The anti-fracking movement is about more than ecological issues. Discussing alternative ways to organize energy and society are central to this struggle.
Article by Claire Fauset & Eleanor Finley. Image taken at an anti-fracking demonstration in France, 2013 (by Jeff Pachoud).
Editor’s note: This July, activists from across Europe will gather in the Basque Country for the anti-fracking camp Frackanpada (July 13-19). Here, two organizers of the event — Claire Fauset (UK) and Eleanor Finley (USA) — offer a glimpse into the European anti-fracking movement, discussing its political background and the means by which this new movement is beginning to spur an international debate about different ways to organize energy and society.
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is a new method of extraction designed to access natural gas trapped underground in shale and other impermeable rocks. Fracking accesses these deposits by drilling at depths of up to 5,000 meters and then horizontally through the rock. A high-pressure chemical soup of water, sand, corrosives, lubricants and gelling agents is then injected into the well, which shatters the rock and releases the gas.
Just a few of the consequences of fracking include irreversible groundwater water contamination, air pollution, animal deaths, noise pollution and even earthquakes. People living over fracked land have experienced a bewildering array of health problems, including blurred vision and eye irritation, vertigo, skin rashes, respiration problems, cancer and death.
The oil and gas industry first piloted fracking’s signature technique of horizontal drilling two decades ago in the heart of Texas oil country. The health and environmental consequences of these techniques were not studied before they were implemented widely throughout the Texas Barnett and the North Dakota Bakken shale formations.
In 2005, the Bush administration created massive environmental exemptions for fracking and other non-conventional fossil fuels under the new Energy Policy Act. As of 2013, at least two million oil and gas wells in the US had been hydraulically fractured, making up 43% of the country’s oil production and 67% of the country’s natural gas production.
Industry proponents have offered deliriously optimistic predictions about the long-term productivity and profitability of fracking. For instance, in 2012 Forbes Business Magazine described fracking as a “revolution” which will usher in “a golden age of cheap, plentiful energy.” President Obama himself has claimed that fracking bares the potential to provide the US with another 100 years of energy.
However, several large, independent studies, such as Deborah Roger’s Wall Street Report, indicate that fracking wells have abysmally low energetic and investment return rates. Moreover, it seems, the overproduction of gas in recent years has created a glut in the market, temporarily and artificially driving down fuel prices.
Industry proponents also promote fracking as a “clean” alternative to coal or oil. However, as a so-called “unconventional” fossil fuel, fracked gas requires much greater energy input than conventional drilling. The amount of energy required to support the traffic alone is immense. Fracking also leaks methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. Due to these factors, in terms of overall greenhouse gas emissions, fracked gas is even worse than coal.
Creating markets for fracking in Europe
The supposed gas boom in the US has served as a justification to implement fracking around the world. In 2010, the US State Department hosted a global conference to promote fracking called Global Shale Gas Initiative. Over seventeen countries participated in the event, which misleadingly upheld fracking as a “transition fuel” and a guaranteed path to national energy independence.
In recent years, this discourse of national ‘energy security’ and independence has become a powerful force in European politics. With political conflict and instability reverberating throughout Russia, North Africa and the Middle East, the European Union is beginning to consolidate decision-making at the transnational level.
The European Commission’s 2020 Energy Security Strategy outlines their strategy as a comprehensive policy framework. Part of this framework would include national energy quotas which dictate production, consumption and storage throughout each member state.
Of course, many countries in Europe, such as Spain, France and Greece, have very little capacity to produce fossil fuels — let alone achieve energy independence. Energy storage quotas drive such countries to either economically colonize other parts of the world, or try their luck at unconventional fossil fuels.
Of course, fracking in Europe is about more than just national security interests. It is about producing new markets of transnational investment and keeping the wheels of speculation in motion. Contractors and firms which build roads, haul trucks and lay pipeline must always be seeking new contracts. In this way, even if no substantive amounts of gas are found in a region, “exploration” itself is considered an economic win. While the presence of energy supply is considered a bonus, the primary purpose is to create new speculative markets.
The passage of TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) will of course make fracking in Europe more widespread. This massive new trade negotiation between the United States and the European Union has several mechanisms which take decision-making power about fracking from local, regional and even national governments and place it in the hands of the global financial elite.
First, TTIP promises to eliminate regulatory “redundancies” around environment, labor and public health. Second, it will make US economic interests part of negotiating EU production quotas. Third, TTIP paves the way for corporations to sue national, regional and local governments should they ban a practice (like fracking) once a permit has been acquired.
These cases, called investor-state dispute settlements, are decided by closed-door roundtable discussions among highly-paid corporate lawyers. In this way, TTIP helps take the decision about fracking out of the hands of affected communities and places it into the hands of transnational investors who will never experience any of the first-hand consequences.
Fighting back: the European anti-fracking movement
The threat of fracking and its nakedly undemocratic geo-political context lays bare the bankruptcy of capitalism and the state as its attaché. For this reason, we are beginning to see that the global anti-fracking movement is more than just a “not in my backyard” movement. Ordinary people around the world are beginning to question a political-economic system which, even in the face of global climate collapse, claims that there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels and endless economic growth.
In Europe, there is a great deal of political and cultural diversity within the anti-fracking movement. Still, in its quest to combat a globally-scaled extractive agenda, the movement has exhibited several characteristics that transcend national borders.
Ecology movements have a reputation for being dominated by young, hippie-type activists from middle-class backgrounds. Yet the anti-fracking movement has shown itself to be genuinely diverse, with people from traditionally conservative backgrounds working alongside leftists, mothers working alongside pensioners, and rural villagers working alongside city-dwellers. Though not all identify as ecologists, there is a shared sense that access to clean water is a non-negotiable feature of social life.
Such diversity also allows people to play many different roles inside the movement. Juan, a pensioner in the Basque Country, describes himself as the “secretary” of his local anti-fracking collective. “We don’t work anymore, so we have all this experience built up, and now we do the office work.” He also emphasizes the connection between older folks and traditional ways of life in the village: “These are our villages after all. If we don’t come out to defend them, no one will.”
In the UK and Australia, older women have taken on a particularly central role. In Australia, the Knitting Nanas against Gas knit and crochet along the machinery blockades. In Lancashire, the Nanas wear tea dresses and headscarves while occupying proposed fracking sites. This network has become a powerful symbol that mainstream and traditional society rejects fracking.
Direct action has also been a major feature of anti-fracking campaigns. There is a growing sense that traditional political institutions are broken, and that fracking cannot be stopped by petitions alone. Thus, machinery blockades, site occupations, equipment sabotage, and action training camps are commonly used, particularly in countries where the threat of fracking is strongest.
In 2013, Pungesti, Romania, became a battleground as protesters took direct action against Chevron’s plans for shale gas extraction. They blockaded the site as the company tried to haul drilling equipment to the site, causing work to be suspended for a month.
When the project was resumed, police blockaded all entrances and placed the village on lock-down for 24 hours. Yet resistance continued, with occupations and hunger strikes taking place at sites across Romania.
The expression “not in my backyard” (used abbreviated as NIMBY) has been used by ecologists for decades to describe the tendency among front-line communities to limit resistance at the boundaries of their immediate environment and community. Such communities are (understandably) mobilized by real-life threats to their health, water supply and ways of life.
In many ways, the anti-fracking movement draws its strength from NIMBYism. Indeed many groups choose to limit their discourse to a myopic view, where fracking is seen as a singular point of unity among an apprehensive constituency. But more than many previous environmental mobilizations, the anti-fracking movement in Europe has been able to look and act a little farther from home.
The main slogan — “not here or anywhere!” — is just one example of this new translocal outlook. The movement also shares a great deal of information via the internet and social media, enabling a lasting conversation between movement participants across the world.
Many groups are keen to connect the issue of fracking to related struggles, such as TTIP and climate change. These groups emphasize that the fracking industry views the European shale reserves as a whole, and disregards political and regulatory boundaries between countries. The industry seeks to get a foothold wherever it can in Europe, from which it will gain the power and resources to expand. For this, the interconnection of campaigns and solidarity is more important than ever.
Coming together for an alternative future
Through the anti-fracking movement, ordinary people are approaching the question of how we might organize energy and society differently, coming up with real solutions. In the UK, some communities that oppose fracking have formed renewable energy co-operatives. The Basque anti-fracking group Fracking Ez has the slogan “for another energy model.” And the realization that the state and private corporations will pursue a technology that threatens their health and water supply is making people who otherwise have little engagement in politics increasingly aware of the realities of global capitalism.
Frackanpada, an international fracking camp which will take place in the Basque Country, aims precisely to enable such conversations. With a historic prohibition on fracking about to be ratified in the region, the camp will be celebrational as well as educational, providing a platform for communication across the movement. Frackanpada will run from July 13 until July 19 on land adjacent to the field where the shale gas industry had proposed to begin fracking in 2016.
While there will be plenty of talk about fracking, Frackanpada will look also farther afield. The camp’s wide-ranging program links fracking to broader struggles internationally — from talks on Latin American extractivism and social movements to state repression in Spain and the Basque Country, to resistance at mega-dams in Turkey and coal mines in Germany. It will also put a strong emphasis on the search of alternative economic systems and energy systems that put life before profit.
One of the main organizers, Mikel Otero, sees many possibilities for the camp. “It’s going to be a crazy mess of ideas and experiences and skills… I still don’t know exactly what is going to happen there, but I know great things are going to come out of it.”
Eleanor Finley is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her research focuses on social movements, political ecology and energy in North Spain. She is also an activist and a board member at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont.
Claire Fauset is a climate activist, freelance writer and performance poet.
For more information about Frackanpada, visit the website.