In August 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit distributed an intelligence bulletin to all field offices warning that environmental extremism would likely become an increasing threat to the energy industry. The eight-page document argued that, even though the industry had encountered only low-level vandalism and trespassing, recent “criminal incidents” suggested that environmental extremism was on the rise. The FBI concluded: “Environmental extremism will become a greater threat to the energy industry owing to our historical understanding that some environmental extremists have progressed from committing low-level crimes against targets to more significant crimes over time in an effort to further the environmental extremism cause.”
Not long after the bulletin was distributed, a private security firm providing intelligence reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security cited the FBI document in order to justify the surveillance of anti-fracking groups. The same security firm concluded that the “escalating conflict over natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania” could lead to an increase in “environmentalist activity or eco-terrorism.”
Since the 2010 FBI assessment was written, the specter of environmental extremism has been trotted out by both law enforcement and energy-industry security teams to describe a wide variety of grassroots groups opposed to the continued extraction of fossil fuels. In 2011, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP ) published a report titled, “Environmental Criminal Extremism and Canada’s Energy Sector.” The RCMP warned that environmental extremism posed a “clear and present criminal threat” to the energy industry. While both the FBI and RCMP reports make an effort to distinguish between lawful protest and criminal activity, they often conflate the two – in the RCMP report the terms “violence” and “direct action” are used interchangeably – and suggest opposition to the energy industry will lead to extremism. (The FBI’s Counterterrorism Division declined to answer questions about the 2010 bulletin.)
Yet even as the resistance to “extreme energy projects” has grown in size and scope, there is little evidence to support the breathless warnings about “eco-terrorism.” There has been no upward spiral in criminality among environmental activists. To the contrary, arson, property destruction, and other acts of violence most closely associated with the radical animal rights movement of the 1980s and 1990s have become all but nonexistent. According to figures compiled by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at the University of Maryland, there has been only a handful of incidents defined as eco-terrorism since 2010. In fact, between 2010 and 2013, the latest year for which the GTD has published figures, out of a total of 54 terror incidents in the United States, five were attributed to the Animal Liberation Front. The last recorded incident carried out by the Earth Liberation Front – the bulldozing of two radio transmission towers in Washington – was in 2009. Earth First! hasn’t appeared in the database since 1994.