What happens when local residents come to realise the technological limits of fracking?

“A Field Philosopher's Guide to Fracking” by Adam Briggle is a light and engaging story about one philosophy professor's role in making Denton the first city in Texas to ban hydraulic fracturing. The book is as much about fracking as it is about anecdotes about the author's family history and his inner dilemmas when, as his children are growing up, he struggles to answer their questions about fracking.

As readers delve into the inside story of Frack Free Denton – the campaign that has eventually led to a local popular vote about banning shale gas extraction in the city – they are also invited to indulge in a little philosophical exercise. The starting point for Briggle is a technological wager that lays bare the limits of technological thought when it is not accompanied by conditions that would protect those most vulnerable against the possible risks stemming from innovation. It is “a gamble or even a faith that we can transform the world in the pursuit of narrowly defined goals and successfully manage the broader unintended consequences that result. In many ways, we are gambling on the success of future innovations to bail us out of problems created by present innovations. I think that if we are to live with high technology we cannot avoid this wager. The question is whether we can establish conditions to make it a fair and reasonable bet. In case of fracking, (…) these conditions are largely not in place.” (3) He goes on to propose three general principles that, in his opinion, could help make such real-world experiments as fracking reasonable and fair. These are, briefly:

  • free and informed consent of those most vulnerable to the unintended harms caused by fracking,

  • robust monitoring system,

  • continuous learning and modification of the fracking process.

I must admit that when I first came across Briggle's explanation of his conceptual approach, I was a bit sceptical about these three conditions. I was also not entirely sure how these conditions were supposed to square with a story about a campaign that led to a fracking BAN. Although the author comes back to each of these principles to explore them throughout the book, I now think that, in most general terms, the book is about how the campaign for the ban evolved organically from the realisation that the current regulatory mechanisms and instruments were incapable of ensuring that hydraulic fracturing was performed with adequate oversight and control and without causing considerable risk to those most vulnerable.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book concern, what appear to be, the limits of the participatory democratic elements in the process of rewriting Denton's drilling ordinance: long consultations demanding detailed and expert knowledge, the sense that city bureaucrats wanted to make all substantive decisions, immense pressures from the industry and a highly unsatisfactory result, that is an ordinance written in a convoluted language that seemed, according to Briggle, to allow gas well operators to bypass the ordinance entirely. When trying to protect neighbourhoods according to the terms set by the city and through the usual channels did not work, campaigners prepared a petition for banning fracking within the city limits. “For the first time in a long while, this felt like real democracy” (121), Briggle concedes. The rest of the book tells a story of the campaign, highlighting the amount of work that goes into organising, featuring an occasional visit from the FBI, and the usual ups and downs of grassroots mobilisations.

In its 300 or so pages, this book condenses a lot of arguments around the social and political acceptability of shale gas developments as well as shedding some light on the day-to-day organising realities of anti-fracking groups. There is, however, one question that Briggle seems to try to answer throughout the book but never really decides to do it in a straightforward manner. The closest he comes to answering it is on a train ride with his family when his five year-old son asks: “daddy, are gas wells good or bad?” “I don't really know” Briggle says. “It's complicated and depends on the situation (…) I guess I think gas wells are pretty much bad. I mean, they make lots of pollution. But we rely on them. So if we say they are bad, it's kindda like saying there's something not right with the way you and I live every day. I don't think we should be doing all this fracking, but that means we have to do lots of things differently.” Apparently not satisfied with this answer, his son went back to playing games on his father's smartphone and I think I can understand why.

Briggle, A. (2015). A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Big Oil and Gas. New York, N.Y: Liveright.