The Fracktivists

The Fracktivists

Far from being a NIMBY conceit, the anti-fracking movement is central to the global fight against climate change—and for a more just, sustainable economy.

At an anti-fracking rally in New York City, June 26, 2011 (Brennan Cavanaugh via Erik McGregor)

It was an incongruous scene. On the evening of December 17, 2014, after years spent heckling him at every turn, a small crowd of “fracktivists” stood outside New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s midtown Manhattan offices with the governor himself, smiling, applauding, and taking turns shaking his hand. Two of the activists held a placard reading THANK YOU GOV. CUOMO. “This sign I’m gonna keep,” the governor joked.

Earlier that day, Cuomo had done something none of the activists standing on that corner in midtown quite expected: he had announced a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing—a drilling process that releases oil and gas from underground rock formations by injecting them with a mix of water and proprietary “frack fluid” at high pressure—in New York state. Officially, Cuomo stated that he had issued the ban in response to a public health review of the practice by the State Department of Health, which concluded that, due to “significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes” associated with it, fracking “should not proceed in New York State.” But as Cuomo himself conceded, the decision reflected much more than the findings of a single study. “You really did a great job of making your voice heard, and that’s what democracy’s all about,” he told the activists.

Cuomo’s announcement represented an important victory for a broad-based statewide campaign that drew in Occupiers and movie stars, lawyers and beer brewers, NGO staffers and political puppeteers. From ecosocialist critic Chris Williams to “Incredible Hulk” Mark Ruffalo, just about every environmentalist in the state had been preoccupied with fracking since Cuomo first signaled in mid-2011 that he would seek to lift the de facto moratorium blocking the practice.

Critics of New York’s anti-fracking movement, including self-described environmentalists, were quick to label it as a NIMBY, celebrity-driven crusade. The “climate pragmatists” of the Oakland, California–based Breakthrough Institute, most notably, claimed that such fracktivists as Ruffalo and Yoko Ono were holding back the triumph of “clean” natural gas over dirty coal. Other big greens—including the leadership of the best-funded environmental group in the country, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the billionaires who back them, like Michael Bloomberg—have voiced similar arguments in favor of fracking. And according to an April 2015 Gallup poll, this line of reasoning has won over a full quarter of environmentalists. The idea that the anti-fracking movement is a distraction from, or is, worse yet, actively undermining the fight against global warming has remarkable traction even among greens. It’s time to lay it to rest.


​The technology behind America’s “natural gas revolution”—a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, initially developed through federal research—has been in use in the United States since the 1970s. But it was only in the early 2000s, and particularly after 2007–08, when oil and gas prices spiked, that fossil fuel companies took to “unconventional gas” in earnest. Shale production multiplied more than tenfold over a half-decade, becoming the United States’ single largest source of gas by 2013 and transforming the United States into the world’s largest gas producer, just ahead of Russia.

The first area to see major development, from the early 2000s on, was the Barnett shale play in Texas. Drilling in the Marcellus shale—now said to be the largest deposit of recoverable shale gas in the United States, stretching from West Virginia through Pennsylvania and into New York—picked up suddenly in 2008. By the end of 2010, Pennsylvania had over 2,500 shale gas wells, the most out of any state in the region. And natural gas companies had begun buying leases from farmers and other property owners across the border in New York, anticipating that the state’s de facto moratorium on fracking would be lifted.

But as the gas wells moved north and east, resistance against them grew. The early stirrings of the U.S. anti-fracking movement crystallized in Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland, whose iconic, if disputed, footage of flaming faucets fueled widespread outrage. The film had already achieved widespread currency among activists when Andrew Cuomo, early in his tenure as New York governor, announced plans to lift a longstanding moratorium on fracking and welcome gas companies to the northeastern corner of the Marcellus shale.

But Cuomo’s plan to open the state to drilling, announced at the end of June 2011, had hardly made its way to the desk of the State Department of Environmental Conservation—responsible for reviewing it—before activists kicked into high gear. Dozens rallied in Albany only a week after Cuomo had made his announcement. Nonprofits including Food and Water Watch, the Sierra Club, and Riverkeeper began a massive drive for public comments on the state’s proposed fracking guidelines. Residents and local elected officials began looking for ways to keep gas wells out of their towns. A former corporate lawyer, Helen Slottje, crafted a sample law based on zoning regulations that would allow towns to ban fracking within municipal limits. In August 2011, following a unanimous town board vote, the small town of Dryden was the first to pass such a ban, leading to a wave of bans across the state.

Enter Occupy Wall Street. In addition to the battle cry against inequality for which it is best remembered, Zuccotti Park was a hub for protesters of all stripes, including a growing anti-fracking contingent of environmentalists. An informal group formed under the banner “Occupy the Pipeline,” channeling the energy around the park into the struggle against natural gas development. The group concentrated its efforts on a pipeline proposed by Spectra Energy, a Texas-based gas company with a dim safety record, that would carry fracked gas through heavily populated parts of New Jersey straight into Manhattan’s West Village. At one Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) hearing—usually a mundane affair—Occupy activists packed the room, some of them wandering the aisles in gas masks and hazmat suits.

This set the stage for an increasingly boisterous anti-fracking movement across the state. Its momentum rippled from the grassroots into the offices of some of the largest mainstream green and progressive groups in the country. There were street rallies greeting Cuomo at his every turn, including at his birthday party. There was direct action and civil disobedience. There were petitions and calls and thousands more public comments. Towns passed dozens more local zoning laws, increasing the total number of local bans and moratoria to 180. Along the way, New York’s fight against fracking developed the contours of what might justifiably be called a social movement.


​Opponents of fracking cite a wide range of environmental concerns. The most prominent is groundwater contamination: every fracking well is pumped at high pressure with thousands of gallons of water and an undisclosed mix of chemicals, dozens of which have been identified in studies as linked to cancer and a litany of other diseases and health defects. About two-thirds of this water is then pumped back up to the surface; the rest can remain underground for years. To dispose of the toxic wastewater that returns to the surface—which contains natural toxins dredged up from thousands of feet below in addition to the original cocktail of chemicals—companies either dump it into nearby pits, often poorly lined, or inject it back into the well. At every step in the process, there are opportunities for leaks: from shoddy cement casings inside the well itself, from the wastewater pits, or from transportation back and forth from the well. Not to mention that companies have been cited for outright dumping wastewater into local streams. The fracking process also causes air pollution—notably in the form of smog-inducing volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—and, yes, earthquakes.

So it pollutes the air, poisons the water, and causes the earth to shudder. But surely new regulations will fix all that? And anyway, who wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice a little clean air and water in their communities for a “‘bridge fuel’ that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change,” as Obama put it in his 2014 State of the Union address?

Alas, this decades-old industry talking point is perhaps the most misleading of all. While the natural gas industry and its boosters in government have long touted natural gas as a clean alternative to coal and a “bridge” toward renewables, study after study has shown that the cumulative effects of fracking represent a step back—not forward—for the climate.

The key factor are leaks, both at the well site and in transmission, of methane—the “natural gas” being extracted—which is a greenhouse gas vastly more potent than CO2. The exact amount of methane leakage attributable to the shale boom remains hotly disputed, and the industry promises that it can be reduced; earlier this year, the Obama administration announced that, under new regulations, drillers will be required to do just that. But the regulations—which, for one thing, only target new oil and gas wells, not the hundreds of thousands of existing wells—aren’t likely to change the equation much. Even if global warming emissions from fracked gas in this country can be reduced to significantly below those from coal, the net reduction in emissions will be limited.

In the meantime, we’ll keep building gas-fired power plants, heating systems, even bus lines, and bragging about it—while displacing investment and infrastructure development from genuinely low-carbon energy sources. And if the industry and its allies in government had their way, we would be doing the same all over the world, while regulations mitigating the environmental havoc associated with fracking would trail years behind.

In fact, U.S. officials have played a key role in lobbying for shale gas development abroad. Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department in 2010 launched the Global Shale Gas Initiative, since renamed the Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program (UGTEP), which aims, in the State Department’s own words, “to bring the U.S. federal and state governments’ technical expertise, regulatory experience and diplomatic capabilities to help selected countries understand their shale gas potential” through “government-to-government policy engagement.” Tapped to launch the program was longtime Clinton associate, lawyer, and friend of the oil industry David Goldwyn, who introduced the Shale Gas Initiative to representatives of Chevron and Exxon Mobil at a meeting of the United States Energy Association in April 2010. The next day, a Mother Jones investigation revealed, “the US Embassy in Warsaw helped organize a shale gas conference, underwritten by these same companies (plus the oil field services company Halliburton) and attended by officials from the departments of State and Energy.”

The effort is ongoing, backed this year (as in previous years) by several million dollars of federal funding. Eastern Europe remains one of its key targets, in part because the United States hopes to reduce the region’s energy dependence on Russia—and bring home some profits in the process. But the fossil fuel industry has hardly received a warm welcome there. Like their U.S. counterparts, European activists have long felt in their gut what the data increasingly confirms: that any expansion of fossil fuels—let alone in its “unconventional,” read extreme, forms—spells disaster both for local communities and for the climate, and that blocking the industry’s advance has become a basic civic duty.

Farmers in Poland responded accordingly when they learned that their country, said to hold Europe’s largest reserves of shale gas, was the first in the industry’s crosshairs. Joined by well-known French Green and anti-globalization activist José Bové (fresh from his anti-fracking victory at home) as well as Polish-American documentary filmmaker Lech Kowalski, farmers, activists, and local politicians in rural Poland launched a militant campaign against Chevron, the largest player in the country’s shale rush, in the spring of 2011. The company promised to withdraw but returned two years later, prompting a 400-day blockade labeled #OccupyChevron. The villagers of Żurawlów, numbering up to 300, blocked potential drilling sites with cars and tractors until finally, on July 7, 2014, Chevron left the village. It has since canceled its operations in Poland altogether. (Only ConocoPhillips continues limited drilling operations in the country.)

Indeed, UGTEP darling Chevron has faced stiff opposition almost everywhere it has sought to frack. Even as it faced off with farmers in Poland, the company prompted an analogous movement in Romania when it installed a rig in the village of Pungesti in late 2013. The company’s PR strategy, reportedly crafted in collaboration with a U.S. Commerce Department official, failed to convince locals of the benefits of shale gas. The local anti-fracking revolt spread nationwide, leading Chevron to finally pull out of Romania this January.

Welcome to the front lines of the climate movement—the “roving transnational conflict zone” Naomi Klein calls Blockadia. Blockadia takes many forms. In its most successful incarnations, it becomes law: France, Bulgaria, and (tentatively, as of this writing) Germany; three U.S. states (New York, Vermont, and Maryland); and dozens of municipalities across the United States have responded to activists’ calls by banning fracking outright.

But most incarnations of Blockadia—the ones that pave the way for legislative victories—are more confrontational. From the Arctic 30 to Idle No More to the Oklahoma grandmother who locked herself to Keystone XL construction machinery, the activists linking arms, scaling machinery, and blocking construction against fossil fuels are, for better or worse, the most visible faces of today’s climate movement. To be sure, they are far from its only faces; equally important are the environmental justice groups fighting pollution in communities of color from the Bronx to Richmond, California; the student movement to divest university endowments from fossil fuels and reinvest them in sustainable energy; strikes by workers in the energy industry, as well as labor-backed green jobs campaigns; efforts to shift municipalities as large as San Diego entirely to renewables within twenty years; and, internationally, mass movements for land rights and sustainable agriculture from Brazil to Mali to Indonesia. But until elected leaders take urgent steps to block fossil fuel development, the climate movement’s first priority will be to continue doing it for them.


​March 5, 2015. Another small town is rocked by a mass protest against fracking. The slogans are familiar: “Say NO to shale gas!” “Moratorium now!” The setting, to most North American climate activists, is less so. Ain Salah, Algeria, population circa 35,000, is billed in tourist guides as a “desert oasis” and former trans-Saharan trade hub. It is also the site of one of the most spirited anti-fracking movements in the world today.

Ain Salah lies about 750 miles south of Algiers on a sensitive aquifer that irrigates surrounding groves of date palms and fields of fruits and vegetables, a rare sight in the desert. A few thousand feet below this aquifer, trapped in four major shale formations, lie some of the world’s largest recoverable reserves of shale gas: Algeria’s estimated reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), rank third in the world, just ahead of the United States’. In March 2013, the Algerian government (under fourth-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika) passed a law that would allow foreign multinationals including Halliburton and Total, as well as Algeria’s state-owned Sonatrach, to begin drilling for the gas. The announcement was swiftly met by protests in London, where Algerian activists greeted visiting Minister of Energy and Mines Youcef Yousfi with chants of “Gaz de schiste! C’est fasciste!” (roughly, “shale gas is fascist”).

But it was not until last winter, when authorities announced a successful test drill near Ain Salah, that Algeria’s anti-fracking movement really took off. “Since the start of January,” noted the Financial Times in March, “thousands of protesters have turned up daily in the rural town of Ain Salah.” In late January, President Bouteflika condemned the protests in a long speech, asserting that “all energy sources, whether conventional or not, are a gift from God and it is our duty to use them for the development of the country.” The protesters were only further emboldened, and, by late February, their numbers had swelled into the tens of thousands in Ain Salah, while thousands more joined in Algiers. Women led marches and sit-ins with children in tow. Civil disobedience was widespread. In early March, a group of protesters attempted to stage a sit-in at a Halliburton facility, only to be met with tear gas. Things quickly escalated, and clashes with police in and around Ain Salah left dozens injured and a municipal building burnt to the ground. It wasn’t until the army was called in that the protests abated.

Women of Ain Salah, Algeria, protest shale gas development, January 24, 2015 (Nejma Rondeleux / Flickr)

Algeria’s anti-fracking movement, the first of its kind in the Arab world, has been buoyed by an international perspective and solidarity from European activists. “Everyone in the world knows that this is dangerous and there are places in the West where this is forbidden,” teacher and leading activists Fatiha Touni told the Financial Times. “We are not people to be experimented on. All we have is our water—we need it to water our crops and feed our animals.”

Algerian protesters are confronting not only the threat of groundwater contamination but also what many of them see as a form of neocolonialism; since France’s ban on fracking has prevented energy giant Total from exploiting shale gas on its native soil, the company is seeking alternative sources in other countries. It already has major shale operations in the United States and Argentina, but its turn toward a former French colony has spurred a new level of outrage. French leftists and environmentalists have echoed this outrage: José Bové and the Parti de Gauche, led by former Socialist minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are among those to have condemned Algeria’s shale gas push and Total’s participation in it. Beyond these statements of solidarity, active international collaboration helped fuel Algeria’s anti-shale uprising. As soon as Bouteflika announced his administration was opening the country to shale development, Algerian civil society groups began discussing resistance strategies with Moroccan, Tunisian, French, and British activists, notably at the World Social Forum in Tunis in March 2013.

But on the ground in Algeria, the movement quickly grew beyond anything its early proponents could have anticipated. Two years later, Algeria’s popular revolt has fostered a more formal coalition representing two dozen local councils (wilaya) as well as diaspora groups. Energy minister Yousfi, dubbed “the shale man,” was forced to resign, and fracking operations remain stalled. What’s more, the protests have drawn attention to broader economic and political conditions, reigniting opposition to Bouteflika’s heavy-handed rule.

Indeed, if the dispersed, heterogeneous, but increasingly global movements against fossil fuels hold out a promise beyond our mere survival as a species, it’s a call for greater democracy—starting with what a growing international cross-section of leftists, trade unionists,  and environmentalists are calling “energy democracy.” As Naomi Klein writes, today’s fight against global warming “shouldn’t even be referred to as an environmental movement at all, since it is primarily driven by a desire for a form of democracy . . . that provides communities with real control over those resources that are most critical to collective survival.” This primarily means shifting power from the fossil fuel industry to more decentralized renewable energy producers. But it can also translate into a more general fight for democracy. Algeria’s corner of “Blockadia” is showing the stirrings of such a movement, taking the baton from the country’s 2011 Arab Spring protests. So, too, did Poland’s: as Lech Kowalski put it, “Occupy Chevron is not just about fracking, it is about corporations forcing a way of life on citizens.” From Zuccotti Park to Żurawlów, the fight against oil and gas is inextricable from the struggle for a more just, democratic, and sustainable economy—and while the industry’s relentless rush to drill tends to put activists on the defensive, this affirmative vision is increasingly evident.


​Back in New York, anti-fracking protesters have hardly been resting on their laurels since Cuomo announced the state’s ban on fracking last December. Activists highlight the fact that while no actual drilling is taking place on New York soil, the state is littered with infrastructure transporting fracked gas from Pennsylvania and other states into local compressor stations, storage facilities, and kitchens. These facilities, too, present a wide variety of health and environmental hazards (even the kitchens: given the unusually high concentrations of radioactive radon in gas from the Marcellus shale, scientists and activists have warned that cooking with fracked gas could expose residents to elevated risks of lung cancer).

Most recently, activists have turned their attention to Port Ambrose, a liquid natural gas (LNG) facility proposed for construction off the coast of Long Island. The facility is billed as an import terminal, but activists fear that its ultimate purpose is to export fracked gas from states like Pennsylvania. Coastal LNG terminals—especially the thirty-odd pending international export terminals, but also facilities like Port Ambrose and Cove Point, Maryland—represent a critical step towards the global consolidation of the “shale gas revolution.” In the eyes of Republican strategists, natural gas exports represent a bargaining chip against hostile regimes like Russia, allowing gas-starved Europe to get its fill from the United States rather than from Gazprom. They would vastly enlarge the market for U.S. gas and allow American producers to benefit from much higher gas prices abroad, turn a greater profit, and cycle more money into shale gas development at home. In other words, the gas industry is counting on them. And the climate movement is equally intent on shutting them down—not least because the process of liquefying, transporting, and re-gasifying methane makes LNG 20 to 40 percent more greenhouse-gas intensive than domestic natural gas.

On a sunny afternoon this April, New York City activists once again found themselves outside Governor Cuomo’s office. Joining the core group of  “fracktivists” were dozens of students, artists, and community organizers, not to mention the obligatory brass band. Four activists carried a model LNG tanker, while others held up windmills, urging the governor to choose a wind farm proposed for the area over Port Ambrose. The LNG hub’s opponents have attracted support from members of New York City Council, who in May passed a bill calling on Cuomo to veto the project. The project also drew some 60,000 public comments in the preceding months. Thanks in part to this outpouring of opposition, the project remains stalled.

Meanwhile, the push for a more just, sustainable local economy is picking up momentum. A labor-green coalition has released a green jobs plan aimed at meeting the city’s target of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050 in a just and equitable way. Another campaign, led by veterans of the anti-fracking movement and endorsed by more than seventy environmental, labor, and faith groups, calls for New York state to go 100 percent renewable by 2030, drawing on a study by Cornell and Stanford researchers.

Further down the coast, Maryland lawmakers passed a two-year ban on fracking less than six months after its former governor announced plans to open the state to the practice. Opposition is building on the West Coast, too, with the largest U.S. anti-fracking rally to date taking place in the Bay Area in February (albeit directed mostly at oil, not gas, fracking). Campaigns in key gas-producing states, however, have had a harder time getting off the ground. In one apparent victory last November, voters in Denton, Texas,  passed their state’s first municipal fracking ban—but a statewide bill passed in May appears poised to block it (and prevent any such bans elsewhere in Texas). A similar bill passed in Oklahoma in June, even as a study released only months earlier by researchers at Southern Methodist University attributed the state’s sudden spike in earthquakes to the fracking process. In Colorado, several cities and towns have successfully banned fracking, but proposed ballot initiatives for a statewide ban have been undercut by dealmaking in the capitol. State and county courts in Ohio and West Virginia have overruled municipal bans there, and a New Mexico county’s drilling ban was overturned this January by a Shell-led lawsuit. Anti-fracking initiatives in states like Wyoming and Louisiana are even fewer and farther between.

Compared to the multinational fossil fuel interests they’re up against, the climate justice movement and its anti-fracking offshoots are still small, fragmented, and on the defensive. Even if activists succeed in blocking East Coast LNG terminals like Port Ambrose and Cove Point, for example, a dozen export terminals have been approved along the Gulf Coast.

Fortunately, when it comes to unconventional oil and gas, geopolitics has—at least for the time being—aided the fracktivists. With oil and gas prices too low for most unconventional wells to turn a profit, and analysts consistently revising downward their estimates of proven gas reserves at home and abroad, U.S. corporations are drastically scaling back their plans for shale development.

But there’s little doubt that grassroots movements have played a role in deflating the U.S.-launched global shale gas balloon—and that solidarity across borders has helped. From New York to Nantes to Pungesti and Ain Salah, activists have quickly learned to take the fight beyond their own backyards, putting into practice a favorite slogan of French anti-fracking activists: “Ni ici, ni ailleurs” (neither here nor elsewhere). If you’re looking to join today’s climate movement, take note. And if you’re wondering where to start, ask yourself: if not in my backyard, then where?

Colin Kinniburgh is an associate editor at Dissent.

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