One of the under appreciated hazards of fracking is its effect on democracy. Fracking is a big, intrusive process - one that sucks up lots of water, creates enormous amounts of traffic and an ungodly amount of noise, etc. Setting aside the environmental dangers and health effects (!), the heavy industrialization involved in fracking guarantees that communities will be abundantly aware of it.
In other words, it will be extremely controversial. Those who have leased their land or are otherwise profiting from it will be inclined to support it. Those who aren’t, not so much. It divides the community, which was one of the messages driven home this past Saturday at a public meeting on what happens when fracking comes to town.
The meeting was organized by Shalersville Against Fracking; its members recorded the presentations and posted the clips to its You Tube channel. One of the presenters, Tracy McGary, spoke about how her rural part of Columbiana County (Ohio) had been transformed by fracking - including how it has set neighbor against neighbor.
One of the reasons these disputes are so bitter is because industry and government have collaborated to strip citizens of the usual means of working out contentious issues. In Ohio, the 2004 House Bill 278 stripped localities of the ability to regulate wells. In Colorado, the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has actually sued a town that passed legislation regulating drilling.
This has created the ludicrous and perverse scenario where townships are, ahem, empowered to make pissant decisions on business issues of interest to almost no one but are prohibited from doing anything on issues of great interest to many citizens. Does the local drug store want to widen its driveway five feet? It must approach the city council, hat in hand.
But if you want to know how much Hydrochloric Acid or Ammonium Persulfate is being injected into your community’s ground, well, too bad. The inability of citizens to meaningfully weigh in on these most consequential issues - and hold elected officials accountable - creates free floating anxiety, anger and frustration that manifests itself in long running, bitter and unresolvable disputes.
The ill will is directed elsewhere, too. One of the other speakers was Maria Payans of The Community Action Forum on Marcellus Shale Gas, and she spoke of her experience dealing with state officials (transcript here). After talking about the unwillingness of representatives and regulators to act she says:
We believe that we have agencies put in place that are supposed to protect us; people that are out there that are taking care of us. And then, when you become the person that needs the help, you quickly realize that no one is there for you but you know who? You. That’s all you have.
Some might think that is a depressing commentary, and I suppose looked at from one angle it is. Sure, it would be nice for our officials to be responsive to public sentiment, but there is also a certain liberating quality in giving up on them. Our government at all levels has made it abundantly clear we are on our own with this issue. Why keep beating your head against the wall trying to get an agency charged with protecting the environment to protect the environment? If it’s starved of resources, a revolving door for the industry and a victim of cognitive regulatory capture, is it really a good use of activists’ time trying to get it to move?
We have each other, and that’s all we have - which can imply many things. It can mean finding ways to publicly shame those who are so resolutely unhelpful or engaging in direct action. These are examples of working outside of the establishment and around institutions. But as Payans noted, it can also include a component of change from within:
You need to write letters to the paper, get on committees, get on local commissions, run for office. No one’s going to protect our democracy but us in the end. It’s really the truth. What I will say is that we know that problems are there. We know that jobs, you know, are being provided - to a degree. We’re not counting what we’re losing, though. And I tend to think a lot of what we’re losing is more than what we’re gaining.However it’s done, though, the status quo is untenable. Fracking has distorted democracy to the point that democracy no longer really functions in the places fracking has taken hold. People are starting to realize that, though, and as the scales fall from their eyes Payans’ exhortation rings true: all we have is each other.