Mexico City — Those who have been fighting fracking describe hydraulic fracturing rigs as harbingers of death and destruction, and with good reason. Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, has become synonymous with the contamination of the air, land and water, and for this reason, communities throughout the continent have persistently resisted, fighting by every means possible to stop the practice. The effort by grassroots activists to take on multinational oil and gas companies is a classic example of a battle between David and Goliath.
But opponents of fracking recently had cause to celebrate. On August 1, 2018, Mexican President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that under his government the nonconventional extraction method would no longer be used, marking a major step in the fight to end fracking in North America. Although other jurisdictions have moved to ban fracking, the announcement by the Mexican president-elect would mark the largest jurisdiction yet to eliminate the practice.
The announcement, which came as somewhat of a surprise, was warmly welcomed by activists and communities who have been organizing to stop the practice; but they also warned that the fight was not over yet.
López Obrador’s announcement “gives people a certain sense of hope, however, it is not enough to let our guard down,” said Rogel Del Rosal Valladares, an adviser with the coordinator of Campesino and Indigenous Organizations of the Huasteca Potosina.
Similarly, the Mexican Alliance Against Fracking, which is made up of more than 40 social movements and has been fighting since 2013 to ban the practice, released a statement supporting the president-elect’s announcement but made a series of calls for further action.
News of the ban on fracking in Mexico also made its way to the United States, where activists celebrated the announcement and hoped to build on the momentum gleaned from the ban south of the border.
“By Mexico taking a strong stance on fracking, it really shows that the tide is turning [against] support for fracking,” said Rebekah Hinojosa, an organizer with Sierra Club.
The Indigenous Fight for Survival
The Huasteca Potosina — a geographical region located along the Gulf of Mexico — is home to Náhuatl, Téenek, Xi’oí peoples, who have been some of the most vocal opponents of fracking.
For these communities, the fight against fracking is a matter of survival.
“[Fracking] would practically destroy the rich biodiversity in the region and would eliminate the viability of the development of the Indigenous peoples and Native communities in the region,” said Valladares.
The communities of the Huasteca Potosina were forced to step up their efforts to stop fracking in their region after the approval of a highly controversial energy reform, pushed by outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto, that saw the country’s hydrocarbon sector opened up to foreign investment and the participation of foreign firms in extraction.
Though Mexico had previously dabbled in fracking as an extraction method, the energy reform opened the floodgates, and US-based firms, which have extensive experience with fracking, saw a chance to extract hydrocarbons and profits from Mexico.
According to Valladares, the intention to exploit the territories in the Huasteca Potosina was a “declaration of war” against the people there aimed at extinguishing them.
Every step along the way, there has been a systematic violation of their rights as Indigenous peoples to decide what happens in their territory.
“Everything has been done with complete opacity, without even the minimal consultation with the peoples and communities, a right they have, which the Mexican state has violated in a systematic way,” Valladares told Truthout.
Communities in the Huasteca Potosina had no choice but to take up the fight.
“As a result, they have been getting organized, and they are willing to defend their territory,” said Valladares. “They have the conviction that the drilling of wells on their territory, utilizing the devastating technique that is fracking, is completely inviable and as a result, has to be rejected.”
Valladares stated that although the communities of the Huasteca Potosina welcome López Obrador’s announcement, they would remain on alert until there was a “total prohibition” of fracking, not only in their region but everywhere.
The International Hydrocarbon Trade Begets International Resistance
The Sierra Club’s Hinojosa — who is based out of the border community of Brownsville, Texas — has been doing her part to resist fracking both in her community and abroad.
Together with an organization known as Save RGV [Rio Grande Valley] from LNG [liquefied natural gas], she has been fighting to stop the completion of the Valley Crossing Pipeline, which is part of a network of pipelines that will eventually link with the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline in Mexico.
“Our communities are paying strong attention to Indigenous resistance to the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline,” said Hinojosa, adding that organizers in Texas are drawing inspiration from struggles across the border.
López Obrador’s intent to ban fracking has proven to many that persistence can reap rewards. It further shows that states whose economies are heavily wedded to extractive industries need not pursue highly contaminating methods.
But Hinojosa warned that banning fracking within Mexico’s borders will not be enough. She explained that the liquefied natural gas terminals proposed for her community are being designed for the export market.
“We are concerned with countries that ban fracking but don’t limit their import of gas from places like Texas, which is looking to expand fracking and that means communities like ours are then sacrificed for more extraction,” Hinojosa told Truthout.
If López Obrador’s ban on fracking is aimed at mitigating the environmental impacts of resource extraction, it would be counterproductive to continue to allow the import of hydrocarbon fuels that are extracted via fracking. A drop in demand for these fuels within Mexico could make the liquefied natural gas terminals being proposed and built commercially unviable.
“I hope this fracking ban includes a plan to limit their use of gas from Texas, from communities along the border in the US, and also includes a plan to divest from these projects,” added Hinojosa.
Meanwhile activists and organizers in Texas will continue to confront plans by multinational oil companies to expand the use of fracking.
“This is still an ongoing organizing effort — it’s not a done deal down here,” said Hinojosa.
The Shape of the Fight to Come
Hinojosa and Valladares concur that the solution to the threat posed by fracking will not necessarily come from decisions brought on high from benevolent political leaders.
If López Obrador was able to declare his intention to ban fracking, it is because of the countless hours put in by grassroots and Indigenous activists throughout Mexico and beyond.
The people of the Huasteca Potosina do not intend to desist from their organizing and mobilizing. They intend to push for the ban to be codified into law, and Valladares said they are working closely with lawmakers.
They are also calling for all previously signed contracts between Pemex, the state oil company, and multinational oil companies to be reviewed by the incoming administration. They want special attention to be paid to contracts affecting Indigenous peoples and their territories and are backed in this demand by the Mexican Alliance Against Fracking.
Communities in Mexico intend to push the López Obrador government hard on this point and are also calling for a new, citizen-driven water law to reverse efforts at water privatization and ban the use of water resources for extraction via fracking.
The election of López Obrador, which represented a break from more than 40 years of neoliberal rule in Mexico, has raised the expectations of many in the country, who are now demanding a greater say.
“The principal demand of the population, expressed on July 1 [Mexico’s Election Day], was not just for a change of government but also a change in the way of doing things, a change in public policies, and a change in the relationship between society and the government,” Valladares told Truthout.
López Obrador will invariably face hard choices once in power. His commitment to increase domestic oil extraction in order to lessen the need for gasoline imports will put him at odds with groups that are calling for a move to a more sustainable economy.
Time will tell if López Obrador will follow through on his promises to Mexico’s marginalized groups. He has already made a historic gesture by mentioning Mexico’s Indigenous people in his victory speech, something no other candidate had ever done. If it turns out that they were just empty words, his government, like the ones that came before him, will have to face the wrath of an organized group of people who have proven their willingness to fight and defend their way of life.