For most people involved in climate activism, mentioning the name of my city of birth leaves a somewhat sour taste in the mouth. Since Copenhagen was the stage for the infamous COP15 failure, it has become an emblem not only of disillusionment with international climate politics but also of illegal police repression of popular action against the political deadlock.
With all eyes now set on Paris and the promise of COP21 to deliver a non-binding agreement of insufficient emission reduction targets infested with corporate-friendly offset mechanisms, a piece of positive climate news recently ticked in from Denmark: after years of facing escalating popular protest, in August this year the French energy giant Total finally gave up on their only standing shale gas exploration site in Vendsyssel in the north of the country. The corporation retains the license to explore for shale gas in the area until June 2016, but with no further operations announced as yet, their initial defeat is a milestone in the fight against fracking in Denmark.
More than just abandoning one specific drilling rig, Total is also effectively calling off what they have described as an intent to set a precedent for future fracking operations by pushing the extreme energy agenda in a country known for its solid environmental regulation. In the words of Total’s Project Manager for the exploration in Denmark, Henrik Nicolaisen: “if it is possible to establish an economically feasible project here, it will be possible anywhere.” Now that the corporation is putting fracking project and prophecies alike on hold, it’s worth asking: what made it impossible?
It was definitely not due enforcement of Denmark’s strict environmental regulations that stopped Total in its path. As I have written about earlier, despite the country’s fame for its democratic institutions, from start to finish the Danish authorities in fact put the facilitation of the corporate fracking venture above democratic and environmental concerns. To give just two examples: in 2010 the Minister of Environment at the time abstained from disclosing the unconventional nature of the extraction project to the Energy Committee when asking for its approval. Then, shortly after test drilling had begun in the spring of 2015, a State agency chose to rubber-stamp Total’s illegal use of drilling chemicals instead of shutting down the operation on the grounds of failure to comply with the Environmental Impact Assessment.
In official statements Total cites a technicality – “the shale layer encountered by the well was too thin for economically feasible gas production” – as their reason for pulling out of Vendsyssel. Earlier this year, the corporation gave similar reasons for abandoning another entire concession area covering the Northern part of the country’s main isle of Sealand, after having only carried out so-called AGG (Airborne Gravity Gradiometry) surveys. Given the proximity of this concession area to the political nexus of Copenhagen and the houses of the country’s elites north of the city however, it seems likely that other, more pragmatic, considerations weighed in on Total’s decision to withdraw to more remote hunting grounds. There, in the country’s northernmost region of Vendsyssel, the face-off was direct.
Ever since it became known publicly that the exploration project in Vendsyssel would allow the first ever hydraulic fracture to happen onshore in Denmark, people have organized to halt the project. Under the umbrella organization Skifergas Nej Tak! (“Shale Gas, No Thanks!”, reminiscent of the 1970’s and 80’s anti-nuclear emblem which originated in Denmark), grassroots opposition has been breeding nationwide. For over a year neighbors-turned-activists have run the protest camp, Total Protest, down the road from the drilling site. They frequently mobilized for picket lines at the drilling site, blockades of Total’s trucks, protests at city council meetings, and more. In April 2015 Greenpeace activists climbed the drilling rig itself, helping not only to shut down the operation for a day but also to reach mainstream media and spread awareness about the precarious project. Over time opposition found its way into city councils, several of whom ended up denouncing the exploration to the central government.
Simply put: it was popular resistance that forced Total to scrap its fracking plans in Denmark. Whilst Total in official statements never so much as mention the fact that activists have followed the corporation in its every move, a few lines slipped from the CEO of State owned oil and gas company, Nordsøfonden, which holds a 20% share in the fracking project: “If you knew the costs of all those protests and extra allowances. I promise you that this year-long delay has cost a lot of money… There is no doubt that Total has also taken this into consideration.”
As always with corporations, the maximization of profits is at the core of decision-making. Falling commodity prices are obviously part of the background to Total’s decision to retreat from Denmark, as has recently been the case with Poland’s shale gas industry. In the Polish scenario however, corporations were willing to bid their money on over 60 exploratory wells before starting to call off the action. In Denmark, Total found that the drilling of only one well provoked enough popular resistance to hit the corporation hard on the pocket and force it to give up almost before having started. Still, globally there remains plenty to resist…
The day after Total announced their abandonment of the drilling site in Vendsyssel they appeared on the UK government’s list of takers of 27 fresh fracking licenses (as a partner to IGas in several Yorkshire blocks). From the corporation’s point of view, compared to Denmark the UK might seem like the soft option in terms of government regulation, with recent legislative moves to fast track fracking applications and exempt fracking operations from the trespass law to allow drilling under people’s homes contributing to a very pro-fracking political climate institutionally. But there is nothing to suggest fracking companies will encounter any less of an anti-fracking movement at the grassroots in the UK, which has seen widespread support and several wins over the last few years. And the lesson from Denmark is that even when regulations are in place on paper, we cannot rely on our governments to hold corporations to account — instead, what ultimately keeps extreme energy projects at bay is people organizing and resisting.
Despite its so far happy ending, the Danish anti-fracking story is no fairy tale. But it is worth noting that activists in Denmark are not subject to nearly the same levels of repression or criminalization as many of their counterparts in countries with less protected civil societies and even more fossil fuel-friendly governments. My colleagues have recently been writing about these very dynamics in Argentina – and they can be traced across all continents, including Europe.
When activists successfully reject corporations in the North we need to remember that our peers in the fight against extractivist and extreme energy projects in the global South are left all the more exposed, and in much more threatening circumstances, as corporations turn their attention to more marginalized places. When negotiators at COP21 argue over including this or that bracketed sentence as if either could save the planet, grassroots activists could meaningfully take advantage of parallel spaces to find more effective ways of working in genuine solidarity to shut the fossil fuel industry down wherever it sneaks to next.
Resistance is not only about saying “no!” to this or that project or policy, or even to deeper issues of systemic violence and oppression. The act of resisting also forces us to imagine and enact the alternatives we dream of. As such, this process is dialectic; in order to go against a corporate aggression like Total’s in Denmark it takes organizing, which in itself calls for different structures of decision-making and communality. This sense of creating alternative structures as we fight the old ones has been put in poetic terms by anthropologist David Graeber, when he talks about direct action as “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”
The success of the Total Protest camp relied on people voluntarily putting their time and effort into building a communal space from which organizing could take place. This also meant putting traditional political differences aside, so long as everyone found common ground in resisting the fracking project. To many, the camp thus came to mean an opportunity for seeking both company and cause. As an antidote to alienation (to borrow again from Graeber) and a contrast to consumerist society, the anti-fracking insurrection in Denmark helped open not just a local space for genuine participation but also new horizons of possibility for the people involved. Tellingly, some participants were voicing their concern over what to spend their time doing once the fight was over.
Sometimes, these moments of insurrection can spark a very concrete, constructive process: in Balcombe, which in 2013 came to be the frontline of British anti-fracking struggles, the community have recently gone on to equip local buildings like farms and schools with solar panels. As people from REPOWERBalcombe, a co-op founded to bring about the change in local energy production, remark:
Balcombe’s recent close encounters with hydrocarbon energy production have certainly been an important factor in making us all think about the energy we use and where it comes from – and helped to give us the idea to start our community power company as a positive way to engage with these issues … We are not anti- anything: we are pro-community and pro-renewables. We recognise that Cuadrilla’s drilling back in 2013 divided opinion in our community, and our aspiration for REPOWERBalcombe is to move on from that debate to unite around something positive instead.
Or look to the banks of Colombia’s principal river system, Río Magdalena, where communities are resisting hydroelectric megadams that threaten to flood their ancestral territories and destroy their livelihoods. According to Juan Pablo Soler from the grassroots movement Ríos Vivos, the notion of relationship to the rivers is not only their principal motivation to fight back against the corporate-governmental alliance pushing for hydroelectric development, but is also being reinvigorated by the very act of resistance. “We are living cultures. […] The primary emotion that […] gives us the impulse to keep going is the possibility to transform and awaken our consciousness.”
The fight for climate justice is not the diplomatic, politically correct negotiation being staged at annual COPs — it is a dirty, high-risk struggle that takes place year round across the globe at the frontlines of extractivism and extreme energy. And while the activists who are making Total drop their fracking project in Denmark will not be anywhere near the negotiating tables at COP21, with Total’s headquarters symbolically looming over the Parisian business district and the usual corporate lobbying and financial influence looming over the negotiating tables themselves, the conference is set to follow the trend of allowing substantial interference from the fossil fuel industry. These political constraints of international climate negotiations makes an all the stronger case for connecting with our peers everywhere, both to effectively resist that industry where the confrontation is direct — but also to collectively reimagine our ideas and revitalise our practices for better societies, as implicit in any act of resistance.
As corporations and governments around the world scramble to access harder-to-reach fossil fuels in fracking wells and tar sands, the struggles of communities on the front lines of this expansion of extractivism are becoming more extreme — and more visible.
And so is the backlash against any who resist.
Indigenous peoples who find themselves “in the way” of extractivist projects are increasingly finding their territorial rights, among others, violated.
A particularly salient example is playing out in Argentina. There, facing a shortage of traditional energy sources, the government has intensified the exploitation of shale oil and gas deposits. Along with these changes in energy policy has come a crackdown on those resisting fuel exploitation in their communities.
Among the hardest hit are Patagonia’s indigenous Mapuche, whose ancestral territories are at the center of petroleum companies’ plans. Facing environmental contamination, violence, and eviction, they’ve stepped up their resistance.
Now the Argentinean government is cracking down. The case of Mapuche community leader Relmu Ñamku is particularly emblematic. The grassroots activist faces trial in October on charges under Argentina’s revamped anti-terrorism law, which could land her with a 15-year prison sentence — all for defending her community from forced eviction due to the expansion of a gas project. Her trial was recently postponed for the third time.
The criminalization of protest is part and parcel of the way extreme energy — including intensive extraction measures like fracking — is leading to extreme politics, in which laws have been changed to benefit resource exploitation by transnational corporations. Meanwhile, citizens are ignored, displaced, and charged with crimes when they resist. This can have a chilling effect, dissuading people from protesting at all.
This phenomenon isn’t unique to Relmu’s case. It’s happening elsewhere too, from Latin America to Europe.
Argentina’s fuel crisis goes back at least to the energy shortages of the early 2000s. Since then, the country has imported billions of dollars worth of fuel in order to meet the industrial and domestic needs of its population.
But in the last few years, Argentineans learned that that the country contains enormous reserves of shale oil and gas, which in part prompted the government to develop an energy strategy which includes extensive development of unconventional hydrocarbons, as well as exploiting hard-to-reach conventional fuels (known as secondary and tertiary exploitation).
The majority of these hydrocarbon resources are in Patagonia. And more than anyplace else, they are found in the Vaca Muerta formation in Neuquén, a province with more than 100 years of history of hydrocarbon exploitation.
To smooth the legal path toward accessing unconventional fuels, the 2012 Hydrocarbon Sovereignty Law laid out a new national energy policy framework. In particular, it expropriated 51 percent of the shares of the YPF oil company from the Spanish corporation Repsol, effectively putting it under control of the Argentinean state.
The following year, a presidential decree on investment promotion offered benefits to companies that invested more than a billion dollars in shale deposits. Soon after, the government — via YPF — signed an agreement with the U.S.-based corporation Chevron, with an initial investment of $1.24 billion, to develop shale oil and gas in the Vaca Muerta formation.
Finally, in 2014, the government approved a new hydrocarbon law. Focused on shale exploitation, it allowed companies to maintain concessions for up to 45 years, with the possibility of further renewal.
Argentina’s new policy framework increased the presence of foreign fuel companies like Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Wintershall in the country. And it set the country on its way to producing enough fuel to close the shortage gap and start exporting. In the course of just a few years, it’s converted Argentina into a potential energy giant.
While it’s not the only area of the country facing fracking and similar destructive techniques, Neuquén’s long history of extractivism and the speedier advance of fracking there make it a test case for what could happen to other areas of the country.
In Neuquén, oil and mineral exploitation takes place mainly in Mapuche territory. And it’s carried out almost entirely without the free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned, in direct violation of international as well as national laws and agreements.
The direct impacts of extractivism for the Mapuche people include the appropriation of their grazing lands, the eviction of their communities, and the drying-up and contamination of their water sources. Heavy machinery produces constant nuisances in the form of noise and dust, while toxic chemicals in the air and water have led to health problems for people as well as livestock. And like all fossil fuel development, it contributes to climate change.
Since the mid-1990s, the Mapuche have denounced and resisted this corporate invasion and its resulting impacts. Yet with the discovery of shale deposits in 2011, tensions have increased dramatically.
That year, local residents formed the Neuquén Platform Against Hydraulic Fracturing, a coalition of diverse social organizations that includes the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén. In August 2013, they organized a demonstration of over 5,000 people against the agreement between YPF and Chevron. Police brutally repressed the gathering, arresting demonstrators and causing many injuries with rubber bullets and tear gas.
The next day, 10,000 people took to the streets to protest the police repression. Yet the demands of the march were not heeded, and the government’s plans with Chevron continued.
For Relmu Ñamku, the government’s attitude was nothing new. “The state doesn’t enter into dialogue with vulnerable sectors of the population — such as indigenous peoples, landworkers, shanty dwellers, women, and everyone excluded from the system,” she said.
Hernan Scandizzo of the Observatorio Petrolero Sur elaborates: “Here there was no consultation. There was no previous, free, and informed consent as required by the Convention 169 of the ILO and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” He also points out that the Argentinean government violated its own constitutional obligation to respect the “right of indigenous peoples to manage their own resources and territories.”
Then came the very thing that people most feared. After concluding a pilot project that saw 161 wells drilled across an area of 20 square kilometers, in 2014 YPF announced that the project with Chevron in Vaca Muerta would extend to cover an exploitation area of 395 square kilometers, with more than 1,500 drilling wells.
Along with its disregard for indigenous protests, this announcement completely ignored the warnings against fracking given by social organizations. That led Relmu to determine that “the only route left open to us to make them hear our problems and our alarming situation is direct action.”
The Winkul Newen territory in which Relmu lives is the site of the Portezuelo Norte deposit, containing various conventional oil and gas wells. According to Relmu, in 2012 residents had to resist more than ten attempts at eviction. In one instance, women sprayed their bodies with gasoline to avoid being forcefully evicted.
Then, on December 28, 2012, a justice official named Verónica Pelayes came to the area accompanied by police and members of the U.S.-based Apache corporation, along with a bulldozer. They presented the community with an order to stop obstructing the advance of the corporation’s machinery. The community defended itself against the order and the police with whatever it could. Amid the resistance, Pelayes suffered injuries after being hit in the face with a stone.
The person accused of throwing the stone was Relmu Ñamku. At first, she was charged with causing serious bodily harm, but the prosecution eventually escalated the charge to attempted murder. That charge could result in 15 years of imprisonment. In Relmu’s words, “this case was initiated on the grounds of injury, and without any new evidence on record it was reconfigured as a maximum charge — as attempted murder.”
Relmu’s case is being processed under Argentina’s anti-terrorism law. Originally approved in 2007 to prevent the financing of international terrorism, the law was modified in 2011, when the Argentinean legislature incorporated into the penal code two new articles. They increased the penalties for all crimes committed “with the aim of terrorizing the population” or which “oblige the public authorities to perform, or abstain from performing, an act.”
The legislation unleashed criticism in Argentina from social organizations, including a widely attended march in the center of Buenos Aires in which activists read a pronouncement that explained that the changes to the law allow harsh penalties to be applied to individuals or organizations that question or oppose state policies.
Relmu’s case highlights how the judicial system is used in favor of powerful interests and against the poorest and most marginalized communities.
For Relmu all of this is self-evident: “The interests of the multinationals and the state in petrol exploitation come before the complaints of a community member,” she explained. “Maybe if we were sons and daughters of rich people it would be different. But we’re poor, we’re indigenous, and I’m a woman, and so the full force of the law comes down upon us.”
In Relmu’s case, the judicial system is seeking maximum penalties. In contrast, when the community files formal complaints against the petroleum company for aggression towards community members by the company’s contracted security, the prosecutors simply don’t investigate, and eventually the cases lapse.
The criminalization of protest is part of a strategy designed to create a paralyzing effect on those opting for direct action, a tactic used as a last recourse to defend their rights. Relmu emphasizes that the threat goes beyond the legal case against her. Changing the criminal charges from one day to the next, and accusing her of attempted murder with a possible 15-year prison sentence, is a move calculated to dissuade resistance at all levels.
Relmu’s case could well establish a precedent. “At the back of this case lies the aim of bringing a trial that will be utilized as an example to prevent other social struggles,” she says — “not only by indigenous peoples, but also other citizens and groups who don’t feel represented by this state, which guarantees political and economic power to multinationals.”
Just as fossil fuel companies are going to more ecological extremes in search of gas and oil, political systems, including supposedly progressive ones, are going to even deeper extremes to repress communities who voice objection.
Usually, when the state and corporations act against the interests of local populations seeking to protect their water, environment, and health, communities attempt to use dialogue and legal processes to defend themselves. But when authorities continually ignore repeated demands and messages from these communities, a moment arrives when the only recourse left open to them is direct action.
In this moment, the state uses direct repression against the population, and criminalizes social protest as a strategy to defeat community resistance and dissuade further protest.
This is a phenomenon taking place right now in Argentina, but it isn’t exclusive to Argentina. In Chile the Mapuche people are also being repressed under anti-terrorism laws, even more violently. In Peru the law not only exempts state functionaries from responsibility if they kill activists, but also allows companies to contract with state law enforcement to protect corporate property and repress demonstrations. Colombia also has laws that facilitate the displacement of communities and other rights violations in extractive zones.
The move toward public policies that benefit fossil fuel corporations, combined with the use of penal laws to squash social protest against the actions of those corporations, is not only a violation of the rights of those affected. It’s a crime against the planet: If social protest can’t stop resource extraction and the climate change it causes, how can we expect the economic model that profits from it to do so on its own?
We are used to hearing about multinational corporations manipulating political systems in the global South to eke out ever more profits from often damaging activities. Current examples include that of Enel-Endesa forcing the El Quimbo megadam onto Colombia by pushing for an increasingly toothless environmental license regime; or Glencore-Xstrata contracting with the Peruvian police to violently repress protesters calling out the pollution linked to the corporation’s Tintaya and Antapaccay mines.
We are less used to stories of corporations deploying similar tactics of cooption and power grabbing in societies considered the richest and most developed on the planet – such as my country of origin, Denmark. Recurrently praised as home to some of the ‘happiest people in the world’, largely owing to its strong public sector and relative economic equality, this is a country that seems to add substance to the idea of representative democracy as the prime form of modern governance. These past weeks, the country has been captivated in the principal dramatisation of this mythical assertion: the rite of general elections.
“In the age of extreme energy exploration, even Denmark is not immune to corporate interest overriding democratic concerns.”
For many inhabitants of the country’s northernmost region of Vendsyssel, however, the case of French energy giant Total fracking their way through regulations and public oversight in their search for shale gas is causing the plaster saint of Danish democracy to crack. Like Hamlet’s friend Marcellus, listening with disgrace to the aristocracy’s festivities next door, many a Vendelbo — at a safe distance from the political nexus in Copenhagen — is witnessing that “something is rotten in the State of Denmark.”
What would compel Total to pilot a controversial extreme energy operation in a country that takes huge pride in its renewable energy sector and strict environmental laws? Precedents like the ban on nuclear energy, achieved by landmark popular mobilisations in the 1970s and 80s, don’t exactly seem encouraging for the fracking industry. Henrik Nicolaisen, Total’s Project Coordinator for the Danish fracking operation, provides a telling — and chilling — answer: “Denmark [has] strict environmental laws, so if it is possible to establish a profitable project here, it will be possible anywhere.”
The centre stage for Total’s precarious project is a corn field outside the small town of Dybvad. Here the corporation has erected the country’s first ever drilling rig aimed at exploring onshore shale gas deposits. Their exploration permit was granted by a 2010 resolution, passed with broad support in the Parliamentary Energy Commitee. However, most committee members were led to believe that the permit was for conventional fossil fuel extraction — not for gas trapped in shale formations, requiring a highly controversial extraction method never before used onshore in Denmark. Climate Minister at the time, Lykke Friis, notably chose to omit both the terms “fracking” and “shale gas” from her briefing about the license, leaving MPs under the impression that granting the go-ahead should be largely a formality.
This initial governmental breach, however, did not come to light in time to halt the license process. By May 4th 2015 — after a year-long delay caused by daily protests at the fracking site, a Greenpeace occupation of the drilling rig, and the requirement that Total draw up a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) — the corporation was able to flick on the engines. But after a mere day and a half of drilling, the Danish Energy Agency turned them off again. It emerged that Total had illegally poured a chemical called Null Foam into the drilling hole which had not been screened, much less cleared, by the EIA as required.
Nonetheless, a few weeks later the drill was spinning again as another state institution, the Nature Agency, sent some very different signals to Total: the corporation was granted permission to use first two, and later nine, additional chemicals in the drilling process – including Null Foam. In a further act of congeniality, the Nature Agency also deemed the chemicals so ‘environmentally harmless’ that no revision to the EIA license was necessary, silencing demands from the mayor of Frederikshavn, Greenpeace and other groups. What caused this sudden slackening of the usually stringent rules? Rather coincidentally, the municipality of Frederikshavn — which houses the fracking site — had just handed their environmental oversight capacity to the Nature Agency, citing excessive workload and “considerable state interests regarding shale gas exploration.” By now a picture of corporate pressure and institutional negligence was clearly forming.
It was the fracking site’s next-door neighbours, Anne-Marie and Karsten Kristensen, that helped me complete this picture. Just down the road they have helped run the make-shift activist camp, Total Protest, for almost a year. “We file complaints [over noise and air pollution] with the municipality almost every day,” says Anne-Marie, ”but they just do nothing at all.” In effect, the group has turned to direct action, including blockades of Total’s trucks and daily protest singing at the fracking site, picket-line style. “We have to turn to civil disobedience to be heard”, says Anne-Marie. But even so, Karsten adds: “everybody knows that the next step will not be to stand in front of a gate singing. That doesn’t reach the media.”
So after songs, complaints, blockades and occupations, what is the next step?
A Freedom of Information request by the Kristensens has turned up e-mail exchanges between Total and the municipality in which the corporation admits that they are unable to keep noise levels from the fracking site below the agreed limits; to which the municipality has simply turned a blind eye. Confronting the State Administration with this and other inflammable information has once again failed to produce any meaningful response.
The strategy now is a legal one. Backed by a highly successful crowdfunding pledge, the Total Protest group is planning to hire lawyers to file a case against the Danish state. The evidence of noncompliance by both Total and the relevant authorities will be used to confront Danish MPs who insist that fracking would only go ahead if carried out in “environmentally responsible” ways. The hope is that such claims will ring so hollow in the face of the evidence that the public mood will shift to sideline Total and see fracking plans shelved.
Pressure on the central administration is mounting not only from citizens: until recently, most municipalities that fall within the concession area had not been duly informed, much less consulted, about potential fracking under their feet. In a recent vote, the city council of Hjørring joined several of its peers in calling on the Minister of Environment not to let fracking go ahead; but they also denounced the lack of consultation by state authorities in a written complaint to the European Commission. That was only weeks after the Danish Energy Agency confirmed in writing to the EU Commission that the public had had “early and effective opportunities to participate in the strategic environmental assessment and the environmental impact assessment processes“ — in other words, an outright lie.
Most everywhere, the push for fracking comes with several myths that are pulled apart as often as they are put forward: 1) the promise of jobs. Except in Vendsyssel, the prospect of a landscape crowded with drilling rigs is seen as a threat to the tourist and agricultural sectors and not a vehicle for new job creation; 2) the bridging-fuel argument. Except in a Danish scenario (as well as in Europe at large), fracked gas will most likely simply add to the already terrifying math of global warming; and 3) the insistent focus on the relatively low CO2 emissions from shale gas, which falls to pieces when counting in the fugitive emissions of methane — estimated at some 4-9% — that make the overall carbon footprint far worse even than coal.
In a country like Denmark, however, Total is able to tap into a much more hard-lived myth: namely that of public institutions being solid enough to secure democratic control over any potentially harmful corporate operations. What is happening in Vendsyssel suggests that such confidence is misplaced. It seems that in the age of extreme energy exploration, even Denmark is not immune to corporate interest overriding democratic concerns.
By revealing how even in countries of largely well-established public control multinational corporations are successfully mobilising strategies to push through their environmentally destructive agenda, this case underscores the omnipotence of corporate power. But as much as fracking is a primary corporate frontier, it is also so obviously skewed towards enriching the few while wreaking havoc on human and environmental health that it is sending many people to the barricades. Karsten Kristensen talks about a potential awakening in Denmark, making reference to the landmark victory against nuclear power in 1985: “a bit of the spirit is starting to come back. I believe this will be just as big.” With the two most openly pro-fracking parties rising to right-wing victory in the recent elections, people may well need to be ready – because remember: if it is possible to establish a profitable project here, it will be possible anywhere.
If passed, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade deal will give corporations a new weapon to undermine future fracking bans and regulation in Europe. The deals’ investment chapters will grant corporations access to a system of private international tribunals to enforce a range of new rights.
This system, known as the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism – a veritable corporate trump card – is already being used by one US corporation to undermine fracking bans elsewhere. In the Canadian province of Quebec, the government has introduced a moratorium on fracking pending further tests and research. One of the corporations involved, Lone Pine Resources, is using the investment chapter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to bring an ISDS case for $250million.
If there was any doubt as to the intention of corporations to use this system in conflicts in Europe, the contribution to the consultation on the TTIP in the US by the Chevron corporation, which has fracking interests in several EU countries, is illuminating. It dedicated its entire response to the area of ‘investment protection’ – what it called ‘one of our most important issues globally’.
Europeans don’t have to go far to see this system at work. In Germany the government changed its policy on nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster, cancelling some planned nuclear plants. It is now being sued by energy corporation Vattenfall for over €1 billion.
Nor was this the first such case. When Hamburg‘s environmental authority imposed quality controls for the waste waters released into the river from a planned coal-fired power plant, Vattenfall used ISDS provisions to seek compensation of €1.4 billion. The case was eventually settled when the City of Hamburg agreed to lower the environmental requirements – a telling indication of the ‘chilling effect’ the threat of such actions can have on policy.
Use of the ISDS system in cases against governments has only really taken off in recent years. Indeed, 2012 and 2013 have set records for the numbers of new ISDS cases – 57 and 58 respectively.
The ISDS mechanism has gone from being a legal tool of last resort in cases of government expropriation of assets to a weapon of choice in struggles over a growing range of important social and environmental issues. The explosion of cases in recent years has led many governments, economists and legal experts around the world to openly criticise the system and attempt to withdraw from it once they’ve seen in practice the threat it represents to democracy and public interest policy making.
The inclusion of ISDS in TTIP would greatly expand this system and likely lead to a further proliferation of cases. Given the very high level of existing trans Atlantic trade and investment, the deal would result in 75,000 firms being newly empowered to use these private tribunals.
The extractive industries, under increasing scrutiny for their role in environmental degradation, are using the ISDS weapon more and more in order to prevent any challenges to their dirty operations. They must be stopped.
by Mads Ryle and Sian Cowman
October 11th was the third Global Frackdown – a day of international actions and resistance against the fracking industry and the governments supporting it. The extraction of ‘uncoventional fuels’, and fracking in particular, remain one of the most prominent battle lines in climate activism and the movement for a clean energy future. Very recently this has been underlined by Naomi Klein, who at speaking events and interviews to promote her new book ‘This Changes Everything’ has repeatedly emphasised the power and new potential of today’s anti-fracking struggle.
With the Democracy Center staff as usual spread about the place, here we just give you a quick update on some fracking and anti-fracking news from the UK, Ireland and Bolivia.
In the UK the government continues to scythe away at trespass laws in order to open doors to the fracking industry in the face of enormous public opposition, with up to 60% of the country now being declared fair game for exploration, and with fracking companies now relieved of the obligation to inform homeowners if fracking infrastructure will be built underneath their houses. The government did carry out a consultation on whether fracking should go ahead, but when 99% of 40,647 respondents stated their objection to the industry, the government simply ignored them, saying that “no issues have been identified that would mean that our overall policy approach is not the best available solution.” Which kind of tells you what they think about A. Citizen’s opinions. Just a few days ago what looks like an extremely sloppy bit of new legislation has also given those companies the right to use and leave ‘any substance’ in the ground that they produce through their operations, making a mockery of the reassurances that have been given on the tight regulations that would be put in place on fracking in the UK.
Nevertheless, grassroots opposition remains very active, particularly in the prime sites of the southeast and northwest of England. There were frackdown events across communities on the 11th (often joining up with groups protesting the TTIP free trade agreement), but more significantly there are ongoing community blockades at several sites around the country, targeting exploration activities by a number of companies including Celtique Energy, Raithlin Energy, Dart Energy, Cuadrilla Resources and Angus Energy. Just a few days ago a new protest camp was set up at the Horse Hill site in Surrey, not far from Gatwick Airport, where oil has recently been discovered. ‘Frack free’ groups around the country continue to assess and react to local events and decision-making processes by local and regional councils. In West Sussex this has just been successful at getting the council to refuse a drilling application by Celtique Energy, though the company has been quick to appeal the decision.
For more information on the UK visit Frack Off or the British Anti-Fracking Action Network on Facebook.
In Ireland, several events took place across the country, North and South, for Global Frackdown Day.
11th October was also the European Day of Action against TTIP (a trade and investment partnership between the US and the EU). In Dublin, a network of civil society organisations hosted a series of workshops on the impacts of these trade agreements, including a workshop on fracking and climate change. Campaigners from the grassroots network No Fracking Ireland attended the TTIP event, and then moved on to join in one of the largest protests to take place in Ireland recently.
The march was called for by a campaign group for the abolition of the new Irish water charges, Right2Water. Anti-fracking campaigners joined in the 100,000 strong march, a united turn-out of people from communities all over the country joining together to stop water privatisation. With the demonstrated destructive impacts of fracking on water, the presence of anti-fracking campaigners at this march highlighted the important links between these campaigns.
This Global Frackdown Irish anti-fracking campaigners had a victory to celebrate: an Australian company, Tamboran Resources (who hold fracking licences both North and South) have been halted in their tracks. In the North, their licence allowed for an exploratory borehole, with which they attempted to bore on an old quarry in Co. Fermanagh, only a couple of kilometres from the border. Campaigners set up a full time vigil outside the site, dubbed ‘The Gates of Hell’, and ran many community events and e-actions to mobilise people against fracking. They gained a first victory when the Northern Environment Minister called for full planning permission and an environmental assessment at the site, and so halted the borehole. A few weeks later, Tamboran’s licence was due to expire. The licence had already been renewed once by the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, and this time she did not renew the licence again (though she claims that public pressure had nothing to do with her decision).
In the region of this important victory, the border area between counties Fermanagh, Leitrim and Cavan, community campaigners organised several Global Frackdown events: a pig on a spit outside the former borehole (now dubbed ‘The Gates of Heaven’), a day and an evening of music, story-telling and craic as a ‘farewell to Tamboran‘, and a gig of comedy and music in an arts centre.
Of course, the battle is not over. Tamboran are planning to bring judicial reviews against both Ministers’ decisions. And two more areas in the North are in the immediate firing line. Global Frackdown events took place there too – an info stall by the Protect our Coast and Glens group in Antrim, and an anti-fracking and TTIP bus tour in Belfast by Not for $hale.
Fracking is also threatening its arrival across much of Latin America, where activists are just starting to get to grips with the threat it poses and how they will confront it. One of the most active countries so far, both for exploration and resistance, is Argentina – read the new report from Friends of the Earth about UFF extraction there. The Colombian government is also poised to embrace the technology in the face of falling conventional oil supplies. As far as Bolivia is concerned, we had this message from one of our allies on the state of play here:
Since 2000, Bolivia has become a hydrocarbon state, where the majority of state revenue comes from exporting gas (roughly $6 billion per year of gas). But it plans to massively increase exports and simultaneously build 19 industrial plants in the near future to industrialise the country. At present rates of extraction, Bolivia has 19 more years of gas, but with this additional extraction planned, it will only last another decade. For this reason, YPFB, the state hydrocarbon company, is planning to begin fracking so that Bolivia can exploit its 48 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves (the 17th highest in the world). In June 2013 Bolivia signed an agreement with YPF Argentina to begin shale gas exploration in Abapó, Santa Cruz. If Bolivia exploits all these reserves, it will consume 242 million liters of water and produce 2.6 GigaTons of CO2. Environmental activists in Bolivia have held two small preventative/informative protests over the last two years, and wider civil society is started to get informed about this growing threat, so watch this space to see what happens next…
The Democracy Center is looking at ways to develop links between the fracking movement internationally in order to effect knowledge and strategy transfer between communities facing this threat. Do get in touch if you are working in that area, or would like to be involved.
by Thomas Mc Donagh
Two major international days of grassroots activism took place around the world last weekend.
On the back of the recent global ‘Climate March’ mobilizations, climate change and water activists once again hit the streets of towns and cities around the world on October 11th for the third annual Global Frackdown.
Fracking remains a highly controversial issue globally, with some countries having imposed a moratorium and others, like the UK, on the verge of allowing widespread use of the method (against strong public opposition). The aim of the Frackdown is to continue to build power in the anti-fracking movement and to apply pressure on decision makers to ban fracking and to accelerate the transition to a clean energy future.
Standing in the way are those with most to lose from the transition. They are among the most powerful corporations in the world and, together with the governments that do their bidding, they have a massive vested interest in the continued burning of fossil fuels, no matter how difficult or dangerous it is to extract them.
If the climate change movement is going to effectively challenge corporate power, an important first step is understanding the mechanisms by which it operates. Which brings us to the other day of action that took place on October 11th.
In Europe social movements and civil society groups organized a continent-wide day of action against the three new trade and investment agreements being negotiated by the European Union: the TTIP (the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) and TiSA (the Trade in Services Agreement).
The global spider web of trade and investment agreements has become the core legal framework for corporations operating internationally. The three proposed new deals will have implications for a broad range of issues from the availability of medicines and the privatization of public services to food safety standards. But perhaps none is more urgent than the possible ramifications on energy and climate.
A leaked document from the TTIP negotiations in late 2013 showing that the EU is pushing the Obama administration to loosen restrictions on crude oil and natural gas exports led to consternation from environmentalists. According to Oil Change International, the proposal to lift the ban on exports of crude oil from the US, would mean 9.9 billion barrels of additional crude between 2015 and 2050, which would release as much carbon dioxide as 42 coal-fired power plants.
The proposed increase of trade in oil and gas will inevitably incentivize more fracking in the US and continue the cycle of dependence on fossil fuels on both sides of the Atlantic, and may discourage the development of green energy in the EU.
Meanwhile just last week a crucial piece of EU climate/energy policy appears to have been watered down in the context of the CETA negotiations with Canada. The European Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) was conceived to reduce transport-related emissions in the EU by a series of measures, including an obligation on businesses to report the carbon intensity of their transport fuels. The directive originally included provisions whereby crude oil from the tar sands in Canada would be labelled as “dirty” and given a 20 percent higher carbon value than conventional oil, disincentivizing its use. But after heavy lobbying from the Canadian government and oil industry in the CETA negotiations, this provision has been dropped, to the dismay of campaigners.
Just by coincidence, the FQD implementation plans were released on October 7th – one week after the negotiations on the CETA trade deal were completed. According to the vice-chair of the committee of international trade at the European Parliament, this important piece of European climate policy has been “sacrificed on the altar of free trade”.
Although local resistance to fracking is growing around Europe, regulation has so far been piecemeal. Indeed pushing for national and EU regulations will be a central plank of climate change struggles in Europe going forward.
If passed, the TTIP and CETA would give corporations a new weapon with which to undermine future bans and regulation in Europe. The deals’ investment chapters will grant corporations a range of new rights and give them access to a system of private international tribunals to enforce those rights.
This system, known as the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS), is already being used by a US corporation to attack fracking bans elsewhere. In the Canadian province of Quebec, the government has introduced a moratorium on fracking pending further tests and research. One of the corporations involved, Lone Pine Resources, is using the investment chapter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to bring an ISDS case for $250million.
The ISDS system allows corporations to sue not just for what they have invested in a country when a government changes a policy or regulation but for what they expected to earn into the future.
Cases take place in private tribunals overseen by arbitrators working on a for-profit basis that move seamlessly from supposedly ‘independent’ arbitrators to corporate lawyers. Cases can only be brought by foreign corporations and there is no corresponding right for domestic companies, or indeed for governments or citizens when corporations cause human rights abuses.
If there was any doubt as to the intention of corporations to use this system in conflicts in Europe, the contribution to the consultation on the TTIP in the US by the Chevron corporation- with fracking interests in several EU countries – is illuminating. It dedicated its entire response to the area of ‘investment protection’- what it called “one of our most important issues globally”.
Europeans don’t have to go far to see this system at work. In Germany the government changed its policy on nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster, cancelling some planned nuclear plants. They are now being sued by energy corporation Vattenfall for over 1bn Euro in an ISDS case.
And this was not the first time. When Hamburg‘s Environmental Authority imposed quality controls for the waste waters released into the river from a planned coal-fired power plant, Vattenfall used ISDS provisions to seek compensation of €1.4 billion. The case was eventually settled when the City of Hamburg agreed to lower the environmental requirements previously set – a telling indication of the “chilling effect” that the threat of such actions can have on setting public protection legislation.
ISDS proponents will say that it’s the norm and that it has been included in trade and investment deals for decades – but use of the ISDS system in cases against governments has only really taken off in recent years. Indeed 2012 and 2013 have set all time records for the numbers of new ISDS cases – 57 and 58 respectively.
The ISDS mechanism has gone from being a legal tool of last resort in cases of government expropriation of assets to a weapon of choice in struggles over a growing range of important social and environmental issues. The explosion of cases in recent years has led to many governments, economists and legal experts around the world openly criticizing the system and attempting to withdraw from it once they’ve seen in practice the threat that it represents to democracy and public interest policy making.
The inclusion of ISDS in the TTIP would expand this system exponentially and increase the risk of many more cases. Given the very high level of already existing trans-Atlantic trade and investment, the deal would result in 75,000 firms being newly empowered to use these private tribunals.
This is particularly worrying for fracking regulation in Europe.
ISDS is increasingly being used by energy and mining corporations to challenge environmental, health and other policies around the world. As of March 2013, there were 169 cases pending at the most frequently used tribunal, the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), of which 60 (35.7%) were related to oil, mining, or gas. By contrast, in 2000, there were only three pending ICSID cases related to oil, mining, or gas. The extractive industries, under increasing scrutiny for their role in environmental degradation, are using the ISDS weapon more and more in order to run down any challenges to their dirty operations.
Trade and investment deals also affect progress on climate through their effect on our democratic institutions.
The energy debate in Europe is far from straightforward – public consultations have shown that there is strong opposition to unconventional fossil fuels, but extraction projects are nonetheless underway in several member states. In order to mediate the many opinions and conflicting interests involved we rely on robust democratic processes. But as governments and policy makers get to grips with this challenge, the inclusion of ISDS in new trade deals would mean the threat of billion-dollar ISDS cases hanging over their head. This ‘chilling effect’ on the willingness of governments to implement new policies and regulations for fear of corporate attacks is one of the most dangerous effects of the system.
Meanwhile the way in which trade and investment deals are being negotiated is also undermining our democracies. While the European Commission claims to be carrying out negotiations in a transparent and participative manner, there is strong evidence to the contrary. An access to documents request from the Corporate Europe Observatory in late 2013 revealed that 93% of the Commission’s meetings with stakeholders during the preparations of the TTIP negotiations were with large corporations and their lobby groups.
Despite having implications for a broad range of important policy areas, corporate interests clearly have disproportionate access and influence.
The battle against climate change has many fronts. One of the most important of these is represented by the front-line struggles of local communities against the expansion of fossil fuels. However these localised struggles take place against an often obscured and poorly understood international legal infrastructure that allows corporations to push their agenda and to behave with impunity.
While the climate movement considers the impact of the Global Frackdown in terms of groups mobilized and fracking ban proposals supported, another important measure of success is the extent to which the movement begins to understand the actors preventing progress, the power that they wield and the mechanisms by which they attain and expand that power.
The growing campaigns in Europe and elsewhere against new trade and investment deals offer an important opportunity to understand and influence a central piece of the jigsaw puzzle of corporate power. #noTTIP and Frackdown protests joined together in many European cities this weekend, demonstrating the growing awareness of the connection between these two struggles.
The synergies created between the two movements will be crucial for building the power necessary to push for a just transition to post fossil fuel societies.
Thomas Mc Donagh coordinates the Network for Justice in Global Investment project for the Democracy Center. Follow him: @TmcDIrl
Unfair, Unsustainable and Under the Radar: How Corporations use Global Investment Rules to Undermine A Sustainable Future
No fracking way: how the EU-US trade agreement risks expanding fracking
Video- NO FRACKING WAY | How the EU-US trade deal risks expanding fracking in Europe and the US
Self-Organised European Citizens’ Initiative Against TTIP and CETA
European Day of Action – Stop TTIP, TiSa, CETa
#globalfrackdown #banfracking #noTTIP #ISDS #noCETA #noTISA
The situation at Balcombe is constantly evolving and the British media are there in numbers, along with plenty of citizen journalists. Here’s the latest on all things fracking from the Guardian, and the Frack-off site has a constantly updated blog from Balcombe.
by Mads Ryle
In many countries, and certainly here in the UK, fracking for shale gas and oil is the current focus of concern for the climate movement as well as for local residents who perhaps aren’t such seasoned protesters. The hydraulic fracturing process to release fossil fuels trapped in shale rockbed – along with other unconventional/extreme energy extraction methods – brings together a set of local concerns over water, air and noise pollution with global ones over continuing to pursue climactically destructive sources of energy rather than invest in renewables. The battle between the corporation (here actively encouraged by the government) and the concerned citizen also highlights the lack of social license and democratic process in the granting of exploration permits.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron, however, doesn’t seem that interested in the democratic process, insisting that we should drill now and the public will accept the process once bills go down and companies buy communities off with a share in profits. But the promise of lower energy bills has been contradicted even by Cuadrilla’s own PR guy, the commercial viability of the whole industry remains dubious, and the potential harms to both local environment and planetary climate are horrendous.
In the case of Balcombe, West Sussex – currently on the fracking frontline in England – the corporation involved is Cuadrilla. A parish council poll showed 82% of local residents reject fracking in the area. A permanent protest camp has been in place on the roadside outside the entrance to the exploration site since July 25th. I visited the camp a couple of times last week. 40 or so tents occupied the verges of the busy B-road, with traffic passing through almost constantly. I would say the majority beep their horns in support. Despite a heavy police presence the atmosphere is congenial. A camp kitchen serves tea and delicious lunches to anyone present. Flags and banners flutter in the unusually pleasant English summer. An array of signs adorn campers’ tents and vans; they reference Australia’s Lock the Gate movement, or are concerned with the devastating impact of fracking on water. Humour abounds – “Here from the desolate North” read several hung up by supporters from Lancashire, in reference to recent comments about where the government might be able to get away with its dash for gas.
When I first visited on Sunday the mood was positively festive. The road was closed for several hours to allow a community event to take place. Several hundred people came for the day from various parts of Sussex as well as London and elsewhere to show solidarity. Many came with their children (there is a kids space set up with games, books and art materials). The day was organised by local poet Simon Welsh and people joined in with visiting choirs for an afternoon of song, including a choral re-rendering of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as an anti-fracking anthem (rumour has it there are plans to release it as a single).
During previous weeks the focus of activities Monday to Saturday has been slowing down the delivery of trucks and goods to the site. Protesters line up on the road in front of Cuadrilla’s lorries and, as long as they keep moving (which they do as slowly as possible) they cannot be arrested for obstruction. There are representatives from organisations like CopBlock, and well-informed protesters politely reminding the police of their duties towards protesters.
When I returned on Wednesday I got a clearer sense of the day-to-day feel of the camp. The numbers of people sleeping over varies but I spoke to many who had been there for several weeks. Daytrippers like myself come and go, and on this occasion included a Dutch MP, and a local man who took up a megaphone to talk about the threat to the nearby reservoir, built when his father was a young man in the early 1900s in order to secure the area’s water supply (besides the contamination issue, each fracking well uses between 2 and 10 million gallons of water over its lifetime – and if full scale exploitation takes place we could be looking at thousands of wells in Sussex alone, let alone the rest of the UK). There was also a union representative from Unite, there to talk about how union legislation was being abused by Cuadrilla, who are trying to use it to defend the right of their non-unionised drivers to go to work. While he was chatting to one of the organisers a cheer went up as a carful of people arrested back in July arrived on site. They had been before the magistrate and had their bail conditions lifted – a victory which meant they were now allowed to return and protest.
No lorries were arriving that day – Cuadrilla had announced the previous evening that they thought it ‘unlikely’ that Balcombe would become a full production site. No promises of course. At the entrance gate one camper was diligently noting the vehicles coming in and out of the leafy site (and noting, so he said, that number plates were being switched illegally). He had also seen the delivery of razor wire (also illegal in the UK) and new perimeter fencing panels. Drilling had stopped for the first time in weeks – and workers were instead busy putting up this new infrastructure to protect the site. Several people talked about a shift in the atmosphere on site, a sense of “digging in”.
The reason being that today (Aug 16th) a serious new delegation of protesters is due to arrive in Balcombe as the No Dash for Gas group convenes its annual camp nearby. Yesterday Cuadrilla made another announcement that it was scaling back its drilling activities on the advice of police. (It said it was to “protect its workers” – but as the Frack Free Sussex Facebook page scoffed, it didn’t seem too bothered when ‘Its staff were sprayed with toxic drilling mud this week when they broke yet another drill bit’.) Up to a thousand people are expected to pass through the Reclaim the Power camp over the next six days. It rather looks like the frackers are running scared – though of course Cuadrilla are keen to make their activities seem minimal in an attempt to delegitimize the direct action being planned against them in the coming days. They aren’t fooling anyone – the Battle of Balcombe, and by extension the war against fracking in the UK, is far from over.
There are regular updates, and lots of photos, from the Balcombe site on the Frack Off website. We hope to have some more on the ground reports from the Reclaim the Power event in the coming days.
Joining the fight against fracking? Please take a look at the Democracy Center profile of how the battle is being fought and won in Bulgaria and elsewhere.
All across the world people are engaged in urgent battles: on worker rights, protection of the environment, trade, health, and a range of other issues that shape our lives and our futures. In many of these struggles we face a powerful adversary – the corporation. National laws and international trade agreements are drafted under the influence of corporate power. Corporate interests form the donor base of major political parties, and often have bigger balance sheets than the countries they operate in. Waves of deregulation and privatization have eroded limits to corporate accumulation of profit and power. In this hostile environment, groups have had to become more and more sophisticated in how they confront companies in their workplaces and communities.
Struggles to win concessions from corporate power are not new. As the influence and reach of the corporation has grown, so has resistance to it. From early worker struggles for better wages and conditions, to the late 1990s campaign that targeted Shell’s bright yellow logo to stop it sinking an old drilling platform in the North Sea, confronting corporate interests has long been part of the struggle for social and environmental justice.
Groups confronting corporations have a range of politics and use a range of tactics. They include Christian shareholder groups that talk about increasing ‘corporate responsibility’, direct action campaigners that see capitalism itself as the root cause of climate change, well-funded NGOs and confederations of neighbourhood organizations. The Democracy Center designed this resource to be useful for both newcomers to this kind of campaigning and old hands, no matter where they lie on the political or tactical spectrum.
This resource opens with some background on corporate campaigning, and why we think it’s important to take on corporate power through individual campaigns. We then look at a series of wins from corporate targets, with a focus on what we can learn from them as we put together new campaigns.
This is followed by introductions to tools and more detailed resources for campaigners fighting corporations – including organizing, research, strategy, communications, coalition building, direct action, shareholder and financier strategies, legal strategies, and consumer strategies.
Finally, we’ve included six profiles of climate justice campaigns against corporations that are happening right now, with brief outlines of what they’re campaigning for and how they’re going about it.