“There’s a war going on that you know nothing about between a coalition of great powers and a small insurgent movement. It’s a secret war being waged in the shadows while you go about your everyday life….a loose network of activists is waging a guerrilla campaign not with improvised explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades, but with zoning ordinances and petitions. The weaponry may be humdrum, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Ultimately, the fate of the planet may hang in the balance.”
-Ellen Cantarow, on grassroots efforts to resist natural gas fracking.
More than at any time since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, concerns about weather have gripped the US in 2012. Long percolating consciousness about global warming has overlapped with extraordinary weather patterns and records: an avalanche of high temperature marks; a drought of nearly unprecedented breadth, intensity, and duration; extraordinary acreage destroyed in wildfires; massive fish die-offs; and Hurricane Sandy, which flooded portions of New York City and environs in October. This context has amplified the country's awareness of the dire forecasts and warnings now appearing regarding climate change. Thus, we hear that the breakdown of the natural hydrologic system across much of the Great Plains may doom the existence of agriculture there; a 20-nation study concluded that global warming could claim as many as 100 million lives worldwide as soon as 2030; and the World Bank is warning of “catastrophic consequences” if decisive measures are not enacted to rein in rising temperatures.
Paradoxically, despite the obviousness of extraordinary weather patterns and the seriousness of the implications, the politics surrounding natural resources and climate in the US are deeply hidden from view… As we shall see below, struggles related to resources and climate change are proceeding on at least four fronts, three of which are not going well.
Washington: The Phony Front
It should be evident that dealing with an overarching threat like global warming requires orchestration from the national government. It is just as evident, however, that neither the Obama administration nor Congress is taking much interest. When queried on its activity, the White House merely touts its imposition of higher fuel efficiency standards for automobiles (so-called CAFE standards) and its modest support for green energy initiatives. Being part of the political establishment itself, the mass media declines to investigate how inadequate these achievements are. Indeed, the attention and respect the US media accord to climate change deniers dwarfs that of any other country (not coincidentally, climate change denial is more prevalent among the US population than in any other country). But environmental analysts have leveled no shortage of piercing criticisms of Washington's performance on climate issues. They point out that the US is not even in the top 10 in production of clean energy, that the administration torpedoed global negotiations to coordinate climate protection measures, that Obama himself has facilitated offshore drilling in the Arctic, that the President is permitting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline which, will allow for the exploitation of Canada's tar sands (a deposit that by itself can add 0.59 degrees of heat to the earth's surface), etc. Clearly, Washington is a phony front in the struggle to contain climate change.
Natural Gas Statehouses
The real struggle is going on at lower levels of government. Statehouses present a mixed bag. In a handful of cases, most notably California, a legacy of environmental activism forged decades ago primarily amid concerns about air pollution has generated meaningful restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. For the most part, however, statehouses are vulnerable to the entreaties of energy industry lobbyists, who suborn elected officials with campaign contributions, promises of future employment for them or their relatives, etc. In return for the largesse of their lobbyists, energy companies have secured all manner of assistance from state governments. A clear and important dimension of this assistance is visible in the legislation and regulatory environment concerning natural gas fracking in many states. New York state, for example, appointed an avowed climate change denier and former executive of Getty Oil and Marathon Oil, Bradley Field, to head the Division of Mineral Resources within its Department of Environmental Conservation. Field's Division has worked to conceal the presence of toxins in fracking fluids, has regularly mislead the legislature and the public about fracking risks and mishaps, and funneled through a “Compulsory Integration” bill in 2005, which—believe it or not–forbids landowners from resisting natural gas companies desiring to pursue fracking on their land. The bill was written by industry lobbyists, and the support of Field's unit obviated the ordinary need for legislative hearings and public scrutiny.
The Municipal Front
“It's the health of many versus the wealth of a few”
–Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell University, Department of Engineering, on local activists' struggles against natural gas fracking
Industry-friendly governance is a disturbingly common pattern in many statehouses, mimicking Washngton. Recall, for instance, Pennsylvania's infamous Act 13, which peremptorily undermined all local regulations that might impede the exploitation of mineral resources, and shielded mineral extraction operations from liability for any wrongdoing or damage to the environment (such as contamination of water sources, a well established hazard of fracking). Mobilization in favor of climate protection has centered, therefore, at the lowest levels of government, in municipalities and counties, where grassroots activism can harness support towards concrete and achievable goals. The immediate threats fracking poses to water safety and public health (in addition to its contribution to global warming, which is worse than coal) have spurred concerned citizens to explore every possible avenue to pressure local governmental administrations to impede fracking. The most poignant example of this comes from New York state.
Building on a tradition of environmental consciousness in the state, activists in New York generated enough outrage against fracking in 2010 to compel Governor Cuomo to reaffirm a state-wide ban on fracking, an important reversal of position for him. Since then, they have outmaneuvered the energy industry-sponsored laws stipulating that gave the state's Division of Mineral Resources and its Department of Environmental Conservation full control over all regulations related to energy exploration and extraction, no matter what ordinances local governments may pass. The activists struck back by exploiting local governments' freedom to pass zoning ordinances prohibiting any industrial activity in whatever areas they may specify, an approach the state supreme court had no choice but to legitimate in 2011. To date, at least 140 communities in New York state have precluded fracking through zoning ordinances. Through this last-ditch method, exercising great patience, and investing huge amounts of time going door-to-door collecting signatures for petitions, citizens in New York state and elsewhere are doing what they can to resist the reckless exploitation of hydrocarbon energy sources.
The Privatization Front: From Budget Crises to Environmental Despoliation
Fracking and other threats to the environment have galvanized an impressive popular response in the US. The momentum local activists have acquired in places like California, Texas, and New York is spilling over into other states, and must be encouraging similar efforts elsewhere. Thus, notice that jurisdictions in Bulgaria, Germany, England, Ireland have revoked a variety of fracking licenses in the last year, and President Sarkozy of France responded to mass protests by forbidding fracking unless and until it is demonstrated to be environmentally safe. Just last week the European Parliament came close to imposing a temporary moratorium on large-scale shale gas development.
Nevertheless, as laudable as US local activists' efforts may be, the ceiling for their achievement is not high. They are impeding gas fracking, yes, and perhaps they can even stall construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps as well student movements can convince universities to divest from greenhouse gas emitting investments. But without aggressive leadership in Washington, the bottomless pockets of the energy industry tilt the institutional playing field wildly in their favor, and greenhouse gas emissions will proceed at a perilous pace.
Moreover, the budget crises that have hamstrung most state and local governments across the country ever since the financial crisis erupted in 2008 have opened the door to all manner of privatization schemes, including the privatization of natural resources traditionally held in public control. For example, a sizable number of corporations now have mature plans to arrange for privatization of water services so as to wring profits from its scarcity, and a hefty majority of professionals in the water industry expect a surge in privatizations over the next three to five years. Will local activists find the will, the means, the support, and the method to resist the building storm of privatization? Or, will the Obama administration stand up and bring government power to bear in defense of the environment, society, and the economy (yes, green energy can generate employment)? Or…?
Ellen Cantorow, “Frack Fight: A Secret War of Activists—With the World in the Balance”, TomDispatch.com, November 19th, 2012.
See, e.g., Steven Apfelbaum, “Opinion: Fishy Deaths”, the-scientist.com, October 29th, 2012.
 Wil S. Hylton, “Broken Heartland: The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains” Harper's July 2012.
“100 Million Dead, Trillions of Dollars Lost from Climate Change by 2030, Estimates Study”, Commondreams.org, September 26th, 2012.
“World Bank Report Warns 'Catastrophic Consequences' of Global Warming”, CommonDreams.org, November 19th, 2012.
Mijin Cha, “American Exceptionalism at Work: US Leads in Media Coverage of Climate Deniers”, PolicyShop.net, October 8th, 2012.
“Climate skepticism highest in US—poll”, news24.com, October 4th, 2012.
For detail and citations, see David Kerans, “Climate Failure and Climate Confrontation in the US”, Strategic Culture Foundation, September 14th, 2012.
An insightful account of the fracking industry's grip on New York is Robert H. Boyle and Bruce Ferguson, “Field of Distortions, MetroLand.net, June 29th, 2012.
See, e.g., our discussion in this forum, “The Eclipse of US Politics, and its Global Consequences”, Strategic Culture Foundation, August 6th, 2012.
One brief summary of recent findings from the US and Europe on the dangers of fracking is “New Report Confirms Fracking is Reckless”, EcoWatch.org, October 15th, 2012.
On which, see, e.g. Robert W. Howarth et al. “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. A letter.” Climatic Change, March, 2011.
“Europe Against Fracking—A Continent Says: No!” IntellectualTakeOut.org, January 26th, 2012.
“Fracking Moratorium Vote Falls Short in Europe”, EcoWatch.org, November 21st, 2012.
See, e.g., Mary Bottari and Sara Jerving, “'Hit 'em Where it Hurts': New Campaigns Target Fossil Fuel Giants”, PRWatch.org, November 13th, 2012.
“Water Industry Outlook: 'The Time Is Ripe' for Water Privatization”, CommonDreams.org, November 19th, 2012.