The Fracking Fight Spreads—and Spreads Apart

From tiny towns to superstates, the battle lines were redrawn in 2014, with pockets of dissension showing in the ranks.

Anti-fracking activists at the People's Climate March in New York. Credit: Light Brigading/Flickr

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This was the year the anti-fracking movement multiplied, diversified and suffered some growing pains.

It was also the year the energy industry pushed back hard, spending millions on anti-fracking election campaigns, recruiting experts on public relations for messaging help and filing lawsuits against successful bans.

At least 20 towns, counties and states across the country closed their borders to fracking and fracking waste in 2014. 

Most recently, on Dec. 17, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York is banning fracking—becoming the first state to do so. Activists around the country, from California to Colorado to Washington, D.C. hailed the move. 

A month prior, Texas, the No. 1 oil-and-gas-producing state, saw its first-ever ban against the controversial process that injects a slurry cocktail of sand, water and chemicals underground to crack open bedrock and extract oil-and-gas reserves. The north Texas town of Denton voted in favor of the ban by nearly 59 percent despite grassroots activists of Frack Free Denton being outspent more than 10-1 by the energy industry.

Meanwhile, California, the nation’s No. 2 oil producer, saw a dramatic rise in ban efforts, including its first municipality-level ban (Beverly Hills) and two county-level bans (San Benito and Mendocino). And the Northeast, where there’s no major fracking potential, saw a wave of temporary and permanent initiatives targeting the industry’s sludgy waste, from Connecticut’s state government to small towns in Massachusetts.

And the buck doesn’t stop there. Many communities tried and failed to pass similar measures. For example, Colorado’s Gov. John Hickenlooper derailed efforts to get two statewide anti-fracking initiatives on the November ballot. Activists there have vowed to try again.

More people in Maryland and Florida, among others, are launching local efforts now. 

Hydraulic fracturing is driving the nation’s energy boom and creating thousands of jobs along the way.

But as this popular form of energy extraction creeps closer to homes, parks and businesses, there’s growing concern about its potential hazards: air and water pollution; waste disposal that could trigger earthquakes; increased truck traffic and the destruction of local roads; and noise-and-light pollution. Even in places where rules address those problems, activists worry that the measures aren’t protective enough.

From Climate Change to ‘Climate Crisis’

And, fracking is increasingly being called out for contributing to climate change, since drilling a well can release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

“We are no longer talking about climate change, but rather a climate crisis,” said Colorado activist Shane Davis, who noted that methane flaring—venting into the atmosphere—is tilting us toward a point of “no return.”

Despite the apparent unity, there’s one recurring source of division within the movement: the discord that arises when new rules are at stake. 

In February, Colorado passed some of the strictest air rules in the country for the oil-and-gas industry. Many local environmental groups contributed to the rulemaking. Most were pleased with the strict rules and vowed to keep fighting for more protections.

But Sandra Steingraber, an environmental health scientist from New York, said, “What we need is no fracking.” Steingraber told InsideClimate News that’s because no level of regulation can effectively mitigate the health problems associated with drilling.

That same division surrounds the discussion of new fracking rules in Illinois and now in Maryland, where some of the strictest rules in the country were proposed in early December.

The Energy Empires Strike Back 

As people increasingly pushed back against fracking, their collective actions sent a clear message to the energy industry: We can’t be ignored.

And, consequently, they weren’t, largely.

Eight anti-fracking measures appeared on the Nov. 4 ballots, and the industry responded by outspending activists 20-1 in some places.

Even when an initiative passed, the industry didn’t let up. Less than 24 hours after Denton approved a ban, the town was slapped with lawsuits by both the state’s industry trade group, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, and state regulators at the Texas Law Office.

This isn’t the first time for such action. In July, two New York towns that have been battling similar lawsuits for over two years won their case in the state’s highest court. Later in the summer, however, a few Colorado cities that had passed bans in years past—and then were sued—lost when judges overturned their measures. Those communities have appealed the decisions.

Even bans passed in previous years aren’t safe against new legal action. Last month, Colorado’s industry trade group protested a five-year fracking moratorium passed in November 2013 in Broomfield.

And according to a leaked transcript of a speech made by Richard Berman, president of the consulting firm Berman and Company, energy companies sought his help to launch a $2 to $3 million campaign against Colorado’s anti-fracking efforts. Called “Big Green Radicals,” the campaign aimed to discredit specific activists. 

The explosive growth of fracking in recent years—and the money spent by energy companies in Colorado, Texas and elsewhere to protect the industry—suggests that it’s here to stay. The same could be said of the growing numbers of people voicing their myriad concerns who want fracking to disappear.