DENVER — After scoring a statewide ban last year on hydraulic fracturing in New York, anti-fracking activists talked excitedly about following up in a major fossil fuel-producing state — Colorado, maybe, or California.
Instead, the next state to prohibit the use of fracking in oil and gas extraction — on a temporary basis — was Maryland, which, like New York, is a deep-blue state with no hydraulic fracturing activity. Critics quickly dismissed the two-year moratorium as purely symbolic.
In fact, in a development that has caught both sides by surprise, the legal and political momentum these days appears to be running against the anti-fracking cause.
In states where the revolutionary oil- and gas-drilling technique actually is being employed in a significant way, the movement is losing ground. Activists in leading oil and gas producers like California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas have suffered defeats in the last year at the hands of state legislatures, courts and even voters.
Foes of fracking were hit with another setback Tuesday as a federal judge delayed this week’s scheduled implementation of the Obama administration’s tight new fracking rules for federal lands, prompted by a lawsuit challenging the regulations filed by four states.
Mitch Jones, spokesman for Food & Water Watch, part of the three-year-old Americans Against Fracking coalition, agreed that the movement took a hit this year when Oklahoma and Texas legislatures approved bills blocking localities from enacting fracking bans.
The Texas legislation, signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May, effectively nullified November’s highly publicized fracking ban passed by voters in the town of Denton in May. The Denton city council followed by repealing the ban in order to avoid litigation.
“I’m not going to deny that what happened in Texas and Oklahoma are setbacks, but I think that they’re setbacks that are driven by a certain sense of desperation by the oil and gas industry,” Mr. Jones said. “They’ve shifted the playing field to a place where they feel like they have an advantage, and the reason they’re doing that is that they’ve seen that this movement is growing stronger and is emboldened by what has happened in New York and in Maryland.”
But Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance vice president of government and public affairs, argued that the anti-fracking movement has tanked as lawmakers and voters become more familiar with fracking’s safety record, which leaves them less likely to be swayed by unverified horror stories about fracking’s impact.
“I think most people have gotten beyond the initial scare tactics of the “fracktivists” and now realize that fracking is being done safely,” Ms. Sgamma said. “They also understand that it’s better to produce oil and natural gas here in America, where fracking is regulated with strict environmental controls, than importing it from overseas.”
Her argument was bolstered by an Environmental Protection Agency study released June 4 that concluded that fracking, a three- to five-day process that involves injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to loosen shale, has had no widespread impact on drinking water.
Political analyst Floyd Ciruli said that the anti-fracking camp’s loss of momentum can be traced to a number of factors, including the precipitous drop in price of oil and natural gas, which has resulted in cutbacks in drilling operations.
“Even if it doesn’t affect current production, it changes the atmosphere,” Mr. Ciruli said. “It’s no longer an ever-expanding industry. It’s now one with at least some level of contraction. Even in these small towns, there’s been some impact on the economy. It just sort of reminds everyone that, for all the inconvenience, there is an economic upside.”
Then there’s the political landscape. While Democrats remain committed to combating climate change, that commitment hasn’t translated into a partywide stance against fracking, even though environmentalists argue that methane emissions from natural gas contribute to global warming.
Mr. Jones says there’s a contradiction there: “You cannot be pro-fracking and aggressive on climate change.” But try telling that to top Democratic leaders, including President Obama.
“I think the fact that, in certain areas, the leadership of the Democratic Party — and, for that matter, President Obama’s support for fracking and Interior Secretary [Sally] Jewell — is a problem because there are folks willing to give the party leadership the benefit of the doubt on these issues,” Mr. Jones said.
One reason for the disconnect between activists and Democrats is that, for years, natural gas was used as a weapon with which to bludgeon coal. Even though environmental groups like Sierra Club have now reversed course and trained their sites on natural gas, many Democrats continue to champion it as a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewable sources such as wind and solar power.
“The activist base of the movement definitely is saying that regulation isn’t good enough. You need to ban fracking on federal lands, and we can’t as a country continue to think that an increased reliance on natural gas is going to help us,” Mr. Jones said.
Still, not all Democrats are pro-fracking. He noted that about 20 House Democrats are backing a bill that would ban fracking on federal lands, which has become a new front in the battle against drilling.
In key fracking states like Colorado, California and Pennsylvania, however, Democratic governors have rejected calls from the left to eliminate fracking while supporting stronger regulations. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf reinstated a fracking moratorium on state parklands in January, but has also espoused the benefits of natural gas for the state’s economy.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a geologist who famously drank fracking fluid, derailed a proposed anti-fracking initiative last year sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jared Polis before it could reach the November ballot.
If Mr. Hickenlooper is worried about another statewide anti-fracking campaign in 2016, he’s not showing it.
“There will be proposals, but I don’t think there will be something that will be funded to any significant extent, and, therefore, I don’t expect something to get on the ballot,” Mr. Hickenlooper said during a May 27 panel discussion, as reported by The Durango Herald.
Nowhere has the anti-fracking movement’s reversal of fortunes been more dramatic than in Colorado, arguably the home of the anti-fracking movement. After a string of wins in 2012 and 2013, fracking foes have suffered a nearly uninterrupted chain of losses, starting in June 2014 with the defeat of a fracking moratorium in Loveland.
Colorado courts have overturned nearly every one of the five local fracking moratoriums passed in 2012 and 2013. At the same time, at least a half-dozen localities have rejected anti-fracking measures or passed resolutions opposing bans on the industry.
One reason: Two years ago, companies led by Anadarko and Noble Energy mounted a public relations and political effort aimed at countering the environmentalists’ message by addressing health and safety concerns on fracking and promoting its benefits to the economy and tax base.
“In Colorado, we found that providing the public with facts makes a huge difference,” said Karen Crummy, spokeswoman for Protect Colorado, an issue committee formed to fight anti-fracking ballot initiatives. “People in Colorado know the industry is a big economic driver, but they also know we have some of the toughest oil and gas regulations in the country.”
While several California localities have passed largely symbolic fracking bans — most drilling along the coast is conventional, not horizontal — voters in liberal Santa Barbara defeated a fracking ban in November by 61 percent to 38 percent.
In Youngstown, Ohio, activists had attempted unsuccessfully three times to pass an anti-fracking measure at the ballot box. They tried again in November. Voters rejected the measure by the largest margin to date.
Even so, the anti-fracking forces vowed to return, according to the Youngstown Vindicator.
“We don’t lose until we quit, and we won’t quit because this is too important,” said Susie Beiersdorfer, a committee member.