Why I'll Let Chevron Pay My Family's Bills, for Now

A banner calling for a ban on the controversial method of gas extraction known as fracking
A banner calling for a ban on the controversial method of gas extraction known as fracking

During Sunday's Democratic Debate in Flint, Michigan, many organizers and supporters of the environmental movement rejoiced as they heard Bernie Sanders simply say "no" to fracking. Meanwhile, I cringed.

This past year, my mother was laid-off two times, struggled to find a job, and took in unemployment compensation until it ran out in February. However, for the first time that I can remember, my mother's yearly income was above the poverty line this year. Although she just barely earned above the threshold for a single-mother supporting a family of four, it finally feels like she made it. For a short while, she can escape the label of poverty, and for this, I have Chevron to thank.

When I was home for the holidays, my family announced the news to me: 72 members of my mother's extended family, including my mother, had signed on to sell Chevron the mineral rights to an inherited section of land for gas drilling. The land rests in my rural town in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and like for many others in our region, the economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing outweigh any concerns of environmental risk. During his most recent visit, Chevron's representative told my family that last month alone, the company paid out 19 million dollars to those who leased land in our neighboring county of Marshall, West Virginia. At the same time, fracking is bringing much-needed, well-paying jobs to a region where there are few ways to make a living.

Yet my family assumed that I wouldn't support their decision because I'm the "environmentalist." When I was 17 years old, I sued the state of Pennsylvania for not taking adequate action to address climate change. Later that year, I stood in front of the White House at one of the first protests against the Keystone Pipeline. I have spoken out against hydraulic fracturing at public rallies, international conferences, and even in a short-film which was hand-delivered to President Obama. I am opposed to what the intensive extraction process can do to the environment and to the health of those who live near the drilling. Despite national campaigns and community resistance against hydraulic fracturing, I have seen the industry boom and expand throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond.

But, I'm not going to oppose my family's decision to sell their land to Chevron. I'm not going to call upon the "fracktivists" across the nation to join me in a fight against the drilling in my town. Currently, we are part of an economic system which makes it profitable to take extensive measures to extract and burn fossil fuels like natural gas, despite their impacts on our health, environment, and climate. How are we supposed to expect families and communities to reject these industries which many depend upon financially?

Bernie Sanders cannot simply reject fracking without also mentioning the need for alternative energy and economies. If he's going to ban fracking in Southwestern Pennsylvania and across the U.S., then he also needs to talk about his plan to build resilient economies in those same communities who depend on the industry.

We cannot confuse creating what we do want with destroying what we don't want. The climate movement has gotten good at saying "no" -- no KXL, no pipelines, no fossil fuels. But, we also have to practice saying "yes" to solutions. Last week, I listened to Naomi Klein give a lecture about The Leap Manifesto, which she created with hundreds of others who are working to transition Canada to a more just and sustainable future. The plan is extensive and calls for investment in housing, public infrastructure, and transportation. It calls for a transition from carbon-intensive jobs to clean energy jobs by providing training to those who currently work in the fossil fuel industries. The plan has justice at its heart by ensuring this transition happens first in low income communities and communities most impacted, and dependent upon, the fossil fuel industries.

While we continue to call out the need to move beyond the fossil fuel economy, let's also call attention to our need to build and act upon our own Leap Manifesto in the United States. Not only do we need to reinvent our economies and our communities for the climate, but we also need to do it for the countless communities who we are failing. These are the places where people can't drink water from the tap without being poisoned, where basic sewer systems are crumbling, where job opportunities are few and far between, and where lacking transportation resources keep us from coming together. By addressing the need to build a network of resilient communities, we can create an economy where families like mine don't need to rely on Chevron to pay the bills.