There was a lot that went wrong leading up to the fracking of
the Vintage/S. Bonnie wells. Homes were built too close to the pad sites,
something the municipal ordinance still permits. No one in the neighborhood
knew drilling was going to happen. The status of the city permits is in disarray.
The standstill agreement handed EagleRidge the right to drill even though two
of the wells may be illegal. The whole thing is steeped in deep legal ambiguity
about vested rights. And now that it is happening, there is no monitoring…neighbors
have had to pass the hat to buy a few summa canisters, as City Council has
still (a year later!) not lifted a finger on their promise to implement an air and water quality monitoring program.
Clearly, we can do better. But how should decisions about
fracking be made? The more I think about this, the more I believe these
decisions should be guided by the basic principle of informed consent: Those
most vulnerable to the potential harms should have the greatest say in
decisions about where, whether, and how to frack. Let me explain my idea here.
With any proposed gas drilling and
fracking project, there is sure to be some harm involved. But will it just be a
temporary nuisance, a minor health problem, a major health problem, or even an
explosion? Things are uncertain. How much risk is there and how much is acceptable?
There are more or less reasonable answers to these questions.
But there is no right answer to them in the way there are right answers to math
questions. There is no expert with the ‘one best solution.’ The right answer depends
on what you value, your tolerance for risks, and how you are situated in
relation to the costs and benefits. What counts as the right decision depends on your point of view. Thus, the question
that matters most is not “what is the
right decision?” but “who should make
Decisions about fracking are analogous to experiments on
pharmaceuticals or other research trials involving human subjects. In both
cases, the expected gains can only come about by subjecting people to potential
harms. In the former case, it is those near the industrial sites. In the latter
case, it is the research subjects who take the experimental drug.
There is a distinction in medicine between ‘therapy’ and
‘research.’ The term therapy typically
applies to practices that are intended to promote the health and well-being of
the patient. Research, by contrast,
is an activity designed to test a hypothesis and contribute to generalizable
knowledge. When you are a patient of a therapy, the goal is to benefit you.
When you are a participant in a research trial (a 'guinea pig'), the goal is to use you to
benefit others. Medical researchers have concluded that someone can only be
used in this way if they first give their informed consent to the experiment.
Since fracking sites are experimental in an analogous way, then
the same condition of informed consent should hold for anyone exposed to
potential harms from fracking.
To me, this explains the importance of municipal governments
in the politics of fracking.
agencies like the Texas Railroad Commission are mostly concerned about
fostering and promoting the development of mineral resources. From the state’s
perspective of running a massive and complex technological system, the informed
consent of mere amateurs who happen to live in proximity to it is irrelevant.
It won’t improve the functioning of the system any more than getting the
consent of research subjects will improve the validity of a study’s conclusions.
Indeed, in both cases the requirement of informed consent can throw a major
wrench in the works. Some of the Nazi experiments (for example, those on
hypothermia) were sound science but they involved such pain that they would
never have been run if people had the choice to opt out of them. If we really
respect autonomy, then some technoscientific projects just won’t happen. The
danger of technocracy is that when the experts are in charge they elevate their
values of functionality or validity above all other values. Then they make it
look like they haven’t made a values decision at all—as if they were ‘neutral.’
Municipal government is a
different kind of public sphere. It is oriented not toward system functionality
but toward protection of goods like health, safety, beauty, and community integrity
that might be sacrificed in the name of functionality. Local government is, in
other words, the institutional home of informed consent. It is the voice of
those living on the surface and made vulnerable to the harms caused by
real-world experiments. This is why municipalities have become the most
important flash point in the politics of fracking: they represent a different
moral order, one that is rooted in place and community rather than the
subterranean and network logic of commodity production.
I think this is why everyone,
including many City Councilmembers, is frustrated at the limits imposed on
municipal authority by the legal system. But what if we thought outside of that
system for just a moment?
Imagine how things could have
worked out so differently. EagleRidge wants to frack these three (or four?!)
wells. The first thing they do is notify everyone within, say, a half mile
radius of the proposed sites. These people form a temporary political entity,
call it a deme, empowered with the
authority to decide the fate of the proposal. They meet and deliberate about
what (if any) conditions would need to be in place to allow the proposed
fracking activity. They can adjust the location of the pad site, the
distribution of royalty payments, the technical specifications required, etc.
Of course there are important
details to work out (would it be majority rules?), but my point is to get us
thinking about how fracking could be democratized.