Published on October 7th, 2011 | by Lynn Fang


The Power of Community Organizing: Pittsburgh’s Ban on Fracking

Marcellus Protest

Most people don’t realize that it is they, the individual, that has the power to make real change. No one person can make a huge difference, but when a small group of caring individuals bands together to organize in favor of the change they wish to see, real, lasting transformation can happen. In fact, this is the only reason social movements have succeeded in the past.

Few of these success stories are told in mainstream media. The powers at be don’t like you to know that you have the power to create real change. But I’m going to tell you a story today, about how a small group of concerned citizens were able to simultaneously ban natural gas extraction in their town, and grant rights to the local community and its natural resources, rights that trump corporate personhood.

On November 16, 2010, the Pittsburgh City Council voted unanimously, 9-0 to pass a local ordinance banning natural gas drilling in the city.

“Pittsburgh’s Community Protection from Natural Gas Extraction Ordinance” is the first of its kind to exercise the authority of a local community over the wishes of a corporation.

It was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, an organization which helps local communities protect themselves from operations that are hazardous to public and environmental health.

The Marcellus Shale formation is a natural gas deposit that runs through four states in the Northeastern United States, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Natural gas extraction, also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a chemically intensive process that destroys the landscape and often contaminates the water supply with so much chemical waste that it can actually catch on fire:

Wells are drilled and millions of gallons of water, sand, and a mixture of 596 proprietary chemicals are injected under high pressure, in order to extract the natural gas. The pressure fractures the shale and props up open fissures that allow the natural gas to flow out of the well.

Pittsburgh’s ordinance establishes, beyond banning natural gas extraction, “a Bill of Rights for Pittsburgh residents and removes legal powers from gas extraction corporations within the City”, including:

  • Right to Water that is clean and natural
  • Rights of Natural Communities and Ecosystems, including, but not limited to wetlands, streams, rivers, aquifers, and other water systems. These possess the inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within the City of Pittsburgh.
  • Right to Self-Government. All residents of Pittsburgh possess the fundamental and inalienable right to a form of governance where they live which recognizes that all power is inherent in the people.
  • People as Sovereign. The people at all times enjoy and retain an inalienable and indefeasible right to self-governance in the community where they reside.

The ordinance also strips away corporate “personhood” and “protections of commerce or contracts” afforded by the US and Pennsylvania Constitutions. No license from a State or Federal agency can violate the stipulations of this Ordinance to deprive the city residents and its natural community of their inalienable rights.

As you might imagine, there was a considerable amount of hesitation in drafting such an ordinance and shifting powers from corporate minority to the public majority.

So how exactly did all 9 council members vote for the ordinance? None of them believed they had the right to self-government. No one had considered the community could have rights greater than corporations.

Community Willpower

The Marcellus Protest formed in June 2010, by a group of concerned residents who had come together over the anti-fracking film, Gasland. It was tiny at first, but they decided to reach out to their fellow neighbors to warn them of the on-coming fracking operation. As word spread about the hazards of natural gas drilling, Marcellus Protest began to grow.

Members lobbied all 9 council members relentlessly. In the end, hundreds of people called, emailed, and showed up to council meetings to voice their opinions.

Marcellus Protest Rally against DUGMarcellus Protest staged a protest on November 3 to coincide with a convention held by the energy companies interested in fracking. This was one week before the council voted on the ordinance. Over 800 people came to the protest, sparking media coverage that spread like fire.

And so, the Community Bill of Rights was born.

Soon after, as word spread throughout New England, townships in Pennsylvania and nearby states all adopted their own Community Bill of Rights ordinances, most often targeted to ban natural gas extraction.

Hearing about this story, one has to wonder…

Why should those who are directly affected by governing decisions not be allowed to have a say in those decisions?

Why should local people and their natural resources not be protected from exploitation? Why shouldn’t nature have rights too?

The story of Pittsburgh really exemplifies that if the people exercise their will, real transformation is possible. There is power in numbers, in the solidarity of public desire.

Support the ongoing efforts to ban fracking in the US, as well as the rights of people and natural resources. Support Marcellus Protest and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund by learning more about them and spreading the message. See their website to attend future events and demonstrations.

Hear this story as an example of what can be done anywhere they are concerned individuals. What’s got you upset in your town? Is it BPA, fracking, mountain-top removal coal mining, or the lack of affordable organic food? Get together with people who care and start talking about how you might be able to reach out to your neighbors, educate your community, and start making some real changes.

It all starts with you!

How will you support organizing in your community?

 [CC Images by (MarcellusProtest) via Flickr]

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About the Author

is a compost consultant and educator, eco-conscious writer, and intuitive artist. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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