Anti-fracking & global environmental activism
The anti-fracking movement, relative to other 21st century campaigns that organize around energy and environmental issues, has been wildly successful. France, Bulgaria, Romania, South Africa, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Tunisia have banned fracking altogether (though South Africa’s moratorium was recently lifted). An assemblage of other governments are under heavy pressure to regulate fracking. In the midst of regulatory skirmishes, these same government agencies have also been compelled to conduct studies that better measure the degree of risk that fracking poses to public health and environmental integrity. What gives fraktivism the mobilization and organizational sophistication that other movements lack? Why, for instance, did massive climate change NGOs and activist networks fail to push the U.S Congress toward a coherent bill to address the issue? Why did Occupy’s multinational appeal not force greater accountability onto banks and financial institutions?
Based on the insights of classic social movements theory and social psychology, there are a few factors we can rattle off, point-blank, that contribute to the anti-fracking campaign’s impressive performance.
Successful anti-fracking campaigns generally:
- Recruit experts from various fields to speak on their behalf (geologists, seismologists, climatologists, hydrologists, economists, doctors, etc) to gain legitimacy
- Are conducted by genuinely “localized” face-to-face grassroots organizations
- Have specific policy goals and concerns that are well-articulated and not easily debunked by industry reports
- Can frame fracking in terms of inter-related and deeply sensitive issues – such as drinking water contamination, property rights, the effects of gas drilling on agriculture (and thus food production), averse health effects, etc.
- Can therefore mobilize a diverse range of people from multiple demographics
- Find common ground from the popularized documentary “Gasland”, which was screened worldwide and connected thousands of people to the issue who otherwise had never heard of fracking
- Are adaptable, applying pressure at local, state/regional, and federal/national levels of authority
- Utilize multiple and cheap social media platforms
- Communicate with other campaigns and well-established environmental organizations (e.g. Sierra Club)
- Successfully draw media outlets into the issue, leading to frequent news reports on fracking incidences and findings
Fracktivist strategies vary by context
Anti-fracking campaigns are adept at chiseling their conception of fracking and its risks to match local contexts. For example, in Bulgaria, the movement gained force as concern rose over foreign corporate exploitation. When news broke that the Bulgarian Parliament had awarded Chevron with a drilling permit for fracking operations in the Dobrudja region, protests broke out. Under Bulgarian law, even though Chevron is a foreign company, it would receive automatic ownership of any mineral resources discovered regardless of what indigenous land use patterns prevailed on the same parcels of desired land. Bulgaria’s anti-fracking campaign drew from popular angst toward foreign exploitation while doubly highlighting the implications Chevron’s drilling projects would have for food production as Dobrudja is a major agricultural belt. Few shale plays in the United States (like California’s) also lie beneath vast swathes of rich farmland, so anti-fracking campaigns that focus on land and agriculture tend to tap into local cultural identities and livelihoods, as the affected populations are often agrarian.
Campaigns strategically shape their message in ways that draw on specific, localized concerns in order to influence policy or call for a ban. For South Africa, preserving the rich biological diversity of the Karoo and not straying from a previous drive toward renewable energy investments spurred their anti-fracking campaign. In the United States, drinking water contamination, lack of disclosure of chemicals used, earthquakes, and potential health effects have served as rallying points.
Goals are not usually radical either; parts of the movement call for more regulation and greater economic benefit for local communities and other organizations call for a fracking ban. Separate goals have not splintered the movement, but have seemed instead made the campaign more inclusive. They do, after all, share the same underlying concerns. Moreover, industry or federal attempts to downplay concerns of fraktivist organizations have only served to reveal the revolving door or cozy collusion between government and industry spheres. One particular U.S congressional investigation revealed that operators in 19 states were using diesel fuel in fracking fluid treatments, after industry officials claimed that the practice was nonexistent. Denials of this kind, as well as others linked to well integrity, water contamination, and job creation, have resulted in a lack of trust in companies, regardless of improvement in performance and transparency. This distrust has been further compounded by a lack of public consultation by gas companies in the areas where they intend to drill.
Fraktivism and climate change
It’s not altogether accurate to label anti-fracking campaigns as strictly environmental. In fact, it’s likely the lack of such specificity that makes the cause appealing to people who wouldn’t comfortably label themselves as environmentalists. And yet, anti-fracking movements have also accumulated awareness and policy change victories in part because the campaigns have more focused policy goals and concerns than the Occupy movement. Risks are inter-related, close-to-home issues like public health, drinking water, air quality, and food production. On the other hand, the effects of climate change are not as immediate and thus hard to mobilize citizens around.
Today’s environmentalists and other observers lament the waning power of the environmental movement, as evidenced by the lack of any legislation in Congress to address climate change. Well-established large-scale environmental organizations seem compelled to accommodate industry, sometimes backsliding on the concerns held by their constituents. Environmentalism in the 1970s was hip, bi-partisan, involved millions of people at a largely uncoordinated inaugural Earth Day, and resulted in administrations that saw environmentalism as an indispensable tool they could utilize to enlarge and entrench their popularity. In quick succession, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the EPA came into being.
We may see a similar surge. The anti-fracking movement, like the 1970s environmental movement, is decentralized, local, and organizes many activities ranging from direct action (sit-ins, protests, marches) to educational seminars and petitioning. New Yorkers Against Fracking involved a number of businesses from various sectors – wine makers, brewers, food co-ops, farmers, and real estate agents. While it is broad-based and local, the movement is also keen to move fracking regulations to higher governmental authorities that may be more responsive to their concerns. Some have purported that anti-fracking campaigns have generated newfound momentum for other energy issues, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, mountain-top removal coal mining, on-shore and off-shore crude oil spills, and coal plant pollution. The movement seems to have reconnected culture with climate.
Why fraktivism works, where it will go
Social movements emerge not necessarily because of known and objective environmental threats posed by energy projects, but because of the context within which a particular community experiences an issue and collectively comes to understand the risks. Successful local organizing can drive or deter mobilization, and the goals of a movement must be specific but broad enough to appeal to families and individuals from multiple groups. Anti-fracking campaigns will likely win major policy changes to regulate fracking and ensure more economic benefits (taxation, compensation) for affected homeowners and communities. However, as the movement increasingly focuses on moratoriums and complete divestment of fossil fuels (including fracked national gas), it may lose some of its support base.
2 fantastic reports that go into exhaustive detail about the global anti-fracking movement, should you want to read more, are Control Risk’s “The Global Anti-Fracking Movement” and Democracy Center’s “The Global Movement Against Fracking: Lessons from Bulgaria, the UK, and New York State.”