Get the Frack Out!

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Robert R Sauders

Anti-Fracking Activism Moves from the Local to the National

Hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – is a process whereby fluid is injected into sub-surface rock formations in order to create fissures and enable the release of petrochemicals for extraction. Hydraulic fracturing in the United States has been historically restricted by regulations that sought to protect underground drinking water supplies from contamination.  However, with the release of the 2004 Environmental Protection Agency’s report Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Sources of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Reservoirs Study and passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the regulations and restrictions surrounding hydraulic fracturing were eased and, subsequently, its use dramatically increased in the United States. The petroleum industry viewed the deregulation of hydraulic fracturing as an opportunity to tap known oil and natural gas reserves in the United States previously deemed too expensive to extract. With the support of state and federal government, the expanded use of fracking, coupled with increased global energy demands and persistently higher oil and gas prices, has led to a boom in American oil and natural gas production.

Despite the obvious economic benefits of increased oil and natural gas production in states like North Dakota, Colorado, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, environmental activists and community members have, over the past several years, mounted opposition to fracking were through the organization of local and regional activist networks. Often these initial challenges to fracking were grassroots responses to the deterioration of local environmental and public health conditions and assumed the form of petitions to local authorities and the subsequent passage of new ordinances and regulations. Initially, these efforts to restrict or ban the use of hydraulic fracturing experienced limited success with a number of local governments curbing the practice within their jurisdictions. To reassure a concerned public, the petroleum industry launched a public relations campaign that rejected the notion of public health or environmental risks associated with fracking; a campaign that was supported by academic research sponsored by the petroleum industry and readily championed by state governments eager to secure the additional revenues associated with petroleum production.

With the release of Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland in 2010, anti-fracking activists networks were able to challenge the seemingly overwhelming power of the petroleum industry public relations campaign. Gasland not only won a special jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, it also won widespread positive reviews – including Bloomberg’s David Shiflett’s assessment that Josh Fox “may go down in history as the Paul Revere of fracking”. Gasland’s criticism of fracking has been challenged by two pro-fracking documentaries – Truthland produced by the Independent Petroleum Producers of America and FrackNation produced by documentary filmmakers and climate change skeptics Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney. The latest entrant in this war of fracking activism films is Promised Land, a feature film written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, which dramatizes the interplay between the economic benefits offered by the petroleum industry and the environmental, health and social consequences experienced by local communities.

These films are simply one arena where the petroleum industry and activists are contesting the benefits and impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Increasingly, local and municipal meetings – long the most fruitful path by which grassroots anti-fracking activists could seek to limit the practice of hydraulic fracturing – are becoming battlegrounds where the petroleum industry is facing stiffer opposition by a larger activist network with national and international reach. This trend will only continue with the establishment of the first national anti-fracking campaign, Americans Against Fracking, which launched in December 2012 and claimed more than 100 local anti-fracking groups as members. For those interested in studying the formation of activist networks, the anti-fracking groups presently provide an opportunity to examine exactly how smaller, local groups confederate into national campaigns.

Robert R Sauders is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Geography and Anthropology and the Department of History at Eastern Washington University. His ongoing research examines the role of international activism in ethno-territorial conflicts. Currently, Robert is analyzing graffiti on the Israeli Separation Barrier as a means of understanding how international activism influences and, at times, alters the communication and narration of popular resistance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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