Denton is approaching a decision point on fracking. What is the right thing to do? We can go forward with the ordinance as it has taken shape over the past several months. We can push for more to be included in it. Or we can call for a ban on fracking.
Other municipalities have taken the latter route but I had not seen a good argument to justify a ban. So, I asked readers of this blog to help me think through the question: Should Denton ban fracking? The comments have been very helpful. At least four arguments seem to be emerging:
Argument 1: Unique risk -- Fracking poses an unacceptable risk
Fracking is risky in a way that other industrial activities are not and that justifies a ban where those other activities can be adequately regulated. What is this unique kind of risk?
It is the risk of an irreversible, high-magnitude catastrophe, namely, the poisoning of vast zones of ground water. When an activity poses a catastrophic risk, we should have definitive proof that harm will not result. That proof is lacking: we do not know the long term fate of chemical compounds that remain underground. Indeed, we do not even know what the compounds are – we only know their ingredients. And, thanks to non-disclosure agreements, we don’t know much about harms that have occurred. This means that fracking is not so much an unacceptable risk (a known probability of harm) as an unacceptable uncertainty (an unknown probability of harm). Due to over-sized corporate influences on the way decisions are made, we don’t even know what the odds are of causing a catastrophe. One should not act under ignorance when the stakes are so high.
Argument 2: Unique exposure -- Fracking is an incompatible use
Fracking is dispersed in a way that other industrial activities are not. Other industries must occur only in the proper zoning districts, but fracking occurs wherever the minerals happen to be. This constitutes a unique exposure to harms such as air pollution, noise, explosion hazards, and declining property values. These harms to neighbors justify imposing limits on property rights. This is an argument for zoning classification, which would essentially ban fracking from all places but those zoned industrial.
Argument 3: Unique exemptions -- Fracking owes its existence to loopholes
Fracking is only currently legal because it is uniquely exempted from several pieces of environmental legislation. This allows the fracking industry to operate in ways that would be illegal for other industries. Here, the case for a ban is that fracking would be prohibited by the federal government according to its own standards if it had not (for unjustifiable reasons) made an exception for it. To ban fracking, then, is simply to restore consistency to the law of the land.
Argument 4: Unique time on Earth -- Fracking is the wrong direction
Here we must shift our framework. The preceding three arguments operate from within the assumed parameters of a growth-oriented economy. But from this perspective it is that framework that is the problem. Fracking is an instance of a much larger problem of unsustainable growth, pollution, and resource exploitation. The planet is imperiled and we are irresponsibly burdening future generations with the consequences of our decisions.
I think about my daughters in 25 years asking me how my generation could have looked at so much evidence of environmental degradation and continued with the status quo – indeed, worse, how we actually intensified our addiction to fossil fuels by going to such costly lengths to extract the last drops (removing mountaintops, scalping boreal forests, drilling in backyards).
Admittedly it seems far-fetched to call for a ban on fracking as part of an overarching sea-change in the way we live and the way we organize society. But when are we going to make that change? Who is going to make it? It has to start somewhere – why not Denton?
As always, I remain open to refinements and rebuttals. I hope that this helps to spur further critical thinking about a crucial issue facing Denton and the wider world.