An Investigation Of The Global Anti-Fracking Movement1/3/2013
Unconventional natural gas is often described as game-changing and transformative, a revolution heralding a golden age of cheap, plentiful energy for a resource-constrained world.
But only if it makes it out of the ground.
As shown by local bans in the US and Canada, national moratoriums in France and Bulgaria, and tighter regulation in Australia and the UK, the global anti-fracking movement has mounted an effective campaign against the extraction of unconventional gas through hydraulic fracturing.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has largely failed to appreciate social and political risks, and has repeatedly been caught off guard by the sophistication, speed and influence of anti-fracking activists.
What the anti-fracking movement wants
The anti-fracking movement wants four main things: First, it wants to extract a better deal in terms of economic opportunity, taxation, and compensation. Moves by some local governments to extract ‘impact fees’ fall into this camp.
Second, anti-fracking activists want further study of the environmental, economic and health and safety impacts of intensive unconventional gas development, partly to inform regulatory and tax policies but also as a stalling tactic to impede the industry’s expansion.
Third, some strongly opposed to the industry – whether on water quality or climate protection grounds – want moratoriums and outright bans on drilling activity.
Finally, and most commonly, the anti-fracking movement wants tighter regulation of unconventional gas development. From Pennsylvania to Poland, oil and gas regulation is being updated to address issues raised by hydraulic fracturing and increase environmental controls.
How the anti-fracking movement operates
The movement’s grassroots foundation is reflected in the hundreds of community-based anti-fracking groups that have emerged worldwide. Environmental groups have played a key role in subsequently organising and professionalising grassroots activists, especially in North America and Western Europe.
The anti-fracking movement is particularly adept at organising online through social media. The extensive use of free or low-cost online platforms such as WordPress and Facebook has both facilitated grassroots participation and increased organisational efficiency.
Online communications also enable a further pillar of the anti-fracking movement: global networking. This occurs through peer-to-peer activist networks, international environmental NGO campaigns, and shared ideological and political frameworks.
Some activists and groups also believe direct action against the industry is necessary. Direct action is intended to draw media attention to the anti-fracking movement, motivate the anti-fracking opposition, and physically disrupt operations. Project site blockades, in particular, have emerged as a favoured low-cost, high-impact tactic.
What’s next for the anti-fracking movement
2012 is likely to set the high-water mark for the anti-fracking movement. Regulatory reviews concluded in key battlegrounds, technological innovations are reducing environmental impacts, and the anti-fracking movement itself is grappling with the consequences of its successes. How will the movement adapt? First, it will seek out new geographies outside North America and Europe where unconventional gas development is just beginning. The movement may be able to tap into existing indigenous rights, labour, water and environmental concerns in Argentina, India, Mexico and Ukraine, to name a few prospective countries.
The anti-fracking movement has also started to engage a wider set of policy issues related to energy and the environment. Partly, this is a natural outcome of its close organisational and ideological links to the climate change movement. But it also reflects a perceived need to maintain momentum and block attempts to roll back regulation of the industry.
Finally, parts of the movement could radicalise in response to both internal fragmentation and the spread of the industry. As with the conventional oil and gas, coal, nuclear, timber and other sectors, this could make unconventional oil and gas a target of more radical direct action.
How should the industry respond?
Parts of the anti-fracking movement will never be reconciled to fossil fuel extraction, whether through hydraulic fracturing or conventional drilling. But the industry can take steps to offset social and political opposition, both now and in the future.
First and foremost, the industry needs to acknowledge the legitimacy of local grievances. Movements towards greater transparency and voluntary disclosure, however grudging, are a positive step in this direction.
Second, the industry needs a broad-spectrum political and social engagement strategy. This means laying stable – even if expensive – groundwork with local communities, especially in terms of mechanisms to register and redress grievances.
Third, the industry needs to continue to make good faith efforts to reduce adverse impacts across the board, in terms of water pollution, health and safety, noise, erosion, road damage and so on.
Finally, the industry should create more winners by widely distributing the direct benefits of gas development. For most communities, this means procuring as much as possible locally, providing jobs and training to local workers, paying required taxes, and – crucially – making long-term investments that deliver a sustained economic boost.