Fracking Activism Problems

[Author’s note: This post was originally published on the Energy In Depth website on Nov. 5 before polls closed. Since then, unofficial election returns show oil and gas development bans were defeated in the Ohio cities of Youngstown and Bowling Green, and in Broomfield, Colo. Bans won the majority of votes in the Colorado cities of Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins, and in Oberlin, Ohio.]

Today, a handful of cities in Colorado and Ohio – mostly college towns – will vote on local ballot measures aimed at banning oil and gas production. These ballot measures are sponsored by national environmental activist groups, such as Food & Water Watch and Water Defense, as part of a bigger campaign to shut down domestic oil and natural production across America.

These have been hard fought campaigns, with both sides aggressively presenting their arguments to the voters. But a critical question has flown almost completely under the radar this campaign season, one worth considering while we wait for the final ballots to be cast and all the votes counted: Why are the national activist groups pushing these local ballot initiatives in the first place?

It’s because the activist campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing – a six-decade-old technology that’s essential for more than 90 percent of oil and gas wells – has failed at the national level and is failing at the state level. The national activist groups are “going local” out of desperation, because even environmentalists in the Obama administration and in blue states – most notably California – have rejected the “ban fracking” agenda as too extreme. This losing streak has become so bad that the Washington Post reported “the writing is on the wall” for the activists who want to ban hydraulic fracturing, and domestic oil and gas production along with it.

National defeats – Obama administration rejects “ban fracking” campaign

The activists claim a ban is necessary because they believe hydraulic fracturing is “inherently unsafe [and] can’t be made safer through government oversight or regulations.” But this technology, used more than 1.2 million times since the 1940s, has been regulated and closely studied for decades. Experts from outside the industry have repeatedly concluded hydraulic fracturing is fundamentally safe, and according to a 2009 report from state and federal officials, oil and gas development is “regulated under a complex set of federal, state, and local laws that address every aspect of exploration and operation.”

Because of this scientific and regulatory consensus, even the Obama administration – which is a critic of the oil and gas industry and has repeatedly tried to raise taxes and impose new regulations on domestic energy production – rejects calls for a ban. In fact, Obama acknowledged the environmental and economic benefits from increased domestic energy production in a major speech on climate change in June. He said increased oil and natural gas production, made possible by hydraulic fracturing in deep shale formations, has “grown our economy,” “created new jobs” and “also helped drive our carbon pollution to its lowest level in nearly 20 years.” Obama called both renewables and natural gas “clean energy,” and called for increased natural gas production because it provides “safe, cheap power” and can “also help reduce our carbon emissions.”

The president’s comments reflect a widespread acknowledgement of hydraulic fracturing’s safety record across his environmentally active administration. For example, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell – a former board member of the National Parks Conservation Association and petroleum engineer – said in May “fracking has been done safely for decades” and that the campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing “ignores the reality that it has been done for decades … and will be done for decades to come.” Jewell’s predecessor, Ken Salazar, stated in September: “I would say to everybody that hydraulic fracking is safe.” Also in September, Obama’s former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, said: “This is something you can do in a safe way.”

In August, during a speech in Boulder, Colo., Obama’s EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said responsible natural gas development “is an important part of our work to curb climate change and support a robust clean energy market at home.” And just this week, in an interview with Boston Globe reporter David Abel, McCarthy said: “There’s nothing inherently dangerous in fracking that sound engineering practices can’t accomplish.”

While environmental groups are a major constituency within the Democratic Party, the “ban fracking” activists are stranded so far on the fringes of the environmental movement that in September they organized a rally outside the White House to vent their frustration. But that only made their problems worse, because only a handful of people showed.

State defeats – blue states reject “ban fracking” campaigns

Faced with rejection at the national level, anti-industry activists ramped up their campaigning in states this year, with a heavy focus on blue states where Democrats controlled the legislature, governor’s mansion, or both. They thought this would be friendly territory, but they were wrong.

In Illinois, anti-fracking groups lobbied aggressively for a ban on hydraulic fracturing, and against a bill establishing strict new rules on shale gas development. The bill that would allow hydraulic fracturing to proceed under new regulations was supported by the industry, labor, and several environmental groups. It passed a heavily Democratic legislature overwhelmingly in June – the House voted 108-9 and the Senate voted 52-3 in favor – and it was signed enthusiastically by Gov. Pat Quinn (D).

In California, in September, the legislature did exactly what the Illinois lawmakers did, passing a hydraulic fracturing regulations bill 54-20 in the Assembly and 29-8 in the Senate. By comparison, an earlier bill for a statewide moratorium on fracking only received 24 votes in the 80-member Assembly. Of note, the hydraulic fracturing regulation bill was written by state Sen. Fran Pavley, author of California’s global warming law AB32, and was supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, one of the nation’s most celebrated environmentalists. Through more than 40 years in elected office, Brown has been endorsed countless times by environmental groups, and according to the New York Times, the oil and gas industry is his “oldest nemesis.” But even an oil and gas industry critic and career environmentalist like Brown, and a wide majority of lawmakers in a heavily Democratic and environmentally conscious state, told the “ban fracking” activists to take a seat after hearing from state regulators and outside experts, including a team of researchers from Colorado State University.

And earlier, in neighboring Nevada, the state’s Democratic legislature all-but-unanimously endorsed a plan in June to revamp hydraulic fracturing regulations, which was signed by a Republican governor. As was the case in Illinois and California, officials acted on the scientific and regulatory consensus on hydraulic fracturing and rejected calls for a ban from activist groups.

When you examine the recent trends in the national debate over hydraulic fracturing and domestic oil and gas production, it’s been a terrible year for the activists. The last time their campaign racked up a major win was in November 2012, when the city of Longmont, located in Boulder County, Colo., voted to ban oil and gas development. Besides Longmont, the activists can only point to a May 2012 ban in the State of Vermont, where no oil and gas development was planned anyway, and a continuing moratorium in New York, which is driven by politics, not science, because career-level environmental regulators have twice concluded that Marcellus Shale development can proceed safely.

Local bans – going back to college

After recent defeats, it’s no surprise that the activists who want to ban hydraulic fracturing are looking to repeat the success of Longmont. The four Colorado cities voting on oil and gas development bans – Boulder, Lafayette, Fort Collins and Broomfield – are all within a 45-minute drive of Longmont. Two of the four cities are located in Boulder County, which President Obama carried in 2012 by 70 percent to 28 percent. All the cities are either college towns or nearby suburbs of college towns.

It’s a similar story in Ohio, where citizens in Oberlin, Bowling Green and Youngstown will vote on energy bans. Oberlin and Bowling Green are college towns. Youngstown, while home to a state university, isn’t quite so much a college town as the others, and a “ban fracking” ballot initiative was already put before voters less than six months ago. The result? It was rejected by the voters of Youngstown 57 percent to 43 percent.

By choosing these seven cities – almost all of them college towns or suburbs of college towns – the activists have shown just how desperate they are for a victory. With the possible exception of Youngstown and Broomfield, the activists have picked the friendliest pools of voters they can find, to break their losing streak and generate some positive press for their failing national campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing. This is a sign of a movement that’s shrinking, not growing, as the activists will insist no matter how the results turn out this evening.

Local bans – run by national activist groups with a national agenda

In Colorado, the “local” campaigns to ban hydraulic fracturing have repeatedly denied they are being supported in large measure by national activist groups who are using these cities to promote their national agenda. For example, Bloomberg News reported that Frack Free Colorado (FFC) – an umbrella group for the local campaigns – says “[r]umors that national groups are backing the local initiatives with unreported contributions aren’t true.” But the FFC organizer who gave that interview, Russell Mendell, is also an organizer with a national group called Water Defense based in New York City, and he remains actively involved in the New York campaign to keep its hydraulic fracturing moratorium in place. Then there’s the press contact for FFC, Ana Tinsly, a New York City “communications strategist” who also happens to work for Water Defense.

In reality, Water Defense and Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch created FFC, along with other national groups like Yoko Ono’s Artists Against Fracking. On its website, FFC says it “helped four local campaigns get on the ballot” in Colorado, and they “continue to educate [and] support local organizing for bans and moratoriums, and build on our recent momentum for a statewide ballot initiative.” But in mid-October reports from the four local ballot committees in Colorado, FFC reports only a $215 donation to the Broomfield effort, and no in-kind contributions of staff time from FFC/Water Defense staffers Mendell and Tinsly. At the same time, FFC launched an online fundraising drive for the four ballot initiatives in June which has raised $2,630 – still a small sum, but more than 10 times the amount reported to local election officials.

Meanwhile, FFC creator Food & Water Watch – which wants to ban domestic energy production everywhere, not just in a few cities and towns – has its own online fundraising drive. It says the national organization is “standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the grassroots groups” in Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins and Lafayette, just as the group did last year in Longmont. Food & Water Watch has even called Northern Colorado “ground zero” in the campaign to ban domestic oil and gas production, yet by mid-October, it’s disclosed contributions to the four ballot campaigns totaled less than $2,000. This included more than four months of “in kind” staff time from senior Food & Water Watch staffer Sam Schabacker at about $2 per day for Broomfield and about $8 per day for Fort Collins.

According to the Washington Examiner, national environmental groups have been campaigning very hard behind the scenes – even during Colorado’s historic flooding – to get these local bans approved. Together, the groups involved have annual budgets that exceed $50 million, including at least $11 million for Food & Water Watch, the biggest member of FFC.

But they have worked hard to conceal their full involvement, because they know their local campaigns will fail — just as their state and federal campaigns have failed – if enough people discover the real agenda that’s at work. It’s the same extreme agenda that environmental regulators and public officials have considered and rejected over and over again, because it’s based on a political ideology, not the facts.

Photo Credit: Fracking and Activism/shutterstock