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Radicals Push Past Old-School Activism to Oppose Shale Drilling

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Politics and Democracy page and our Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

MILLFIELD, Ohio - Cusi Ballew is willing to die to stop drilling.

He's climbing a dozen feet above the soggy ground this September afternoon for practice. When the time comes, he'll climb even higher and dare authorities to cut the ropes. A couple of slits could send him plunging 60 feet down.

That's what it takes, he says, to draw attention to rampant natural gas development in the area.

In July, dozens of demonstrators put the tactic to work. They blocked an access road with debris and crisscrossed ropes connected to two tree sitters 60 feet up in central Pennsylvania's Moshannon State Forest. Beyond them towered a 70-foot natural gas drilling rig, which could be accessed only by toppling the blockade and slashing the climbers' safety lines. The resulting nonviolent standoff forced rig operator EQT Corp. to shut down for hours.

Much to the frustration of companies like EQT, these activists are growing in force, and they have made shale drilling - especially the practice of hydraulic fracturing - a top target. Across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and outward, radical drilling critics have mobilized, united in their skepticism of an industry that has swept across the gas-rich Marcellus and Utica formations and dotted the landscape with new rigs and well pads.

Leading the drive is Earth First, an environmental movement that specializes in sit-ins, blockades, trespassing and other civil disobedience they collectively refer to as "direct action." But others call the approach "environmental extremism," even "ecoterrorism" - strong charges that land the activists on watch lists throughout the country.

Indeed, the movement's motto is "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth." But Earth Firsters at a private climbing training camp outside Athens, Ohio, last month stressed that although their methods are dynamic and, yes, radical, they are not violent.


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