Death by Fracking
DENVER—The maniacal drive by the human species to extinguish itself includes a variety of lethal pursuits. One of the most efficient is fracking. One day, courtesy of corporations such as Halliburton, BP and ExxonMobil, a gallon of water will cost more than a gallon of gasoline. Fracking, which involves putting chemicals into potable water and then injecting millions of gallons of the solution into the earth at high pressure to extract oil and gas, has become one of the primary engines, along with the animal agriculture industry, for accelerating global warming and climate change.
The Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers who are profiting from this cycle of destruction will—once clean water is scarce and crop yields decline, once temperatures soar and cities disappear under the sea, once droughts and famines ripple across the globe, once mass migrations begin—surely profit from the next round of destruction. Collective suicide is a good business, at least until it is complete. It is a pity most of us will not be around to see the power elite go down.
I met recently in Denver with three of the country’s leading anti-fracking activists: Gustavo Aguirre Jr. of KEEN (Kern Environmental Enforcement Network) in California; Kandi Mossett with the Indigenous Environmental Network and from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, the second-largest oil-producing state because of hydraulic fracturing; and Shane Davis, a longtime campaigner against fracking and the founder of fractivist.org, a data mining organization that exposes what fracking corporations are doing in communities around the country.
The activists are waging a war against a corporate state that is deaf and blind to the rights of its citizens and the imperative to protect the ecosystem. The corporate state, largely to pacify citizens being frog-marched to their own execution, passes environmental laws and regulations that, at best, slow the ongoing environmental destruction. Corporations, which routinely ignore even these tepid restrictions, largely write the laws and legislation designed to regulate their activity. They rewrite them or overturn them as the focus of their exploitation changes. They turn public hearings on local environmental issues into choreographed charades or shut them down if activists succeed in muscling their way into the room to demand a voice. They dominate the national message through a pliable and bankrupt corporate media and slick public relations. Elected officials are little more than corporate employees, dependent on industry money to stay in office and, when they retire from “public service,” salivating for jobs in the industry. Environmental reform has become a joke on the public. And the Big Green environmental groups are complicit because they rely on donors, at times from the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries; they are silent about the reality of corporate power, largely ineffectual, and part of the fiction of the democratic process.
Resistance will be local. It will be militant. It will defy the rules imposed by the corporate state. It will turn its back on state and NGO environmental organizations. And it will not stop until corporate power is destroyed or we are destroyed.
“Forty years after the major environmental laws were adopted in the U.S., and 40 years after trying to regulate the damage caused by corporations to the natural environment and our communities, by almost every major environmental statistic things are worse now than they were before,” Thomas Linzey, the executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, told me recently.
The fracking industry is omnivorous, biologist Davis noted. It “is so intoxicated and bloated by greed that it has moved into our backyards, near our school playgrounds, our hospitals, universities, our day cares, our state parks, our national grasslands, and has its sights on the rest of our public lands across America unless we stop them,” he said.
In writing “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” the cartoonist Joe Sacco and I visited devastated “sacrifice zones” where corporate power manipulates judicial and political power, and has free rein to impoverish families, destroy or abandon infrastructure, plunder and pollute the environment and shape the message disseminated by mass communications. Those who organize and resist are met with intimidation and violence from the state and private security firms in the pay of corporations.
Sacco and I wrote the book from the poorest pockets of the United States, including Camden, N.J., the nation’s poorest city, per capita, among those with more than 65,000 residents; the Lakota reservation at Pine Ridge, S.D., where the average life expectancy for a male is only 48 and where at any one time 60 percent of residents have neither running water or electricity; devastated coal fields of southern West Virginia where the tops of Appalachian mountains have been blown off to extract coal seams and the landscape has become a wasteland; and produce fields in Florida where undocumented workers are not only sickened by pesticides but at times are held in bondage and slavery.
The point of the book, whose last chapter takes place in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan during the Occupy movement, is this: These sacrifice zones went first and we are next. We have all become part of a sacrifice zone. It behooves us to understand what unfettered, unregulated corporate power looks like, how it operates and what levels of wholesale destruction it inflicts in the lust for profit on human beings and the environment. If we do not know how corporate power works, and the lengths it will travel to exploit us and the ecosystem, we will not be able to fight it. Both in theological terms and literally, these corporate forces are forces of death.
There is a low-level insurgency, in many of the sacrifice zones and elsewhere, against the corporations that carry out destruction and plunder, including fracking. This is an insurgency worth joining. It is a battle far more important than the charade of presidential elections. Real change will come only from below. It will come from those participating in efforts such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the anti-fracking movement and the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It will come from radical organizations that organize outside the system and physically impede corporate destruction. It will come through open revolt. Our fate as a species will be determined on these lonely and difficult battlegrounds.
The fracking industry, bolstered by the security and surveillance state, has devoted tremendous resources to monitoring, demonizing and criminalizing anti-fracking activists. Activists are followed, harassed, arrested and defamed in corporate-funded propaganda campaigns even as their communities see their drinking water poisoned, air polluted, greater earthquake activity, the dumping of radioactive waste on their land, and farm animals sickened, born with birth defects and killed by drinking contaminated water.
The oil and gas industry, often backed by state governments, routinely sues communities that have asserted their democratic rights to ban fracking. The corporations know that communities in most cases do not have the resources to challenge high-priced corporate legal teams and lobbyists. This means that for citizens seeking redress, the courts are largely useless. High-court decisions in Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico, along with a ruling by the state Senate in Texas and a law passed in Oklahoma, deny the right of communities to impose fracking bans. So, in effect, when you raise consciousness about the dangers of fracking, when you organize to protect yourselves and your children, when you pass a ban in a democratic vote, your action is nullified by the courts or the state. The consent of the governed becomes a farce.
“We are being sued by our own governor,” Davis said of John Hickenlooper, whose Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has joined a lawsuit against the city of Longmont to challenge a vote by Longmont residents to ban fracking. “Communities cannot protect themselves. There are homes in Colorado where basements have filled up with explosive levels of gases from previous fracking industry operations, sending people to burn centers. There are homes where people can light their tap on fire because of high levels of thermogenic methane in the water. But the victims of fracking are prohibited by law from safeguarding themselves.”
There are more than 15 million Americans, many of them children, who live within a mile of a fracking site. Most are being exposed daily to a deadly brew of toxins. Because the oil and gas industry is not required under law to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, communities are not told what is being injected into their groundwater. The array of carcinogens is known to the public only through analysis of samples taken at sites. These samples include endocrine disruptors and chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Infrared cameras set up by activists show plumes of methane and other hydrocarbon gases, invisible to the naked eye, spiraling upward from underground fracking sites. Methane is a greenhouse gas whose potential for trapping heat and therefore for global warming has been estimated at 86 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.
Those who live around fracking sites often suffer skin rashes, nosebleeds, headaches, respiratory problems, premature births and cancers. Yet the corporations, along with our governments, doggedly refuse to link the diseases to fracking. This is a pattern familiar to all who live in sacrifice zones. Corporations have no intention of being held accountable for what they do. That would cost money.
“A lot of people around me have cancer,” said Mossett. “I’m a cancer survivor. It has become something that is normal for us. It comes in all forms—bone cancer, lung cancer, uterine cancer and prostate cancer, amongst others. Even before the fracking began we had seven coal-fired power plants in North Dakota. Every inch of our over 11,000 miles of rivers, lakes and streams are already contaminated with mercury. Then fracking started to take off around 2006. People, at first, had no clue what was coming. Infrastructure started to be built. We got water towers through the rural water department. Many saw this as positive. A brand new bridge was built over Lake Sakakawea.”
But once the infrastructure was in place it became apparent that it had been built to facilitate the extraction of oil by fracking, not improve the lives of those on North Dakota’s reservations.
White people are not the only problem. The fracking corporations, Mossett said, easily bought off local tribal leaders. “Our tribal council [of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation] sold us out. The council gave away sovereignty rights to allow the oil industry to operate on tribal lands. The council signed contracts to give away parcels of land. It set up front companies, since you have to be native if you frack on native land.” [The events that Mossett criticized occurred before the election of a new chairman last year.]
Cancer rages like a plague across the reservations.
“The Centers for Disease Control do not show clusters of cancers in our communities,” Mossett said. “This is because illness and sickness are coded out of the place where referrals are made. Since we don’t have a hospital to treat these illnesses, patients are referred to a clinic like the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis. So the huge clusters of cancers on the reservation are not properly documented.”
The fracking industry in much of North Dakota, rather than extract the subterranean gas, burns it off in jets of flame known as flares. It trucks out the more valuable oil.
“The flares burn all day and all night,” Mossett said. “There are hundreds of them. They are loud. There is enough gas produced from these flares, some have estimated, to heat half a million homes every day. And all this is going into the atmosphere. Then came the waste injection sites. The trucks began to dump what they called ‘produced water’ [toxics and water injected underground and later brought to the surface as wastewater] onto the roads. It covered our roads. It filled our ditches with toxic chemicals. I drove past a ditch near Mandaree on the Fort Berthold Reservation and it was on fire. The fields and pastures along the roads are being poisoned.”
The dilemma facing activists is that the enemy is not only the corporations but also the federal and state governments. Federal and state authority is a tool used by corporations to make legal what should be illegal. Nonviolent, democratic dissent is criminalized. This creates a terrifying dilemma. If, as it does, the law slavishly serves the interests of the corporate criminals, how is justice to be obtained? If the law, as it does, outlaws legitimate democratic and nonviolent dissent, how is dissent to be expressed? If we cannot receive, as we cannot, justice from the courts or state and federal legislators, where will justice come from? If we cannot legally impede the destruction of our communities, what are the physical methods we will have to employ to save ourselves?
“The corporations fight us with the government,” said Aguirre. “The DOGGR [California’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources] makes the claim that activists want to take jobs from neighbors and families. It claims we are killing the economy. ... The acute health impacts that occur in the communities, the disproportionate toxic fumes that these communities breathe, are never factored in. Our community members are already marginalized. They live in low-income communities. They can’t afford or don’t have health care coverage. And they don’t have a voice.
“I have been followed by numerous diesel engine trucks [as I made] toxic tours with my constituents, taking them to fracking projects and refineries to percolation ponds, evaporation ponds,” Aguirre said. “I’ve been threatened at public hearings. I’ve been called a communist and a socialist. I’ve been called a mouth runner, someone who has been paid by some group to stir up the community. The board supervisors of my community have told me to stop doing what I am doing. These are the same elected officials who are cashing in on the industry.”
Justice will come by defying the institutions that claim to maintain justice. Truth will be heard by defying the institutions that claim to speak truth. The law will be upheld by breaking the law. Power will be obtained by overthrowing the power of the corporation state. We will save ourselves by facing the grim and unpleasant truth that all of the established mechanisms designed to carry out reform, including what we still call American democracy, is in corporate hands. We must unleash the power of the powerless. We must use our bodies to obstruct these forces of death to protect life. We must refuse to cooperate in our own destruction. Fracking is one assault. There are many, many others. But they all will lead to the same fatal conclusion if we do not rise up and resist.
I admire these activists, men and women who soldier forward. They understand the imperative of a new radicalism. They speak in the language of revolution. They know if we are to have a future it will entail mass acts of sustained civil disobedience and jail time. This resistance will mean that we court violence, maybe even our deaths. Corporations will use every weapon in their vast arsenals to bend us to their will. But if we do not begin to openly rebel, if we do not reverse the corporate coup d’état that has taken place, the world bequeathed to our children will be a holocaust.