Fed Up With Washington, Environmentalists Decamp to Hipster Enclave

Documentary filmmaker Josh Fox discusses this year's Power Shift event in Pittsburgh.

National Journal

As the federal government enters its 15th day of shutdown, environmentalists are preparing to look beyond the City on a Hill to the city of bridges, hipsters, and steel.

This year's Power Shift, a biennial meeting of thousands of environmental activists from around the country, will be held on Friday, Oct. 18 in Pittsburgh, the first time the event has been held outside of D.C. since it began in 2007. It's a move that one young Pitt graduate described as symbolic of a shift from political lobbying to grassroots organizing and maybe, just maybe, being cool.

"The political angle we've been trying to take hasn't really been working," Seth Bush, who works as a campus organizer for the Sierra Student Coalition at Pitt, told The Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "We're working on a better, cleaner, more just-energy future, and that could start here in Pittsburgh."

Another reason to choose Pittsburgh: It's at once at the heart of building the green economy and the first city to institute a ban on fracking, a focus for Power Shift this year. "It's a chance for young people to come together and talk about what it means that the president supports natural gas," said Maura Cowley, director for Energy Action, which is organizing the four-day event.

The natural-gas industry has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry, but it has also raised serious concerns about safety and sustainability. The process is thought to contaminate drinking water, and excess gas is often vented off, producing air pollution. The disposal of fracking wastewater underground also appears to be linked to earthquakes in Ohio and elsewhere.

Much of the regulation around fracking takes place at the state level, but environmentalists note there's much President Obama can do, including banning fracking on public lands and reopening the Environmental Protection Agency's investigations into fracking-contaminated groundwater in Dimock, Pa., Pavillion, Wyo., and Parker County, Texas.

A petition by actor Mark Ruffalo urging Obama to re-up the investigations has garnered more than 99,000 signatures, and he's not the only star to highlight the issue. Among this year's featured Power Shift speakers is Josh Fox, the controversial documentary filmmaker who achieved something approaching celebrity status following the release of his fracking documentaries, Gasland and Gasland 2.

"It's my contention and belief after making Gasland 2 that we cannot have democracy as long as we have continued dependency on fossil fuels," Fox told National Journal in an interview Monday afternoon. "Currently, we don't have democracy on these issues; we have a system that's bent in every possible way — at the state level, at the local level, and at the federal level — for the gas industry over the people."

Fox, who has followed the Michael Moore template of filmmaking in which artistry and activism go hand in hand, said the priorities of this year's summit are very much in tune with what he learned making Gasland.

"For a president who was elected by a grassroots movement to be ignoring the largest grassroots environmental movement in decades is incredibly disappointing," Fox said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although it's possible the spokesman was furloughed.