Anti-fracking in Romania

I have come across this interesting article about anti-fracking in Romania. Many in the US or the UK may not realise this but despite many similarities in the ways that shale gas extraction has been fought across the world, opposing fracking in Central and Eastern Europe is a completely different kettle of fish from what it is in other parts of the continent.

Researchers from the West University of Timisoara, Romania, show how the specific post-communist context in the country influences its anti-fracking movement. They claim that in addition to the specific demands related to the proposed shale gas development, the anti-fracking protests in Romania are also articulating a broader critique of neoliberal economic policies and governance. The pro-fracking arguments in Romania are strong and they emphasise the potentially real geopolitical advantages that might come from the domestic development of shale gas. This could move the country towards enhancing its energy security and reducing its dependency on gas imports from Russia (which is characteristic of the entire region). Post-communist economies are also hungry for foreign direct investment that the multinational energy giants such as Chevron could bring to their countries.

The Romanian anti-fracking movement is battling these arguments using a number of different, sometimes fairly unusual, arguments. The authors claim, for example, that the anti-fracking campaigners have posited themselves as defenders of the national interest against the 'supporters of US interests'. The Orthodox Church was also involved and helped mobilise local population. In addition to slogans associated with the global justice mobilisations, the protesters also used conservative arguments about shale gas being a threat to their national identity. The researchers had also this to say about the role of the state: “the state ceased to be seen as a partner in ecological reforms, but rather was seen as responsible for the degradation of the environment and as a collaborator with multinational corporations in the process of the commodification of nature in the current neoliberal environment” (300). The authors hope that the movement would be able to spur change in the direction of a more democratic and participatory politics of natural resources.

Vesalon, L., & Creţan, R. (2015). ‘We are not the Wild West’: anti-fracking protests in Romania. Environmental Politics, 24(2), 288–307.

Impacts of frac sand mining

An often overlooked consequence of the process of hydraulic fracturing is the growing demand for frac sand and an unprecedented expansion of sand mining in such areas as western Wisconsin or southeastern Minnesota in the United States. Many local residents are organising to campaign against those developments because they are concerned about the impacts of frac sand mining on local communities.

Thomas W. Pearson conducted some ethnographic research in Wisconsin where sand mining had had a long history before fracking came into the picture. However, with the onset of fracking in the US, within 2 years (i.e. by 2012), the number of frac sand operations in the state more than doubled, making Wisconsin the biggest producer of frac sand nationally. Sand mines, processing plants, railroad transload facilities are all part of this heavily industrial process with some of the mines operating 24 hours a day.

Here is a bullet-point summary of some of the main impacts of those operations that Pearson outlines:

  • destruction of landscape – the disappearance of hills and a complete transformation of the landscape from rural into a technological one, which creates a sense of dislocation, alienation and distrust;

  • conflicts between neighbours who received lucrative payments for leasing or selling their land to mining companies and those who did not;

  • concerns over air quality – silica dust is particularly harmful when inhaled in excess quantities and may pose severe health risks like silicosis or lung cancer;

  • impacts on surface and groundwater including spills from waste water holding ponds and concerns over chemicals used in the mining and processing of frac sand;

  • the unstable nature of this industry with characteristic boom-and-bust cycles; although sand mining may be economically beneficial in a shorter term, it also tends to make especially small, rural communities dependent on the industry and its vulnerabilities to fluctuating global commodity prices. Out-of-state ownership may mean that there will be few benefits that accrue to a local economy.

  • local officials face considerable pressure from the industry and are often unprepared to deal with powerful corporations supported by teams of lawyers and experts.

Pearson, T. W. (2013). Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin: Understanding Emerging Conflicts and Community Organizing. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 35(1), 30–40.

Alienation as a social impact of resource extraction developments

In his articles about coal seam gas extraction in Queensland, Australia, Kim de Rijke dissects some of the most salient social impacts that accompany many large extraction projects. Alienation constitutes one such impact that is rarely considered by the various 'impact assessments' but has a profound effect on a range of issues from local residents' mental health to important life decisions such as about leaving their communities and moving to a different area, for instance.

“Large resource extraction developments are commonly accompanied by housing shortages and increased housing costs, as well as increases in industrial traffic, which feature prominently in local concerns. In combination with the arrival of security personnel in the gas fields, publically non-accessible workers’ camps, pipeline corridors, compressor stations, concerns about invisible but volatile substances, technologies such as underground hydraulic fracturing and other material transformations, the large increase in non-resident workers and industrial transformations of the landscape may contribute to a sense of alienation among certain residents.”

“The common themes in the issues described above are feelings of under-appreciation, being overwhelmed, and frustrations with the need to constantly be on guard to protect what one regards as important to both family and agricultural business. These concerns are intertwined with a sense of place and responsibility, the economics of agribusiness, and the distribution of social power, with the formal distribution of rights in favor of industry. Related to identity and emplacement, we find knowledge of land, water, and animals based on long-term daily embodied experience in conflict with itinerant workers and the priorities of industrial gas developments. The cumulative impacts of multiple companies and diverging company attitudes, combined with unexpected demands, costs, and impacts, are particularly straining for landholders. Pervasive health and environmental concerns, and the inability of companies and government to alleviate those concerns satisfactorily, may lead to levels of anxiety difficult to manage.”

de Rijke, K. (2013a). Coal Seam Gas and Social Impact Assessment: An Anthropological Contribution to Current Debates and Practices. Journal of Economic and Social Policy, 15(3), Article 3.

de Rijke, K. (2013b). Hydraulically fractured: Unconventional gas and anthropology. Anthropology Today, 29(2), 13–17.

de Rijke, K. (2013c). The Agri-Gas Fields of Australia: Black Soil, Food, and Unconventional Gas. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 35(1), 41–53.

“Why have the democracies done so little to tackle climate change?”

I opened “The Confidence Trap” by David Runciman, a political scientist from Cambridge, in search for fresh insights into the history of 'democracy in crisis'. Runciman talks in general terms about seven points in history when democracy was indeed in crisis, including the period that followed the recent financial crash of 2008. He does not have a lot to say about the role of popular mobilisation and protest during this most recent crisis, concentrating instead on the actions of the leading political actors as well as unelected officials. This particular approach made me wonder what he was going to say about democracy's ability to face the challenge of climate change.

He recognised that over the past decade the established democracies failed to take meaningful action on climate change. He identified the persistent lack of decisive action on the most important environmental issues as one of the four main challenges that the democracies were now facing. Hence, the question: why have the democracies done so little to tackle climate change?

One explanation has often been to blame the inaction on the complexity of climate change science that democratic publics simply cannot grasp to understand the urgency of the issue. A similar kind of criticism has often been levelled at democracy by those who prefer a more elitist form of governance. In the current context, however (when citizens often seem to know more about science related to environmental issues than their elected representatives), this critique could hardly stand up to scrutiny.

But then Runciman suggests an alternative explanation and one that is in keeping with his analysis that presents democracy as a deeply paradoxical exercise in governance. “The democracies have failed to act (…) because they know they are not stupid and will take the necessary action when it is required” (315). In other words, democracies know very well that they have been able to muddle through many crises in the past thanks to their remarkable ability to adapt to straitened circumstances. What's paradoxical is that precisely because they know that, it is so difficult to make a decision to face up to the challenge of climate change. Democracies are so confident that they will be able to tackle all sorts of distress and hardship that they fail to act at the right moment, which in the case of climate change, can bring about irreparable harm worldwide.

In a more recent review article, Runciman poses another pertinent question: if democracy looks more like part of the problem, wouldn't it be logical to find a way around it to deal with climate change? If global warming requires only a technological solution, maybe it would be possible to bypass politics with its short-sightedness and dependence on electoral cycles altogether? Runciman does not believe that this is the right thing to do because it would mean sacrificing democratic accountability that we depend on for our long-term future. Sustaining democracy in the face of climate change may then be another formidable challenge that democratic populations will have to deal with in the nearest future.

Runciman, D. (2015). The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Updated edition). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Runciman, D. (2015, September 24). A Tide of Horseshit. London Review of Books, pp. 34–36.

Questions abound about royalty payments in the United States

A recent article about shale gas developments in the Bradford County (Pennsylvania) reports on popular uncertainty about the royalty payment schemes through which gas companies compensate landowners in exchange for drilling on their property. Some of the doubts that have arisen concern the complexity of the payments process as well as the impact that the engagement in lease agreements has had on landowners' well-being, stress and mental health. The article says that agreements with gas companies were variable and the landowners found it difficult to assess whether they were being paid fairly and whether the volumes of gas extracted claimed by the company were accurate. There were fears that the companies might be “under measuring” gas quantities to increase their profits at the expense of landowners. Here is an example of the mistrust of the royalty payment system that the authors cite in their analysis: “Many farmers are waiting for the hope and promise that they will become rich as soon as the well is hooked up to the pipeline, but because of our old leases that were signed, usually you will find the gas companies don’t have to pay royalties on your entire property, you may be paying double production cost before receiving royalties, and you may be waiting a long time before you receive any royalties if your lease doesn’t provide a time frame on when the gas produced must go to market” (537).

Powers, M., Saberi, P., Pepino, R., Strupp, E., Bugos, E., & Cannuscio, C. C. (2015). Popular Epidemiology and ‘Fracking’: Citizens’ Concerns Regarding the Economic, Environmental, Health and Social Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Drilling Operations. Journal of Community Health, 40(3), 534–541.