Rioja Alavesa, Spain (NI) – In contrast to the tourist-ready images of Spain as a parched, sun-bleached plateau, the Basque Cantabrian basin in the northern part of the country was cool, rainy and green as I drove through the vineyards of Rioja Alavesa to give a talk in a village threatened by fracking. If the Spanish government is to be believed, these Rioja vineyards and the verdant hills and valleys sit on a shale formation that could yield 185,000 million cubic metres of natural gas.
Above that sits the 170-km2 Subijana aquifer, which is a vital water resource for the entire region. Local politicians Dani Maeztu and Igor Lopez de Munain estimate that the aquifer would need to be punctured over 1,000 times to extract the volumes of gas the industry predicts. As the aquifer is 300 metres deep, they claim that there is no credible way that this level of interference could leave it uncontaminated.
In the United States, at least 2 million oil and gas wells had been hydraulically fractured by 2013, making up 43 per cent of the country’s oil production and 67 per cent of its natural gas production.
The shale gas boom there has had horrific side effects: irreparable groundwater contamination, air pollution, neuro-toxin poisoning, noise pollution, sinkholes and even earthquakes. Added to that is the release of quantities of ‘fugitive emissions’ of methane that studies have shown make the process more polluting than coal in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Today, the oil and gas industry seeks to export fracking across the world. Their efforts, however, have been met by strong grassroots opposition in almost every country, particularly in Europe, Africa and Latin America. And the Basque Country is no exception.
A surprising turn of fate
Mikel Otero, a firefighter and core member of the Basque anti-fracking group Fracking Ez, told me how a chance meeting with a high-ranking government minister sealed his resolve to fight this destructive new technology.
Mikel found out about the plans to frack in the Basque Country in 2011, when the former Basque Prime Minister, Patxi Lopez, who had just been on a visit to Texas, appeared in the media saying that an agreement had been reached with two US companies to start drilling in 2012.
‘In the winter of 2011 we started seeing these notices in the newspaper and said, Hmm, that looks odd. Then we started spray-painting “Stop Fracking” around the city and having assemblies.’
The more they found out about the impact fracking was having in the US, the more concerned they became.
At the time of these initial meetings, Mikel made an unplanned and speculative visit to the Ministry of Industry in Madrid to see if he could find out more.
In a surprising turn of fate, he ended up at the office of the Director of the Department of Hydrocarbons. Intrigued by a Basque citizen turning up at her office asking questions about the fracking permissions, and perhaps keen to make her department look transparent and accountable, the minister agreed to meet Mikel for 10 to 15 minutes.
He was there for two hours.
‘I was surprised because here was a person of high rank in the administration communicating with me directly and listening to my concerns. At one point she told me we should be very careful about what were we doing because there had been many occasions where the economic development of the country had been held back because of people’s opposition to high-technology development. And that was the moment when I thought, OK, I think I am going to be in the front of this struggle.’
Radical discussion, radical action
Fracking Ez (meaning ‘No Fracking’ in Euskara, the language of the Basque Country), along with the assemblies against fracking in Cantabria and Burgos, quickly mounted a strong resistance against the plans to frack.
In the Basque Country, where the tradition of leftwing politics and social campaigns is strong, 13,000 people rallied in 2013 in the small city of Gasteiz, in the centre of the region where fracking is proposed.
The same year, the Cantabrian assembly succeeded in mobilizing grassroots support and passed a ban against fracking in this strongly conservative region. The ban, along with bans passed by other Spanish regions, was later overturned by the constitutional court in Madrid, but it nonetheless shows the strong feelings local people hold on this issue, as well as their ability to mobilize support for their cause.
The anti-fracking movement in the Basque Country is inspired by a long history of struggle against the government’s inappropriate land development. The anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s prevented 5 nuclear power stations being built along the Basque coast and has kept nuclear power out of the country.
The movement to oppose the high-speed train line that would cut through the Basque countryside, offering no benefit to local people, started in the early 1990s and is still a major focus of resistance.
Mikel explains that he feels excited that the anti-fracking struggle is one of the first times he has been involved in a struggle that brings together a wide range of people and that it is prompting a radical discussion about the energy system.
‘There are people of many ages, people from the villages working alongside people from the city; also politically it is wide and not limited to just one political viewpoint. It is exciting when you go to the villages and talk with all kinds of people about fracking, and what it means, about the mess we are in with our energy system and our consumption levels. Everybody agrees that we are in a crazy time and a crazy place and many things must be changed. Even if we could get everybody on board, it is still not clear how we are going to change these systems, so fracking is a good point to start to have these discussions.’
The anti-fracking struggle brings together a wide range of people and is prompting a radical discussion about the energy system
Fracking Ez’s latest project is organizing a ‘Frackanpada’, an international anti-fracking camp, from 13-19 July, to bring together the anti-fracking movement from across Europe for a week of debates, plotting, skill-sharing, concerts and anti-fracking actions.
With the permission of the local village, the camp will take place on the site of an old conventional well next to where the companies are proposing to re-drill and frack, immediately above the aquifer.
The locals want to show the strength of opposition and resistance that companies can expect if they go ahead with their plans to frack here.
Working together with anti-fracking groups from across Europe, including Reclaim the Power in Britain, the camp aims to connect the issue of fracking to other struggles which target land appropriations, against the economic system that does not value life, and to create visions of a better world.
Mikel sees so many possibilities. ‘It’s going to be a crazy mess of ideas and experiences and skills… I still don’t know exactly what is going to happen there, but I know great things are going to come out of it.’