Latin American communities prepare to fight fracking

On a recent camping trip to California's Big Sur region, I was overwhelmed by how many other campers were out there in the middle of the wilderness. Along the river bank, at least two dozen tents were set up, some on hillsides, others in flash flood zones. Everyone was there with one thought in mind – to have fun. Yet in this state, no one stopped to consider the consequences of their actions:

  1. What happens if a tent is set up a in a non-designated area?
  2. Can the local ecosystem handle this many campers?
  3. What happens with the waste that is created by so many people there at one time?
  4. What happens to the animals and plants after everyone goes home?

It occurred to me, that this is what happens in areas where the oil industry seeks to drill. Economics teaches us that businesses share one main goal – the pursuit of profit. The oil industry is no different, and has been relentless in its pursuit of profit. Consequences are rarely considered, dissent is crushed, and opposition silenced by almost any means necessary.

In the United States, we have witnessed this time and time again, as the industry moves to exploit shale regions through fracking. While profits boomed and some pockets were lined with money, communities near drill sites suffered. Water became contaminated, air was polluted, the earth began shaking, property values decreased, and people became sick. In the rush to maximize profits, the industry didn't just ignore the negative impacts that arose from their activities, they worked to deny them. Unfortunately, those impacts were more often than not overlooked, or ignored, by the government agencies tasked with protecting public health and the environment.

From Pennsylvania, to Texas, to California, to North Dakota, fracking has been credited with bringing about a revolution in the United States. Shale drilling through fracking has been credited with lowering greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, and bringing our country closer to energy independence. However, not only are the benefits of fracking debatable, but the record of the states in regulating oil and gas development is increasingly under challenge by impacted communities.  Enforcement of existing laws and regulations is weak, and industry has heavily resisted attempts to improve that oversight. 

Despite trying mightily, the industry has not been able to stop science from slowly exposing the truth. Academic, scientific studies and direct community experience are all revealing the real consequences of fracking, including exposure to air contaminants to communities in California, Texas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, mismanagement of waste, increased risks of water contamination due to well casing failures, added risks of climate change, and earthquakes from fracking and underground disposal of wastes.

Communities have banded together to protect their health, their lives, and the environment. They are often met with stiff resistance from the industry, through lawsuits and intimidation. States, counties, and cities that have banned fracking, or have restricted it, have faced crushing legal challenges that sometimes leave local governments with no choice but to acquiesce to industry. Some governments have tried to work with industry to come up with sensible solutions, only to be ignored, turning instead to voters to decide if they want fracking in their communities or not. Unfortunately, the industry has allies in high places, and elected officials often step in to defend the industry's interests, while ignoring the voices of citizens.

As shale exploitation expands in the United States, the industry has set its sights in other parts of the world. In Latin America, shale drilling is being sought in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina. The latter, has been estimated to have some of the largest shale reserves in the world. With this in mind, giants like Chevron, and other industry leaders, have set their sights on Argentina, collaborating with the national company, YPF, to begin exploring the possibility of fracking in various regions of the country, including Neuquen, Vaca Muerta, and Entre Rios. Yet many deals are being made in secret, with no public disclosure or input, while the national government touts the many positive benefits of fracking and “energy independence” it could bring.

Yet communities in Argentina are not standing still and are fighting to protect themselves, their health, and their environment. A group of Argentinian activists met with Pope Francis. They are active in their communities and at the national level, but face stiff opposition from industry, elected officials, and the population at large. The industry has recruited the help of the Argentinian national soccer team, and has begun spreading misinformation about the positives of fracking and what it could mean to Argentina.

Undeterred, local groups that know the truth have asked organizations in the Unites States to share their experiences with fracking. In May 2015, Earthworks, Ecologic Institute, and the FracTracker Alliance will partner with Argentina Sin Fracking to travel to Argentina to share what we have learned and tell our truth about fracking. Working with our partners in Argentina, we will have the chance to see firsthand what is happening there and hopefully prevent some of the problems that have plagued communities near fracking in the United States.

As the most powerful country in the world, it is extremely disappointing, and shameful, that we have not been able to protect our communities and our environment. We have put the interests of industry and profits first, while neglecting our most precious resources. We are fighting back, and we are honored to stands with our partners in Argentina who are doing the same.