Skip to content Skip to footer

The Climate Movement Takes On Fracking: Interview With Bill McKibben

An oil rig reflected in a fracking pond on the Giddings Estate, a 10,000-acre field in near Midland, Texas, owned by Pioneer Natural Resources, February 15, 2012. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times) A coalition of local and environmental organizations including – the impetus behind the Keystone XL pipeline tar sands protests – are turning the nation’s focus on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In a public invitation letter, the coalition – including “Gasland” director Josh Fox and founder Bill McKibben – urged people to save the dates June 14-17 to converge on Columbus, Ohio. The first three days would be “dedicated to training and movement building and on the 17th we’ll be taking over the Ohio statehouse for a people’s assembly.”

Part of the Series

A coalition of local and environmental organizations including – the impetus behind the Keystone XL pipeline tar sands protests – are turning the nation’s focus on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In a public invitation letter, the coalition – including “Gasland” director Josh Fox and founder Bill McKibben – urged people to save the dates June 14-17 to converge on Columbus, Ohio. The first three days would be “dedicated to training and movement building and on the 17th we’ll be taking over the Ohio statehouse for a people’s assembly.”

The action is part of a push to scale back the oil and gas industry’s efforts to expand shale drilling in the state, supported by Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Once portrayed as the low-carbon fuel to a renewable energy future, the practice of deep drilling and hydraulic fracturing to extract gas from shale rock has presented its own host of environmental concerns. These include cases of water and air pollution near gas and oil wells, large water consumption needs for the fracturing process and government reports linking tremors to the injection of the fracking wastewater into the earth. In addition, recent studies have questioned the long-term climate advantages of shale gas and the amount of methane that leaks out

States have been quickly swept up in the oil/gas industry push for the “unconventional” drilling, including Ohio, which sits above the Marcellus and Utica shales. Exempted from seven federal regulations

Ohio Governor Kasich has been a strong proponent of drilling. He has also been a large beneficiary of the gas industry. Kasich received $213,519 of the governor’s campaign records also showed that wealthy executives of companies connected to the natural gas industry, including billionaires William I. Koch (founder of the Oxbow Corporation) and David Koch (of Koch Industries), funneled an additional $127,268 in personal donations to a political action committee (PAC) organized by the Republican Governors Association (RGA); the PAC used a majority of the money to pay for attack ads against former Ohio Governor Strickland, whom Kasich defeated in 2010.

After assuming office, Kasich signed a law in 2011 allowing for hydraulic fracturing in state parks. The United States Forest Service (USFS) later withdrew more than 3,000 acres of public lands in southern Ohio from a federal oil and gas lease sale scheduled for December 7, 2012, saying it needed more time to review the potential effects of fracking.

Yet, overall permits in the state are increasing: March 2012 broke the record for new natural gas permits, with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) approving 37 wells. Having given approval to 27 new wells in February and 19 in January, it is looking like 2012 will quickly surpass the 2011 total of 100 new permits. The March 2012 permits bring the total to 194 permitted wells in Ohio, of which 19 are drilling, 37 are drilled, 11 are producing and 12 are completed.

In addition to drilling, the state has a large number of brine injection wells – wells used to dispose of the large amounts of wastewater that result from the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process. In 2011, oil and gas companies injected 511 million gallons into Ohio’s wells; more than half that fracking wastewater was shipped in from out of state.

In January 2012, Ohio regulators asked drillers near brine-injection wells to temporarily stop reinjecting wastewater from hydraulic fracturing while an investigation was opened up into the cause of 12 earthquakes in the previously non-seismically active area, including a 4.0-magnitude quake on New Year’s Eve.

A March 2012 preliminary report ( by Ohio oil and gas regulators “on the relationship between the Northstar 1 Class II disposal well and 12 Youngstown area earthquakes” found “a number of co-occurring circumstances strongly indicating the Youngstown area earthquakes were induced.” In response, Ohio regulators said new safeguards would be added to Ohio’s existing disposal well regulatory framework.

Concerned citizens say the tremors suggest that, until more is known about the process, the wastewater injection practice should be curtailed, if not ended. Governor Kasich instead proposed energy policy legislation, Senate Bill 315 (March 2012), that would raise the state’s brine disposal fees from five to ten cents on in-state waste and from twenty cents to $1 on out-of-state waste.

Governor Kasich has also promoted a 2012 budget plan to expand fees on Ohio’s oil and natural gas industry and cut income taxes. The plan is for the fee expansion on fossil fuels to pay for the income tax cut. While the fee on drillers has been presented in the media as dividing Republicans, Media Matters argues that “even Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, which was ‘consulted’ about the proposal, is tentatively approving the tax plan and giving Kasich the ‘benefit of the doubt’ regarding any potential concerns about increased taxation.”

Innovation Ohio called the governor’s plan a giveaway, estimating that once all the income tax cuts are in place, a family with an annual income of $50,000 would save just $65 each year. Policy Matters Ohio estimates that 25 percent of the tax cut would go to the top 1 percent of incomes.

Saying it is clear that Kasich is looking to expand hydraulic fracturing in the state with only minimal regulations or benefits for most of the state’s residents, a coalition of concerned residents and environmental groups formed Don’t Frack Ohio, declaring, “The fracking industry has been causing earthquakes in Ohio. So it’s time we caused one of our own.”

Included in the coalition is founder Bill McKibben. McKibben has been writing about climate change for over twenty years, with referring to his goal: to reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the current level of 394 parts per million (ppm) to 350 ppm, what NASA scientist James Hansen has said is necessary to avoid climate disruption.

McKibben talked with Truthout about Don’t Frack Ohio, the latest developments with the Keystone pipeline and his thoughts on the next steps for the climate movement.

Christine Shearer: Many people think of you as on the forefront of the climate movement and, therefore, focused on fuels that have a high carbon footprint, such as tar sands and coal. Why the turn to hydraulic fracturing?

Bill McKibben: Well, even when it’s burned natural gas has a big carbon footprint – not as high as coal, but as the International Energy Agency pointed out, a global energy mix heavy in natural gas would still leave us at 660 parts per million CO2, i.e. Way Too High. Worse, when methane escapesfrom these fracking operations unburned, that CH4 is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – and the early science makes it look like lots and lots of methane escapes from these fracking operations, perhaps enough to make them worse than coal mines. So – it’s a huge worry for global warming reasons, as well as all the other obvious problems – water pollution, landscape destruction and the quite remarkable fact that it seems to be setting off earthquakes. Earthquakes strike me as a, um, sign that maybe we don’t want to do this.

CS: So, what would you say to people who say natural gas is the best bridge fuel available to renewable energy?

BM: I’d say that’s what we hoped at first, but given the science coming out of fracking fields in Pennsylvania and the West, it’s pretty clear that in global warming terms, this is not a bridge; it’s just a rickety pier stretching further out into the fossil fuel lake.

CS: How did plans for the Don’t Frack Ohio action come about?

BM: has long had a strong base of support in Ohio. During the heat of our campaign against Keystone XL, the President made multiple trips to Ohio and we called on those folks to take action, holding rallies at his events, visiting his speeches and such. And as we got to know those folks better, we learned more and more about what’s happening to the state. Then the earthquake hit on New Year’s Eve and we figured that the time was ripe. Ohio is an enormously important state to the industry and politically for many reasons, so it’s a fitting place to plant our flag and make a stand.

CS: According to a public invitation letter signed by you, “Gasland” director Josh Fox, and others, the action is set for “June 14-17, in Columbus. The 14-16th will be dedicated to training and movement building and on the 17th we’ll be taking over the Ohio statehouse for a people’s assembly that will ‘pass’ legislation that Ohioans need to stop this destructive practice.” Are you hoping to pass legislation to prevent fracking entirely in the state?

BM: What’s really important is that the government in Ohio take steps to stop fracking in the state. Legislation is one option, but it’s also clear that Governor Kasich can take immediate steps to protect Ohio from fracking as well. He briefly unilaterally halted permitting for injection wells – the wastewater storage process that was responsible for the Youngstown earthquake – and he could do the same for fracking wells. He’s the leader of his [Republican] party, which controls the state legislature and it’s up to him to set the agenda for the state.

CS: Many states are facing various issues related to deep-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing – why focus on Ohio?

BM: We need to make this summer the high water mark for the fracking industry. We just don’t have time to lose. Ohio is important, both for the industry and in our political system. The nation’s attention will be on Ohio this summer and fall, as one of the swing states that will decide the Presidential election. Ohio is also the next frontier for the industry and they haven’t put into production the 4,000 or so wells they’d like to drill. Those injection wells are a key piece of the puzzle too – without access to wastewater disposal in Ohio, it will be much tougher for drilling in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states to move forward.

CS: Yes, the Don’t Frack Ohio letter states that “as the nation’s attention turns to Ohio for the election this fall, it is a fitting place to make a stand and say that this process must stop once and for all.” How do you anticipate this action fitting into the 2012 election season?

BM: As both major Presidential candidates come to Ohio, they’re going to be met by a state that is highly skeptical of fracking and gas drilling. I think they’ll be greeted with very tough questions about their support for drilling and they’ll be forced to think twice about uncritically backing this dangerous industry.

CS: Do you see this action as part of the 99 Percent movements planned for this spring?

BM: I hope this summer will be a long, hot, tough one for the 1%. The CEO [Aubrey McClendon] of Chesapeake Energy – the company most responsible for the fracking boom in Ohio and elsewhere – has become a billionaire speculating with the lives of landowners, workers and future generations who will be impacted by climate change. I expect he and others will be swept up in the powerful backlash to that kind of greed that is developing in Ohio and across America.

CS: You helped organize the protests against the TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, which are widely credited for the Obama administration’s eventual refusal to fast-track the pipeline’s permitting process. What do you make of Obama later saying he directed his administration to move on the southern end of the pipeline? I have heard the southern end did not need federal approval because it does not cross international borders, and the fate of the northern end is far from certain?

BM: Look, environmentalists only ever win temporary victories and this one may be more temporary than most. Big oil isn’t used to losing and they’re pouring tens of millions of dollars into ads to overturn Obama’s decision. The Congress may buckle, the president may buckle – and even if they stand strong, it’s important to understand that stopping Keystone doesn’t stop climate change. We’ve got to take the lessons we learned in that fight and come harder and stronger at the fossil fuel industry – the big push for the next few months nationally is over the outrageous subsidies that the federal government pays the richest industry on earth.

CS: What do you make of the Obama administration’s first term so far on environmental issues? What would you like to see?

BM: I’d say mixed. On the plus side of the ledger, there’s Keystone first and foremost and then the automobile mileage standards and the new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Contrast that with opening the Arctic to oil drilling, huge swaths of the High Plains for coal-mining, fumbling the international negotiations on climate change and failing to even really try to get global warming legislation through the Senate.

CS: You have been writing about climate change since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) first formed in the late 1980s. What has surprised you most in being involved in this issue for over two decades? What have you learned?

BM: What’s surprised me is how little we’ve accomplished, faced with the biggest challenge humans have ever faced. And what I’ve learned is that the fossil fuel industry will spend and do whatever it takes to keep governments from doing anything.

CS: What do you perceive as the biggest barrier to action on climate change in the US: is it corporations, government, misinformation, peoples’ internal resistance to change?

BM: Corporate influence on government. Occupy has it right – the system is rigged and dangerous.

CS: Climate change can sometimes feel like a huge, insurmountable problem. Where do you find your hope and inspiration?

BM: In the huge number of people all over the world who have come together in the movement. We work in every country on earth but North Korea – CNN has called it the most widespread political activity in the planet’s history – and that’s all happened in the last four years. We’ve not got much in the way of resources – I’m a volunteer, most of the people doing the real work are in their 20s – but it is amazing to see how many people on the planet really want to put their hopes for the future on the line. On to Ohio.