Fracking Boom Fractures the Environmental Movement

Shane Davis, a self-described "fractivist" gives a tour of oil and gas operations throughout Weld County, Colo
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Nov. 20, 2013, 4:31 p.m.

FIRE­STONE, Colo. — If you look closely at the fights over en­ergy de­vel­op­ment in Col­or­ado, you can see the full spec­trum of po­s­i­tions evolving among na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment­al groups on what role, if any, nat­ur­al gas should play in the quest to com­bat glob­al warm­ing.

Be­fore the frack­ing boom of the last five years, nat­ur­al gas was widely con­sidered by en­vir­on­ment­al­ists to be a “bridge” fuel that could help the U.S. cut green­house gases while it de­veloped more re­new­able en­ergy, largely be­cause gas pro­duces far few­er car­bon emis­sions than coal or oil.

Now, with burn­ing of nat­ur­al gas grow­ing at un­pre­ced­en­ted levels, the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity is be­com­ing frag­men­ted on the is­sue of how much it should be used.

On one end of the spec­trum are grass­roots or­gan­izers like Shane Dav­is, a self-de­scribed “fract­iv­ist” who is op­posed to frack­ing and by ex­ten­sion all fossil-fuel de­vel­op­ment. He is the re­gion­al dir­ect­or in Col­or­ado for Josh Fox, pro­du­cer of the anti-frack­ing film Gasland. Dav­is is part of a re­l­at­ively small but loud and in­flu­en­tial seg­ment of grass­roots or­gan­izers fight­ing to stop frack­ing not just to pre­vent glob­al warm­ing, but to pro­tect so­cial val­ues.

“This is not an anti-frack­ing fight any­more. Now it’s a civil-rights move­ment,” Dav­is said on Elec­tion Day this year while driv­ing around Weld County — Col­or­ado’s frack­ing epi­cen­ter with more than 15,000 wells. “Our civil rights to safety and pro­tec­tion have been taken away from us.”

Dav­is’s po­s­i­tion is aligned with cer­tain na­tion­al groups also op­posed to all fossil fuels, in­clud­ing Food & Wa­ter Watch and the Si­erra Club, one of the world’s old­est and most in­flu­en­tial en­vir­on­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tions. After years of sup­port­ing nat­ur­al gas as a bridge fuel to re­new­able en­ergy and even tak­ing money from the gas in­dustry, the Si­erra Club form­ally changed its po­s­i­tion last year in the name of glob­al warm­ing. The group now does not ne­go­ti­ate with or take money from the gas in­dustry.

“As more in­form­a­tion came out and frack­ing ex­ploded across the coun­try, we ad­jus­ted our policy,” Si­erra Club Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Mi­chael Brune told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily in an in­ter­view this week. “It’s the fun­da­ment­al con­cern we have. We think gas of­fers a false hope of ar­rest­ing cli­mate change.” The group is con­sid­er­ing mov­ing up by 20 years — from 2050 to 2030 — its goal to wean the na­tion’s power sec­tor off coal and nat­ur­al gas, which right now com­bined ac­count for al­most 70 per­cent of U.S. elec­tri­city.

Rep. Jared Pol­is, D-Colo., who rep­res­ents four Col­or­ado com­munit­ies that voted earli­er this month to ban frack­ing, said he doesn’t think many en­vir­on­ment­al groups, in­clud­ing the Si­erra Club, are op­posed to nat­ur­al gas out­right.

“Those are really the fringe views,” Pol­is said. “There are not many in the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity that say all en­ergy will be re­new­able to­mor­row.”

The Si­erra Club and Food & Wa­ter Watch were among the largest na­tion­al groups sup­port­ing the anti-frack­ing meas­ures in Pol­is’s dis­trict.

At the oth­er end of the spec­trum is the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund, an or­gan­iz­a­tion known for its in­flu­en­tial col­lab­or­a­tion with the oil and gas in­dustry on tough­er drilling reg­u­la­tions. EDF helped broker an agree­ment — an­nounced this week by Demo­crat­ic Gov. John Hick­en­loop­er of Col­or­ado — with a trio of oil and gas com­pan­ies that cre­ates the first-ever state reg­u­la­tion for meth­ane, a po­tent green­house gas that can be re­leased from frack­ing op­er­a­tions.

“This pro­pos­al rep­res­ents a mod­el for the na­tion,” EDF Pres­id­ent Fred Krupp said after this week’s an­nounce­ment. When asked about oth­er groups’ in­sist­ence not to ne­go­ti­ate for stronger rules, Mark Brown­stein, as­so­ci­ate vice pres­id­ent for EDF’s U.S. en­ergy and cli­mate pro­gram, re­spon­ded: “The ques­tion is not wheth­er you like gas or hate gas, it’s what you do to pro­tect a com­munity from the en­vir­on­ment­al risks for however long you’re go­ing to use gas.”

The gulf between the po­s­i­tions of EDF and groups like the Si­erra Club has grown amid the frack­ing boom.

“It’s brought some of the is­sues to the fore­front that have al­ways been present but were more eas­ily avoided in the past,” said Ro­ger Pielke Jr., a pro­fess­or of en­vir­on­ment­al stud­ies at the Uni­versity of Col­or­ado in Boulder, one of the four Front Range cit­ies that voted to ban frack­ing earli­er this month. “What the frack­ing boom is show­ing is that ar­gu­ments that hinge on scarcity are not at least for the fore­see­able fu­ture go­ing to be the path for­ward if we’re go­ing to trans­form the en­ergy sys­tem.”

Brune, the Si­erra Club’s lead­er, said, “It is true, we have dif­fer­ent po­s­i­tions on nat­ur­al gas and the de­gree to which we’re fo­cus­ing on in­creas­ing clean en­ergy.” So does this cause dis­cord with­in the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity? “Yes,” Brune said, opt­ing not to say more.

“I don’t think ne­ces­sar­ily I want to [elab­or­ate] be­cause I’m more in­ter­ested in find­ing ways for en­vir­on­ment­al groups to sup­port each oth­er at pre­vent­ing frack­ing from ex­pand­ing, while help­ing com­munit­ies to pro­tect their air and wa­ter where frack­ing might already be oc­cur­ring.”

Back in Weld County, Dav­is wasn’t as re­served.

“My per­son­al opin­ion is they [EDF] are a dis­grace to the en­vir­on­ment,” Dav­is said, ac­cus­ing the group of a “derel­ic­tion of duty.”

Mean­while, the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists, whose most re­cent pres­id­ent, Kev­in Knobloch, stepped down to be­come chief of staff to En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz, rep­res­ents a middle part of the spec­trum. The group is go­ing to help in­form com­munit­ies along Col­or­ado’s Front Range with “toolkits” that in­clude ba­sic facts about the pros and cons of oil and gas drilling.

“If it’s go­ing to be done, com­munit­ies should have ac­cess to in­form­a­tion about the risks and the be­ne­fits about it to help in­form their de­cisions,” said Gretchen Gold­man, an ana­lyst at the group’s Cen­ter for Sci­ence and Demo­cracy. UCS has already helped some com­munit­ies in Cali­for­nia, and Col­or­ado is next on its list. Mis­in­form­a­tion about frack­ing “comes from all sides,” Gold­man said. “It really demon­strates what a high-stakes de­bate this is.”

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