Tackling NIMBYism in frac sand mining

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Published: Wednesday, 03 September 2014

US gas consumers have benefited from low gas prices as a result of the domestic fracking boom. However, when frac sand mining or well drilling takes place on their doorsteps, the public have been less enthusiastic.

By Al Maiorino*

The battles between frac sand miners and the towns, cities, counties and states that lie near the mines are well documented.

In the US, moratoria have been imposed on counties in Wisconsin and Minnesota for frac sand mining, while outright bans on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) exist in the state of New York, California, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Texas, Ohio, Hawaii, New Mexico and Colorado.

Further afield, in Europe bans on fracking exist in Spain, Germany and France.

While frac sand mining is not without scrutiny in itself, in terms of public perception, it is no secret that associated industries depending upon this technology for gas extraction are also fighting the same “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) battle.

Not only must frac sand mining companies battle public opposition against their own facilities, but as drilling companies face similar challenges, industrial minerals which feed into the unconventional gas industry such as bentonite, barite (barytes), borates and frac sand risk a decline in demand as extraction sites lay dormant due to public outcry.

Whether companies propose new frac sand facilities or new drill sites, all must prepare political-style campaigns that strategically introduce a proposal to the community to build support and ease public opposition that can halt operations entirely.

On such occasions, the only form of extraction taking place is of companies’ time and resources in drawn-out hearing processes and legal battles that prevent localities, states and counties from benefiting from critical energy resources.

Frac sand mining facilities throughout the US continue to endure costly delays in the approval process and even, once approved, interruptions of mine operations.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the state of Wisconsin, which holds the largest number of frac sand mines, as opponents’ urge legislators to take action to prevent new frac sand mining opportunities from coming to fruition.

This opposition has negative implications for economic opportunities within the state. This may be in the form of curtailing jobs and revenue locally, as well as broader implications for America’s energy independence.

This is by no means unique to the US. In Germany a new proposal surfaced in July to prohibit fracking for economic purposes all together until 2021.

News reports indicate that Germany imports 90% of its gas supply, which means that the need to tap into the country’s shale gas supply is immediate, given the recent threat of Russian sanctions (see pp60-66), which could extend to the gas giant’s natural resources.

Whether opposition aims to block mining of frac sands, or the process of fracking entirely, one thing remains the same, and that is that wherever a drilling or mining site is proposed, companies must be proactive and aggressive in community education, engagement and mobilisation.

Recognise the situation

Be assured, the denser the country, the less likely it is for an industry to ‘slip in’ under the radar. The UK, for example, is one of the densest countries in the European Union in terms of population, and as of 2010, the UK had 40 different silica sand mines in operation. As a result of this high population density, many extraction sites are located on private land in settled communities. NIMBY-ism should be of major concern to every driller looking to extract from the country, making strategic public outreach an imperative.

Identify contacts

The rollout of a public affairs campaign for any new project is the one of the most crucial aspects of a successful outreach movement to immediately identify supporters. A campaign can be initiated with a variety of communications techniques, including direct mailing, paid advertising and telephone outreach calls.

Direct mailing is an effective way to disseminate proposal details and information on how to help support the proposal whilst outlining community and national benefits. An initial mailer should include a tear-off mail-in section with a space for supporters to provide their contact information for follow up as well as allowing readers to act immediately after reading about the project benefits.

Following up the mailer with outreach phone calls allows for a short persuasive script that asks directly if supporters will write a letter or attend a meeting in support of the proposal. Equally, with the launch of cost effective web ads that link directly to a project website, digital news consumers will also be engaged right from the start.

Introduce the project

When a company secures the right to operate on a piece of land, their best move is to create a dialogue with their new neighbours. An open house style event hosted by experts and company contact personnel allows for a casual setting in which community members’ questions can be answered on an individual basis. An open house event is a more approachable format as opponents cannot interrupt, as in a presentation style meeting, since attendees communicate directly with the experts on issues about which they are most concerned or interested.

Organising and managing a database

A requirement for every successful project is an organised supporter database that includes names, phone numbers, addresses, email addresses and coded responses to phone calls and mailer returns.

The database can also be expanded to include district, party identification, income and other demographics to target communication in a particular way, if needed.

Embrace technology

Beyond keeping supporters updated in real time, according to PEW Research Center, 43% of social network users sought more information based on social media advocacy posts aimed at mobilisation and 18% of social network users actually took action based on these posts. Therefore, social media engagement can translate to meaningful action as opposed to one extra ‘like’ on a page. When armed with the right tools, supporters will speak out to refute myths and promote project benefits for a proposal.

Maintaining the momentum

Regular supporter meetings should be held for all those identified after initial outreach and throughout the duration of the campaign. These meetings should kick off letter writing drives and provide details that will help expand the advocacy network.

Every town meeting should be filled with industry supporters to remind public officials that it is the public to which they are beholden. Third party meetings are also critical in gaining the support of key community stakeholders, business groups, industry vendors and employees. Useful fact sheets for these third party meetings should offer a succinct presentation of project information and hearing dates.

Now is the time for industrial mineral companies to plan for engagement instead of assuming opponents will focus efforts further down the line with fracking sites. If frac sand mine proposals are properly introduced and public affairs is strategically executed, quality supporters will back the proposal for the company, and communities will begin to understand the benefits of industrial mineral mines in their towns.

*Al Maiorino is the president of Public Strategy Group, which he founded in 1995. He has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries including power plants, wind farms and frac sand projects.