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Book excerpt: 'Working Across Lines: Resisting extreme energy extraction'

What does it take to bridge political divides? Lessons from organizers in western Idaho

Book excerpt: 'Working Across Lines: Resisting extreme energy extraction'

This is an excerpt from Working Across Lines: Resisting extreme energy extraction, published in July 2022 by the University of California Press. You can purchase the book online. See the book for full citations and notes.

Chapter 3

Idaho Part 1: Talking across political lines by building relationships

In this chapter, I delve into what it means to talk across political lines, typically those that demarcate conservative and liberal ideologies. I draw on what I learned from folks resisting fracking in western Idaho, from how they talked with their fellow group members, and, as I observed in my time living with them, how they spoke to people like the dishwasher repairman, or the postal worker they encountered in their daily lives.

An important condition for talking across lines is relationships and trust. When these exist, there is potential for people to hear each other and to work together. When these do not exist, building coalitions is challenging. Understanding how trust is built or inhibited depends on understanding activists’ lived experiences, values and the social setting in their community. Therefore, I begin my account of activism in southwest Idaho with stories of interviewees’ journeys into activism. These experiences provide important grounding for why activists have needed to develop the tactic of talking across lines and illustrate the centrality of relationships to building resistance to extreme energy extraction.

I open with a story related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a series of events characterizing the context in which interviewees expressed and developed their views on politics and organizing. This account illustrates two points. First, it displays the polarizing nature of labels in political rhetoric and, consequently, the need to talk across lines by drawing on common values. Secondly, it evidences the promise of one of this book’s core themes: relational organizing.

Lunch conversations on socialism

On February 18, 2016, Bernie Sanders, self-proclaimed socialist competitor for the Democratic candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election sent me a campaign email. In it, he highlighted how his campaign was succeeding because of support from working people, not elites. The email explained that elites, unable to drive Sanders’ campaign, had lashed out in the lead-up to the February 20 caucus in Nevada, “not just at Bernie, but at you.” A bullet point in the email read, “Bill Clinton compared supporters powering our political revolution — people like you — to the tea party. The tea party!”

Just two months prior, in December 2015, I had been spending a lot of time with folks sympathetic to tea party ideas. With one, 76-year-old Dottie Hawthorne, I had even had a productive conversation about Bernie Sanders. In our interview over tuna sandwiches in Dottie’s living room, Dottie had described socialism and communism as close to one another and “frightening, so frightening.”

“You cannot take from the rich and give to the poor [...] you need to give the poor incentives to grow and to earn and to be proud of themselves. [...] It’s against my way of thinking [and] common sense,” she said.

Later, disgusted with both “sides of the aisle” of U.S. politics, Dottie asked: “As far as our people who are going to run for president, my goodness, which one would you choose, if you, no political affiliation, just which of the candidates would you choose right now?”

Corrie: “Bernie.”

Dottie: “And why?”

Corrie: “Because he’s a socialist.”

Dottie: “And you think socialism is good?”

Corrie: “Yeah.”

Dottie: “I guess I need to know why you think that.”

We proceeded to discuss socialism, welfare and conservatism. Though Dottie was not convinced at the end of our conversation that Bernie was “who we can count on to see that [taxation] is done right,” she did say, “Eh, food for thought huh, very interesting. I have not read very much about Bernie Sanders.”

Here, in this brief statement, I see a kernel of hope. Dottie, a 76-year-old conservative rancher, and me, a 25-year-old woman who has spent her last four years under the mentorship of radical Marxist sociologists in California — the bastion of liberalism in the United States — were able to have a calm, respectful conversation about socialism. We did not shoot each other down, but listened, and, based on listening, offered examples and perspectives gleaned from our lived experiences. We shared our views with each other. We talked across lines.

Part of talking across our lines of difference was agreeing to disagree, being able to sit with that disagreement while enjoying each other’s company, and appreciating each other’s contribution to our common cause — the fight against fracking.

This is the kind of conversation I see becoming more possible because of the organizing practices of Citizens Allied for Integrity and Accountability (CAIA), a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to government and corporate integrity and accountability and therefore, the fight against fracking. Dottie’s and my conversation was one that necessitated a relationship of trust, which usually, and especially when two people hold opposing views, requires time.

Bernie’s email to me, had Dottie read it, would have undone any progress she and I made in communicating to each other. It was an email to bind certain people together against others. In this case, others were tea partiers and the Democratic establishment represented by Bill and Hillary Clinton (Bernie’s competitor). This type of writing denies the possibility of conservative people working for progressive change, people like interviewees Jan and Wayne.

Jan and Wayne were former leaders of a local tea party group and core members of CAIA. They stressed the local character of their tea party group, and the diversity of tea parties more generally, identifying limited government control and spending as the unifying tea party theme.

They argued that their political affiliation had nothing to do with their stance on oil and gas, a statement that could come as a surprise to someone who supposes that tea party equals conservative equals pro fossil fuels.

As Jan explained: “People are usually surprised because we feel the way we feel about oil and gas [and] are Republicans or conservative. It’s like you can’t be that way. And it’s like, ‘What do you mean?’ If you are thinking, really thinking about the issue and you don’t like it, it has nothing to do with what your beliefs are politically.”

Wayne’s language was more colorful: “Politics does not play a role in this big picture [of oil and gas]. I don’t give a rat’s behind about your political affiliation; I want to stop these a–holes from what they are doing.”

Jan and Wayne were able to organize with self-identified Democratic anti-fracking activists because the group expressly rejected stereotypes embedded within political labels. In fact, the group worked to avoid use of labels entirely, in their messaging and internal discussion, something I delve into in the next chapter. What is the effect then, of pitting Bernie supporters against tea partyers? Might it be more productive for building progressive change, for building climate justice, to think and communicate in unifying, rather than dividing terms?

Communicating in unifying terms was exactly what CAIA had developed as its primary organizing strategy. CAIA members did not come up with this strategy out of the blue, however. Talking across lines was a hard won strategy developed to meet the needs of activists organizing amidst small, politically red farming towns (approximately 75% of voters in this area voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election), activists who had started out as people who did not think of themselves as activists.

Extremists, hippies and Birkenstocks: ambivalence about ‘activist’

Like fracking opponents in other parts of the country, most CAIA members did not think of themselves as environmentalists or activists. However, in the course of our interviews, many explored the activist label as they addressed my question, How do you describe yourself?, which I typically followed with examples, activist? organizer? concerned citizen?A few initially hesitated about using “activist,” but then later came to the conclusion that actually, they were activists, because activists are not limited to the stereotypical image of an extreme, protesting, Birkenstock-wearing hippie, to borrow imagery from multiple interviewees.

Alma Hasse, who had gone to jail for her anti-fracking efforts, had dramatically changed her views about activists and environmentalists. As she explained, “I used to — I am ashamed to say this Corrie, don’t hold it against me — I used to say environmentalists were Birkenstock wearing hippies with too much time on their hands. Now I know they don’t wear Birkenstocks, don’t have enough time, and think, ‘where would we be without them?’ We are lucky to have them.”

Alma’s admission is emblematic of how interviewees’ conceptions of activists transformed over time. Most thought of themselves as regular people until an event jeopardized their sense of safety. Still thinking themselves regular people, they worked to protect themselves and quickly found that they were no longer viewed as regular by their neighbors. All of a sudden, they were perceived as in league with Birkenstock-wearing hippies, even though none of them wore Birkenstocks or matched any stereotypes of hippies. This led interviewees to reassess what they thought of activists and to understand their own activism against natural gas as important, no matter what their neighbors thought.

Luke and Brynna Smith, a couple in their early thirties who were part of a legal effort to stop natural gas next to their property, described themselves as concerned homeowners and parents. They told me that activists were viewed with suspicion in their community, as “squeaky wheels,” Brynna said. Luke explained, “if you’ve been labeled an extremist or an activist you are just [...] not wanting to be listened to.”

According to Luke, viewing activists as extremist was a sharp contrast to how locals viewed the natural gas company representatives. People trusted the company and believed their assurances that everything would be OK. Neighbors cited the nice suits and respectful manner of the landmen, men employed by the natural gas company to knock on doors and ask landowners to sign leases for natural gas, as evidence that they were trustworthy. In this area of Idaho, businessmen were respected while environmentalists, who were typically women, were not.

Luke and Brynna originally had no opinion on oil and gas. They started researching “both sides” of the issue when a landman brought a gas lease to their house. Their investigation of the issue began online, cross checking everything on the documents that the gas company gave them. A couple of months later, they realized that the proposed well would be constructed right next to their property line and children’s swing set. From their research, they concluded that the gas company was not being responsible stewards and that having a well next to their house could have negative health impacts on their four young children.

They began writing letters to politicians and initially felt like they were the only ones in the county that were questioning the drilling. They felt isolated. Neighbors told Luke and Brynna that they should be careful speaking out about the proposed well.

They explained, “You don’t want them to start, you know, totally discounting what you say because you have been pushing the issue,” said Brynna. “So that right there spoke volumes to me about the way people view anyone who really stands up for what they think is right, you know. So what, can I write, like, three letters to the newspaper or something, what’s my limit here before you start thinking I am crazy?”

The threat of a well next to their home made the Smiths aware of the importance of speaking out. They began to value the work of activists like Alma and started speaking out themselves.

Discussing the way that gas production processes worked, where “unless you object you are considered [...] consenting,” Luke said, “You almost have to be an activist just to stop something or let people know, ‘Hey, we need to rethink this or look this over before we continue on,’ because a simple mistake or simple yes [...] can completely wipe this town out.”

Luke thought it was silly that “either [...] your kids better be drinking oil when they eat their dinner or you are a complete activist and you have dreads and everything else, it’s one or the other is how it’s viewed.”

Both he and Brynna were interested in ensuring that things in their community were done responsibly and they did not think that was extreme. The categories of pro-oil and extreme activist are too constrained for people like Luke and Brynna and the many other concerned individuals who identify with neither of these categories.

As we continued our conversation, Brynna talked about how most people who think activists are extreme are not willing to “stand up for anything ever” and how she and Luke had been guilty of that. Luke interjected: “We used to call [activists] patriots,” the people who “freaked out, [got] people together, [and] did something” to address taxation without representation before the Revolutionary War.

Encapsulated in this discussion on what it means to be an activist is Luke and Brynna’s larger journey from never having engaged in politics to having their names on the lawsuit against Alta Mesa (the gas developer in Idaho) and considering organizing a petition for enhanced oil and gas safety regulations. Their experience resisting oil and gas had not only changed their view of the industry, but also of the social forces that speak out in communities.

Ambivalence, being “on the fence” about activism, was common. Local media routinely calls Alma an “Anti-Fracking Activist” (e.g. Boise Weekly, Idaho Statesman, Argus Observer, 580 KIDO). Yet, Alma does not consider herself an activist: “I don’t really, and I haven’t really ever thought of myself as an activist per se, you know, there is a need and nobody, I didn’t see anybody stepping forward to fill it, so here I am [laughs].”

So what was the need that spurred Alma to action?

As Alma liked to say, up until she moved to Idaho, her “head had been firmly planted in the sand” and her “rose colored glasses firmly affixed” to her face.

When she lived in California, before coming to Idaho, she viewed herself as a conservative, and both her and her husband Jim had all the material things they wanted. Alma had fulfilled many homemaker duties of a middle-class family concerned with presentation.

“I used to dust the top of my fridgerator on a weekly basis,” Alma would tell me, as she apologized for what she perceived as a state of disarray in her home, each time I arrived for fieldwork. “Now, I hardly even have time to do the dishes, Jim often steps up to do them.”

In her sweatpants during a day of computer work, before she quickly changed for a meeting and rushed out the door, Alma would say, “It’s a good thing I don’t put on makeup anymore.”

The change from a life of more traditional gender roles and related concerns about presentation of self and home to one of constant resistance to oil and gas­­ — “givin’ them hell,” as Alma says — paralleled the change in her view of environmentalists from Birkenstock-sandal-wearing hippies to invaluable members of civil society. In sum, Alma’s priorities had changed significantly since 2006 when she realized she had a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) as a neighbor. From that point on, activist work filled her time.

Her CAFO neighbor “officially smashed'' her rose-colored glasses. Alma asked him to stop leaving piles of cattle feed on the road, fallen from his overloaded trucks. In response, he scooped one up and dumped it on the corner of her property. The sample of cattle feed Alma gathered in a neighbor’s borrowed canning jar and had tested by Analytical Laboratories of Boise, “had some of the highest levels of ecoli [the tester] had seen.”

The tester “told me to call the school and have them not pick the kids up there because the kids should have no contact with this stuff,” Alma explained.

Alma went on to work against unjust CAFO policies at the state level, forming a nonprofit and revealing CAFO noncompliance with state and federal laws. This work parallels CAIA’s work against oil and gas. Both fight industry-friendly laws that strip away public process and local control over environmentally risky, and, in climate terms, catastrophic, businesses. Both cows and leaking natural gas pipes are tremendous sources of methane emissions, not to mention the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from burning natural gas or transporting cows and beef in our sprawling food system.

Alma’s husband, Jim, experienced a similarly intense event that spurred him to become an activist, though he also does not call himself one.

On Thursday October 9, 2014, Alma sat with about six other members of the public observing a Payette County Planning and Zoning Commission public hearing on oil and gas. Speaking from the front of the fluorescently lit, unadorned and nearly empty meeting room, a commissioner accused Alma of presenting false information in her testimony at a previous hearing. The present hearing had entered the deliberation stage, when the public is not allowed to speak.

Alma demanded a point of order, asking to know the source that contradicted her statement. She had previously stated in public comment that Santa Barbara had an ordinance prohibiting the transportation of gas by railway. The commissioner said he called the city’s zoning commission and they denied this. In response to Alma’s request for information, the commissioners asked her to leave. She would not — they were in a public meeting, she said — so they asked for her arrest.

She calmly and quietly spoke with a reluctant deputy at the back of the room before a man more determined to carry out the arrest arrived, handcuffed her, and escorted her out of the room (the video of the arrest is posted on Facebook). The commissioner, in fact, provided the information Alma had requested after she left the room. Alma’s testimony, while incorrect on the policy details of Santa Barbara, was generally correct. The gist of it, that transportation of gas by rail is unsafe and undesirable, is consistent with Santa Barbara County’s policies.

Alma spent the next seven days in jail, five of those in solitary confinement without visitors, phone calls or clean clothes, because she would not give her name, choosing to remain silent . As the interim director of ACLU Idaho, Leo Morales, said of Alma’s arrest: “This is the type of treatment that is usually reserved for terrorists.”

The jailers claimed they could not process her without a name. She was also jailed before a three-day holiday weekend that inhibited processing. They would not allow her to receive toiletries from her husband, or clean underwear, which have to be approved on Wednesdays — she was arrested on a Thursday.

While in jail, Alma went on a hunger strike. She learned that almost all of the 17 women in the jail, the “no tell motel” as she likes to call it, were on government assistance. When she discovered that seven of these women with mental health conditions had to pay for their doctors to come into the jail to prescribe their medications, she organized the women to make complaints to the jail.

“The next day, they let me out. They probably didn’t want me organizing. I’m glad I went to jail since I didn’t know anything about it and the mental health situation of the women in there,” Alma reflected as she told me about the ordeal over lunch at The Hideaway Grille — the first place she went upon her release from jail four months before.

Payette County dropped all charges against Alma of resisting, obstructing and criminal trespass on April 2, 2015.

One of the best parts about Alma’s arrest, according to a couple of interviewees, was that it sparked Jim’s involvement.

“I will always remember that day, the day Alma got arrested. I had to handle everything while she was in jail, and it was then that I really realized how crazy it all was. Before, I was aware, but I mostly stayed out of it and did our business,” Jim explained.

Her arrest made it painfully clear that the way things are handled in Payette County is worthy, not only of suspicion, but also of a sustained and huge commitment of his time. He began attending and documenting, with professional video equipment, every meeting he could, and then uploading them to YouTube.

Jim eventually helped form CAIA, where he serves as board member and president. His duties in these roles involve organizing meeting agendas and facilitating meetings. When I asked how he described himself, he replied, “Concerned citizen. I believe that there shouldn’t be certain elements of society taking advantage of other people and benefit[ting] from them without [it] being a win-win situation.”

Jim’s motivation, like other CAIA members, stemmed from a deep sense of right, wrong and fairness. He, along with Alma, owned a couple of small businesses (restoration and equipment attachment sales) and applied his business sense and ethics to all things oil and gas. As he said, everything should be win-win. In business, you should provide a quality service to someone and receive a fair price for that service. The oil and gas industry did not abide by this ethos.

This sense of wrongdoing was an important motivator for many interviewees. The behavior of the oil and gas industry sharply contrasted with how interviewees were used to interacting with other people in their community, a community where you often see folks you know at the grocery store.

As Luke Smith explained, “I see that the community, a lot of them, just don’t know, they are being railroaded and I’m not a protector per se, but I hate to see people [...] just getting schemed and railroaded all of the time from the oil company [...] and so I’ve been trying to be educated on the system.”

Men like Luke, alongside women, felt a sense of duty to protect their neighbors, something that researchers have documented in other rural contexts.

Sherry Gordon, self-described “harmonizer,” secretary and website curator of CAIA, who fellow activist Dottie Hawthorne described as a “quiet force,” described a similar realization upon attending her first oil and gas meeting at the Gem County courthouse in Emmett, the town where she lives.

A major contention in the fight over oil and gas in Idaho is whether it is about fracking. There are fracking regulations in Idaho policy that the industry participated in developing. In activist’s lines of reasoning, why would a gas company work to develop policies for a form of extraction it does not intend to practice? In Sherry’s observations, the gas company representatives never say explicitly they will not frack, likely so that if they want to in the future, past quotes will not damage their credibility. However, the company does strive to make fracking seem unlikely. Sherry’s concern is that people trust the industry’s words:

“The lawyers there were so slick, and it was clear that they were way bamboozling the people in the audience because they knew the right words to say to make implications, but not to say something outright, like, ‘We are not going to be fracking.’ [Instead, they say], ‘We see no reason why we should have to frack here because X, Y, Z.’ They didn’t say they’re not going to and everybody says well, ‘They say they’re not going to frack,’ but oh my God! People are kind of horrifying [light laugh] sometimes in their — and it’s not a level of intelligence, it’s just wanting to believe something and taking words and not using their best judgment, not using you know discretion, logic [laughs].”

Sherry’s point about the gullibility of Idahoans was something I heard often. Interviewees described Idahoans as particularly trusting, especially of local government. Luke and Brynna felt like the gas company had taken away their ability to trust.

Sherry, who moved to Idaho from California, was so concerned about the bamboozling that she agreed to edit an oil and gas ordinance to propose to the county. She did this despite having set out to not get involved with oil and gas because her time was already filled with volunteer work for a number of other community organizations. The oil and gas ordinance absorbed her time throughout the whole holiday season. When she opened their presentation to the committee, she had never done anything like it before, speaking in front of a packed room to recommend policy.

Summing up her primary motivation for being involved, Sherry explained, “It’s got to be done […] I mean I really really really wish somebody else were doing it, but since they aren’t, I just feel [...] like I am being held to this somehow. [...] I’m doing it out of, oh, you know, a sense of duty I guess, because it really has to be done, somebody’s got to be this balance and try to be a force for changing things and I know that those forces all start out small.”

Her feeling of fulfilling a duty resonated with Jim’s account. For Jim, the oil and gas industry was an affront to all things ethical. He feels that ethics do not have a political stripe or label, they are about humanity and doing good:

“The bottom line is, it’s not about how happy you are or [...] think you are; [...] it’s about what kind of impact you can make before you check out, you know. Are you, is there going to be a difference? It’s not a political thing, it’s not a partisan thing, it’s a reason why we’re here thing, it’s a humanity thing. So it doesn’t matter if it’s left, right or whatever, a lot of people will coin activists as people that are very liberal, environmental […] but I’m extremely conservative and it’s more of a, it’s a people thing, it’s really — I can honestly say if anybody is concerned about their fellow man, if they have done anything to help support that, I guess they’re an activist, so there you go.”

The reluctance to claim “activist” is evidence that the organizing context of southwest Idaho was one in which doing activist activities was frowned upon. In some ways, interviewees reinforced this sentiment by continuing to distance themselves from the label. However, in their tireless work to stop natural gas, ensure environmental stewardship, and protect communities from being tricked by corporations, they model the dedication of activists. Some, after roundabout explanations, eventually came to the conclusion that they were, in fact, activists. Understanding this social context helps clarify why CAIA developed particular tactics to pursue its goals. These tactics centered around relationship building to enable talking and working across lines of difference.

‘People don’t care what you know until they know that you care’

Relational organizing is central to CAIA members’ theory of change. Both of these terms come, not from CAIA, but from youth activists whom I interviewed in Santa Barbara. As youth activists explained, relational organizing is the idea that the best organizing comes from personal relationships of trust between people and that these relationships are best built on a foundation of care for the person and their life, rather than the purpose that person serves in a campaign.

A theory of change is a person’s view of how change happens. I use these terms to illustrate the progressive nature of CAIA’s organizing, in the sense that the group is on the leading edge of inclusive and broad-based organizing­­ — across political ideologies. In the realm of political ideology, CAIA is practicing what the youth in Santa Barbara advocate.

That all core CAIA members recognize the importance of relational organizing is evident in their dedication to message. Here, message does not mean a superficial strategy to attract people, though it is strategic. Message means a core value of the group and the foundation of why they work as hard as they do. They are all committed to their mission of “representing and educating the public, challenging unjust government and corporate actions and participating in public processes to promote the preservation of private property rights, public health, safety and resources.”

In addition, the group has committed itself to six core values of respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, fairness and citizenship. These values apply to the group, membership and community. They even apply to representatives of the fossil fuel industry, whom activists like Alma always address with decency in public.

Gas company representatives do not always reciprocate. Alta Mesa Idaho vice president and general counsel John Peiserich, for example, once shoved the camera of a reporter sympathetic to documenting CAIA’s struggle, and when asked to stop touching the equipment, said, “I’ll do whatever I want, f— you.”

CAIA defines its six core values in the following ways:

  1. Respect: Civility, Courtesy, Honor, Decency, Dignity, Autonomy, Tolerance, Acceptance
  2. Responsibility: Accountability, Integrity, Follow-Through, Pursuit of Excellence, Self-Restraint, Personal Growth, Humility, Service, Constructive Optimism
  3. Trustworthiness: Honesty, Truthfulness, Sincerity, Candor, Loyalty, Accuracy
  4. Caring: Appreciation of Others, Self After Others, Love for People/Humanity/Life, Giving Without the Expectation of Return
  5. Fairness: Inclusiveness, Equity, Impartiality, Nonpartisan, Nondiscriminatory
  6. Citizenship: Aware and Informed, Engaged, Do More Than Your Fair Share, Work for Community Wellbeing, Active Oversight of Elected Leaders to Ensure Genuine Representation

By modeling these values and sharing information one relationship at a time, CAIA hopes to build its power. CAIA members routinely spend hours having coffee with people who express interest in their group, getting to know them, their concerns and how they would like to be plugged in.

These types of relationships are not only important for growing the movement, but also critical for educating people on the complexities of oil and gas. CAIA core members are very concerned with validity, providing sources for all the statements they make.

As Shelley explained, “The industry can lie 90% of the time, but we have to be 110% accurate.” This requires a large investment in getting new members up to speed.

As Sherry Gordon outlined: “You have to spend lots of time bringing [new people] along to the point where you’re not really gritting your teeth, hoping that they are not going to say something really foolish that’s going to hurt the organization [...] just because it’s so critical to be [...] Teflon coated so that nobody can [put] a grappling hook into you, you know, Teflon coated with truth that’s […] back-upable.”

While important everywhere because of industry’s vast resources to amplify its voice above the grassroots, being able to stand behind data is something Idaho interviewees stressed more than other interviewees. They saw data as critical in a context where there is little support for activities perceived as environmental or conservationist.

Justin Hayes, Program Director at the Idaho Conservation League (ICL), Idaho’s oldest and largest conservation group, affirmed the hostile organizing climate that environmental causes faced in Idaho.

About six times in our conversation Justin said, “We have to be very careful. If you go with your hair on fire you are marginalizing yourself and all the people and things you stand for. We have to stay credible.”

In this case, credible meant middle of the road. Both Ben Otto, ICL’s energy associate, and Justin advocated a strategy of having a seat at policy-making tables by proposing what they saw as realistic actions — safety regulations and step-by-step victories, rather than a strategy of saying industry was not welcome in Idaho.

Justin’s approach to oil and gas clashes with the climate justice movement’s keep it in the ground campaign. He explained: “Our goal is not to stop this industry, we are not an organization that has said, “Hell no! No oil and gas development in Idaho period, over our dead bodies!” Um, that would just, that’s not a position that is going to work in Idaho, so if you want to make yourself completely irrelevant to the policy debate of how to regulate the industry, go light your hair on fire and say this industry is not welcome here.”

Probing whether Justin articulated an organizational view or his own, I asked: “Would you personally like to have no oil and gas in Idaho or are you okay with it?” Standing, Justin crossed the room to the light switch. He flicked the lights on and off and said,

“These [the lights] come from natural gas. I have an array of solar panels on my house, but am I off the grid? No. I rode by bike here, but then I’ll drive my daughter to sports practice, in my Prius, but it’s still. So I think we should regulate this to be as safe as possible. It’s kind of like with mining [he does mining work for ICL] when people ask me if we need mines, I say yes, for all of the stuff in my awesome cell phone or our cars. If they ask if I’d rather have a mine in Bolivia or the U.S., I say the U.S., because we have way better regulations.”

Justin’s explanation echoes arguments I had heard in Santa Barbara. During a public hearing on the anti-fracking ballot measure known as Measure P, County Supervisor Lavignino made these remarks to support his no vote on Measure P:

“We basically have a soft ban on fracking [i.e. many regulations] since 2011 — I voted for it. So this protects us from fracking. The reality is that I had to park a half-mile away from this place because people [who are at this meeting to protest oil] use cars. I am all for solar and renewables, but it [oil] is not going away in the near future. I think ‘ think globally and act locally’ is interesting. The GHGs [greenhouse gas emissions] of not getting it [oil] locally is getting it from Iraq or Venezuela, which means bigger GHGs.”

These statements and calls for environmentalists to recognize their own carbon dependencies feed into the fossil fuel industry’s ability to “manufacture consent.” LeQuesne calls this “petro-hegemony.” The fossil fuel industry uses its control over the state, economy and culture to make fossil fuels an unquestioned element of life. Alternative bases of energy are, in this context, “hardly imaginable.”

In central Appalachia, Bell documents how the coal industry enacts petro-hegemony by creating a pro-coal fake grassroots organization called “Friends of Coal” that sponsors local events, services and places.

As she explains: “Through appearing to sponsor everything and anything, Friends of Coal gives the impression that the coal industry is still acting as the backbone of the state, regardless of whether it provides many jobs or contributes significantly to public services. Thus, these diverse sponsorships serve to perpetuate an ideology of dependency: without the coal industry, West Virginians would not only be without jobs, but they would also be without sporting events, soccer fields, cultural events and community centers.”

These corporate strategies are at work in Idaho and Santa Barbara as well. The website slogan for Idaho Power, the utility provider for southern and eastern Idaho, for instance, is, “We are Idaho.”

The website of Santa Maria Energy, a major oil producer in Santa Barbara County, has a slideshow featuring photos of wine grapes and majestic Santa Maria valley landscapes, making it seem as if the company is somehow synonymous, rather than incompatible with the county’s largest economic sectors — tourism and agriculture. Only two of the four photos in the slideshow feature any oil infrastructure. In one of those, the infrastructure is almost completely blocked from view by trees.

Convincing anyone who uses fossil fuels that he or she is dependent on them, that stopping fossil fuels would lead to the ruin of the individual and society, bolsters the hegemonic power of the industry. It prevents imagination of new and different ways of obtaining energy and organizing society. It also divides community members, marginalizing those that are calling for what we need: no more fossil fuels.

That this dependency message comes from the program director of Idaho’s largest environmental group and from an elected official in Santa Barbara demonstrates the broad buy-in to industry’s messaging. It is as if the American Cancer Society said, to a person who smokes daily, that the inconvenience of quitting and adjusting one’s daily routine outweighs the known health effects, and that the smoker should buy local tobacco. Grassroots groups like CAIA work hard to negate this fossil-fuel dependency justification for inaction.

Unlike the nonprofit staffers I just mentioned, CAIA thinks the facts about the damage of gas extraction give them the credibility to advocate for, if not a ban on the industry, a reversal of all the laws that make gas extraction a viable business in Idaho. The facts CAIA shares with communities and their concern with progress on the issue endears them to their supporters. Care, as Jim’s quote in this section’s title communicates, is key: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Just one example of how CAIA showed people that it cares comes from Peter and Susan Dill, organic farmers in Gem County. They stressed how impressed they were that Alma had been responsible for connecting their county (where Alma does not live) to Michael Lewis, then director of the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Idaho Water Science Center.

They did not know Alma had been involved and had wondered how Lewis connected with Gem County. With guidance from Lewis, the USGS partnered with Gem County to conduct county-wide base-line water testing before industry drilling. CAIA members believe this is the first such collaboration in the United States. Having baseline data is the only way communities can prove contamination from oil and gas drilling; in most cases, communities do not have this data. The Dills, both soft spoken and intentional with their words, spoke highly of Alma and Michael. According to Susan, Michael “was very supportive, I mean he really cares.”

In the context of climate crisis, care means shutting the oil and gas industry down. Though the Idaho Conservation League’s website is full of language about working on the issues Idahoans care about ­— “Because you love Idaho, the Idaho Conservation League protects the air you breathe, the water you drink and the land you love” — their moderate approach to oil and gas regulations fails, when considering climate change, to care enough.

In trying to walk the middle line on this issue, to appear “credible” to Idaho politicians (many of whom do not believe in climate change), they alienate CAIA and fail to demand the conservation measures that climate change requires.

Though taking a moderate approach may appear to be an attempt to talk across lines, it is an attempt to talk across, but not disrupt, lines of power in a political economy that is fundamentally unjust.

Both Ben Otto and Justin Hayes were reticent to think about building coalitions with CAIA, whom the former saw as representing conservative voices that had been against most of ICL’s policies in the past, and whom the latter saw as people with their hair on fire. Both had had little sustained personal contact with CAIA members and no relationship of trust. Ben Otto recognized the importance of trust. When I asked him if there was a way ICL could collaborate with CAIA on oil and gas, Ben said:

“We are definitely trying to. [...] It’s new for us, we have traditionally just been very threatened by the tea party and private property rights scene and they have felt very threatened by us, so it’s new for both of us, both groups, to try to find this comfort and trust. It takes a lot of trust-building when you’ve traditionally, you know, lobbed competing press releases at each other and you’ve called each other terrible names in meetings; there’s a lot of repair that needs to happen, and trust is earned, especially in Idaho. I mean people are pretty insular to their community, so it is just going to take time to build that trust and you earn it by demonstrating consistency and respect for different people and listening to folks, but I think it’s getting better, but yeah, it will take time.”

Both Justin and Ben recognized, in their own ways, where CAIA was coming from. Justin noted how it was understandable that people radicalized. He had seen activists start off concerned and “reasonable,” but then, when no one listens, he explained, people have no incentive to be moderate. Ben, who was perhaps not yet so jaded to dismiss what he called “the left flank” and who personally preferred that oil and gas did not happen, thought it was important for people to make more radical demands than he could in the context of his more insider position with ICL.

Radical demands like, “let’s close every coal plant this year” moved the window of possible conversations to the left, Ben explained. Ben and Justin felt they were doing what they could within their roles as ICL staff — lobbying for more stringent policy and building strong relationships with state agencies. During my research, their practice of doing what Ben called the “art of the possible” did not line up with CAIA’s goals.

In this context, CAIA, particularly Alma, perceived lack of support from the big green groups in Boise, and so, most of CAIA’s relational organizing was focused on building the grassroots. Of CAIA interviewees, Jim thought about relational organizing the most. He was a keen observer of body language to gauge a person’s feelings. As he explained, activists should be focused on others’ needs and be aware of how different issues concern different people.

In the following excerpt, he powerfully captures the idea of talking across lines — the core of CAIA’s organizing:

“You’ve got to figure out a way to establish that you care and to do that, you have to […] understand where they’re coming from and learn how to speak to them. Instead of telling them everything that you think they should know, you need to tell them things that they would be interested in knowing. […] If you can imagine taking a piece of paper and folding it in half, [there’s] the left side and the right side and the line in the middle is the center, list all the things that different political affiliations would land on. So obviously on the left, you would have abortion, and abortion on the right too, you would have maybe guns on the right and you know, list everything, and then try to find things down the center that people, that both people, both mindsets, would see [as] a common interest. […] And you know, see what goes down the center and then that’s what you talk about. If you’re in an area that is more to the left, then you can put that line over to the left, or more to the right, but you have to kind of look at first an overall view of what you want to do and you try to stop talking about the fringe stuff because that’s what they [the oil and gas industry] want us to do.”

An activist’s task is to, through relationship building, understand where someone is coming from — meet someone where they’re at, as Santa Barbara youth activists say in Chapter 5 — and then develop a strategy for communicating with them.

Jim also used the example of farmers, an important constituency in a strong farming community like Payette County, to explain what talking across lines would look like in his organizing context:

“What is important to the farmers? Well, water is very important, make sure they got plenty of water for their crops, because I don’t think there’s a farmer around that would say, ‘Oh no, I don’t care if water gets cut off midseason.’ I mean that’s their source of life — they don’t bring that product to market, they don’t get paid. They got a lot of money up front, they may have even taken loans to be able to put the product in the ground [...] so you have to look and see what’s important to them and then actually write a list, so you can keep that top of mind, so water would be important to farmers. Condition of roads are important; they can’t get their product out if the roads are not good for large trucks.”

The things that Jim identifies, water and road conditions, are both directly impacted by natural gas production. Hydraulic fracturing uses tremendous quantities of water and the heavy trucks that carry water and natural gas infrastructure.

Jim’s analogy, however, goes beyond oil and gas. At heart, his approach underlines common values as key to organizing. While there is some flexibility in communicating values depending on context, the core values that drive CAIA’s work are always the same, rooted in care, fairness and quality of life.

The goal of protecting these values leads clearly to some common enemies, in this case, the oil and gas industry and the state. By standing on the core values at the center of Jim’s imaginary piece of paper, CAIA can talk and work across lines of difference that typically prevent collaboration.

Conclusion

Through an exploration of activists’ journeys into activism, this chapter describes the social context in which activists work. It is a social context where activists are seen as extreme and unreasonable and where activists perpetuate this image, at least for a time, by distancing themselves from the term. It is a context where leaders in the environmental non-profit realm perpetuate the idea of fossil fuel dependency, that there is no alternative.

Despite this context, most interviewees eventually recognized their work as activism and as critical to securing a healthy environment and fair political context for their communities. The natural gas companies’ violation of rules of decency for relationships was a spark that lit the passions of most interviewees. On the flip side, activists’ relationships with each other helped them overcome feelings of isolation that result from organizing in such a social context. Similarly, the organization CAIA was able to rapidly grow through emphasizing values like care, understanding the priorities of community members within its messaging and then talking across lines to highlight common values.

In Chapter 4, I describe how Idaho activists talk across lines, as well as the challenges to doing so.

Dr. Corrie Grosse (Courtesy of Corrie Grosse)
Dr. Corrie Grosse (Courtesy of Corrie Grosse)

About the author

Dr. Corrie Grosse is a sociologist and associate professor in the environmental studies department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. She teaches a course each fall in which the students travel to the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference and conduct fieldwork.

Many of those students from fall 2022 produced essays published by Project Optimist.

This is an excerpt from Working Across Lines: Resisting extreme energy extraction, published in July 2022 by the University of California Press. You can purchase the book online. See the book for full citations and notes.

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