Growing Anti-Fracking Movement Pushes Policy Changes


Across the country, in community centers and high school gyms, the tide is turning against the controversial industry practice of fracking – and it’s turning in a way that’s likely to bring about real changes in U.S. environmental policy that not even the BP oil spill could rouse.

In part that’s due to the fact that the spill – America’s worst environmental disaster – is a relatively isolated, one-time incident compared to the widespread and ongoing damage caused by the continued use of hydro-fracturing. Another factor pushing along policy reform is that local media outlets have a cultural “green light” to unload on the drilling industry, and they’re taking advantage of it.

So how do we explain the firestorm over fracking? It’s difficult to overstate the influence of the Oscar-nominated “Gasland” documentary and the hard-hitting fracking series from Ian Urbina at the New York Times in bringing the issue to the fore. Although the overall audiences for those media events might be relatively small – a few million direct viewers and readers at best – we must realize that every reporter in every one of those “fracking towns” got scooped on a huge local environmental story. So the gloves have come off, and fracking is taking a beating.

The result is that we’re beginning to see policy changes or at least movement in that direction. Towns and counties from upstate New York to Texas and across the West are considering banning the practice. NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering an extension of his state’s fracking ban while Maryland may become the next state to institute a moratorium.

As mentioned, the mainstream local media is stepping up, big time, and applying heavy pressure on elected officials. For example, the Times-Tribune in Scranton, Penn., writes this week that “…the gas industry interests that poured about $1 million into Gov. Tom Corbett’s election campaign got themselves quite a bargain…not only has Mr. Corbett refused to consider a just tax on natural gas extraction, his secretary of the Department of Environmental Resources, Michael Krancer, severely has limited the ability of state inspectors to force gas drillers to comply with environmental laws and regulations.”

Reporting like this is very difficult for the drilling industry to overcome or even spin. And despite the fact that the industry’s public affairs efforts (primarily lobbying) are nothing short of legendary at the state and federal levels, it’s hard to buy every mayor and every council member across a dozen states. We should now be watching for the industry to jockey for jurisdiction, in effect asserting that state and federal laws eliminate local control. Good luck with that when it comes to contamination of drinking water sources.

There’s no doubt that the anti-fracking movement is gathering steam and getting organized. Several groups have drafted “sample legislation” that makes it easy for concerned citizens to ask local officials for immediate action – either a ban or a moratorium. It’s a patchwork solution, for sure, but that pressure is going to bubble up into state and federal offices soon enough.

In effect, there’s a grassroots revolution of sorts going on that will organize and engage millions of Americans who did not give a damn about natural gas drilling even six months ago. Many of them live in swing states, and if you don’t think fracking is going to be a big issue in the upcoming 2012 elections, well, you just haven’t been paying attention.

By the way, farther from home, France has stopped its fracking industry dead in its tracks, and other nations are following suit. So, the global fracking industry has gone from relatively smooth sailing to real trouble in a few short months – a truly remarkable policy turnaround that never quite materialized after the BP oil spill.

If this wave of protest continues, which I believe it will, even the pro-drilling Obama Administration might have to get on board. After all, there are some swing states sitting on top of all that natural gas.

Here’s an example of the local tide turning in Scranton:

And here’s a telling report from Bloomberg/Business Week about the French anti-fracking action:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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