Communities working to stop a controversial gas drilling process are getting what sounds like encouragement from an unlikely source: a report prepared for the oil and gas industry on the risks posed by those communities themselves. Even more bizarre than a risk assessment about grassroots activists is one that basically admits the activists are right.
Control Risks, the global risk and strategic consulting firm that conducted the report, calls itself “independent,” but it makes its alliances clear in the first few sentences. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could bring “a golden age of cheap, plentiful energy for a resource-constrained world,” writes senior global issues analyst Jonathan Wood, “but only if it makes it out of the ground.”
Entitled “The Global Anti-Fracking Movement: What It Wants, How It Operates, and What’s Next,” the 2012report uses the term “battlegrounds” to describe more than thirty countries on six continents where the issue of fracking is being debated. Its warnings about the dangers of ignoring the anti-fracking movement were likely a motivator behind last week’s so-called truce between four gas companies and a handful of environmental groups in the Appalachian Basin. Shell, Chevron, CONSOL Energy, and EQT Corporation joined with the Environmental Defense Fund, the Clean Air Task Force, and a few others to form the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. The Center will monitor the 15 environmental standards for fracking agreed upon by the alliance and will certify drilling operations that voluntarily comply with the standards.
Although the report is intended to provide gas companies with a plan for squashing the anti-fracking movement, people concerned about the environment or public health will find it worth reading for at least three reasons (besides entertainment). It contains reams of hard data about the movement, it identifies the tactics that have been most successful so far, and it ultimately backs up many of the movement’s key arguments.
The report assembles a wealth of information about fracking and the movement against it. It begins with a world map in which shale gas reserves are colored blue. This reveals huge stores of gas buried beneath areas such as Tibet, southern Brazil, Libya, and almost the entirety of South Africa. Just a glance gives a global perspective on what the anti-fracking movement is really up against.
A few pages later, there’s a chart measuring Google searches for the terms “fracking,” “shale gas,” and “Gasland”—the title of a 2010 documentary about natural gas drilling. The chart shows that before the release of the film, few people were searching for information about fracking. Only after a sharp spike in searches for the term “Gasland” is there a strong, steady rise in search activity for “fracking” and “shale gas.”
This helps to demonstrate just how important the film was in raising awareness about the process. Wood says it provided the movement with a shared point of reference, and claims that the movement wouldn’t have gone global without the documentary’s scenes of flaming water pouring from people’s faucets.
“They pretty much blame us for the whole thing,” said Gasland director Josh Fox. "Of course, I know that's not the whole story. The movement happened concurrently with a huge uprising of people.”
Praise for direct action
Wood goes on to describe other tactics, besides creating a fiery documentary, that have made anti-fracking activists so effective. Citing national fracking moratoriums in France and Bulgaria, as well as local bans and stricter drilling regulations worldwide, Wood claims the gas industry has “repeatedly been caught off guard by the sophistication, speed, and influence of anti-fracking activists.”
John Armstrong, coordinator for the anti-drilling group Frack Action, has his own theory about why that is so. The anti-fracking movement “grew out of the grassroots—it wasn’t led by any national NGO but stemmed from regular working people who have never been activists before,” he says. “It is born out of children who have become ill, farms that have been ruined, aquifers and wells that have been contaminated, and air that has been poisoned.”
That grassroots urgency has often pushed the movement toward direct action, which Wood predicts will increase if demands for moratoriums and bans are not met. He identifies blockades of drilling operations, for example, as highly effective: "While the costs to activists of blockades are extremely low—both in terms of organization and penalties—the potential for disruption to the target can be significant in terms of lost productivity and extra operating costs."
Freedom to frack in four easy steps?
To avoid ever-increasing blockades and moratoriums, Wood advises gas companies to follow his four-step plan for quelling the anti-fracking movement: acknowledge local grievances, engage communities, work to reduce the damage fracking does to the environment, and “create more winners” (by which he means giving communities a fair share of the money from fracking). Wood also suggests that, “Movements towards greater transparency and voluntary disclosure, however grudging, are a positive step in this direction.”
In other words, the report advises oil and gas companies to give anti-fracking activists much of what they’re asking for or risk having the process banned altogether. In doing so, Wood concedes that opponents of fracking are often right. He describes the “cozy relationships” the industry has with regulators and power-brokers, and the “crippling trust deficit” it has with citizens. He confesses there really is inadequate knowledge about the environmental, economic, and health impacts of fracking and that the industry has funded most of the studies that do exist, sometimes secretly.
Wood warns the industry to be more careful in its drilling practices because each well blowout and water contamination story makes the anti-fracking argument more compelling. When such incidents do occur, Wood suggests gas companies simply pay off harmed landowners and other citizens who file water contamination charges or other complaints, rather than go to court and have to admit they were at fault. This is not a new strategy—Wood cites a recent case where the industry did just that.
Finally, the report validates many activists’ claims that fracking doesn’t actually provide local communities with significant economic growth: fracking booms typically only supply local jobs for about two to three years.
After laying out this elaborate battle plan, Wood concludes with what activists may read as a challenge. The anti-fracking movement, he believes, “is grappling with the consequences of its successes, struggling to maintain momentum after winning tighter regulation, moratoriums and bans.”
Frack Action’s Armstrong disagrees, pointing to larger and more frequent rallies in New York. “Momentum is on our side, polls are on our side, the science and truth are on our side, and New Yorkers know that we are going to win.”
By winning, Armstrong means a statewide ban on fracking. New York, which he says has been the anti-fracking movement’s “catalyst,” currently awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo’s final decision on whether to lift the ban on fracking following a five-year moratorium. Forty-three percent of state residents oppose the process, while only 39 percent support it, according to a March Siena Poll, and the majority of both the state assembly and senate recently came out in favor of extending the moratorium.
Wood’s report is an attempt to use the industry’s resources—primarily money—to regain the upper hand in important decisions like this one. But, if studied closely, it could also help the anti-fracking movement plan its next steps.