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Frack to the Future: Interview with Santa Cruz Indigenous Solidarity on Fracking
As the the drought, global climate chaos, and the fallout of industrial capitalism continues to be felt throughout the world, the issue of fracking looms as a potential for mass struggle against resource extraction - especially within California. Across North America, many indigenous groups are already waging various battles over fracking and the removal of resources from their lands. Catching up with the group Santa Cruz Indigenous Solidarity (SCIS), we asked them their thoughts on the possibilities for deepening and expanding the struggle against fracking and creating links to indigenous people already in the fight.
FW: Fracking is a hot-button issue as of late, but many people don’t know what it is or how it could possibly affect them. What are some of the dangers?
SCIS: As conventional oil reserves dwindle, the fossil fuel industry is increasingly turning towards what are known as “extreme energy” or “tight oil” extraction methods—such as fracking, deepwater drilling and tar sands mining. These extreme methods are hazardous, highly resource intensive, and result in greatly increased destructive impacts to land, water, wildlife, and human health.
Fracking is a process of extracting oil or gas by blasting vast quantities of water, toxic chemicals, and sand at extreme pressure into deep underground shale rock. Perhaps the greatest danger posed by fracking is the toxic contamination of underground drinking water aquifers. For instance, when cement well-casings fail, which most do over time, natural gas can migrate from deep underground into the aquifer. This results in dangerous, undrinkable water—in some cases people have been able to turn on their kitchen sink and light the water on fire. Water can also be contaminated in various ways by the chemical cocktail used in frack jobs that contains numerous substances known to cause cancer, birth defects, and disorders of the nervous system. Families in poor, rural fracking-impacted areas, such as Pennsylvania, are suffering severe health impacts from drinking poisoned water and they can’t afford to move someplace else or haul water from distant sources.
Another big issue is that the fracking industry hasn't been able to find a safe way of disposing of what they call “produced water,” the contaminated water that flows back out of wells after being blasted underground. Most commonly, this tainted water is pumped back underground using “injection wells,” where it’s taken out of the water cycle and is supposedly going to be trapped forever in deep underground rock formations, problem solved. But studies have show that in many cases it’s not really a matter of if this water will find its way back into the environment, it’s more a matter of when. In California, there are close to 42,000 oilfield injection wells in active use, according to state regulators.
In addition to threatening water supplies, the drilling, processing, and storage of natural gas and oil pollutes the air with dangerous carcinogens, and threatens to significantly increase air pollution in already heavily impacted areas such as Los Angeles and the Central Valley. Fracking is destroying wildlife habitat on “public” lands and endangering farmers and rural communities that are completely dependent on groundwater wells. Currently, much of California’s oil is exported and the national trend is towards international export of fracked oil and natural gas—and that means trains, pipelines, and ports. Transportation of fracked oil and gas via pipelines, trains, and tanker ships poses serious danger to ecosystems and communities all along the route, as explosions and spills inevitably occur and are impossible to fully clean up.
Advances in fracking technology have led, in the past decade or so, to a nationwide boom in shale gas and oil production that is now spreading around the world. Fracking allows the industry to profitably exploit shale oil and gas in areas that were not previously targeted for extraction, and to massively expand production in places where conventional drilling has long occurred.
Oil companies have already begun fracking in California, and are seeking to massively expand the practice. Most attention has been focused on the Monterey Shale, which stretches roughly from San Francisco to LA and is considered the nation’s largest oil-bearing shale formation. Exploration is also occurring in other regions of California, such as the coast of Humboldt County and the Sacramento Valley.
FW: Many are angered that we are in the middle of a drought and yet the elites are pushing for more fracking, which uses millions of gallons of water. What is the relationship between the drought and fracking?
SCIS: The drought and fracking are deeply intertwined. First of all, fracking demands extraordinary quantities of water at a time when supplies are scarce statewide. In California, 96% of new oil and gas wells are in regions with “high or extremely high” water-stress, such as the central coast and San Joaquin Valley. Deep pocketed oil companies are buying up water rights, outbidding farmers, and drilling expensive extra-deep water wells to capture what’s left of overdrawn aquifers. The oil industry exerts tremendous influence over state and federal government policy and they are throwing their weight behind insane water infrastructure projects such as the Shasta Dam raise and the Delta Twin Tunnels, which would divert more water from the imperiled Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta for southern California industry and agribusiness.
If you consider that this record-shattering drought is likely related to fossil-fuel induced climate change, then fracking appears as an intensifying factor in the drought, or at least in future climate extremes. But also, strangely enough, this drought is probably the best thing that could have happened to the anti-fracking movement in California. Widespread alarm about the drought has elevated water issues to the forefront of public debate, creating a decidedly unfavorable political climate for the water-hungry oil industry. The drought has actually galvanized a whole new wave of opposition to fracking and has led to a renewed push for a statewide moratorium. Los Angeles is now about to become the first major US city to impose a fracking moratorium.
FW: How have people in California and across the United States responded to fracking? How can the struggles against it deepen and grow larger in the coming years?
SCIS: Resistance to fracking has been widespread and politically diverse. Since fracking poses dire threats to universal things we all need such as clean water and air, it naturally unifies people when they stand up to fight it. Importantly, local grassroots community organizing has really formed the base of the anti-fracking movement nationwide. Basically, people of all different class backgrounds who never considered themselves activists are realizing that their water supply is being poisoned, so they’re talking to their neighbors and trying to build community power against the drilling industry. When the EPA and other regulatory agencies dismiss their calls for help and deny the damages of drilling operations, it becomes clear that these agencies are deeply corrupt, and people are radicalized as they start to realize that the system is actually working against their interests.
Resistance tactics have ranged from the passing of local city or community-wide bans on fracking to sit-ins at corrupt politicians’ offices and numerous blockades of drilling sites, pipeline construction sites and wastewater injection facilities. In California, grassroots resistance has played an important role, but big environmental NGO’s such as Food & Water Watch, CREDO, Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity have taken center stage in anti-fracking organizing, focused largely on seeking legislative moratoriums or bans.
While professional activist groups such as Sierra Club offer a wealth of valuable resources and experience navigating environmental law, their larger organizational imperatives and agendas can limit the vision of movements and lead to compromises and decisions that aren't in the best interests of local communities and ecosystems. It’s important that community organizers be aware of organizational power dynamics when collaborating with big NGOs, so as to maintain local autonomy, emphasizing “power from below” and direct involvement of community members in decision making.
It doesn’t make any sense to focus on fracking as a single issue. Even if fracking or oil drilling itself was totally banned, we know the industry will be back soon with a new and ever-more destructive form of resource extraction. Clearly, for this work to mean anything long-term, we have to be working towards much bigger changes in our relationship to the land and how we meet our needs, and we have to challenge the power structure that depends on the continuation of ever-increasing plunder and exploitation. What’s exciting about the anti-fracking movement is that it’s building grassroots community power and waging that against industry and government corruption. The networks of resistance we build now and the experiences we learn from will be crucial in future struggles.
Conflict over fracking in California and internationally will undoubtedly only be increasing in the years to come, as environmental problems and water shortages grow ever more severe. We can be sure that the oil industry will not stop ransacking the land until our resistance becomes powerful enough to make it unprofitable for them.
FW: Santa Cruz Indigenous Solidarity supports indigenous people often fighting resource extraction from their lands. What are the main struggles happening right now in indigenous communities against fracking?
SCIS: The depredations of fracking and government collusion with industry come as no surprise to indigenous people—it is yet another form of extractive colonialism laying waste to the land and water and sacrificing the health of the people for short term economic gain. As the traditional defenders of their ancestral homelands, indigenous communities throughout North America have always been the front line of resistance to extractive industry, and also the most impacted by its harmful effects. Elders and leaders from California tribes such as the Winnemem Wintu, Pit River, and Northern Chumash have been outspoken against fracking, which threatens their sacred lands and waters.
In Canada, leadership in anti-fracking struggle has largely emerged from the powerful and deeply rooted indigenous sovereignty movement. Indigenous communities across Canada have extensive experience defending their lands, and many have firmly drawn the line against fracking. We’ll give a few examples:
The St. Marys First Nation and Miq’maq nations in New Brunswick began denouncing and demonstrating against fracking in 2011. Last year, the Elsipogtog First Nation and Mi’kmaq Warrior Society confronted Texas-based SWN Resources, which was attempting to perform seismic testing for fracking on Mi’kmaq territory. The warrior society seized SWN trucks and blockaded the seismic testing rigs, eventually establishing a resistance camp in front of the SWN compound, blocking all testing activity. On October 17, a military-style police operation attempted to evict the camp, leading to a large confrontation in which six police cruisers were torched. Within 24 hours of the police assault, over 100 solidarity actions were organized across Canada and internationally. SWN pulled out and halted their exploration efforts, though they have recently returned with the backing of the provincial government and the struggle is ongoing.
In Alberta last December, the Lubicon Lake Nation (Cree) lit a sacred fire and blockaded a proposed PennWest Petroleum drilling site on their traditional lands for over a month. They remain determined to stop the drilling and are currently in the courts appealing an injunction that removed them from the site.
The Unis’tot’en clan of the We’suwet’en nation in Northern BC are fighting the Pacific Trail Pipeline that would transport fracked natural gas from northern BC and Alberta to the coast for overseas shipment. Known for their toughness, the Unis’tot’en have established a permanent camp in the pipeline route, including a large ceremonial pit house, vowing that the pipeline will never pass through their territory. They have held action camps on their land attended by hundreds, and as the Pacific Trail Pipeline nears final approval, tensions are rising.
FW: What is the link between fracking and the Keystone XL Tar Sands pipeline? What will the effects be if it finishes construction?
SCIS: Keystone XL is a parallel anti-extraction fight that represents a sort of crossroads in the larger effort to block these massive new oil and gas infrastructure projects that are sealing the deal on climate chaos and strangling the possibilities of survival for future generations. Big oil is depending on Keystone XL to make the mass expansion of Alberta Tar Sands mining profitable: the pipeline would double US imports of tar sands crude, which is perhaps the dirtiest, most environmentally devastating fuel source of all time. A mountainous stretch of Boreal forest and unspoiled lakes and rivers roughly the size of Florida hangs in the balance. What isn’t commonly highlighted is that Keystone XL won’t just carry tar sands oil, it’s also set to carry up to 100,000 barrels per day of fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin.
Obama is set to release his decision on Keystone anytime now. Meanwhile, opposition has been fierce on all levels. Many thousands have gathered in protest in hundreds of American cities, Tar Sands Blockade has tirelessly hampered pipeline construction in the south, and significantly, dozens of tribes across the pipeline route have sworn that if the pipeline is approved, they aim to stop it with all means at their disposal, stating that their “horses are ready.”
FW: If struggles against fracking and the industries that extract resources are to grow larger and involve more people as the weather and climate continues to worsen, how can non-native people proceed in ways that build connections and solidarity with indigenous people already struggling?
SCIS: As we mentioned earlier, native people have been fighting the extractive system for longer than anyone else and are generally the most impacted by its harmful effects. America has always been a settler colony based on a colonial, extractive relationship with the land and a genocidal relationship with indigenous people. The responsibility to confront the colonial system, support indigenous self-determination and actually transform our relationships with the land and indigenous people belongs to everyone living in the colony: if we don’t, we’re continuing to enact a legacy of genocide and we’re destined to extinguish the life support systems of the planet.
Solidarity isn’t just about feel-good charity or lending a helping hand, it’s about building mutual partnerships that can sustain joint struggle and support collective well-being in the long term. Solidarity grows from being strongly rooted in your own struggle and recognizing our deepest values and needs in the struggles of others. Thus, solidarity demands that we know ourselves and where we stand. That entails things like learning our family/ancestral stories and the history of the land we are living on, reflecting often on what is most important to us and why, and locating ourselves and our complicities in the larger structures of oppression. To live in solidarity with indigenous self determination, we must also be seeking self-determination ourselves.
A few practical suggestions for building solidarity: Whose homeland are you living on? Find indigenous elders and grassroots leadership that are on the front lines of defending their territories in your region—ask them how you can support their struggle. Be prepared to be disregarded or not taken seriously—remember the history and that you are an uninvited guest in their ancestral homeland. Keep showing up when support is requested and demonstrate yourself to be trustworthy. Expect to make mistakes. Be humble and recognize how much you have to learn. Don’t keep trying to push your own agenda. Listen far more than you talk. Seek to build honest friendships.
When you organize anything political or related to the land, invite your indigenous friends to co-organize, participate, and speak. Look for ways to center and honor front-line indigenous resistance voices and leadership in whatever work you are engaged in. Leverage your privilege and access to resources. Mainstream groups generally ignore, marginalize, or tokenize indigenous voices—challenge those patterns when you see them playing out. Recognize always that you live on a peoples’ sacred ancestral homeland and seek to honor that in your words and actions. Building strong relationships of solidarity takes time and hard work, but this work catalyzes personal growth and inter-generational healing and can ultimately be a source of lifelong inspiration, radiating strength outward into every challenge we collectively undertake.
“We want to share with others our struggle. If we walk alone, we are useless, we are nothing. The old people have told us, take your struggle out to other struggles. Then you can stand together with one freedom…We will never surrender.”
—Leonard Benally, Sovereign Dine’ Nation elder
Santa Cruz Indigenous Solidarity is a collective of mostly non-native people, based in Awaswas Ohlone territory, who organize direct support for indigenous struggles throughout California and further afield. They are dedicated to breaking deeply entrenched patterns of colonialism and standing with indigenous communities on the front lines of struggle to protect the earth.
Contact them at:
protectmotherearth [at] facebook.com
Some links for further info:
Warrior Publications – anti-colonial news & analysis
Gasland II, the movie – great film, useful website
Central Coast Rising – Santa Cruz anti-fracking group/news source
Californians Against Fracking
Reclaim Turtle Island – “defend our lands, shut down the tar sands”
Black Mesa Indigenous Support
Winnemem Wintu tribe of Northern California
Unis’tot’en clan pipeline resistance
Intercontinental Cry – great indigenous struggles news source
Indigenous Action Media
Censored News – grassroots indigenous resistance news
Stop the Delta Twin Tunnels