Should Cities Ban Fracking?

What's to come?
Dec. 24 2012 9:00 AM

Should Cities Ban Fracking?

It’s complicated.

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OK, maybe this is just spineless litigiphobia. Fracking bans are about principle, not calculation. I think this is a false dichotomy, but set that aside and ask: What is the principle here?

I just keep thinking local fracking bans are less ideal and less principled than they seem. To start, I should separate Muir from this discussion, because calls for a ban single out fracking as a mode of production, not consuming as a mode of life. In general, folks want to ban fracking but keep their air conditioners. They are not interested in roughing it in Yosemite. This sounds less like idealism than technology policy. And the most plausible world-without-fracking scenario would feature more coal, which means more mercury, fly ash, sulfates, and mountain-top removal. Less than ideal. Or we could ban coal, too, which would mean higher energy prices and less reliable power.

Longmont made no mention in its ban about refusing to accept natural gas produced elsewhere. This starts to sound like hypocritical NIMBY-ism. Will towns that ban fracking still accept electrons generated from gas pulled out of the ground near my house in Denton? If so, how is that a principled idealism?

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Further, a ban cannot be the right thing just because it is the will of a majority. Majorities have a sordid history of willing bad things. We permit, with regulations, all sorts of industries and private property uses. We think local fracking bans are what “democracy looks like,” but we don’t even think about democracy when gas stations invade “our” towns. So is this a principled position that can be generalized or does it just discriminate against one industry for no particular reason?

The usual retort is that “safe fracking is an oxymoron” or that “no amount of regulation can make fracking safe.” But the same could be said about nearly any technology. Flu shots are mostly safe but still carry some inherent risks. So do electricity, lawnmowers, airplanes, processed foods, and pharmaceuticals. So does driving. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 34,000 people were killed in automobile accidents in 2009. Last month Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon sponsored a billboard on a New York freeway that reads: “Imagine There’s No Fracking.” If Ono and Lennon care most deeply about safety, then maybe they should have us “imagine there’s no freeway.”

We have not banned driving, despite its being inherently dangerous, because safety is not the only thing we value. We also like to go on road trips and haul stuff around. The idealist mantra of “inherently unsafe” is too simplistic to do justice to the ecology of goods involved in fracking. Of course if safety was the only value to consider we should not do it. But people want energy, we generally ought to defend private property rights, and the industry creates jobs, pays royalties, and generates tax revenues. Opportunity costs are real costs. When we ban a technology we lose out on the good as well as the bad.

Fracking is inherently unsafe—that’s why I have spent countless hours fighting for stricter rules. The question I want answered is: What makes fracking more dangerous and unmanageable than all the other industrial activities we permit with regulations?

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 assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies and a faculty fellow at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas.