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Fracking opponents question show of fracking support at hearing

Attendees at Cullowhee’s hearing on the proposed oil and gas rules Sept. 12 were overwhelmingly anti-fracking, but a small contingent of men showed up on a bus from Winstom-Salem — provided by the N.C. Energy Forum —  wearing sky blue t-shirts bearing the words “Shale Yes.” Except, fracking opponents are saying, the men weren’t exactly informed proponents of the fossil fuel extraction practice.

“It was really clear that these people they brought in had no knowledge of fracking at all. They just put them in blue T-shirts and blue hats to make it look like they had support, and they didn’t,” said Bettie Ashby of the Jackson County Coalition Against Fracking. 

Ashby appears in a video from the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, posted on YouTube, questioning a group of three men outside before the hearing began. One had the shirt on backwards, a second had it draped around his shoulders and the third wore a black T-shirt with a marijuana leaf and the words “Keep off the grass.” A fourth, wearing the T-shirt, matching ball cap and a nametag, stood off to the side. 

“We’re just pretty much out here supporting the needs of energy and jobs,” one of the men says in the video. 

“Right, right, good work,” says the man beside him. 

“I’m here to learn, understand and enhance my learning about all this stuff,” a third says later in the video. 

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“Come on guys, let’s go,” the man with the nametag says when Ashby continues to question the group. The other three follow him inside, one of them making a comment about legalizing marijuana as he leaves.  

In the video, the men say they came from Winston-Salem. In a separate interview with a different group of blue-shirted men that was not videotaped, Ashby said, one of the men said he had come from a homeless shelter in Winston-Salem. 

“One said, ‘I just came here for the — ‘ and he rubbed his fingers together like you do if you’re talking about money,” Ashby said. 

According to Albert Eckel, executive director of the NCEF, Ashby’s account doesn’t tell the real story. 

“We had a group of supporters who came in from Winston-Salem. Some were better educated on the issue than others,” he said. “It was brought to our attention that someone who was homeless and was uneducated on the issue was part of the group that came, and when we heard about that we identified the gentleman and we asked him to not sit in the hearing.”

Eckel said that both sides include people with different levels of education on fracking and that the choice of some people with little knowledge about fracking to don the blue T-shirts and ride the bus is therefore unremarkable. 

Ashby, however, says that the bus of blue-shirted people was a blatant attempt by the American Petroleum Institute, which sponsors the NCEF, to drum up the illusion of support out of thin air. 

“This is a professional organization that’s designed to make it look like there’s support in communities where there isn’t any,” Ashby said. 

Of the 80 speakers who took the mic at the fracking hearing, not one commented in favor of the rules or of the practice. Eckel, however, said that doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody is in favor of it. 

“Most of the people didn’t want to speak because of the fact that they felt threatened in there,” Eckel said. “I was threatened on multiple occasions by several individuals personally. The same thing happen in Raleigh, the same thing happened in Sanford.” 

Eckel said one man actually got on the bus and threatened him when asked to leave.

“I asked the police officer to address him and when he continued to come up to me at the hearing, I said ‘This is the gentleman. Please make sure I get to my car safely.”

The BREDL video showing Ashby’s interview with the blue-shirted men is online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ciiXx1ACtI. 

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