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Hullabaloo


Monday, November 19, 2012

 
California's fracking battle: a problematic story of coalitional politics

by David Atkins

State Democratic Party executive board meetings are typically none-too-dramatic affairs in which sometimes contentious internal organizational business gets done that often has consequences for grassroots and progressive influence in the party structure, but has little impact at a policy level.

This weekend's California Democratic Party executive board meeting in northern California was a somewhat different story. Activists within the party can push for resolutions on various issues. Resolutions are non-binding, but demonstrate the will of the Party's hardest workers and core activists, sending a clear signal to legislators about the priorities of the people who worked hardest to put them in office. While they obviously don't carry the force of law, they make a significant difference as political statements and are closely watched by legislators and activists alike, particularly when conducted within a political party as dominant as the Democratic Party is in the Golden State.

One of the resolutions that came before the Resolutions Committee this weekend was a moratorium on the horrible practice of fracking, which can lead to groundwater contamination, significant CO2 emissions leading to climate change, potential earthquakes, and a glut of natural gas on the market that drives down the cost, thereby rendering solar and wind energy non-competitive.

Unfortunately, the Trade Unions believe that a significant number of jobs depend on fracking. So they put a great deal of pressure on party leaders and the endorsement committee to create a "compromise" in which the moratorium language was stricken out, substituting a toothless review by an ineffectual state organization instead. Dailykos diarist, Grist writer, California Environmental Caucus Secretary (and fellow Ventura County Dem Executive Board Member!) RL Miller helped lead the fight against watering down the resolution. As she wrote today:

After all, the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Regulations - pronounced "Dogger" - literally doesn't know how much fracking is going on in the state. Venoco is drooling over the billion dollar Monterey Shale, running under some of the most productive farmland in the world; grape growers, vintners, and strawberry farmers are less enthused. Whatever the merits of fracking up Pennsylvania and New York may be, it's hard to see the upside of a water-intensive, earthquake-inducing process in a water-scarce, earthquake-prone state. And climate hawks are deeply concerned because we don't know the quantity of natural gas methane leaks (natural gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas). Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management is holding its first Monterey Shale lease auction December 12.

But the building trades are bothered by anything that may threaten jobs. So they've been calling everyone in the Democratic Party hierarchy demanding that the moratorium language be pulled. At a closed door session yesterday, a handful of people rewrote the resolution to call for DOGGR to regulate fracking equal to or better than federal regulations now, then - if DOGGR doesn't so act - seek a moratorium on fracking no earlier than the end of 2013.

Or, as I put it, waiting for the insurance company's arson investigator to write its report before considering whether to put out the fire.

I attended a DOGGR-and-pony-show hearing last May to ask that the state track methane emissions for climate purposes. I was ignored. By an interesting coincidence, every person who specified a desired regulation was asked to submit comments in writing, but every person who opposed fracking entirely was simply thanked with a pained smile and glazed eyes. I have no hope whatsoever that DOGGR regulations will be sufficient.
Keep in mind that it is not corporate corruption driving this problem. It's something else entirely. It's a problem of coalitional politics. Environmental activism is good. Labor activism is good. But sometimes they don't see eye to eye.

In this case, what the labor activists fail to understand is that the "jobs" that fracking enables are worthless in the face of the cancer, disease and eventual community debilitation caused by the groundwater pollution; that the earthquakes fracking probably causes will cost more jobs than fracking enables; and that in the long term, the disaster of climate change caused by increased emissions could destroy not only a few jobs, but human civilization itself as we know it within less than a century.

But in this sort of dispute, only uncomfortable influence among those with the power to change minds inside the tent can make a difference. Nothing outside the tent matters much.

In this case, the objections of climate and environmental activists held little sway before the Resolutions Committee, which worked out the "compromise" in an attempt to placate both sides. The watered-down resolution then made it to the Executive Board floor for a vote on Sunday morning. With few voting members willing and able to object, I moved to send it back to the Resolutions Committee to be considered and brought to the full body of activists around the state at convention time. That motion was objected to by members of the endorsement committee, but it carried. The resolution will go back to the resolution committee, without the watered-down version carrying the weight of Executive Board approval.

Why do this? Because scuttling the entire resolution would have failed, and it would have pleased the anti-environmental side, anyway. The status quo is good for them. And because the full convention is much more filled with grassroots activists than the comparatively insider Executive Board (as one E-Board member argued in opposition to my motion, the smaller E-Board is "more adult"!), there will be more time to engage environmental activism on the issue and present it before a more diverse group of activists less worried about the coalitional political implications of doing the right thing for the planet and for Californians at large not directly employed in the natural gas industry.

And this is why it's not enough to simply write on blogs and march in the streets. Not everything is about people power versus corporate power. Sometimes friends can disagree strongly, sometimes you have to have progressive voices able to play an insider's game with enough credibility to effectuate changes within the tent.

That matters most when it comes to endorsing progressive candidates over conservadems. But it can also matter in issues that more directly and immediately affect policy as well.


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