recently: “it seems pretty clear to me that if you color within the lines and work with existing law, you’re gonna get fracked.”
Meanwhile, on CELDF’s Fracking News page, the organization highlights all of the so-called Community Bill of Rights efforts they are working on across the country, all of which ban fracking.
Thomas Linzey also recently wrote an op-ed for the Denton Record-Chronicle, which essentially outlines the strategy for using fracking to advance CELDF’s broader agenda. From Linzey’s article:
“Perhaps it’s time for the people of Denton to begin that journey as well — rejecting the state’s authority to override them, and re-passing the same local law banning fracking, but this time as a ‘Community Bill of Rights,’ which openly challenges the authority of the state itself.” (emphasis added)
Meanwhile, in 2014, Ohio CELDF organizer Tish O’Dell stated this in 2014:
“we have a duty to alter, reform or abolish the current government… CELDF reminded us in Broadview Heights that these rights are higher law than any law passed by the state legislature … any bureaucrats or any regulatory agencies” (emphasis added)
However, O’Dell and CELDF have suffered numerous defeats in Ohio.
The most noteworthy loss for O’Dell and her MADION group came earlier this summer, when a court determined that local bans are not higher law than those passed by the state legislature and upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Although CELDF may claim to be agnostic on whether oil and gas development happens, its entire operating mission is built around stopping drilling. As noted above, the group is also funded in part by the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Park Foundation, which also funds Gasland director Josh Fox, Food & Water Watch, the NRDC, and countless other anti-fracking campaigns.
Example 2: Bait and Switch
While O’Dell and others use ban-fracking efforts to promote CELDF’s national agenda, the oil and gas industry is not exactly the focal point of the language found in the so-called Community Bill of Rights. This allows CELDF to maintain its presumed neutrality on fracking, even as it pushes ordinances and other policies that would stop drilling entirely.
At the ground level, however, the so-called Community Bill of Rights has been all about fracking.
Medina County is a great example of this bait-and-switch campaign. When a pipeline was proposed recently, CELDF started a “property rights” campaign in that region, claiming that the so-called Community Bill of Rights would stop a pipeline regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Of course, local laws do not supersede state or federal laws, and a pipeline that has been approved by FERC would not be impacted by a local ordinance.
Bizarrely, under the Medina County Community Bill of Rights, residents’ property rights would be given to nature, not the property owners. This is particularly interesting, as the Ohio organizer for CELDF used the issue of property rights as part of her so-called “bill of rights” lobby in Columbus just a few years ago, speaking to the importance of changing laws and property ownership.
The following is directly from the CELDF website:
“Moving from a Property, to a Rights Framework to Protect Nature”
“The Legal Defense Fund has assisted communities in the United States to craft first-in-the-nation laws that change the status of natural communities and ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities. “Those local laws recognize that natural communities and ecosystems possess an inalienable and fundamental right to exist and flourish, and that residents of those communities possess the legal authority to enforce those rights on behalf of those ecosystems. In addition, these laws require the governmental apparatus to remedy violations of those ecosystem rights. “In essence, these laws represent changes to the status of property law in the U.S., eliminating the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems and natural communities that exist and depend upon that property for their existence and flourishing. They do not stop development; rather they stop development and use of property that interferes with the existence and vitality of those ecosystems.” (emphasis added)
The bait in Medina County is a pipeline, which CELDF used as a means of pushing a policy that it said would protect property rights. The switch is then taking away constitutionally-protected property rights, and then granting those rights to ecosystems.
Example 3: “We don’t’ have a fracking problem, we have a democracy problem”
CELDF and Ohio anti-fracking activists claim that they represent the “right to self-govern,” and they all agree that local ordinances provide a pathway to that end. They allege that local people should have the right to make their voices be heard. Speaking to the will of the people, CELDF’s Ben Price said, “if that’s their decision of the community, that’s their self-governing decision.”
Speaking to oil and gas development in general in Ohio, Tish O’Dell also claimed that Ohioans did not have a vote on hydraulic fracturing or oil and gas development. As she said, “Make no mistake, there was no democracy at play here, there was no vote by people.”
This invites an interesting question: If local communities make a decision through a popular vote, would Price and O’Dell agree that the local community’s voice has been heard? The answer is yes – but only if that decision ascribes to the anti-fracking agenda that CELDF supports.
For example, in 2013, CELDF authored and organized a ballot measure in Youngstown to ban fracking through its typical “Community Bill of Rights” campaign. Voters rejected the measure by an astounding 14 point margin. But instead of letting the community’s voice be heard, CELDF proceeded to push the measure three more times, with voters rejecting it in each instance.
In response, Voters for Ballot Integrity recently formed, claiming that CELDF’s repeated anti-fracking campaigns in Youngstown are actually abusing the democratic process.
Even the news media is explaining how CELDF’s campaign is an example of a “very small minority” holding the majority of the community “hostage”:
“So it’s fear in the minds of some that a very small minority can hold the rest of the city hostage” – WKBN reporter, Gerry Ricciutti.
Not to be swayed, a supporter of the CELDF-authored ballot measure recently said, “Prior defeats do not mean permanency. People learn and change their minds.” Clearly, the CELDF campaign is less about “democracy” and more about banning fracking. Otherwise, wouldn’t four straight votes be evidence enough that the “decision of the community” has been made?
Example 4: Promising to pay legal fees, but leaving the bill for taxpayers
When the Pennsylvania-based CELDF arrives in rural America, it claims to provide “free legal service to communities.” But CELDF does not pay for the cost to actually put the petitions on the ballot. Additionally, if a ballot measure is adopted, they do not provide “free legal services to communities” when the community is sued for implementing an illegal policy.
For example, even though CELDF’s proposed measure in Youngstown has been defeated four times, the city has already paid $50,000 just to have the measure on the ballot. This is why the president of the Mahoning-Trumbull AFL-CIO Labor Council recently expressed concern that CELDF’s campaign is “costing the taxpayers of Youngstown a lot of money.”
Of course, CELDF-inspired activists in Youngstown have promised to bring the measure to a vote “43 times” if necessary, which means they are essentially asking taxpayers to absorb hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep voting on a measure that the community has already rejected.
Meanwhile, for the handful of communities that have passed CELDF-inspired ballot measures, they may be looking at the potential of municipal bankruptcy. According to CELDF’s executive director, bankrupting cities is not only fine by them, but may actually be necessary to advance a broader anti-fracking agenda:
“If a town goes bankrupt trying to defend one of our ordinances, well, perhaps that’s exactly what is needed to trigger a national movement.” (emphasis added.)
Abusing & Ridiculing Local Governments
Although CELDF claims to be enhancing democracy and strengthening communities, its actions are driven more by an interest in shutting down not just fracking, but all “corporate” activity.
In fact, CELDF appears to have very little respect for local governance at all, unless the local government is supporting one of its preferred policies. In a particularly paranoid and conspiratorial address, CELDF’s Ben Price accused cities and towns of not caring about the rights of residents, and instead doing the bidding of the “municipal corporation that hires them”:
In the video, Price takes aim at the legal counsel for local elected officials on whether or not to allow a so-called Community Bill of Rights. Price alleges that legal advice comes from unelected lawyers who are beholden to “corporations.” Taken directly from the full 30 minute video, Price states:
“The attorneys for our municipalities advise our local officials. Let’s talk about the attorney for the local municipalities for a minute. (Laughter)…if they are doing a really good job, who are they doing it for? The question is if they are doing a really good job, who are they doing it for? And the answer is. ..Their job is not to represent the rights and the interest of the members and the residence of the community. That’s not their job. As a matter of fact, they would not be serving their client correctly if that’s what they did. Their client is the municipal corporation who hires them.” (emphasis added)
But Price’s claim is more demagoguery than anything else. Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn was elected by the people and provided his Board of Election with advice on its ballot measure. As a result, the board voted unanimously to reject CELDF’s Community Bill of Rights.
CELDF has based its campaign on creating an environment where it essentially tells communities that the people they have elected to office are not capable of making decisions. As a result, CELDF appears to believe it needs to come in to communities.
A great example of how this plays out is the video below, entitled “Dismantling the Corporate State”:
Undisclosed Woman: “Ben was nice enough to say we’re gonna make decisions in here that the rest of the community will just have to live with” (cackles and laughing)
Ben Price: “It’s how it’s done!”
Undisclosed Woman: “we laugh about it, but sadly it’s how it’s done.”
This attempt to disregard or override the interests of the community is not limited to Ohio, either. In Mora County, New Mexico, the county commission voted 2-1 in May 2013 to adopt CELDF’s anti-fracking ordinance. The vote received national attention, as the Associated Press and even the Los Angeles Times reported on the news. But not long after, the legal bills began to mount, and taxpayers in one of New Mexico’s poorest counties turned against the policy. As Mora County resident Frank Splendoria recently said, CELDF made “suckers” out of local residents:
“It was totally foolish to begin with, to even try this. How do you pass an ordinance that’s going to override the state and the federal constitution? … I don’t know if they were playing us in Mora County as suckers or they were sincere in their beliefs. I would probably tend to the former rather than the latter, given that Mora County was the first county to try this and failed miserably at it… I don’t know where we would find the money. If you look at the county’s budget, they barely have enough money to provide the bare essential services … (The ban) hasn’t made any sense to anyone with any sense to begin with.” (emphasis added)
As Reuters recently reported, CELDF is behind more than a dozen anti-fracking ordinances across the country. The organization has never won a case that went to court, and taxpayers are still footing the bill for CELDF’s attempts to use cities as launching pads for a “national movement” against corporations.
Far from giving a voice to communities, CELDF’s advocacy is a direct attack on all businesses, large and small; on all workers, union and non-union; on local government budgets; and, most prominently, local taxpayers.
Communities approached by CELDF would be wise to consider these facts, and the organization’s deceptive history, before signing on the dotted line.