NATURAL GAS:

With national politics in gridlock, drilling opposition goes local

The battlefield of the shale drilling debate has moved from the corridors of Congress, past the statehouses, to the country's town halls and city clerks.

Tuesday's election results highlighted the shift in the debate over the drilling technique that many call fracking. Nationally, the results provided little clarity on drilling, because Congress is gridlocked and President Obama neutralized the issue by trying to accommodate both drillers and environmentalists.

But in Longmont, Colo., environmentalists won and drillers took a drubbing. Nearly 60 percent of the voters in the Denver suburb voted to ban hydraulic fracturing (EnergyWire, Nov. 7). They rejected a $400,000 campaign by national industry groups and large independent drilling companies to head off just such a result.

The industry also spent big in Mansfield, Ohio, but failed to convince voters there to vote against a ban on injection of drilling waste in the city (EnergyWire, Nov. 7). Similar measures passed in Ferguson Township, near State College, Pa., and Broadview Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland.

The scattered, small-city victories highlight an increasingly important strategy among green groups. Activists in Longmont worked with an organizer from Food & Water Watch, a national anti-drilling group, whose efforts were quantified as $9,000 worth of in-kind contributions.

The supporters in Mansfield, Ferguson Township and Broadview Heights worked with the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. The legal fund has walked many communities through the process of asserting residents' rights to clean air and water. The group has organizers in Pennsylvania, New England and Washington state.

"It's not a movement yet," said Eric Belcastro, Pennsylvania organizer for the group. "But I do expect there to be more [interested] communities."

Environmentalists have lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to pass increased federal regulation for several years, but failed. Green groups have written off most state governments as too beholden to the oil and gas industry. So they say local governments are the most effective place to turn opposition to drilling into action.

"Because Congress is not acting, local governments have acted," said one Washington-based environmental activist.

The strategy is being picked up by more mainstream national groups. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently launched its Community Fracking Defense Project to provide support to cities that want to add new restrictions to drilling within their borders (EnergyWire, Sept. 20).

Industry groups are very aware of the trend and have been developing more lobbying and public affairs operations outside Washington.

"It does have a political influence, though I question how long it will last," said Tom Shepstone, a businessman and drilling supporter in Honesdale, Pa. He's an example of the trend. After speaking in support of drilling in northeast Pennsyvlania, he joined up with Energy in Depth, a public affairs campaign of the Washington-based Independent Petroleum Association of America.

"It's pure politics," Shepstone said of the local bans and moratoria. "They know they're not legal."

In some places, like New York, drilling companies have been losing challenges to such local restrictions.

But many local restrictions face legal headwinds. The Pennsylvania Legislature specifically tried to block cities from zoning out drilling operations. State officials in Ohio have noted that they have authority in the area Mansfield voted to regulate.

In Longmont, a legal fight is nearly certain. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission are already suing the city to overturn a ban on drilling and fracking in residential areas. Drilling supporters warn the city is also likely to draw suits from those blocked from profiting from their oil and gas rights.

But even if they lose in court, green groups expect that the effects will spread beyond the borders of the jurisdictions involved, and force state governments to address the complaints of drilling critics.

"Local organization has an impact," said Mark Schlosberg, national organizing director of Food & Water Watch. "When legislators see things going on in their communities, they take notice."

That could be the case in Colorado. State legislators from the Longmont area have already been pushing bills to give local governments more say in drilling, and the lopsided margin in Longmont gives them momentum going into next year's legislative session. The Democratic takeover of the state House, giving Democrats control of both chambers, also helps their cause.

"Industry spent that money not only to defeat it, but to inoculate themselves from having to deal with it again and again," said Denver political consultant Eric Sondermann. "Since they failed, the pressure is certainly going to dial up."