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Don’t frack the Basque Country! (conflicts around gas extraction by fracking)

By Leire Urkidi.

Leave the gas under the grass or in Basque: Utzi bakean, ta gasa lurrean!

The plans started in 2006 but it was not until October 2011 when the president of the Basque Government announced that there were 180 billion cubic meters of unconventional gas in the Basque Country’s subsoil. This quantity is equivalent to 60 years of gas consumption of the Basque Country or 5 years of Spain. The companies behind the gas extraction were the Basque public hydrocarbons company and some from the USA (Heyco, Cambria, etc.). Immediately after the public announcement, several associations and individuals met and, by the end of 2011, the Platform against Fracking of Araba was already working. (Araba, in Spanish Alava, is one of three provinces of the Basque Country). Less than a year after that, one of the three largest demonstrations against fracking in the world took place in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Araba, on 6 October 2012.

Araba is the province of the Basque Country where they want to start fracking. However, other provinces of the Basque Country and adjacent regions such as Cantabria and Burgos are also full of permits. Unconventional fields are rocks with low concentrations of gas and oil that nowadays start to be accessible due to new technologies. Fracking is one of these techniques and consists on breaking rocks that are at 1 to 6 km of depth, by injecting lots of water, chemicals and sand at high pressures.

But accessibility is not synonymous of profitability or adequacy. Fracking is neither energetically nor economically very profitable and it is ecologically very damaging. The energy and money returns are low in comparison to energetic and money investments. And, environmentally, it is a disaster: polluting chemicals, groundwater contamination, huge GHG emissions, risks of earthquakes and radioactivity, methane-leaks to house taps, risky wastes. All this endangers animal, vegetal, and human health. Moreover, fracking is a voracious land consumer because you only get gas from the rock you break, so every few hundred meters you have to start a new platform (each platform having several wells). The pioneering fracking regions in the world are at the USA and the impacts are widely reported and denounced.

The first work of the Platform against Fracking was to collect the existing information about the technique and its damages. For this, the work already started by the Assembly of Cantabria was really important. Also the documentary called Gasland, and the studies from different universities and agencies in the USA. At the same time, the first permits for specific exploring-wells were being approved for Araba, so hundreds of personal allegations were sent to interrupt the approval process. Indeed, we were told that fracking does not require Environmental Impact Assessment in Spain, because “it does not exist in its legislation”.

Beyond the pleas, the Platform developed an intense institutional work proposing motions at town and city councils and presenting evidence at the Basque Parliament, among others. The Platform is a wide and heterogeneous group that comprises not only individuals, environmental groups, neighborhood associations and other kind of groups but also political parties (leftists and ecologists) and trade unions (almost all of them). One of the most successful initiatives in this field has been the campaign to declare “fracking-free municipalities”. From the 51 municipalities of Araba, 24 were declared fracking-free by October 2012, in town-councils of different political colors. This also explains the massive opposition to fracking in Araba’s rural area. The plans for extracting gas have been understood as a direct threat to agriculture, food sovereignty, and rural livelihood.

Besides the institutional work, the Platform carried out an intense awareness and mobilization campaign. On the one hand, more than 60 talks were given in various places and almost every week an information post has been installed in some town or neighborhood. Leaflets, videos, stickers, t-shirts and a comprehensive journal have been produced. On the other hand, several mobilizations have been organized in the last months with very high participation: cycling demonstrations, mountain protest-hikes, mass meetings, the first underground demonstration. The Basque Country has a tradition of strong mobilization, not only politically but also in environmental issues. The popular response to fracking has been surprisingly massive even for the Basque Country. The last and definitive action was a big, festive and emotional demonstration on 6 October 2012 with more than 13.000 people from the rural area, from the capital Vitoria itself, from other provinces of the Basque Country, from Burgos and La Rioja, etc. A parallel demonstration was organized in Cantabria de same day and gathered more than 2.000 people.

The demonstration against fracking in Araba was a milestone in two senses. It was the most important demonstration in Araba in the last 10 years, apart from those organized on strike days. And it was among the three largest demonstrations against fracking in the world. The other two, in France and Bulgaria, managed to stop fracking plans and got a legal ban. Let’s see what happens in the Basque Country. Some influential political parties (the Socialist Party, the PNV) were promoting fracking before and are backing down now (the PNV). Anyway, it is clear that the popular force will be in the streets and in the countryside if gas extracting plans would continue in the Basque Country. After the elections of October 21, 2012, there will be a good chance that fracking will be legally forbidden in the Basque Country.

Fracking ez! Ez hemen, ez inon! (Fracking no! Not here, not in any place!!)

Leire Urkidi works for EKOPOL: an inter-disciplinary research group on Ecological Economics and Political Ecology of the University of the Basque Country. The first project as a research group has been the BIORES project (the Basque Ecological Debt: impacts on global biodiversity and development), financed by the Basque Government.

This article is part of the forthcoming EJOLT report on the Yasuni ITT initiative in Ecuador and similar proposals around the world.

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One comment

  1. On Kristi said:

    Howdy! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!

    He continually kept talking about this. I’ll send this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a great read. I appreciate you for sharing!