Fracking, the Failure of Mainstream Greens and the Corporate Control of U.S. Energy Policy

The name of her new book is Frackopoly, but author Wenonah Hauter tackles issues beyond hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking. She writes about energy spats past and present, explaining why she believes the energy industry won most of these fights and succeeded in monopolizing U.S. energy policy-making over the past 100 years. But momentum, she notes, has shifted slightly toward the people over the past half-dozen years.

Hauter believes the deregulation of segments of the U.S. energy industry was a bad idea. But no one in power in Washington, D.C., from Capitol Hill to the regulatory agencies, agrees with Hauter. Random Democrats may question whether individual policy decisions are good for the public and the environment. But, unlike Hauter, none dares question the preeminence of energy commodity trading or the reliance on a market-based approach to approving the construction of new energy pipelines through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Hauter, like many other people concerned about the ease in which FERC approves natural gas infrastructure projects, labels FERC “a rogue agency” that needs to be replaced with an agency that is more in tune with the needs of communities and will lead a transition to a clean energy economy. “We need a Marshall Plan for the transition to clean energy,” Hauter said at a “Frackopoly” book launch event in Washington, D.C.

Nearly 40 years ago, progressive forces lost a long fight over the pricing of natural gas and the oversight of pipelines, beginning with the passage of the Natural Gas Act of 1978. By 1990, “a highly speculative wholesale market in natural gas developed, with Wall Street gambling determining the prices that consumers paid for natural gas and incentivizing future natural gas development,” Hauther laments, pointing to the rise of natural gas trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Hauter, a long-time environmental and civic activist in the tradition of Ralph Nader, currently heads Food & Water Watch, an increasingly influential nonprofit environmental group that made reversing the shale gas revolution one of its top priorities. In sections of the book, whose full title is Frackopoly: The Battle for the Future of Energy and the Environment, she admonishes Big Green groups that have collaborated with the energy industry to push for the construction of new natural gas-fired power plants, which require an ever-increasing amount of natural gas production.

Food & Water Watch and other environmental groups have pushed hard in recent years to reverse the pro-corporate trend in energy policy. Most efforts have fallen on deaf ears among legislators and regulators. But occasional victories are giving people optimism that their efforts may not automatically result in defeat.

The most prominent victory was the defeat of the northern leg of TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. Activists and environmental groups invested huge frackopolyamounts of money and time into defeating the pipeline’s construction. In the end, local and national groups applied enough pressure to convince President Barack Obama to reject the permit needed for the pipeline to cross from Canada into the United States. The anti-Keystone XL campaign ultimately helped to stop the construction of a pipeline that would have transported large amounts of oil from the tar sands region of Alberta to U.S. markets and export facilities along the Gulf Coast. But perhaps even more important was the campaign’s ability to inspire dozens of campaigns that sprung up against energy projects across the country.

Another notable people’s victory occurred in New York, where numerous grass roots organizations — without the help of large environmental groups — worked both individually and in coordination with each other to fight fracking in their communities. New York officials were prepared to allow natural gas producers to use hydraulic fracturing to tap into the state portion of the Marcellus Shale. But the stubbornness of the anti-fracking groups forced New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo into a corner where he finally emerged with a decision to ban fracking in the state.

Market-Based Environmentalism

Hauter criticizes environmental groups that have pushed for pollution credit trading schemes and advocated for greater use of natural gas to fight the negative effects of climate change.

In the book, she devotes a chapter to the history of the Environmental Defense Fund and how the group has been at the forefront of advocating for market-based solutions, such as cap and trade, to environmental problems. “We don’t view them as an environmental group anymore,” Hauter said at the book launch event, contending EDF has been a “market-based group” for several decades.

The Natural Resources Defense Council also has maintained close ties with the energy industry. Both EDF and the NRDC and their foundation funders “hopped on the deregulation bandwagon led by [Enron founder Ken] Lay, believing his rhetoric about the potential of electricity deregulation to spark a rapid transition to sustainable energy,” Hauter explains. Lay lavished both Republicans and Democrats with campaign contributions and enlisted paid pundits, including noted liberal economist Paul Krugman, to serve as advisers and write favorable articles about Enron and electricity deregulation.

Even Pope Francis’s views on carbon emissions trading are well ahead of the policies espoused by mainstream environmental groups, Hauter writes. In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis said carbon emissions trading simply crates a new type of financial speculation but does not bring about the changes necessary for avoiding catastrophic climate change, she notes in her book.

Polluters are allowed to purchase credits that give them the right to discharge pollutants into the environment. But these cap-and-trade schemes allow the dirtiest of power plants to continue spewing hazardous pollutants in the places where they are located, often in low-income and people of color communities, Hauter explains, reciting a common refrain by cap-and-trade program opponents.

As for the environmental groups working with shale gas drillers, Hauter said at the book event that “the days are over when we’re going to allow a group to be closer to the oil and gas industry than to the impacted people who suffering from this.”

Hauter says she chose to title her book Frackopoloy because of the natural trend among companies, in the absence of strict regulation, to create monopolies. The deregulatory policies of the late 20th century left the U.S. with “a handful of giant and politically powerful energy companies.” Throughout the book, she uses the term “fracking” as a label for the entire oil and gas industry, not just the actual hydraulic fracturing process of using water, sand and chemicals to create fractures that allow the release of oil and gas.

Frackopoly is a follow-up title to her 2014 book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, in which she covered the consolidation and corporatization of food production. In “Foodopoly,” Hauter asserted that corporate control over food prevents farmers from raising healthy crops and limits the choices that people can make in the grocery store.

In the second half of Frackopoly, after presenting a general history of U.S. regulation of the energy industry, Hauter narrows the focus to the leading shale gas drilling companies and the states that became flashpoints over fracking. She devotes chapters to companies such Chesapeake Energy, but her descriptions of these companies’ exploits are not filled with the praise and awe found in books such Russell Gold’s The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, or Gregory Zuckerman’s The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters.

She describes how Aubrey McClendon, the hard-charging co-founder and leader of Chesapeake Energy, focused more on “flipping leases and ripping off mineral rights owners than with producing gas.” McClendon died in a car crash in Oklahoma City earlier this year, the morning after he was charged with conspiring to rig bids for oil and natural gas leases.

When shale gas producers began moving into the Appalachian region in the mid-2000s, they were caught off-guard by resistance from local residents. They were used to getting their way in states like Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Wyoming. “There’s a lot of fightback” from people in Pennsylvania “whose lives have really been impacted because that’s been ground zero for fracking,” Hauter said at the book talk.

Hauter also said she was “super-excited” that fracking became part of the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. In an April op-ed, Sanders wrote, “A growing body of evidence tells us that fracking is a danger to our water supply — our most precious resource. It’s a danger to the air we breathe. It has resulted in more earthquakes. It’s highly explosive. And it’s contributing to climate change.” Clinton explained  she’s against fracking “when any locality or any state is against it,” “when the release of methane or contamination of water is present,” and “unless we can require that anybody who fracks has to tell us exactly what chemicals they are using.”

“You know there’s a big movement and it’s powerful when it’s part of the [presidential] debate,” Hauter said.

Mark Hand is a reporter who primarily covers environmental and energy issues. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.