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The recent news about Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s participation in a lawsuit against the construction of a large water tower near his home and ranch in Texas was extraordinarily symbolic, and could help combat the rhetoric being thrown at opponents of fracking, who are often cast away by industry as being unreasonable  “NIMBY’s”: Not In My Back Yard.

The 16-story tower would – among other uses – provide water for fracking operations in the area.  It would be a large, unsightly industrial installation, similar in some respects to the thousands of 16 story high Exxon-commissioned drill rigs and heavy machinery towering above neighborhoods and ranches throughout the country. The difference is that the proposed water tank would sit quietly nearby in years to come – a stark contrast to noisy fracking sites that emit hazardous air pollution and sometimes contaminate drinking water. 

While families in fracking zones face the threat of health impacts and constant light and noise pollution, Tillerson will have to look at a tower several miles from his mega-mansion and adjacent to his horse ranch.  He’s also concerned about his home losing value, but with a $40 million dollar annual salary, he could easily write it off and move – an option that the people his company has impacted don’t have the option of doing.  

As with anyone, however, Tillerson doesn’t want to move.  But unlike most people, he has expensive lawyers who intend to use local control laws to halt the tower’s construction – the same type of laws that his colleagues have been suing to overturn in Mora County, New Mexico, the Colorado Front Range, and many other places.  This industry hypocrisy it not surprising, though it is surprising that Tillerson didn’t see the PR aftermath of his industrial challenge coming from miles away.  Perhaps it goes to show how disillusioned corporate executives can be, and how empathizing with the people their industry is encroaching upon may only be possible when they find themselves in a similar situation. 

According to language from the complaint, Mr Tillerson and his neighbors feel that:

“The construction of the tower will create a constant and unbearable nuisance to those that live next to it. [It] will have lights on at all hours of the night, traffic to and from the tower at unknown and unreasonable hours, noise from mechanical and electrical equipment….and creates unsafe and attractive nuisance to children of the area. Furthermore, [it] create[s] an attractive nesting spot for invasive species of bird and other animals, [which] will befoul Plaintiffs properties…Each of the homeowners built or purchased their homes in Bartonville to live in an upscale community free of industrial properties, tall buildings, and other structures that might devalue their properties and adversely impact the rural lifestyle they sought to enjoy.”

Perhaps a review is in order regarding the type of fracking operations in neighborhoods that Exxon promotes in places where their executives don’t live.  Constant and unbearable nuisance? Check. Lights on at all hours of the night? Check. Traffic to and from at unreasonable hours?  Check. Property devaluation? Check. Unsafe for children?  Check that too.  But birds pooping on houses?  To Mr. Tillerson’s credit, that’s certainly open for debate.

In oral testimony at a local hearing, Mr Tillerson also said:

“My wife and I….selected the area obviously because of its rural lifestyle, and our love for horses….so we invested millions of dollars in the property…we wanted to protect this culture…we didn’t want this property developed into something other than that…”

That was Rex Tillerson, the upscale neighborhood homeowner and golfer speaking.  But the CEO of Exxon seems to be a different man.  His company is quick to speak out against government regulation that may pose impediments to drilling near homes, farms, ranches, and inside city limits.  “This type of dysfunctional regulation is holding back the American economic recovery, growth, and global competitiveness,” he said in 2012, referring to the regulation of the fracking industry. In the eyes of a major developer like Exxon, regulators have gone too far, unless we’re talking about those protecting your own neighborhood. 

Tillerson’s actions have reinforced the idea that we all want certainty in the places we live.  We buy a house or a piece of land hoping the character of its surroundings won’t change for the worse, that our scenic views will remain intact, and that its value won’t plummet while we sit and watch hopelessly. “I cannot stay in a place,” he said in his testimony, “where I do not know who to count on and who not to count on.”  So much for the “economic growth and global competitiveness” he alluded to.  That, he seems to believe, can occur somewhere else, not in his backyard.

“Ours is an industry that is built on….science, mathematics, engineering…” Tillerson said at an industry conference.  “And because we have a society that is by and large illiterate in these areas, what we do is a mystery to them, and I find it scary.  It creates easy opportunities for opponents of development – activist organizations – to manufacture fear.”  But in suing over industrial development, Tillerson himself now falls into the “activist” category.

Though it has inspired plenty of outrage, the Tillerson case is perhaps a blessing. It has shown that the CEO of the largest oil company in the world is a NIMBY.  It shatters the myth that activist organizations are ignorant entities breeding fear above reason, and it demonstrates how we all want peace, quiet, health, and predictability for ourselves and our families in the places we live.  And above all else, I hope it shows that until we depart from extreme energy extraction like fracking, the list of NIMBY’s is only going to grow.