Wisconsin's Proposed Frac Sand Regulation Bill Viewed Through Peacebuilding Lens

Oct 25, 2013

Superior Silica Sand extraction site

The power of Wisconsin towns and counties to regulate like mining, blasting and road construction has been a hot topic of debate this week. Two UWM professors explore the bigger picture.

Thursday as a state senate committee spent HOURS in a capitol conference room – taking public comment on a frac sand regulatory bill. Authors of the bill say it will eliminate a hodgepodge of local ordinances that bog down Wisconsin’s burgeoning mining industry and pave the way for more jobs in the state.

Critics, though, decry what they see as sweeping measures that strip local governments of so-called police powers and leave them with limited zoning authority.

Two UWM professors – one a biologist, the other a conflict resolution specialist – say the situation is emblematic of a larger issue in state government.

Tim Ehlinger, Bridget Brown and Rob Ricigliano lead the UWM Master of Sustainable Peacebuilding program

Tim Ehlinger – the scientist - and Rob Ricigliano are creating a new master’s degree program at UWM – in sustainable peacebuilding. They sat down with WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence and shared their take on what’s going on in the state legislature.

Ehlinger says people around the world are concerned about whether they’re being heard by their elected officials.

"And I see this in all different parts of the world because based upon how they perceived their local concerns, their local values being represented determines to a great extent whether they feel marginalized in their government."

Ehlinger says the United States built a precedence in trying to balance economic development with local well-being through the creation of the National Environmental Protection Act.

"Or NEPA as it's called.  Because when we were building the interstate highways; there were a lot of these types of problems, where the federal government had plans for highways, but local governments didn't feel like they were being asked where thiese highways would go.  So NEPA was established as a way of protecting individual concerns when you have large scale projects going on."

Ehlinger says NEPA laid a framework by which social and environmental concerns factor into proposed economic development to come up with national and state regulations.

"So many of the processes that go through in terms of permitting mines and wells have this legacy that's carried over from the National Environmental Protection Act."

Ehlinger believes the tension erupting around the bill proposed by Senator Tom Tiffany and other pieces of legislation comes, in part, out of a shift away from deferring to local control.

"We've seen this with the Clean Water Act, we've seen it with zoning ordinance - basically once you meet the federal regulations or the state regulations, then you have the opporunity to raise that higher, given the local community's concerns.  So your local concerns trump state or national, as long as you're meeting the protective requirements of NEPA."

Ehlinger says legislators are faced with the pressure of building economic opportunity for the state and taking local concerns into account.  He describes the process as "messy."

"But that's the basis upon which a democratic republic is founded.  There has to be this accountability at the state level to local level.  And by short-circuiting that we're short-circuiting a trust relationship upon which our government is founded."

Rob Ricigliano sees danger in the breakdown of trust.  He's observed the phenomenon around the globe.

"Internationally you see almost the defining characteristic in many conflicts are local communities that feel marginalized.  And usually we see these in places where they've never really had a strong tradition of representative democracy, the history that we sort of take for granted here."

Ricigliano says these conflicts share a common root - the tendency to sidestep the core issues.

"The really dangerous phenomenon we're seeing is lots of disputes around legislation and projects and how we handle each one makes underlying drivers of disputes worse."

Ricigliano says a chief ingredients used by successful negotiators is developing empathy for the other side.

"So one thing to look for is are we seeing empathy here; does either side have empathy toward what the other side might actually be thinking.  And I think we're seeing less and less of that.  We're seeing less and less of an attempt to build that empathetic understanding."