How to Fight Fracking in Your Neighborhood

The use of local ordinances to keep natural gas drilling activities out of communities is becoming a popular tactic, even though ordinances might not hold up in court.

Leah Zerbe June 1, 2011

Communities can keep fracking out of their area, if residents work together.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Think clean air and water are among your basic rights? They are, but you may have to fight for them, according to an organization helping towns and cities adopt local ordinances to prevent natural gas drilling in their area.

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Unconventional natural gas drilling activities, including the toxic fracking process, are under fire as reports of well blowouts, wastewater treatment problems, toxic air pollution, and drinking-water pollution garner stronger citizen opposition to the practice. In fact, the New York Attorney General filed a lawsuit this week to prevent drilling in the Delaware River watershed before the state can finish a study aiming to find out if this type of natural gas drilling is safe. So far, most independent science being published finds that fracking is a potential threat to human health.

Although much of the recent news about natural gas drilling involves the gas-containing Marcellus Shale formation located on the East Coast, and the Barnett formation in Texas, 37 U.S. states harbor rich deposits of natural gas. Since natural gas drilling activity ramped up in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia in the last few years, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has been inundated with calls from desperate parents and community members seeking to keep the industrial activity out of their backyards. "This is a civil rights movement, and the only way we're going to change the unjust laws is by challenging them," says Ben Price, projects director of CELDF. "We can't regulate our way out. We can't protect our communities by regulating how fast they're destroyed."

The city of Pittsburgh is among the municipalities that have so far adopted anti-fracking ordinances drafted by CELDF. And while these ordinances may wind up being tested in court, Price says they are necessary in turning the current broken system on its head. "Just like with slavery or women's rights, it will take a long time, but I think the fact that we're in such deep trouble with the environment, there's more power in it right now," explains documentary filmmaker Anneke Campbell, coauthor of Be the Change: How to Get What You Want in Your Community (Gibbs Smith, 2009).

CELDF's work isn't limited to protecting communities from fracking. In fact, it's drafted ordinances in the past to help local municipalities keep human sewage sludge and aerial pesticide spraying outside municipal borders. CELDF's general theory is that the current regulatory system does not protect the health of people and the environment, but rather issues permits that allow activities that make us sick. The group hopes its community-based rights ordinances put the power back into local communities' hands, not the state's. "These communities don't have a fracking problem, they have a democracy problem," says Price. "Fracking is a symptom of a disease. We wouldn't have that symptom if it weren't for the underlying disease—the stripping of the rights of the people to govern themselves and make decisions for their own communities."

And while asserting citizens rights and local community power over one-size-fits-all state mandates may seem extreme, Price says it's what makes sense. "It's radical for the state to say that corporations have more rights than people. It's fairly conservative to say people have a right to protect their own homes and communities from harmful practices," he says. "It may seem radical because it goes against the current. Legislators believe they need to make law benefit wealthy corporations and regular citizens will just have to accept that. They don't."

If you want to fight fracking and assert your rights, here's how to start harnessing your community's power:

1. Learn about the hazards. Watch the documentary Gasland with your family, friends, and neighbors and learn the facts on how natural gas drilling affects human health. Once you know the basics and know that you don't want something in your community, move from the fact-gathering phase into organizing mode.

2. Seek like-minded movers and shakers. Chances are, there are already people in your area who are concerned, or who have found similar environmental threats in the past. Tap the Oil & Gas Accountability Project and the Energy Justice Map to look for movers and shakers to team up with in your area. Leveraging your community efforts with a local or regional nonprofit can also help bolster your presence and spread the word about your town's anti-fracking efforts.

3. Set up a free screening. Organize a larger free screening of Gasland to capture the attention of your community. Look for a local church, recreation center, or even township building that would be willing to let you use the space for free, and then advertise the screening using fliers and good old-fashioned door-to-door information sharing. Set up an event page for your screening on Facebook as another means of free advertising. Be sure to invite your township supervisors or city council members, solicitor, and other local lawmakers. Check out the home screening toolkit at GaslandtheMovie.com.

Invite a CELDF speaker or other expert to your free Gasland screening and engage in a Q&A after the film. Look for vocal, driven community leaders to emerge as leaders of your core group in this discussion. Be sure to have people sign in and provide email addresses at the screening, so you can keep them updated.

4. Develop a plan of action. Once your core group emerges after your screening, it's time to start developing a plan of action so you can draft a local ordinance. During this time, you'll be working with CELDF and continuing your organizing efforts to reach more people in your community. "Organizing is about talking to people, it's about networking, knocking on one door at a time and saying, 'Hi, I'm worried about this, here is some information,'" explains Michael Ewall, cofounder and director of Energy Justice Network. "There are no shortcuts on this. We can't rely on Erin Brockovich to come and save us."

Meetings that once formed around a coffee table will likely soon require a church basement space or larger venue. Ewall also suggests you make sure your local government has legal liability insurance before you start developing an ordinance. Otherwise, if the municipality tries to purchase the insurance after stirring things up, it could be denied coverage. "Make sure you have it at least one day before starting controversy," he says.

As with your screening events, be sure to reach out to local media to cover the event.

5. Keep your local elected officials on their toes. As you work with your local group and CELDF on the ordinance, be sure to continue inviting your local elected officials to your meetings. If they continue to resist, don't give up. "It's not going home and saying we lost. Trying is not the outcome that is sufficient," Price says. "Communities need to continue to keep the pressure up and let elected reps know in order to be of use, they need to represent community."

If your local representatives refuse to adopt an ordinance for your community, Ewall suggests finding out your local procedure for getting a new candidate on the ballot, and urging someone from your community group to run opposing them in the next election.