Civil Disobedience Begins in the Gas Patch. How Will It End?

by jim on June 3, 2015

DisObeyOn Monday, three local Dentonites blocked the driveway of the Vantage gas drilling site on the edge of town. They were arrested and charged with a Class B misdemeanor. On Tuesday, three more local residents were busted on the same driveway and charged with the same crime. And so the first organized acts of civil disobedience in the Texas gas patch have taken place.

Meanwhile, after a lengthy meeting, the Denton city council has postponed any action on repealing the municipal fracking ban that the protesters were defending.

Throughout the election that led up to the ban last November, the Denton anti-fracking community prided itself on keeping the issue local. It was the industry that was nationalizing the fight, not them. They didn't put out a call to come to help draw a line in Denton. They didn't recruit "outsiders."  That strategy paid off in the almost 60% majority the ban attracted at the polls.

But of course, the results of that vote didn't stop the industry from continuing to make Denton a symbol of statewide and national importance. In fact, it only added to its flagship status. And in the wake of the victory, even anti-fracking activists were using the Denton vote as a signal of a sea change. If it could happen in Denton, they said, it could happen anywhere. Exactly our point, the industry told its supporters in office.

Timing is everything and it so happened that this in-your-face rejection of fracking took place on the eve of the biennial state legislature. Unlike recent sessions, this one had no one-third rule protecting consensus in the Senate and reflected a wave of new Tea Party members in both the House and Senate. Retaliation was swift and uncompromising. Despite the Republican Party's age-old rhetorical dedication to "local control," HB 40 is now law and denies any city the right to ban fracking within its jurisdiction. It also has the additional intended effect of freezing any new municipal attempts at regulating fracking at all for fear of a costly and lengthy lawsuit from industry. 

But the passage of this legislation didn't come without a cost of its own. Its shameless hypocrisy was the subject for countless editorials and cartoons. The industry gained protection, but the Republican Party took a hit to its brand. HB 40 has become a symbol. Of blatant political prostitution. Of bullying. Of electoral robbery and anti-democratic thievery. Of bad law.

Civil disobedience is absolutely an appropriate and archetypal response to bad law. Think Boston Tea Party. Think Thoreau and the Mexican War Tax. Think Freedom Riders. Bad law deserves disobedience. And the circumstances surrounding HB 40 make it every bit as emblematic in the early 21st Century as any of those examples were in their own times.

Which is why the response from Denton activists needs to rise to the occasion. Instead of continuing to see the fight through the eyes of local residents, Denton fracking opponents should embrace their newfound statewide symbolism. Lots of Texans want to express their shared outrage over HB 40, but they have no satisfying means to do so.

Instead of, apparently, making the civil disobedience at the Vantage site an exclusive and secreted affair, locals should open it up, set a date, and ask everyone who feels the same way to come and join in. Less Mark Rudd, more Gandhi. Six arrests is nothing to sneeze at, but imagine 60. Or 600.  In addition to activists, what about some of the local city council members whose authority to zone their own city was stripped by the law? Nothing would help demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of HB 40 better.

Another form of dangerous energy development prompted the largest single acts of organized civil disobedience in Texas in the late 1970's.

In June 1979, 48 people climbed the fence at the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant, just an hour south of Dallas – Ft. Worth. In November, 100 people did the same. Organizers spent months organizing the events and negotiating with local law enforcement. Posters and flyers were distributed. Recruitment was widely publicized, with half-day training sessions happening almost weekly that included logistical and legal briefings.

When the day came to show-up, it was a well-greased celebration of resistance that was widely covered, making front-page news throughout the state. Local institution Harold Taft (the authoritative weatherman Troy Duncan aspired to be) did a couple of minutes on the 10 pm news (with maps!) on how predominantly southeastern winds would carry radioactivity from Comanche Peak into the heart of Fort Worth. That kind of coverage happened only because of the audaciousness of those willing to get arrested for a cause.

Nor did it end there. After the first action, lawyers for the protesters convinced the local Somervell County judge to allow them to argue a "necessity defense." Such a defense says that breaking a minor law like a trespassing statute is justifiable if the accused are attempting to prevent a larger harm from occurring. If you have to jump a fence to rescue a drowning man, no one is going to hold that against you. As a result, nationally-known scientists were flown in to testify about the routine and exceptional dangers of nuclear power plants in front of the six-person Glen Rose jury. It was the first and only time nuclear power went on trial in Texas. The jury was hung 4-2 in favor of acquittal.

And that was BEFORE Comanche Peak was ever emitting a single radionuclide. We already have a long history with fracking harms in Texas. Think about the potential army of dissenters available for recruitment to civil disobedience surrounding HB 40. It could make the anti-nuclear movement numbers look small by comparison. Think about the testimony in front of a jury available now from scientists about the dangers of fracking. About the testimony of local residents who have already seen their health affected, and property values decline from living in close proximity to a fracking site. Think about the testimony from local Denton city council members about why they voted to hold an election on a ban and still support it. Here's a chance to put HB 40 on trial – in a courtroom and in the court of public opinion.

Along with more public and accessible civil disobedience, Dentonites might also consider revisiting the works of Gene Sharp, the author of a Encyclopedia Britannica of non-violent resistance tactics. Cataloging everything from boycotts to creative taxation, Sharp's books have been the basic texts of new pro-democracy movements around the world. What better reference material now that Texas is turning into a Banana Republic?

The point is to open up the movement to everyone who wants to participate by giving them ownership in tactics that are both effective and satisfying, whether they live in Denton or not. Not just letters to the editor, not just donating bail money, but actually physically participating in a popular resistance to HB 40. Invite everyone who wants to lend you a hand be able to do so at whatever level of commitment they feel comfortable with – whether it's linking arms at a pad site and getting arrested, or rallying around those that do. Everyone else is treating the law and Denton as a symbol. It's time for local opponents to do the same.

Thanks to six brave souls, civil disobedience has been introduced as a tool against HB 40 in the gas patch. Now the question is whether that effort will end with a whimper, or a bang.

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