Organising against fracking

IssueJune 2014
Feature by Emily Masters

‘We have little mini-successes and we celebrate them because we need to; otherwise we’ll go stark raving mad,’ New York activist Maura Stephens said during a Peace News round-table discussion via video chat on 17 April.

During the conversation, two US and two British anti-fracking activists compared how their movements have organised, and brainstormed tactics for fighting ‘hydraulic fracturing’ for oil and gas in the future.

Stephens thinks organisers need to reflect on what is working and what is not, and toss out most strategies in favour of fresh ideas to rejuvenate the movement in the United States.

In New York, there is currently a state-wide moratorium on shale gas extraction and a ban on drilling over the NYC watershed. In Pennsylvania, fracking is legal and pervasive, Stephens said.

Beyond campaigning against drilling, activists are concerned with natural gas pipelines, compressor stations, gas storage terminals, waste dumping, environmental impacts, water usage and contamination, industrial accidents, road congestion, and environmental illness.

Pennsylvania activist Vera Scroggins joined Stephens in expressing a feeling of isolation and hopelessness, working in what they called ‘a warzone’. Scroggins added that perhaps they needed to be the ‘sacrificial lambs’ so that others could have a better life.

Frack Off London organiser Tisha Brown pointed out that the situation in the UK is very different to that of the US, noting that the UK only has four well sites as opposed to thousands in the US.

‘Here, the industry is still in its infancy,’ she said. This has given UK organisers more time to create strong community-led resistance.

Community resistance

Their main tactic has been to employ the Australian strategy of ‘lock the gate,’ in which activists build encampments near exploratory drilling sites, organise community blockades and rig occupations, and slow down industrial truck movement. They aim to cost corporations and the government money, as well as to get the issues reported by the mainstream media.

‘It has definitely caused public opinion to change and not support fracking so much,’ Brown said. She is hopeful that activists can stop drilling from coming to the UK.

An important part of achieving success for both UK and US organisers has been recruiting local communities, not just professional activists, to stand up against powerful industries and governments.

“In the UK… we have the lessons of looking across the pond to the States, seeing what’s happened there,’ Brown said.

Using the United States as an example made it easier to approach ordinary citizens and talk about the dangers of fracking, according to Brown. ‘It adds an urgency to stop it,’ she said. Activists are working to make fracking an election issue in Britain in 2015.

‘The percentage of the population that accept fracking in their backyard is less than one in four in our country. The number of people [opposing or supporting fracking], be it anywhere, is about fifty-fifty,’ Brown said, referring to aUniversity of Nottingham study that investigated the impact of anti-fracking protests on changing public attitudes towards shale gas extraction.

The largest anti-fracking protest in the UK was held in Balcombe, Sussex, last summer.

Climate camping

‘Something that has become prominent, tactic-wise, in the UK is protest camps,’ said Fiona Brookes, who has been involved in camps for the last three years and works for Campaign Against Climate Change in London. She noted that Balcombe was significant because ‘it was in the really right-wing heartland of the southeast.’

‘Balcombe was huge; that was hundreds and hundreds of people,’ Brookes said. ‘We had a march when people came for the day and that was thousands of people.’

Scroggins was shocked. ‘That’s amazing, the numbers they get,’ she said. Brookes noted, however, this isn’t always the case.

‘I’ve organised camps in Lancashire that were absolutely tiny and that’s because the weather is crap and it’s up north. I got really pissed off with the media as well because they refused to come,’ Brookes said, referring to the trend for journalists to focus on events closer to London – for example, in Balcombe.

Scroggins said protests in Washington, DC, can pull thousands of marchers but other areas don’t see the same support. Even with crowds in the capital, Stephens was disappointed.

‘Three thousand people in a country of some 80 million is pretty pathetic,’ she said. ‘Basically the industry just laughs at us.’ Stephens compared these numbers to the millions who protested against the Iraq war in 2003 only to see their governments invade.

New strategies

‘If [large-scale protests] didn’t mean anything for [the government before Iraq], then we need new strategies,’ Scroggins responded.

In the US, legal tactics have met with more success than demonstrations.

‘We discovered that the communities were not legally able to tell the frackers how to do their business, they couldn’t regulate it within their boundaries, but they could ban it entirely,’ Stephens said. In New York, 167 communities have banned fracking using ‘home rule’, a long-standing power of counties, cities, towns and villages to pass laws protecting the quality of life in their area.

In Pennsylvania, Scroggins has found that by doing her own reporting on the influx of industry, she is able to reach a wider audience. Scroggins runs citizens’ tours of fracking sites to show people who normally wouldn’t experience drilling what is happening.

‘She’s our single greatest ambassador,’ Stephens said. For people who are not able to visit, Scroggins creates videos to help people visualise the impacts of fracking.

In London, urban activists don’t have a singular visually-engaging location for protests and have had to get creative.

‘For Frack Off London, because we don’t have any drilling sites in London at the moment… so where do we go?’ Brookes said. The solution has been to hold stunts outside conferences and office buildings to expose natural gas investors.

‘The investors like hiding behind the fact that no one knows who they are,’ Brookes said. ‘They don’t like the risk; they don’t like the fuss. But we turn up… with gas masks, chalk on the pavement and smoke bombs, and they were like, “Who the hell are these people? How do they know who we are?” ’ Brookes said the goal in London is to embarrass these companies out of investing.

Stephens has lived and worked in urban, suburban and rural settings and experienced the difficulty of linking urban campaigns with rural ones.

‘What we found was food is the one thing that connects us,’ she said. ‘What we started was “Food Not Fracking”. It’s the partnership between city people who love their green markets and country people who bring [food] to the green markets.’

Common experience has also linked citizens against natural gas drilling in both the UK and the US.

‘Some of the most successful nonviolent actions have involved elders taking the lead,’ Stephens said. ‘Nobody likes to see grandma get hauled off to jail or beaten, or grandpa. We have a group here [in the US] called the Raging Grannies, and they are joyful. They sing… and they have great protest lyrics.’

Knitting Nanas has also been very successful in the UK (the original group in Australia is known as the Knitting Nannas Against Gas). ‘I think it is touching on the fact that it is real people; it is not the usual suspects,’ Brookes said. ‘It makes it so much more real for people.’

Stephens also suggested reaching out to survivors of environmental cancers and respiratory diseases willing to share their stories. ‘Those people have a powerful message to share. Those are all preventable diseases,’ she said.

Brookes believes that hearing the stories of people around the world ‘already five or six years down the line’, already living next to rigs and feeling impacts of fracking in their community, would inform the decisions of people just starting to face these threats. ‘We should be sharing these stories so people don’t have to have the rig at their back door to be woken up,’ Brookes said.

Scroggins thinks it would empower communities to hear the stories of real people, not individuals backed by industry or large organisations.

Participants also agreed that to understand what they were working towards in the campaigning against fracking, they needed to take in the global picture.

‘For me, it is fighting about “What is the society I want to live in?” Because it is definitely not this one,’ Brookes said.