Do As I Say, Not As I Do?

Do As I Say, Not As I Do?

This column focuses on cheering and jeering various players in the waste industry. We try to use their successes and failures as examples to learn from, since our readers are themselves in the waste business and can easily relate to the firms we highlight on Waste360. However, other industries also have to deal with NIMBY issues, and sometimes their challenges can be educational as well. That’s what’s been happening in the oil and gas industry over the past few weeks.

In oil and gas, the newest and most promising innovation in some time is what’s known as “fracking,” which is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a process whereby underground rock layers are broken apart by pressurized liquid. The technique has opened up vast new sources of oil and natural gas, but it has also attracted opponents who object to it on environmental grounds (fear of tainted groundwater is a particular concern). Right behind the environmental concerns are a host of others, including noise, effect on property values, public appearance and alteration of the landscape. None of these objections, from the environment on down, should sound unfamiliar to landfill developers who have been through a NIMBY fight or two. Oil and gas companies have done their best to assuage these concerns whenever a new fracking project is planned.

That’s why it’s been so newsworthy to see ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson get called out by the media for a lawsuit he’s joined which would halt a fracking project planned near his ranch home in Texas. There’s no getting around it—the lawsuit is definitely a NIMBY endeavor.

Forbes magazine has had great fun explaining how the lawsuit “goes to great effort to lay out the problems experienced by those who are subjected to the fracking process—problems that Tillerson has always been quick to dismiss when his company picks a location that is not in his own neighborhood. Of course, none of the concerns set forth in his lawsuit ever seemed to trouble Mr. Tillerson when these issues were relevant to someone else’s home and quality of life—particularly if that ‘someone else’ lacked the resources to challenge the practices in court as Mr. Tillerson has elected to do.”

On top of being humorous, the whole episode will provide valuable ammunition to fracking opponents for a long, long time.

There are lessons here for the waste business, however. Maybe the concerns over fracking are legitimate, and Rex Tillerson is right to try to keep it out of his backyard. Or maybe not.

But as professionals in our industry, we know that most of the wild-eyed claims about landfills and transfer stations—that they’ll smell from miles away, that they’re incredibly disruptive to the community, that they’ll destroy the character of a neighborhood—simply aren’t true. And we can prove that point, not simply via fact sheets and information sessions, but through setting our own examples. The waste industry can and should do a better job of highlighting its own members who live near the facilities that are most often under attack.

We’ve noted in previous columns that on top of the typical NIMBY concerns, there’s often an undercurrent of resentment at the idea that a certain community, often low-income or marginalized, has been chosen to host the facility. The developers trying to get a permit, the thinking goes, would never sully themselves by having such a facility near their own homes.

We know from experience that this is not true. In fact, higher-ups in the waste industry are often the least likely to mind having a landfill in their community because they know the truth of how they’re run. For that reason, firms in the midst of a high-profile NIMBY fight should do everything they can to showcase the fact their own senior leaders who live near waste facilities—flying in from other states for a hearing, if necessary.

It may not always be practical for smaller companies that don’t have a huge number of executives, but for the big firms with thousands of employees, it would go a long way towards defusing the charges of hypocrisy that Mr. Tillerson is now facing. 

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