Fracking,” or the extractive method of hydraulic fracturing, is one of those issues on which many otherwise informed people haven’t yet come up to speed—especially if they are not directly affected by earthquakes, spoiled aquifers, and debilitating illnesses from exposure to toxic chemicals like benzene and toluene. Extreme energy extraction often happens in isolated rural areas designated as out-of-sight-out-of-mind “sacrifice zones.”
With a rare pellucidity, Wenonah Hauter, founding director of Food & Water Watch, has written Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment. Her meticulously documented political history explores the environmental degradation from fracking as well as the corporate political machinations that allow such a destructive practice in the first place. She calls for a collective struggle to build the needed political power to ban fracking.
I caught up with Hauter in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on her book tour.
Q: By using the term “opoly,” I assume you mean to evoke the concept of monopoly?
Wenonah Hauter: Yes, and to point out the hypocrisy in the system. Americans learn in school that we live in an economic system of vigorous competition. But in reality, all of the rules are fixed. During the Reagan Administration, the anti-trust rules were eviscerated. It’s one of the reasons our economic system doesn’t work. There’s a stranglehold by the oil and gas industry cabal.
Q: What do you anticipate under the next President?
Hauter: Unsurprisingly, the Trump Administration will likely be filled with people who will benefit financially from more fracking, more industrial agriculture and factory farms, and expanded deregulation masquerading as trade policy. The people he has indicated will be in his cabinet are the same people who have advocated policies that are destroying our climate and creating a society marked by stratification and racial prejudice. We expect to see more deregulation of industry that will damage our communities, our environment, and our democracy.
We’ll be researching the cabinet appointments to the agencies that have a major impact on all of our issue areas; we’re already looking at who’s being considered. We’ll be demanding that the President meet with representatives of the fifteen million people in this country who live within a mile of a fracking well, many of whom are sick.
We’ll be asking the Environmental Protection Agency to shorten the time frame in its modeling for climate change. Right now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that methane from natural gas, which is a serious greenhouse gas, is eighty-six times more potent than carbon dioxide over a twenty-year period, and thirty-four times more potent over a 100-year time frame. Using the longer period has enabled policymakers to advocate for natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” when we need to be reducing emissions immediately.
The best bridge fuel is energy efficiency. The EPA needs to shorten the time frame; we’re in a crisis now.
Q: What do you mean by “crisis”?
Hauter: In a 2015 report titled “Food System Shock,” Lloyds of London, which pools risk for insurers, stated that a combination of just three catastrophic weather events in a growing season could undermine food production across the globe, and potentially lead to food riots, famine, and widespread political and economic instability.
There’s a water crisis because of overuse. Fracking uses millions of gallons of water. On national average, 1.8 million gallons per well. The water is mixed with very fine sand and different chemicals and solvents. The result is called “slickwater.” It’s injected at pressure extreme enough to fracture the rock and release the oil or gas. Nobody knows what’s going on underground. The wastewater gushes back out of the well along with the oil and natural gas, often mixed with chemical grime and even radioactive material.
Sometimes the drilling is more shallow and it actually hits an aquifer. Every day, 10.5 billion gallons of wastewater from fracking is generated worldwide. The wastewater is taken out of our ecosystems.
Q: Except when it’s used to irrigate crops in Kern County, California, where there’s a Chevron refinery?
Hauter: It’s a real scandal. They do a simple “recycling” process to mix the wastewater with walnut shells, then use it in irrigation ditches. So far we’ve be been unable to get Governor Brown to do something about this. It’s going to require education across the country, because California’s Central Valley is one of the nation’s primary breadbaskets. We’re in a coalition of partners in California working to outlaw the use of fracking wastewater for irrigation. We plan to make it an issue in the next gubernatorial campaign.
Q: In Frackopoly, you take the reader through a legislative history of the dismantling of energy industry regulation, which hit a crescendo in 2005, did it not?
Hauter: I tell the history of the oil and gas industry and how we’ve ended up with really bad public policy, and an industry so powerful it’s writing the future of the planet. And it’s not pretty. Bush and Cheney enacted the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which removed regulatory obstacles to building new power plants and transmission lines. It also exempted the petroleum industry from key provisions of the nation’s environmental laws, creating the “Halliburton Loophole” (the company Cheney ran before becoming Vice President), which relieved frackers from meeting Safe Drinking Water Act rules on underground injections of fluid.
Q: How is Food & Water Watch going to roll this back?
Hauter: We’re not. We’ve really started to expand the political space for fighting for the future we want, not just what’s politically possible. We want to offer a real vision for the future. That’s why we were the first national organization to call for a nationwide ban on fracking.
As a first step, we’re working on federal legislation to ban fracking on federal lands as a way of building support for keeping oil and gas in the ground everywhere. We have to build the pressure and momentum on these issues. We believe there’s been too much emphasis on trying to make corporations behave better instead of our government having the rules in place to make the progress we need. It’s a long-term strategy and it has to happen all over.
Q: What keeps you going?
Hauter: I grew up in the country. My husband and I have a farm in the wooded rolling hills of Virginia. Out of 100 acres, twenty are farmed. We grow organic vegetables.
Being around nature, you realize how important it is to protect natural resources. I have children and grandchildren. I contemplate our impact on future generations. What kind of life are they going to live with the huge die-off of species, loss of biodiversity, erratic weather, famines?
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Bill of Rights, he wanted to include a restriction on monopolies. But Hamilton was supportive of financial institutions getting as large as they wanted. Jefferson was concerned that there would be too much political power in the hands of too few.
We need to jump start that debate about monopolies.
Frances Madeson is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist and the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village.