Lessons from the fracking ban fights of 2014

As the President and Congress prepare for a battle over the Keystone pipeline, another quieter battle between the oil and gas industries and the public is taking place over fracking. With states unable or unwilling to implement major restrictions against fracking and other high-pressure injection techniques like cyclic steam and acidization, it fell to local communities across the United States to offer resistance in the form of local bans in 2014.

Some bans succeeded while others did not. I myself was the campaign manager on one of the unsuccessful campaigns, Measure P in Santa Barbara County. As such I was an up-close witness to the political mendacity of the oil companies, and can provide some insight into how to better approach these battles in the future.

1) Where labor, including and especially public safety, are opposed, bans will likely fail.

By far the biggest difference in California between the successful bans in San Benito and Mendocino counties and the unsuccessful one in Santa Barbara County wasn’t the funding differences but the opposing coalition. All of the measures were outspent by more than a 10-1 margin. But unlike in San Benito, Mendocino or even in Denton, TX, in Santa Barbara County Measure P was opposed by a variety of trade and public safety unions who had been persuaded by oil company deception into believing that county property tax revenues would be severely impacted by the ban. Sadly, these unions had already been convinced of these positions before I even came on to manage the campaign.

That led to nearly $6 million of devastating TV, radio, mail and print ads featuring hunky firefighters and earnest police officers wrongly promising residents that banning fracking and acidizing would have a negative impact on schools and essential services. Spanish-language advertising to Latinos used subtle coding to insinuate that out-of-touch white elites would kill their jobs and their schools. It was a particularly disturbing campaign of half-truths and outright deception. But the fundamental lesson is that it’s practically impossible for a progressive coalition to win when opposed not only by over 10 times as much oil-funded campaign money, but also by labor groups trusted within the progressive community.

Ultimately, Measure P failed not due to unexpected weakness among Republicans, but rather severely weakened support among Democrats. Our conversations with voters indicated that the barrage of advertising threatening schools and ambulances was a primary reason why.

Santa Barbara was not the only community in which the opposition of labor groups helped doom a fracking ban. Fossil fuel corporations in Ohio defeated bans in Youngstown, Kent and Gates Mills by enlisting the help of labor groups more concerned with temporary oil jobs than with the health and safety of the communities in which they live.

2) The battle is easier when voters have first-hand experience of the negative impacts. This was the case in Denton, Texas, where residents overwhelmingly passed a fracking ban in the birthplace of the technique. One interesting feature of the Denton ban was that it was shockingly bipartisan: the ban passed by almost as wide margins in Republican precincts of the city as Democratic ones. In California, by contrast, support and opposition to the bans was much more partisanized. Essentially, residents of Denton had been so vexed by over 250 obnoxious and dangerous wells right within city limits that citizens of all political backgrounds had had enough. Close proximity and experience were also factors in some of the successful efforts in Ohio, while in Santa Barbara the negative effects of high-intensity extraction were mostly theoretical to voters. Indeed, voters in Santa Barbara County were most opposed to the ban in the more rural north county where the most oil extraction has traditionally taken place.

3) Students and youth are very opposed to fracking and similar techniques. Anti-fracking efforts in Ohio were a mixed bag for a variety of reasons, but this year the biggest difference was the student population. Athens, Ohio, passed a fracking ban due in large part to the presence of the students of Ohio University. Denton, TX, was also assisted by a strongly activated student population. Preliminary vote counts from Santa Barbara County show that UCSB and surrounding precincts (particularly in Isla Vista) voted for the fracking ban by 80-20 margins. In Santa Barbara County, however, the student body population was too small vis-a-vis the entire county’s population to make enough of a difference.

Even so, the strong opposition to high-intensity drilling techniques among younger voters is a beacon of hope for the future.

4) At least initially, bans in areas with large populations will be easier to pass within city limits. San Benito and Mendocino counties have the advantage of being quite small in population, which means that it’s easy to have conversations with most of the voting population. Santa Barbara’s Measure P ran the biggest field campaign the county had seen in quite some time if not ever, making hundreds of thousands of calls and knocking on thousands of doors. And it was effective: voters with whom the campaign was able to have a conversation were persuaded to vote yes in very high percentages. The campaign was even winning undecided callbacks by a 2-1 margin. But in an election with over 100,000 votes cast, Measure P simply couldn’t talk to enough voters to win.

Moreover, there’s a difference in many voters’ minds between fracking in unincorporated areas, and fracking within city limits. Targeting smaller (and more liberal) populations of voters within city limits won’t have quite the impact of larger bans, but it will have the opportunity to be more likely to be successful at first while building momentum and educating the population about the dangers of high-intensity extraction.

In sum, activists across the United States built incredible momentum toward environmental justice in Texas, California and Ohio. Young voters are incredibly supportive, residents don’t want to see fracking near their homes, and actual conversations with voters about the dangers of fracking and similar techniques can beat a barrage of oil money. The news stories about the dangers of these techniques keep coming out nearly every week. But at least for now, it’s going to be harder to pass bans in more conservative and less urban areas. And it’s going to be practically impossible if trade and especially public safety unions can’t be convinced that the bans will actually be beneficial for them over the long run.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.