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The Devil's Triangle: How Big Green, Mainstream Labor and the Democratic Party Derail the Struggle to Stop Fracking

By John Reimann - June 11, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Fracking kills.

It kills by poisoning the earth, the water and the air.

It kills by destroying wilderness and open space areas.

It kills by destroying our quality of life.

It kills by releasing methane – a potent greenhouse gas - into the atmosphere.

It kills by diverting investment and resources away from developing renewable energy sources, thus enormously exacerbating global climate disruption/global warming.

And the entire gamut of Corporate America-–from the oil and gas industry to the major financiers-–is lined up to continue to rape, plunder and pillage the environment using this disastrous practice. Covering for them, major environmental NGO's and supposedly environmentally conscious politicians, as well as the mainstream union leaders are pretending that it can be made acceptable if properly regulated.

Boulder County, CO

In the State of Colorado, one of the most prominent environmental leaders is Elise Jones, now a member of the Boulder County (CO) Board of Commissioners. Elise started her career working for the National Wildlife Federation and later returned to Colorado where she headed up the Rocky Mountain office of the League of Conservation Voters and then became the executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition – the most powerful environmental coalition in Colorado. Recently, Elise voted along with the other commissioners not to extend the moratorium on fracking in Boulder County.

The moratorium had existed while the effects on the roads in the county could be studied; it was ended before a study on the health effects of the residents could be studied. Elise voted to end the moratorium on the excuse that the county would impose strict regulations. What sorts of regulations Boulder County residents can expect can be seen by a similar deal reached in the State of Illinois.


In early May, “Big Green” – the major environmental organizations – combined with the leadership of the state labor movement, big business and state politicians to arrive at a similar deal in Illinois to the one Elise Jones supported in Colorado. They announced an agreement for standards that frackers would voluntarily abide by in the state. Out of this backroom deal came HB 2615, which supposedly imposes strict regulations on fracking in Illinois. Completely aside from the fact that no amount of regulation can make fracking safe or environmentally “friendly”, this bill is oriented to the oil and gas industry. According to one article, the bill includes the following weaknesses:

  • Fails to fully disclose to the public information about the chemicals used in fracking
  • Allows fracking operations to set up just 500 feet from water wells, homes, churches,schools, hospitals and nursing homes
  • Allows fracking just 300 feet from "the ordinary high water mark of any river, perennial stream, natural or artificial lake, pond, or reservoir."
  • Fails to provide for local control by county government over whether fracking can occur in its jurisdiction
  • Endangers water supplies by only sampling and testing water near drilling sites up to 30 months after drilling and fracking, despite the fact that the risk of underground contamination associated with these activities can persist for years.

Perhaps most important, the bill in effect prohibits local communities from banning fracking altogether as the residents of Longmont, CO, have done. By doing so, it ensures the oil and gas industry access to frack almost anywhere in the state. In any case, no amount of regulation can prevent the disastrous effect that are inherent in fracking. The fact that these voluntary standards continue to exempt frackers from the Clean Water Act, and the fact that the general public will continue to be responsible for any well leaks after the wells are abandoned shows the confidence the frackers have in the entire process. (Those not really familiar with the issue of fracking can look here and here for more information.)


Compromising on fracking--meaning pretending the practice can be regulated--is literally the same as compromising on-–or pretending one can regulate--mass murder, since this is what fracking inherently contributes to. But yet many of the major environmental NGO's have a long history of making exactly this compromise. In doing so, they have a partner in crime in the hierarchy of the mainstream unions, as we will see.

Sierra Club

Consider, for instance, the history of the Sierra Club, the largest environmental NGO in the US. If there ever was one, the Sierra Club is the perfect example of a corporate dominated NGO. From 2007 and for several years afterward, the Sierra club took donations that totaled $26 million from Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas company. Even after this was publicly revealed by its new executive director, Michael Brune, in 2010, the Sierra Club national office continued its policy of defending fracking as long as it was properly regulated. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club maintained its program of greenwashing certain products of Clorox Corporation, in exchange for a healthy donation from that corporate giant.

A look at the major donors and the connections of the Sierra Club reveals close ties with the likes of financier George Soros, as well as close ties with such fronts for the Democratic Party as the Democracy Alliance, the McKay Foundation, and America Coming Together. In addition, in the past, one article revealed that directors of the Sierra Club were tied with Chevron Corporation, Boise Cascade, and major mining companies. The Sierra Club also is indirectly linked with the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy as well as with a major provider of natural gas.

This is why “fractivist” Shane Davis ran into such headwinds when he tried to get the Sierra Club to take action against fracking. Shane was the chair of the Poudre Canyon Club of the Sierra Club in Colorado for two and a half years and he served on the executive committee for the Colorado State club and was the Sierra Club's foremost expert on fracking. He was one of the very first people in Colorado to really be talking about and seriously investigating the issue of fracking and became possibly the state's foremost expert in data mining information on the industry from official sources online. As he stated to this writer,

“I came to realize what a disaster the oil and gas industry exemptions and violations were. I became increasingly horrified at how the industry was destroying the environment...but the Sierra Club was just standing by watching this happen; I realized that they weren't doing s__t. They were collecting money based on the research that had been done (mainly by Shane) while I wasn't getting any resources.”

So in January of 2013, on behalf of his local club, Shane sent an "internal petition" to the executive director of the Sierra Club urging them to take a strong stand against fracking. The result was that the Sierra Club took a stand, all right. Unfortunately, it was not against fracking but against those like Shane who were fighting it. As he explains,

“the national executive body went after my throat...They did everything to get me kicked off the state chapter and removed from the state oil and gas committee...”

“Food and Water Watch”

Let's be clear: The Sierra Club is no exception. We have as “Exhibit #2” Food and Water Watch, who are playing a major role in the anti-fracking campaign that is developing in California. They are linked, for instance, with Richard N. Goldman, Republican business man and husband of Rhoda Haas Goldman, member of the Haas family and heiress to the Levi-Strauss fortune. They are also linked to Roy Hampton Park, former co-founder of Hines-Park Food and former top executive at Proctor and Gamble as well as founder and owner of the communications conglomerate Park Communications. Park was listed as the 40th richest person in the US by Forbes.

Illinois AFL-CIO

In addition to the Big Green (what Shane calls “Gangrene”) environmental groups, the mainstream union officials give political cover to environmental destruction. In May of this year (2013) Tom Wolf, Executive Director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and Michael Carrigan, President of the Illinois State AFL-CIO, co-authored an article announcing their joint support for hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in that state. The article is worth quoting at some length: "We're proud of trying to bring jobs to Illinois,” they wrote,

“Illinois business and labor groups were at the table with representatives of the oil and gas industry, major environmental groups, legislators from both the House and Senate and their key staff, the office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the office of Gov. Pat Quinn in an effort to find the regulatory sweet spot for high-volume hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling in Illinois...he regulations go on for more than 100 pages and are based on facts, science, discussions, arguments and compromise –— not a preconceived narrative...Think about that: business, labor and environmental groups coming to the table with our elected leaders to try and grow an industry, create jobs and protect the environment."

Along with the Chamber of Commerce and the state AFL-CIO, others involved in and supporting this backroom deal were the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and Environment Illinois together with The Illinois Petroleum Council, America's Natural Gas Alliance, Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, and others. The religious hierarchy was represented by Faith in Place.

While the proposals were strictly voluntary, there was legislation coming out of them. This legislation-–Illinois HB 2615-–has loopholes wide enough to drive an entire lineup of fracking trucks through. Its major accomplishment, however, from the frackers' point of view, is that it in effect bar municipal and county bodies from banning fracking altogether, thus weakening the political power of local community groups.

AFL-CIO Environmental Record

The mainstream union hierarchy has a long history of supporting environmental destruction, as long as it will provide “jobs” for their members (meaning dues money for them).1

  • In 2001, the AFL-CIO joined then-President Bush and announced support for exploring for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
  • In 2011, Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer explained the AFL-CIO's support for developing nuclear energy “because (it is a source) of family wage jobs.” (Her real concern was that it would bring in dues money.)
  • In February of this year, the AFL-CIO Executive Council announced support for expansion of the national oil pipeline “infrastructure”. This has been widely interpreted as meaning support for the Keystone XL Pipeline. In addition, they called for increased use of coal, oil and natural gas.

Democratic Party

There is an organizational glue and an ideological glue that hold this together.

The organizational glue is the Democratic Party. It is this that links the labor leadership, Big Green and Corporate America. Take, for instance, the Illinois agreement on fracking. There, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources were involved, but according to the state AFL-CIO, Illinois State Representative John Bradley-–Democrat-–played the key role in bringing these various forces together. It was similar with Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones, who has bounced back and forth between serving various elected Democratic officials and the establishment environmental NGO's before she went into elected office herself.

As explained, Democratic Party-controlled foundations are a major source of funds for Big Green NGO's. As is the case with Elise Jones, the Democrats often provide a stepping stone from working for a non-profit into a lucrative government position.

No Alternative to Big Business

But at root, what binds them all together is their common political perspective. The AFL-CIO's Rich Trumka expressed it clearly, when he addressed a group of environmental investors in January of 2012. He commented that,

“All of us—-investors, companies, workers, environmental activists, governments—-need to be part of this dialogue. Any other approach simply won't our democracy.”

But what “democracy” was Trumka talking about?

Both Big Green and the labor hierarchy can see no alternative to a “democracy” controlled by Corporate America–-the capitalist class. Under this system all production is based on private ownership of capital, which is set into motion for one purpose and one purpose only: Private profit. Connected with this is the fact that under such a system the production and distribution of goods and services is necessarily anarchic and planless.

Consider, for instance AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka's same speech to a group of “green” investors. He commented on the necessity of “focus(ing) on the opportunities for investment in addressing climate change... My friends,” he said in speaking to these corporate heads,

“addressing climate risk means retooling our world—-it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.”

What is significant here is just as much what was left unsaid as what was said. Implicit in what was left unsaid is that all production, all investment of capital, must necessarily be determined by the private owners of capital based on the profit they calculate their investment will bring. In other words, the entire process must be worked out through the capitalist system, itself. This same attitude was shown in the interview with AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler. When asked about a possible alternative to “private control of energy” she was totally confused; it was clear she hadn't the slightest clue what the interviewer was getting at. The idea of such an alternative was not even on her radar screen; it was beyond her comprehension.

It is this same limited view, together with their personal ties and interests, that leads this same union hierarchy to betray the interests of their own members on a daily basis on the job.

In some ways it is even worse with Big Green. At least the unions are dependent on the dues money from workers; they are workers' organizations whether the leadership likes it or not. But Big Green is ultimately largely dependent on the donations of Big Business. It is for this reason, for instance, that the Sierra Club prohibits the use of civil disobedience in their name.

Fracking Like Rape: “Don't fight it”

For these reasons, Big Green takes the position that fracking is inevitable, and like being raped one must simply make the best of it. (Just as with rape, the idea of simply succumbing and trying to make the best of it is exactly the worst advice.) Just as President Obama viewed the health insurance industry as one of the “stakeholders” in considering health care “reform”, so Big Green sees the oil and gas companies as such “stakeholders” in the fracking question. Listen to Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund in defending the Illinois deal:

“If fracking is going to take place anywhere in the U.S.—-and clearly it is-—then we need to do everything in our power to protect the people living nearby. That includes improving industry performance in every way possible. In our view, CSSD, a coalition that includes environmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, energy companies and other stakeholders, is one way to do that."

In other words, fracking is inevitable, so we had better play along with it, and that can only be done by cooperating with the oil and gas industry. This, incidentally, was exactly the excuse of Elise Jones when she voted against extending the moratorium on fracking in Boulder County.

“Big Green Turned Into Gangrene”

By all rights, we should give Shane Davis the last word. He commented,

“I look at them (the Sierra Club leadership) as a public pacifier to make believe to the 1.4 million members of the Sierra Club, to fool them that they are actually doing anything...Basically, the Sierra Club is bought and paid for by the special interests, no different from the politicians...Working through an oppressive regulatory body does not work...At the same time, the Sierra Club (national leadership) is an oppressive regulatory body...The Environmental Defense Fund might even be worse than the Sierra Club because they (the Environmental Defense Fund) only want to work with the industry and nothing else... they're all in that business mode, this business model where we must survive so the donors will continue to give them money. I'm really seeing that Big Green has turned into gangrene.”

Movement Building, Lessons Learned

In mid-May, several Big Green NGO's organized a protest against fracking in San Francisco. It was significant that they had no leaflet to distribute to the general public; their protest was nothing but a photo-op. Despite them, throughout the country, from Pennsylvania to California-–in fact internationally including in Scotland and parts of continental Europe-–a people's movement against fracking is rising up.

In the course of this movement, rank and file activists are educating themselves about the scientific facts. Equally important, they are getting an education about the political facts of life. Already thousands of “fractivists” have concluded that bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and politicians like Elise Jones and John Bradley are part of the problem and that the first line of defense must be mass civil disobedience to physically block the frackers. A second conclusion that is developing is that the movement to stop fracking entirely will have to put up its own candidates for office--separate from and in opposition to both parties of big business. But to do this successfully, it will have to link up the fracking issue with related issues including that of environmental justice, racism in general, poverty and the need for decent jobs, etc. As this develops, then another conclusion will start to rear its head: That be this entire economic system--the capitalist system--cannot resolve the issues we are struggling with. The only alternative is an economy in which the the commanding heights of the economy (from the banks to the energy companies and all major stops in between) are owned by society as a whole, and investment and production is democratically planned by the workers themselves.

1 Many years ago, this author facetiously said to a top local officer of his union – the Carpenters Union - “You guys would support building prisons to put all union members in as long as they were built by union labor.” The official paused, thought about that for a minute, and then denied it.... but he had to think about it first!

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