Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Fracking Skirmishes in the Anti-Corporatist War by Northsylvania
Fracking, like cigarette production, is one of the moral indicators of Capitalism-as-practiced. A lot of money is spent by the companies involved proving that it causes no harm and is in fact a common good. It also provides a good case study in how the fight against corporate/ governmental hegemony can be a long drawn out process punctuated by the occasional surprising success. If the city of Dallas, the home of Big Oil, effectively bans fracking, that says a lot.
However, fracking is a complicated subject. The points made for it by its apologists include economic development, the prospect of having a smaller carbon footprint than with coal fired energy generation, and cheaper gas for those who are vulnerable to high heating costs. Proponents say that fracking is a proven technology used for many years, has never been proved to have a negative effect on environmental degradation, and has never caused earthquakes, which is true…if you define fracking narrowly as sending an explosive charge down a borehole to loosen the formation from which the oil is extracted, and discount the storage and transport of waste, the fugitive emissions from extraction and storage, and earthquakes caused by injection disposal wells.
Fracking is also bound up in our ideas of individual versus collective rights, class warfare, corporate/ governmental collusion, and climate change, something we on the Left are passionate about, and rightly so. On the Right it is likewise associated with decreasing reliance on foreign gas and oil imports, national economic progress, and providing jobs. Because the media promotes controversy, everything from the visual images of protesters to the letters written to local papers are often chosen to be polarising. The most extreme examples of corporate sponsored puff pieces are often balanced with impassioned but uneducated letters and e-mails, so that readers unfamiliar with the process become confused. One friend of mine asked, “How can anyone possibly think that injecting a highly pressurised column of carcinogenic chemicals into a pipe through the water supply could be a good idea?” Another made equally valid points from his point of view: “If you all say that nuclear power is off the table, renewables can’t generate enough power, biofuels take up too much productive land, and coal and petroleum has to stay in the ground, how are you going to heat your houses and cook your food?”
If, like me, you tend to agree with the first person, winning the battle against fracking means addressing the second, all the while unpicking the lies and partial truths the extraction industry promotes with the collusion of the media. It also means using whatever means are most effective for the task at hand, direct action, legal means, scientific analysis, and educating the people around you in terms that they understand and are willing to internalise so that they repeat them to others. Nothing makes me happier than having the woman getting a haircut in the chair next to mine tell the beautician that fracking is essentially a ponzi scheme, an issue I had made sure to point out, with a helpful link to the business pages of the NYT, in a thread following a pro-fracking article in The Telegraph the week before. If the industry feels it necessary to hire psy ops experts</a, we need to be aware of how they work and how to counter them.
The gas industry and the governments of most Western countries, France excluded, state that fracking is an inevitable part of progress. Considering that the majority of governments are conservative neoliberals or at least enable them, this might seem so, but their own internal documents show that they are not so sure of their support. While Chevron is actively supporting fracking, other oil companies are reconsidering their holdings, at least partially because they believe that local resistance is strengthening. Local resistance works, so how to go about it?
The best known examples of this are Josh Fox’s Gasland documentaries. The movies are a quick and spectacular introduction for those who might not read a lot. I rented the first and then loaned it around the neighbourhood to people I thought might be receptive. While his movies involved both resources and technical skill that may not be available to most amateurs, other forums such as Youtube are accessible to anyone with a video camera or a cell phone, and some patience. A Pennsylvania activist I know recorded the heavy traffic passing by his house during fracking operations. His video has been very effective in convincing those who may not be swayed by the greater ramifications of fossil fuel use, that the impact on daily life can be quite severe. It has also been very effective as witnessed by attempts by the gas industry to persuade him to stop posting links to it.
Our own TxSharon is another model. She has written many fracking diaries on Kos since 2007, and later started a web site of her own, as well as being a dedicated activist on the ground. She provides an excellent overview of the field, full of links, good advice, and a handy news aggregator. Her blog was an invaluable resource I sent to local groups in England when fracking was first proposed here, and I have seen her articles and links to her blog posted on Frack Off UK and other groups ever since. I also follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Her work is a full time effort though, and most of us don’t have either the time or the energy to replicate it. Therefore, it is essential to support her, and others who provide similar reference links in any way possible. Donate if it’s appropriate, and more importantly, share stories, diaries, and links in other forums and in social media.
Collective Direct Action:
This works best when it is a local initiative, but often outsiders are involved in crucial stages. In Balcombe, environmental groups and local residents did not prevent Caudrilla from drilling an exploratory well, but they slowed down the process considerably, prevented further development, and generated a lot of publicity. The media often tried to portray the protests as a carnivalesque gathering, but locals had generated a survey showing the vast majority of residents were against development in the area. The same kind protests presently continue in Barton Moss
In Canada, the First Nations have been particularly active. Three Native American women and one of European extraction began a protest called Idle No More, working against the loss of native control of what land remains to them. From Alberta to New Brunswick, protests have slowed the advance of the fracking trucks, garnered international sympathy, highlighted the loss of their right to live in peace, and by extension how fragile all of our rights are when profits are at stake.
Legal and Environmental Obstacles:
These will vary by locality and have to be researched accordingly. In the UK, Greenpeace has coordinated an initiative through a website called Wrongmove (a play on the popular property buying site called Rightmove) where you can research whether your area is slated for development and register to refuse access to any drilling under your land. Where this is not possible, baseline environmental quality assessments should be done and then compared to measurements taken during and after the fracking process when problems arise. Unless that baseline is documented, the offending company will never take responsibility, claiming that any radioactivity or chemical contamination was previously extant. You can also detect methane emissions from wells, tanks, and compressors with FLIR, something that TxSharon uses often for documentation when complaining to TCEQ. Legal barriers can effectively make drilling unprofitable by holding companies to environmental standards and serving as a focus for local activism.
This is done on two levels, one international and one very local. It is heartening to know that everywhere from Pungesti, Romania to Pennsylvania, people are working with you. When they encounter a setback, you can encourage them, and when they win a battle, you can share in their celebrations. In either case you learn what works and what doesn’t. Frack Off UK and their Facebook and Twitter feeds are the ones I use the most as they have the most up to date news and links, and are the best places to pass on information. For example: Marek Kryda, a Polish anti-fracking activist, posted a picture on Facebook of a Ukrainian woman holding up a mirror to reflect the policeman blocking her way. This was not an anti-fracking protester, but showed an innovative way to use non-violent means to get a point across to someone who might not be reached any other way.
On a local level, connecting with others is essential, especially when you find that local property is being assessed for possible exploration. There is a very narrow window of opportunity to generate resistance, but by getting information out as rapidly as possible, and tailoring the message to your audience, you have a greater chance of stopping fracking before it starts. Your local businessmen won’t be impressed by global warming arguments when there is 3” of ice on the ground, but they might be swayed by examples of oil companies sticking locals with the bills for cleanup when they abandon a drill site. Planners may not care about the harm to local wildlife, but they may not like forking out for road repairs on a regular basis. The greater the number of local people who are involved means that your group will be more likely to have a variety of people who have legal, scientific, or industry expertise who can help to do this.
For every argument for fracking, there is an equally valid one against it. Use them; once again tailoring your argument to the audience. One of the first thing learned in grant writing seminars is to use the language and style of the people you are trying to persuade. In a way, we are lucky in the UK because our national newspapers have known biases, so adopting the tone of an outraged Tory blustering about property rights and value loss or lack of business acumen in the Telegraph, or citing scary stories about exploding tap water in the Daily Mail, is fairly easy. Countering arguments from the Left is somewhat harder. The Dash for Gas in this country has happened in an environment of escalating price rises, which have beggared many vulnerable people: the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. Our working class has been at risk for many years, and some of the most deprived areas are sitting on top of potential gas fields. When people are desperate, they are more likely to take risks, as happened in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. However there are counterarguments to be made to these points as well.
Unlike the U.S., the UK gas market is tied in with the rest of Europe so our gas prices will only be lowered when the energy companies are unable to rake off the huge, well documented profits they have been making. As to local employment prospects, most of the highly paid jobs go to outsiders with technical expertise. The mid level jobs likewise require experience; so local jobs are likely to be in transporting hazardous chemicals and water. These jobs are temporary, and after they are gone, the only thing left are the hazardous chemicals and lack of water. Conservation measures such as insulation and replacing windows is more likely to provide a steady income stream over a longer period.
The final argument, and the hardest to counter is: “If not fracking, what else can be done to provide needed energy?” This is more difficult. The best answer is once again conservation. Recently I have become interested in passivhauses. These dwellings are built with very thick walls and sealed double or triple pane windows. Air to air heat exchangers remove all the energy put out by cooking, water heaters, and even the 98.6 degrees that humans emit. Unlike the sealed homes of the 1970s and 80s, there is a constant stream of incoming fresh air so Radon and mould are actually less of a problem than in a standard house. Supposedly a really well built passivhaus requires almost no additional heating. Building one of these from scratch is probably beyond our means, but a lot of the ideas can be incorporated in existing housing. It is certainly worth investigating if your national or local authority have grants to help with additional insulation. Some authorities and trusts will come to your home with a thermal imager to show you where the greatest heat loss occurs.
Some energy production will still be necessary, so critical and unbiased discourse on how this will be done in a national context should be undertaken (if that is possible!). I theoretically have no problem with nuclear, but as it is practiced currently, it is both dangerous and expensive. This could be overcome with dedicated national initiatives similar to space programs, but no country has stepped forward to undertake that kind of research and development. Wind is intermittent, and resistance to windmills is often pronounced. I once asked someone in the renewable energy industry why some people atavistically hated windmills. He said that movement and noise disorients some people, but more importantly they represent obvious outside control. Solar seems to be the best positioned of the alternatives at present. Solar PV panels have come down in price enough that Ikea carries them. Solar has worked quite well in Germany, a country not known for its bright sunny weather. In my own area, numerous houses have PV panels and there are even some gigantic fields of them in the countryside, so they must generate some profit for the landowners. National smart grids to spread generative capabilities of wind and solar are the most important next step, and candidates for office should be questioned to see where they stand on restructuring the grid for dispersed power generation.
Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to preventing extreme energy extraction of any sort is our respective governments. Our prime minister allegedly e-mailed one of his flunkies that the Tories needed to cut out the “green crap”, and he certainly has done away with the green levy on our fuel bills earmarked for alternative energy. Obama has danced around the problem, but his lukewarm support is still preferable to the regressive policies in Australia and Canada. In the end the fight against fracking comes down to disrupting the takeover of our governments by the predatory sociopaths who run our corporations. Nonetheless, we can do our best in the meantime to make the energy companies work for every cubic foot of natural gas they extract.