Exclusive Interview: Activist Who Shocked ‘Monday Night Football’ Reveals Story Behind @BankofAmerica Protest

Home / newsCOUP / Exclusive Interview: Activist Who Shocked ‘Monday Night Football’ Reveals Story Behind @BankofAmerica Protest

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

DISCLAIMER: Public Herald was not involved in the planning or execution of the Cove Point action at Bank of America Stadium. However, we do support the engagement of a person’s constitutional right to protest, and in that event the necessity for Civil Disobedience when measured against the stage of public interest.

On Monday Night Football four activists successfully made their way into the Bank of America Stadium with ‘Batman’ gear, and two rappelled from the bleachers unfolding a banner that read “BoA, Dump Dominion, wearecovepoint.org” shocking the NFL, ESPN, and 70,000 person stadium.

Pennsylvania activist, John Nicholson, rappelling during Monday Night Football for a banner drop that protested Bank of America's financial support of Dominion Energy construction of the Cove Point LNG facility in Lusby, Maryland. Photo: WeAreCovePoint.org/ provided to Public Herald

Pennsylvania activist, John Nicholson, rappelling during Monday Night Football for a banner drop that protested Bank of America’s financial support of Dominion Energy construction of the Cove Point LNG facility in Lusby, Maryland. Photo: WeAreCovePoint.org/ provided to Public Herald

One of those rappelling was John Nicholson, a Pennsylvania activist, and Team member of Public Herald who took part in the recent 30-month fracking investigation that made public for the first time 2,309 investigation records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. I caught up with John shortly after his release from jail to find out more about the protest and what he thought it means for fracking in Pennsylvania.

The full 30 minute interview with John Nicholson is also available on the Public Herald SoundCloud account. To republish from newsCOUP please review the Permission page.

I’m Joshua Pribanic from Public Herald and today for newsCOUP we’re talking with artist and activist John Nicholson; who was only last night released from jail after rappelling off the top bleachers in the Carolina Panther’s stadium for Monday night football.

The question on everyone’s mind in Pittsburgh is….how was the game from those seats?

Oh, it was a great view. Luckily the Panthers won, I was happy about that. It was a great game though — overtime win.

I know some of our readers are familiar with your work at Public Herald, but for everyone else, can you tell them more about what you’ve been a part of with our team?

For over a year in a half I’ve worked with Public Herald in obtaining complaint files from the Department of Environmental Protection in the state of Pennsylvania. As they stand now, those files are incredibly inaccessible to the general public. And, what we’ve tried to do at Public Herald is to scan those files, digitally archive them, and release them in a database called the “#fileroom.”

John Nicholson scanning complaint records and fracking permits at the Department of Environmental Protection with Public Herald. © Joshua B. Pribanic

John Nicholson scanning complaint records and fracking permits at the Department of Environmental Protection with Public Herald. © Joshua B. Pribanic

Has your work with investigative journalism influenced your activism?

Oh, absolutely. I feel like through the research that we’ve done at Public Herald that I’ve really learned a side of the oil and gas industry that most people don’t see; including, how the industry relates and pushes back on state laws and regulations. So, everything from that side, the personal relationship side with the state, as well as how permits are issued, what are inside those permits, what is addressed, and what is overlooked.

What was this action about?

The banner drop that we did on Monday is related to a liquid natural gas (LNG) export facility that is currently under construction in southern Maryland, in Lusby. The facility is called Cove Point and it’s a 3.8 billion dollar project. It’s the largest ongoing construction project in the state of Maryland. I’ve seen pictures of the facility recently and there are enormous cranes, I’d say more than seven, if not ten different cranes on this site.

And what is unique about this LNG facility being built is there’s currently 27 LNG permits that are under consideration with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), [but] this facility is in a highly populated area. The facility lies in Calvert County, and in the most populated area of the county.

How long did the action end up lasting?

I was at the game and I was on the rappel line for over 45 minutes before I lowered myself down and was then abrubtly and swiftly detained by both private security ushers and Mecklenburg County Charlotte police.

Video Clips

Why NFL monday night football for a protest? Why this location and this issue?

As I stated before this is a huge project. It’s almost a four billion dollar export project. Dominion the company that has owned what is historically been an import facility and a dormant facility since the 70’s (Dominion bought it in the 80’s). To switch it from import to export is unprecedented and takes an enormous amount of infrastructure. And, what’s so unique about it is the amount of money that takes, and for Dominion Energy to have that kind of capital flow they needed financial backing from major financial institutions. And Bank of America is the largest recorded backer of this project.

So, the latest figure that I have that we’ve been able to obtain is from 2013 and at that time Bank of America had already given Dominion Energy over 275 million dollars. And we speculate that it’s over half a billion right now. The project itself is completely over budget, and not on time.

Basically, I want Bank of America to know that funding this type of project that puts people’s lives in danger is completely unacceptable. Dominion has a very checkered track-record in the way of safety and as well as emissions. Just last year Dominion was fined over $23,000 for excessive emissions of ammonia that were not reported. And so, this was at the Cove Point facility and that was before construction started. That was emissions of ammonia before it had started to become an export facility.

Bank of America knows all this. How they operate is they do all kind of financial risk assessments before ever even thinking about putting money and investment into a project this large. There’s no way Bank of America doesn’t understand the risk, doesn’t understand the type of company that is trying to operate a LNG facility in southern Maryland. I think it’s really egregious of them to know all that information, to know the risks, to know the largest part of Calvert County could be at such risk and to still fund that project.

We know from the air emissions alone that if this facility is completed and is operating at best conditions that there will be a spike in childhood leukemia, asthma, and birth defects. And that’s just historically what happens when you have the type of air pollution that has been cited in the permits through FERC. If the facility is completed and again operating under best conditions it would emit annually 22.5 tons of toxins into the air. And it’s the worst of the worst stuff; it includes all the VOC’s too.

What has been the response with the media so far?

I think the media response has been great and a lot people have been checking out the website and wanting to know more about the issue. I think that’s one of the problems is that so many companies are operating outside of public checks and balances. And that’s what FERC is suppose to do, is to aid in that checks and balance, but we haven’t seen that happen. With this permit, or with any other permit under FERC. So, we think it’s really important that people know what’s going on and they know the risks. Thousands of lives literally will be in the balance if this facility is completed.

To give you some numbers on the risks, the Department of Energy usually recommends for a LNG facility to have a 2.2 mile evacuation zone, and 2.2 miles from Cove Point would include 8,000 people. The small town from Lusby which only has one road in would be part of an 80 foot blast wall that’s under construction as we speak. A lot of people have speculated that the blast wall would not only make it impossible for people to evacuate if there was an emergency and they weren’t instantly incinerated, but that blast wall would most likely also become shrapnel that would go into people’s homes and further injure and kill people.

How is the media response different than before the action?  Or, is it?

Most certainly it’s different. It was very hard for a grassroots group to get any media coverage at all on this issue and it’s not for a lack of trying. Since this permit has been found out, and I say it like that cause I don’t think it was ever really publicly announced, I think there’s been a lot misinformation from all of the PR from the company; to even include the minimizing and covering up a death of one of the construction employees.

And, there has been resistance the entire time that this permit has gone through the FERC process and under construction. There have been protests at public meetings, there have been people that have locked themselves down to construction equipment, even a crane at one time. There have been all sorts of marches through the county and through the town of Lusby.

I felt like this action was need to further visibility. I feel like members of the Lusby community and people in southern Maryland and around the country who have been concerned about this have been talking about it for a very long time, and nothing has come of it. And I felt like an escalation in the tactics were necessary. Escalating how we get messages to people utilizing the internet was really needed in this case. For me, getting that message out really outweighed any personal discomfort or financial loss for participating in something like this and then being arrested.

Based on your experience with Public Herald in attending local township meetings and interviewing families from the PA shale fields you’re aware that much of the critical discussion on fracking at public meetings is almost to the point of being taboo. What would you say to the public that confronts a lot of this public criticism with standpoints such as, ‘fracking is a done deal in Pennsylvania, and it’s here to stay.’

I think for a lot of reasons, categorizing fracking as a done deal within the state boundaries of Pennsylvania is really false. The type of mentality that is continually pushed through PR and all the different arms of these companies to small communities is very calculated. I see this over and over again, and I see so many correlations with how Dominion interacts with the residents of Lusby. I see that with being one and the same with Pennsylvania, and it’s really predatory. I think these companies are very calculated in where they choose to do and to not do business. I think a lot of it is a certain amount of hubris in how they operate; saying we’re the big guy and we’re going to come into this small community override local government, override the voices of people worried about health and safety.

One of the interesting things I haven’t seen before with fracking that I’ve seen in Calvert County is a marriage of police and oil and gas companies. WeAreCovePoint obtained documents that clearly state multiple individuals from the Calvert County police department are on special payroll with Dominion Energy.

I have witnessed this. I went to visit someone for interviews in Calvert County and was pulled over and the officer who pulled me over had a lanyard that said his name and Dominion Energy on it. I asked him why he was wearing that if he was a police officer in the county, and what he did next was flip that lanyard over and instead of saying Dominion Energy on the badge it said Calvert County sherrif’s department. So, it’s that clear of a relationship to where law enforcement are duly working as both a police officer and private security agent for the facility.

What would you want the public from Pennsylvania to know about Cove Point?

I think the most important thing to take away is that if this facility is built there will almost positively be more fracking in Pennsylvania.

Being from Pennsylvania and understanding the dynamics of fracking and all that comes with that I feel very strongly in opposition to this export facility being built. I don’t want to see anymore harm come to the people or to the environment in Pennsylvania. And inevitably that will happen more at a faster rate if this export facility is built. It’s that simple.

In a tweet from Adam Yosim of Fox News 45 in Baltimore, Cove Point’s Karl Neddenien replied to Adam’s questions by stating “it is irresponsible for those involved to endanger the lives of emergency responders for a misguided publicity and fundraising stunt.” What’s your response to Cove Point’s statement?

First off, I don’t think that’s true and would argue first responders were not endanger at any point in the process during the banner hang at Bank of America Stadium. I think it’s important to note if we’re going to talk about safety, I am an expert climber and have climbed in that way for a very long time and understand how that system works and at no time was that system safer than when I was on it. As soon as first responders started to touch that system and try to literally pull me back up is when I was most unsafe.

Neddenien pointed out that they’ve had all the necessary permits approved, and therefore are not according to the permit process putting the public at risk. Your response to that?

I think that’s a classic case of pulling the wool over the collective eyes of the community. It’s like saying, “everything is under control, don’t look over here.” I think we know differently with all the work that we’ve done looking at water contamination cases in Pennsylvania where all the permitting was done correctly, and they were drilling and extracting shale gas to the letter of the law, and yet with all that being said there were many cases of water contamination and a risk to public health and safety.

Unfortunately, in the times that we live in, it’s not enough that a company is operating to the letter of law. It’s just not going to cut it. It’s not going to cut it for the people who get sick from this facility when it’s operating to the letter of the law, and it’s not going to cut it when there’s an explosion or other type of catastrophe.

What was the response like from the crowd at the stadium during the action?

I’d say overall people were excited and interested about what was going on. There were a few people that were aggravated by our presence there, but overall I think it was a minor…I don’t if I’d call it a disturbance in the game…the game when on as it did and we didn’t stop that. We weren’t there against the NFL or Carolina Panthers and I think people understood that.

A Public Herald source called to say that Penn State has recently been hosting community events in northeast PA where I’m told much of the discussion was about royalty payments and pipelines. And that, if landowners want to see any money from their lease they would need to get behind the export facilities and pipeline production on deck for places like Cove Point and the commonwealth. How does your action speak to the faculty of Penn State who’s encouraging communities to get behind US exports?

That’s really unfortunate is my reaction. And, I guess I’m also saddened that that’s the pinch of some of the families in rural Pennsylvania. A lot of these communities are low on the socioeconomic end, and because of that there’s sometimes a feeling of desperation. Again, I think that’s a perfect of example of an institution in this case not directly accompanying but an institution being predatory on a community.

There’s been a long history of partnership between Penn State University as an institution with the overall oil and gas industry that operates heavily within Pennsylvania borders. I’m not surprised, I think that’s really unfortunate, and it’s horrible that they would go to those ends to try and find people that would get behind a LNG facility that is so obviously a danger to public health and safety.

What charges do you face after being arrested?

My charges are all misdemeanors. The first one is trespass in the second degree; failure to obey a public officer or law enforcement, also misdemeanor; the third charge is dropping or throwing an object at a sporting event which I think is specifically a North Carolina law; and the last one they tacked on before I left the jail is labelled as a city violation but in the description it specifically speaks to me rappelling and displaying a banner.

What would you tell people who are looking to help now that they’ve seen this protest?

I think the easiest and most important is for people to educate themselves. The lack of education highlights a huge problem in our country where large corporations are operating without the control or even check-in with the people. These are the times that we live in, and we have to take it upon ourselves to do a little more work to find out what’s going on.

And that can be done at the WeAreCovePoint.org webpage. On there is a history of the project. If people want to go further than that they can always donate to the cause. Third, and lastly, I think people can plugin, contact us.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to perform an action for the first time?

Going back to getting involved I think…no, I firmly believe that companies like Dominion are not going to correct their behavior by themselves. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think they’re going to change their tune from any fines that are given. People need to come together and say we’re not going to stand for this. This is egregious. You want to come into a community and put that entire community at risk for an indefinite amount of time is unacceptable. People need to do what they need to do to feel empowered, to say I’m in charge of what happens in my community.

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  • catalinakel

    Great article, very informative, lots of typos…..

    • Thanks @catalinakel:disqus! Sorry about those typos…@newsCOUP gets messy.

  • Rod Adams

    Joshua,

    Thank you for telling the story about John and his organization’s efforts to halt the Cove Point conversion to an LNG export facility.

    It gives me an opportunity to briefly explain the often overlooked way that the business of supplying power to people is interwoven in complex ways.

    Starting in about 2006, I’ve been intermittently involved in an effort to push Dominion Resources towards completing a much needed clean energy supply project in central Virginia.

    The project was begun in the 1960s and is still only half finished. As it stands, it reliably provides my current home state with about 14 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year without producing any greenhouse gases or other types of air pollution. Since it was halted after completing only half of the planned units, there are another 14 billion kilowatt hours of electricity being produced somewhere else to meet the needs and wants of Dominion’s customers. Those additional kilowatt hours are produced by a combination of plants that burn coal or natural gas and produce substantial quantities of greenhouse gases, fly ash, SOx, NOx, and mercury.

    The company began efforts to complete the facility about ten years ago, but it has been a slow process. Part of the slowdown has been due to organized resistance from people who claim to be afraid of the new unit even though the existing facility has an admirable record of being a good (locally popular) neighbor, paying good salaries, providing reliable power, participating in the local community, paying large tax bills, keeping both workers and the public safe and healthy and even providing a warm place to water ski in the cooler months of the year.

    I suspect that at least some of the resistance is also coming from the people involved in the business of supplying the coal and natural gas to the plants that would be made redundant if the clean energy facility is completed. There are big numbers involved; the amount of fuel burned in the plants that could be displaced produces several hundreds of millions of dollars per year in revenue.

    The permitting and construction process for the expansion of the existing clean energy facility has also been slowed because Dominion accountants, planners and decision makers convinced themselves that their stockholders would see more immediate profit from fracking, building pipelines, and converting the Cove Point facility into an export terminal than completing a facility that would supply a couple million of my fellow Virginians with 60-80 years worth of clean electricity.

    The financials associated with the projects needed to make that export facility work look good because it enables irreplaceable American natural gas to be sold at higher prices under 20-year contracts with European customers than can be obtained in our temporarily oversupplied market at home. The project that I and my loose network of associates want Dominion to build is in a queue of capital investments; it will only be started after the Cove Point project has been completed — or abandoned. There is no an infinite supply of capital or human resources; companies have to make choices about how to best deploy their limited assets.

    I’m an independent small businessman who has far too much to lose to be involved in actions that break the law. It is also difficult to capture attention and find fellow activists who want to help push a company towards building a needed facility instead of organizing them to stop building something. I’m not sure why that is true, perhaps you can help me understand.

    The facility I want Dominion to build is North Anna Unit 3, a 1500 MWe nuclear power plant that will be capable of producing perhaps 12 – 13 billion kilowatt-hours per year of emission free electricity.

    I hope this comment is a step towards making contact with passionate people like you and John to explain how we can help each other and make the world a cleaner, safer, and more equally prosperous place.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, the Atomic Show podcast

  • John Preble

    great guy

  • Jack Wolf

    Second Round of Hearings for the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Nov. 12 and 13

    The remarkable turn-out for the public hearings on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in September has persuaded the agency to hold supplemental hearings in Denver, Atlanta, Washington, DC, and in Pittsburgh

    9:00 am to 8 pm, Thursday, Nov. 12…
    9:00 am to 8 pm, Friday, Nov. 13
    William S. Moorhead Federal Building, Room 1310
    1000 Liberty Avenue
    Pittsburgh, PA 15222

    Because of the importance of this hearing, a coalition of environmental groups lead by Penn Environment will hold a rally:

    11:30 am to 12:30 pm, Thursday, Nov. 12
    Outside the Federal Building.