How Can We Assess Fracking’s Consequences Without Being Influenced by Big Business?

What's to come?
July 6 2012 7:15 AM

Let a Thousand Gas Wells Bloom

How can we assess the consequences of new technologies like fracking when there are billions of dollars at stake?

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Yet as with Rand’s triumphant defense of the captains of industry, we should ask whether More’s principle is anything other than an ethical veneer on the process whereby the rich get richer. Is there substance here, or is this more neoliberal mumblespeak like strategic dynamism?

Barnett Shale Drilling.
Barnett Shale Drilling from 1997 to 2010

Courtesy the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Consider what More calls “the essence” of the proactionary principle: “Let a thousand flowers bloom! By all means, inspect the flowers for signs of infestation and weed as necessary,” but do not stifle “our freedom to learn.” Now look at this EIA animation of gas well drilling on the Barnett Shale. Here we see, not just a thousand but 15,000 gas wells blooming. Sure, it looks more like a bad case of measles than flowers. But the point remains that this is the essence of proactionary innovation at work. This massive industrial bloom occurred with very little up-front discussion of social, environmental, and even economic ramifications.

In proactionary terms, for roughly 10 years now we have been collecting data from this social experiment, looking for “signs of infestation” so that we can “weed” where necessary. One of the key components of the proactionary principle is “objectivity” (as opposed to “emotion”) in the assessment of risks. What seems to elude More, though, is that in the context of corporate capitalism, a proactionary approach to innovation undermines the conditions necessary for an objective appraisal of risks.

The natural gas industry is the player with the most money, political influence, and vested interest in the task of monitoring the impacts of drilling. It is anything but a fair and level playing field. Gasland’s Fox makes this case in his recent short “The Sky Is Pink.” He notes that the American Natural Gas Association hired Hill & Knowlton, the same PR firm that in the 1950s ran a misinformation campaign to dispel concerns about the health risks of smoking. Fox interviews Naomi Oreskes, who argues that this is yet another instance of a deep-pocketed industry acting as “merchants of doubt” to manufacture debates and controversies. The strategy is to create enough uncertainty about the impacts of fracking to discredit any call for strengthened regulations. There are no weeds!

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Fox accuses the natural gas industry of concealing some of their own evidence of well casing integrity issues. And he notes the major political donations made to influential politicians by the industry. We can add to this picture the proprietary status of certain fracking chemicals and non-disclosure agreements that prevent landowners sharing information about accidents on their property. This all works against the ideal of objective risk assessment.

Concerned parents and neighbors have been scraping together a few thousand dollars to pay for air monitoring studies. The proactionary principle might laud such efforts as part of the learning process. But it is pitted against a Goliath of multi-billion dollar industry research and lobbying.

The precautionary principle may be technically naive in hoping that we could factor out all the bad consequences before they even happen. But it is politically naive to think that we can create billions of dollars of vested corporate interests around a new technology and then conduct a rational and fair process of assessing its risks.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page You can also follow us on Twitter.

Adam Briggle is an associate professor at the University of North Texas. He is writing a book about field philosophy and fracking for Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton.

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