Global Frackdown 2017 – the international day of action against fracking – has a particular significance in the Republic of Ireland this year. It will be marked by a huge party in Leitrim in North West Ireland – the centre of resistance to fracking in the country – celebrating the national ban on onshore fracking approved by the parliament on the 28th June 2017.
Democracy Center team members Philippa de Boissière and Thomas Mc Donagh were in the Irish Parliament to see the Bill finalised and were later able to sit down with eight people involved in different capacities in the Irish campaign. Our interviewees were Meg Rybicki and Lucy Maunsell from the North West Network Against Fracking; Nuala Mc Nulty, Eddie Mitchell, Scott Coombs, Jamie Murphy and Dervilla Keegan from Love Leitrim; and Donal O’Kelly from Dublin-based NGO, AFRI-Action from Ireland. We discussed many aspects of the campaign and one of the things that came across really strongly in our conversations was the importance of connecting across struggles – a constant conversation in activist communities all over the world.
At a time when it has never been more urgent to prevent the expansion of extractive projects and with our dire international political moment placing renewed emphasis on local action, here we present some of the insight gained from these experienced campaigners about the role and importance of connecting across struggles generally – looking in detail at three examples of how these connections occurred in the context of the Irish campaign, and some of the general lessons that can be drawn for campaigns elsewhere.
”The first time the word fracking was used in Leitrim as far as I know” recounts Donal O’Kelly “was in the Glens Arts Centre when we showed Risteard O’Domhnaill’s documentary, ‘The Pipe’, and got a few of the people who’d opposed [Shell’s project in Mayo] to come over from Mayo to Manorhamilton to be there”.
After the documentary screening John Monaghan – who features in The Pipe – took part in a post-screening group discussion. When asked about some emerging news of potential gas exploration in the Lough Allen basin in the North West of Ireland, he said “if it’s gas exploration and they’re using hydraulic fracturing – fracking – you need to watch a documentary called Gaslands’.
Monaghan wasn’t just speaking with the authority of a professional chemical engineer, he was also by now a well-known seasoned activist who’d been at the centre of one of the most controversial resistance battles by local communities against the fossil fuel industry in Irish history – The Corrib Gas controversy, about which ‘The Pipe’ was made.
According to Donal O’Kelly, looking back on the event, “if he hadn’t done that, it would have been months before the wheels were turning on resistance to [fracking]…in fact within two weeks a touring cinema was going around towns and villages in Leitrim showing Josh Fox’s film Gaslands and loads of people saw it.”
Although international connections were to prove vital to the successful campaign against fracking in Ireland, it was the connection to this struggle much closer to home that was crucial in not just raising the alarm, but also providing some hard won lessons about community organising and combatting the powers that be.
VIDEO: Risteard O’Domhnaill’s documentary beautifully captures the voices of the community members on the frontlines of resisting Shell’s plans to bring gas onshore to be processed in a remote rural community in the Corrib basin in County Mayo. The resulting conflict saw five community members spend 94 days in prison at the behest of Shell; witnessed police and private security repression and corruption, as well as the infiltration of activist groups by British police. It has also severely damaged and divided the local community. In the words of local resident and campaigner Willie Corduff “it will never be the same, never, never…it left a mark on the community that will never be healed.”
That initial warning from the Corrib campaigners about the prospect of fracking for those in Leitrim in 2011 was followed in 2012 with a meeting in a remote primary school in county Mayo between what Donal O’Kelly described as ‘the luminaries of the anti-Shell campaign’ – including John Monaghan – and a group of Love Leitrim campaigners.
The meeting was facilitated by Leitrim-based artist-activist Sorcha Fox. In O’Kelly’s words “it was Sorcha Fox who had been down at AFRI events in Rossport in County Mayo and got to know people and just said ‘I have to get these people together in the room so they know each other’.”
In the resulting five-hour meeting, in the words of Eddie Mitchell, ‘our minds were opened to a community much further down the track”. Here, Mitchell talks about the importance of that initial exchange between the Corrib/Rossport campaign and the Leitrim anti-fracking campaign and some of the lessons he drew from it.
Learning from this campaign that was much ‘further down the track’ was to prove invaluable. The lessons were myriad and diverse but included three major themes: coping with divisive strategies from without; handling internal division; and messaging and dealing with the media.
One of the consequences of the hard fought Mayo campaign against Shell was the division and conflict sewn between members of the local community, and the repression brought to bear on campaigners by police and private security. Promises of ‘development’ and local jobs versus the desire to preserve local farming and fishing lifestyles pitted neighbour against neighbour. And when political avenues were exhausted, direct action tactics were employed to prevent construction works – that were in turn violently repressed, compounding the division and acrimony.
Fracking campaigners were acutely aware of what had happened in Mayo and at every step sought to prevent the same thing happening in their communities. Here, Meg Rybicki and Lucy Maunsell, of the North West Network against Fracking, talk about the importance of the connection to the Corrib campaign (known as Shell to Sea) for them and share some of the ways that they incorporated the lessons learned into their own campaigning work.
One of the main reasons that fracking campaigners avoided similar major confrontations was because they weren’t defending a fracking site. Although southern campaigners were present when the threat of drilling was imminent at a site just across the border in Belcoo in Northern Ireland in 2014, there was never actually an identified site to defend in the Republic. Nevertheless there were other ways in which they needed to show restraint, such as when the offer of €20,000 was made to local community groups by the corporation involved, Tamboran.
Eddie Mitchell again:
Meg Rybicki here comments on the way she handled the same issue:
“Luckily we’ve been told about how Devon Energy operated -the CEO of Tamboran started off at Devon Energy…they’ve got thousands of environmental citations against them. And these are the gold-plated, robust regulations he’s talking about”. Meg Rybicki
While ways of countering external tactics intent on splintering the campaign was an important part of the advice from the Corrib, managing internal campaign dynamics was just as important for our interviewees.
Donal O’Kelly had witnessed the damage some of these dynamics had caused to the campaign in the Corrib. “With people being squashed under this fist of oppression coming down on them, it’s inevitable that this splintering happens..there is a certain generosity of spirit needed.” He goes on: “Some of the advice that came from the Corrib was not to “try to have one big organisation with a few people in charge – and when differences emerge, let it be and agree to differ…because in the resistance to Shell in the Corrib there were splits into different strands of how you do it, and some of them were pretty bitter, but it’s nearly inevitable that that happens.”
‘It’s inevitable that fracturing happens in community resistance campaigns’ Donal O’Kelly
In this clip Eddie Mitchell shares more of the community organising advice that came from the Corrib, including some reflections on managing splits in campaigns and what, for him, is an essential ingredient for successful campaigning: bringing as many people along as possible.
A third, related lesson for our interviewees taken from the Corrib campaign was the role of the mainstream media in portraying the campaign in a negative light and perpetuating and deepening divisions.
According to Donal O’Kelly, “it was very hard for them to counter the whole media bias against them”. So much so that O’Kelly and others were involved in organizing a series of three major events called Airing Erris – all livestreamed to big audiences and focused specifically on calling out the media bias against the challengers to Shell in the Corrib.
Eddie Mitchell was very aware in the early days of the campaign about “all the bad PR they had got [in the Corrib] and people were already saying ‘that this was another Corrib’” – there was a reluctance on their part to be pigeonholed as protestors.
Here, Love Leitrim fracking campaigners Jamie Murphy and Dervilla Keegan reflect on what they learned from the Corrib campaign and how they incorporated that in to their own campaign strategy, particularly in relation to the media. (RTE is the Irish state broadcaster )
Although the battle against Shell in the Corrib proved highly destructive, and ultimately failed to block gas coming ashore on North West Mayo, in terms of generating community expertise and experience that would then nourish the roots of nascent resistance campaigns elsewhere, it proved to be an invaluable asset.
The connections between the Irish fracking campaign and both individuals and campaigns in North America were wide-ranging. Some of those connections that stood out most for our interviewees included: the work of Tony Ingraffea from Cornell University – mentioned as being both crucial for conceptualizing fracking and understanding what a solid prohibition must include; the work of Theo Colborn looking at the effects of benzine on public health was also highlighted; the visit to a small Irish town by Greg Palast – award-winning investigative journalist and author of Vultures’ Picnic – was remembered as important; as was the brave work of Dr. John O’Connor on exposing the health impacts of the tar sands in Canada.
However, it was the connection with former industry insider turned anti-fracking campaigner, Jessica Ernst, that made the strongest impression on our interviewees. Her visits to Ireland and public interventions in the debate in key places at key times bolstered the campaign in important ways.
For Love Leitrim’s Nuala McNulty, there was a precise moment in the campaign, at a meeting in the Rainbow Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarn, when she felt an intervention by Ernst helped the campaign to reach a major turning point.
The importance of having somebody like Ernst with the authority of being a former industry player to convince certain sectors in the Irish political landscape was highlighted by several interviewees.
“That was a turning point in the campaign, we had all of the landowners on board after Jessica spoke”. Nuala McNulty
McNulty also spoke about some of the advice she took from Ernst in terms of local organizing:
Lucy Maunsell reflected on travelling extensively with Ernst on her speaking tours and hearing the advice she gave in numerous locations, particularly on managing difficult campaign relationships and alliances.
“It’s such an attack on your being”. Lucy Maunsell
Both Maunsell and Rybicki also highlighted the importance of having as broad a spectrum of people involved in as broad a range of campaign actions as possible.
One of the major contributions of both Ernst and other North American allies was to strengthen the emerging focus of the Irish campaign on public health.
For Eddie Mitchell “we became aware quite quickly that we needed to re-frame things from our point of view, and eventually we realised that our concern was a public health concern. Although there are a lot of environmentalists, people who think we should be talking about climate change and things like that – but our concern was really about the effect on our community”.
Scott Coombs of Love Leitrim talks here about the importance of the connections made with Ernst and the New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eilish Cleary in the context of re-focusing the campaign on the issue of public health.
The role of Concerned Health Professionals of New York was also highlighted by Jamie Murphy and Dervilla Keegan in strengthening the campaign’s public health arguments.
“It wasn’t scaremongering….we’re going with what’s happening in other places” Jamie Murphy
Ernst’s interventions in the public debates as someone with industry experience, her advice in relation to community organising and campaigning, and the scientific research and quantifiable data on health impacts coming through from Ingraffea, Colborn and the Concerned Health Professionals were just some of the ways that the Irish connections to North America helped to strengthen the campaign and prepare the ground for the national ban.
As well as participating in the celebrations in Ireland to mark the Global Frackdown event, Ernst will also be speaking at locations in the UK this October.
A third international connection highlighted by our interviewees was the one with Lock the Gate – the national alliance of grassroots groups resisting the coal and unconventional gas industries in Australia.
Annie Kia, a Lock the Gate coordinator, visited Ireland in 2013. Both her public presentations on her campaigning experience in Australia, and further research and study of ‘the Australian model’ of community organising, provided useful insights that were then incorporated into the Irish fracking campaign.
Meg Rybicki here reflects on some of the lessons learned, particularly in relation to the challenge of appealing to the wider public and the implications of this for messaging and working with the press.
“They had to realise that backlash could start…the media is so captured” Meg Rybicki
Finally, Rybicki and Maunsell went on to reflect on some of the creative actions they used to recruit supporters – always seeking to appear respectable and likeable, even when camped out at road-side protests.
From what we’ve heard there a few things that stick out as being particularly important.
Communities that are further down the track in their campaign experience have a great deal of expertise. Oftentimes this expertise has been developed through hard-fought battles with incredibly powerful foes that have left their communities severely damaged. However that experience, when passed on to others, is gold dust to budding campaigners.
It is the direct contact between frontline communities that is most powerful. In the words of Donal O’Kelly: “I always think that that’s the crucial thing, to try to get people to meet, to talk…The truth and honesty of somebody’s testimony is really apparent in their eyes…that makes a deep impact in the listener…I think it’s the best way to learn”. Sorcha Fox’ instinct right at the start of the fracking campaign that she had to get the Corrib campaigners in the same room as the fracking campaigners was a seasoned activist putting this important general principle into practice to great effect.
“People coming from communities that were fracked, their advice was so different from the NGOs – Jessica Ernst told us that ‘Many fleas make big dog move’ -i.e. you need to have all those people doing all those little things.” Eddie Mitchell
There are certain phases in a campaign when support and connections across campaigns are particularly important to steady the ship in the face of what Lucy Maunsell described as ‘the trauma of such an attack on your being’. One of the major benefits of the international networks, according to Maunsell, is that “they can calm you down and tell you what’s happening and tell you what you’ve got to do – you need that because the oil companies have done this twenty times before and they know”.
Connecting across struggles is a powerful weapon against corporate spin and manipulation. Being able to counter the claims from multinational corporations of ‘gold standard regulations’ and ‘jobs and prosperity for all’ with evidence from experiences in other places was another important overall function of connecting across struggles, highlighted by our interviewees and put in to practice to great effect in the Irish campaign.
While NGOs can be allies, they can also be liabilities. Eddie Mitchell captured one of those liabilities succinctly: “the ENGO comes in and it is like a peacock. ‘I know about climate change and I know about this and that’ and then they give all of this advice and then they leave. They might come back in six weeks time but in six weeks nothing has happened. And that is the problem. You can’t build a house without having people there to build it.” While Mitchell and others agreed that there is a role for NGOs in facilitating dialogue and exchange across struggles, he was adamant that they must also know when to step back and allow communities to develop their own capacities and resilience…”You can’t do anything for them, they have to build it”.
And finally, when communities do develop their own capacities, they are politicised for good. In the words of Lucy Maunsell, “I’m educated, I can’t be uneducated….that’s the beauty if it…..We are like a standing army.” This process of politicisation through participation in their own local campaign provides a well which can be drawn upon when the next local battle comes around, or indeed to support battles in other places from afar, such as the other communities (maybe in the global South) where Tamborin might move on to next. This broadening of perspective and solidarity will be key to building the broad-based social movement we now so urgently need to push for a just transition away from fossil-fuels so that no community has to face such traumatic ‘attacks on their being’.
Thank you to the communities of Leitrim and Sligo and the activists of the North West Network Against Fracking and Love Leitrim for their warm hospitality and collaboration.
On the 28th of June, 2017, the Republic of Ireland officially became the fourth European country to ban fracking after France, Germany and Bulgaria. This win was followed up, some four months later, by Scotland indefinitely extending its existing moratorium on the technology. 2017 has also seen the State of Maryland join New York and Vermont in outlawing fracking in the US.
Although community resistance in the North has taken some blows to the fracking industry locally and nationally, the development of infrastructure to facilitate international imports of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) from shale and other sources continues to be the linchpin of international energy policy in both the US and the EU. In recognition of this, some movements – not only from Ireland but across Europe and North America – are broadening the struggle beyond the local, rallying around cries of “not here, not anywhere”.
This thinkpiece seeks to provoke discussion within Northern movements on concepts of international solidarity. Rather than prescribing “one-size fits all” solutions, we include reflections from other contexts in the battle against fossil fuel development that may serve to provoke necessary discussion on privilege and solidarity.
Renowned environmental activist and author Naomi Klein helped popularize the slogan “not here, not anywhere” after connecting with activists in the run up to the COP21 in Paris. The slogan appears to have been coined by activists in France (“ni ici, ni ailleurs”), but has since gained currency within Northern movements. It is a phrase that has given voice to a movement that is focused not only on localized drilling sites, but on the broader infrastructure that connects fossil fuels to markets internationally.
Indeed fracking itself cannot be viewed in isolation as a technical issue, but rather as part of a broader power grab by vested interests. Shale gas represents one of a number of “extreme energy” frontiers that, according to Klein, is now affecting “historically privileged populations”. Indeed, many OECD countries have rushed to emulate the “success” of the United States’ shale gas revolution in a bid to “reverse” the declines in production that are consistent with hitting peak oil and gas. Both the Trump administration and the EU are bulldozing ahead with ambitious plans to expand fossil fuel operations through the construction of LNG terminals and pipeline projects. For example. the European Commission, in collaboration with member States, has recently released their latest list of “energy projects of common interest” – of which a whopping 77 are related to expanding natural gas infrastructure. Such projects would lock the world into further fossil fuel consumption; flying in the face of the EU’s stated aims of keeping global average temperatures below an already catastrophic 2oC rise.
Northern communities are indeed now finding themselves more often on the frontlines of struggles against extractive projects – something that communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America have been experiencing for hundreds of years. But there is a danger that referring to “historically privileged populations” in the global North obscures what continue to be stark and dangerous differences in how these projects and the resistance to them plays out – differences which in the global South regularly cost lives.
France provides an interesting case study. Francois Hollande officially banned fracking within the mainland in 2013. While activists in France say “ni ici, ni ailleurs”, French business are responding with “if not here, elsewhere”. French oil major, Total, continues to chase fracked gas in former colony, Algeria, as well as in the Mapuche territory of Neuquen in Argentina. The racist and colonial reality of this double-standard cannot be overlooked. Commenting at an ‘Decolonizing Energy’ event in the UK this October, Co-founder of the Algerian Solidarity Campaign, Hamza Hamouchene said, “To stop fracking, we have to be internationalist and recognise the reality of imperial plunder and racism”.
Rather than an exception, such neocolonial behaviour confirms the rule; one that relies upon racism, sexism and other forms of oppression so as to politically and economically benefit an elite minority. Further to the projects being rolled out within OECD countries, the EU and the Trump administration are both actively pushing a shale gas agenda in Latin America. The Euro-Latin American Parliamentary (EuroLat) represents just one arm in a furthering of both US and European fracking interests in Latin America.
The continued dash for Latin American resources at the hands of powerful elites can be traced back as far as the arrival of Columbus. In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, many European corporations looked to Latin America to recover “investor confidence”. In other words, there has been a clear move by multinational extractive industries to target cheap oil and gas and labour in global South countries, where regulation is also more lax – and community resistance carries far greater risk. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Latin America via Spanish multinationals alone surged from €45 billion in 2007 to €116 billion the following year. With some local and national governments (at least partially) shutting the door on fracking in the North, could we expect to see a reinforcing of these historical patterns of domination and exploitation in relation to unconventional gas extraction, where rich countries extract natural resources from impoverished countries, at great human cost?
These patterns are about whose communities are targeted for extraction and exploitation. They are also about who faces the most danger and repression for resisting unwanted projects. British NGO, Global Witness, has been sounding the alarm internationally on the increasing violent repression of environmental and human rights defenders in many countries across the Global South. Their latest report, ‘Defenders of the Earth’, reveals how 2016 broke a consecutive record when 200 protectors were killed for standing up against extractivist projects.
In Colombia, 37 killings of environmental protectors were reported in 2016, making it the second most dangerous place to be a defender in the world that year. In recent years, the Colombian government has started granting licences to corporations such as Drummond, Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips (US) to frack for gas. Already this year alone, three community members from San Martin, where Conoco Phillips plans to operate, have been killed – possibly in relation to defending against the industry – with many others receiving threats. In Argentina, the Mapuche indigenous community have been brutally criminalized for protecting their lands and water from the likes of Exxon Mobil and Total. In 2015 Mapuche woman, Relmu Ñamku, was sentenced with attempted murder after a police officer was hit with a stone as forces attempted to break up a community-held blockade. These charges, which were later dropped owing to international pressure, formed part of Argentina’s anti-terrorism law.
When compared with campaigns in the North, the stakes for those who stand up against fracking in the South couldn’t be higher. This reality must be recognized internationally with steps taken to ensure that bans against fracking won in Europe and North America do not unintentionally place a greater burden on already oppressed and marginalized communities in Latin America and other parts of the Global South. One important step for Northern campaigners can be in recognizing the international dynamics of power at play and exploring, specific to each context, how activists can leverage their privileges in solidarity with defenders in the South.
Given the varying circumstances, rather than offering any prescriptions for action, we invite those within those movements who continue to push for a world without fracking to actively investigate these questions.
Some relevant resources to start with:
(2017) Decolonizing Divestment, UK Tar Sands Network and 350.
Systemic injustice is at the heart of the climate crisis; determining who will be hit hardest and fastest by the impacts – from fossil fuel extraction, to local pollution, to the flood and droughts caused by temperature rise. Climate change itself is also a symptom of global injustice – fuelled by political and economic systems which prioritise some lives over others.
If we truly want to build the mass movement we need to take on the climate crisis, we need to address the root causes of climate change – economic injustice, white supremacy and Western colonial attitudes – both within our movement, and in the wider world around us. We also need take leadership from the people on the frontlines, and work to find climate solutions based in justice.
How as a divestment movement can we work to further these goals, and not to replicate the injustices we see in the wider world within our movements?
This web workshop will explore what we mean by ‘decolonisation’, how it relates to the divestment movement and offer some examples, reflections and prompts to develop our practice.
(2016) Energy Colonialism: The EU’s Gas Grab in Algeria, The Observatory on Debt and Globalization (ODG)
During the first five months of 2015, Algeria witnessed an anti-fracking uprising. The people of the Algerian oil and gas-rich Sahara, in their tens of thousands, rose against the authorities and multinationals’ plans to frack for shale gas in the country. This uprising needs to be situated in its correct context, a context of political and economic exclusion; and the plundering of resources to the benefit of a corrupt elite and the predatory multinationals, ready to sacrifice human rights and whole ecosystems in order to accumulate profits.
This report argues that the EU External Energy Policy is prioritising corporate fossil fuel interests and a locking-in of Algerian gas over human rights and people’s sovereignty.
(2017) Extreme: The New Frontiers of Energy Extractivism in Latin America, OpSur
We want to bring you the “Extreme newsletter: New frontiers of energy extractivism in Latin America”, which gathers articles published between September and December 2016 on the website of Oilwatch Latin America. It tries to put into dialogue different approaches to extreme energy, to contribute to critiques of fossil civilization and to reaffirm the urgency of building alternatives.
Some reflections on racism reproduced within Northern movements:
(2015) “Wretched of the Earth” Bloc at UK March: Darkening the White Heart of the Climate Movement, Black Dissidents
At London’s (2015) climate march, the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ bloc, representing communities of colour on the frontlines of climate change, were supposed to lead. At the last minute, the march’s organizers changed their minds.
In the last two weeks Scotland has indefinitely extended its moratorium on fracking in a major victory for the movement there. While not yet constituting an outright ban, the news provides welcome respite for communities in Scotland and shows that their campaign is paying off. We spoke to Callum McLeod of Our Forth to get his reaction to the recent news as well as his reflections on the campaign in general and the importance of connections to other grassroots struggles made by the Scottish campaign.
Tanya Jones, anti-fracking activist and Green Party candidate in Northern Ireland, collaborated with the Democracy Center and other activists from Ireland and Scotland on a workshop at Preston New Road during the Rolling Resistance in July 2017.
In this blog she reflects on her time at Preston New Road, and the three kinds of connection crucial to effective and compassionate activism:
Read more on the Irish fracking ban
The US fracking experience, according to Food and Water Watch Director Wenonah Hauter, should be a cautionary tale for movements on the other side of the Atlantic. In a recent short interview before the presentation of her book in Ireland, we spoke with the internationally renowned expert on the importance of connecting struggles in different places and learning from examples of successful resistance in order to strengthen the anti-fracking movement in Europe and internationally.
Set against a backdrop of dwindling cheap resources, extractivism is coming home to roost once again. Communities in the UK organizing to protect their water and health from fracking operations have come under increasingly intrusive police surveillance and repression tactics.
This report, published by Netpol – a network of activists, academics and lawyers – provides an overview of policing strategies in protection of fracking interests. More than a report, this paper serves as a resource for activists and concerned community members in defence of life against this new, extreme, wave of resource extraction in the UK.
You can find out more about Netpol and their extensive work on making the UK anti-fracking movement safer and more strategic here.
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.