Planning Your Social Change

by jim on March 17, 2014

PlanningOver the last couple of months, the victory by residents to impose a "de facto ban" on fracking in Dallas has been invoked as a rallying cry by citizens in a number of different places. From Denton, to Mansfield, to Los Angeles, to Move On, the fact that JR's hometown has made it difficult to drill with impunity is seen as a significant blow to the relentless rolling wave of rigs, tanks and pipes that's transformed DFW into an urban gas field over the past decade. It's given aid and comfort to those trying to face down the gas industry elsewhere, and provided a more progressive model of regulation.

That isn't a happy accident of a local NIMBY fight. It's by design. Four years ago, it was the intent of Dallas organizers to make it so, and it was absolutely essential to Downwinders that the Dallas fight be a strategic one, that it have reverberations far beyond the city's limits.

In 2010, Downwinders had to justify why it wanted to take on fracking in Dallas. The group had just transformed itself from one concerned mostly with local cement plant air pollution to one taking up the cause of the entire DFW airshed. If we were jumping into the fracking controversy for the first time, where would we land? Why Dallas and not someplace else? How could we be sure our investment of scarce organizational resources would benefit clean air and environmental health more in this fight than others?

The Timing: Dallas was the last city in the Barnett to actually process gas well permits. It still hadn't done so in 2010 when the City Plan Commission was gearing up for its first "Special Use Permit" hearings. Despite most of the western side of the Metromess already being inundated by industry, fracking was a fresh fight over a new kind of industrial activity that Dallas hadn't hosted. Any one who's done this before will tell you it's always easier to stop something new than after it already starts.  They'll also tell you that when you have a choice, don't engage the opposition on their own turf. Try to play on your own field or at least a neutral one. Dallas offered the last and best chance in the Barnett to fight fracking as a new thing on a neutral field.

The Issue: Because the exemptions fracking needed to operate in urban areas only became reality in the 2005 Energy Bill, examination of its external environmental costs took a while to, er, surface. But research was finally beginning to catch up to the facts. In 2009, Downwinders' consultant, SMU Professor, and future EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz's landmark report for EDF on smog pollution from the gas industry was the information that made many of us sit up and take notice of fracking as a threat to regional air quality. Through its leadership in the cement plant wars, Downwinders had worked its way into the DFW air quality planning process. We knew smog. We didn't know gas mining made smog much worse – and neither did anyone else  – until Al's report. His work demonstrated why drilling in North Texas would make it harder for the area to quit violating the Clean Air Act. As a group that had just changed its mission to protect North Texas air quality, this was information hard to ignore. Suddenly the fight against urban fracking in Dallas was a new front in an old war.

The Politics: Dallas had been an ally of Downwinders in the cement wars, passing the first "green cement" procurement ordinance in the nation in 2007. Mayor Laura Miller lead the fight against Rick Perry's rush to permit over a dozen new dirty coal plants. It was a leader among local municipalities in addressing climate change and actually had an annual goal of reducing its carbon footprint as a city. It paid lip service to the language of "sustainability."  Dallas was traditionally more progressive than other city governments on environmental issues (don't laugh). We could use all of this past action and rhetoric – especially on smog – to press our case in Big D in a way that no other local government allowed, because it had the record of concern. Always use your opponent's language against them if you can. From an environmental point of view, if you couldn't get green-friendly Dallas to pass a better, more modern drilling policy, you were going to have a hard time doing it any place else in the Barnett.

At the same time, the then-current city council was seeing the rise of a new generation of Dallas political leadership through Angela Hunt sparring with the old establishment. One of her issues was gas drilling in Dallas. Organizers already had a friend on the horseshoe.

The Stage: Much to the chagrin of Fort Worth, Arlington and other North Texas cities, Dallas is the flagship for the region. It's still the region's largest municipality. It's still the region's media center. It's home to the Cowboys, and JR, and the Triple Underpass. Things that happen in Dallas tend to get more coverage than they would if they were taking place in, say, Mesquite, or Burleson. Politics is under more of a microscope. There are still reporters assigned to cover nothing but City Hall goins-on. There were plenty of gas permit fights in play in 2010. But only those in Dallas promised to provide the kind of oversized stage with the potential for blow-by-blow reporting of the battle that would transform the permit fights into the Dallas Gas Wars.

The Definition of Winning: You don't hear anybody going around boasting about how hard residents fought before they lost the fight to completely ban fracking in Dallas out right. But that would have been the result had residents listened to the most strident voices among their ranks. There were calls for a direct up or down vote on fracking in Dallas, and for residents to settle for nothing less than a complete ban. That result was politically impossible with the City Council in office in 2010. It was still impossible in December of 2013 when the council cast its 9-6 vote for the "de facto ban" ordinance (and after a majority voted in favor of the Trinity East permits in August).

Believe it or not, there are still those hardy resisters who think the December ordinance vote is a huge defeat and allows for rampant drilling in Dallas . Fortunately, most everyone else, including and the industry itself, sees the new ordinance for what it is – a very high bar for the pursuit of fracking in Dallas that's unlikely to be met any time soon, if ever, given the nature of operators to seek the path of least resistance.

For Downwinders, and most of the residents involved, it was better to win the war on the ground and lose the semantics battle, rather than fight the good fight with the politically-correct language and lose the war.

You have to pick your battles carefully.

Not many people know the story of Claudette Colvin. Nine months before Rosa Parks made headlines and began the Birmingham Bus Boycott that would initiate the modern civil rights movement, Ms. Colvin was arrested for violating the same segregationist law against black folk riding in the front of a Birmingham city bus. It was a righteous battle, but she was a high school student and an unwed mother. She wasn't considered the right test case for a national fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where public opinion would be crucial to winning. Instead, the NAACP picked one of its own. The matronly Parks was the chapter's local secretary and considered a more sympathetic figure. They were right.

Would the Court have ruled the same for a Claudette Colvin? Nobody knows, but the strategic thinking of segregation's opponents made sure the best circumstances were in place for significant change to happen. That's all an organizer can do. But it's something that must get done in order for victories like the Dallas ordinance to have the kind of disproportional reverberations it's having now.

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