Image Credit: Progress Ohio
Image Credit: Progress Ohio

This is part two in a three part series of social factors on fracking in Oklahoma. Read part one here.

Anybody who follows national politics will know that there are many, many times in which facts do not matter. Emotions and dogma often carry the day more than evidence and reason. In other words, often does the subjective outweigh the objective. While it may be easy to dismiss out of hand this type of blind, emotional reasoning; it is worth noting that its wide pervasiveness gives it power. What must then be considered is whether a person wants to try to convert most people to a method of objective logic to achieve their goal or work through those subjective hazes to reach an accomplishment? Unsurprisingly most organizations and advocacy groups choose the later approach. But it is important to recognize that this level of compromise, the ability to recognize the power of and work in the realm of the subjective, is as relevant in all walks of life as it is in politics.

Often when speaking with community activists or studying industry communications on hydraulic fracturing, I find that there really are six factors that matter equally as much: the objective positives of fracking, the objective negatives of fracking, what the subject thinks are the positives, what they think are the negatives, what they think their antagonists see as the benefits, and what they think their antagonists see at the negatives. Whew! So much for simple right and wrong. But the fact of the matter is that so often important decisions are made with emotion at their core. And while these emotions could be ignored, recognizing why certain parties are saying certain things can lead us to better communication and a better understanding of the total dimensions of our problem.

For instance, a common rallying call for anti-fracking activists in Oklahoma is that the practice should be banned because it creates earthquakes. To break down this argument into the six factors I mentioned above, the objective truth is that, while the actual fracturing of the rock does not lead to earthquakes, the injection wells that are commonly used for the disposal of waste water have been shown in many, many studies to create induced seismicity. While the activists are very much aware of this distinction, the technical inaccuracy of “fracking causes earthquakes” is something that industry has exploited as I will note later. This is one of the central pillars, joined by others such as water contamination risk, air pollution risk, damage to local roads, water usage, and the effects of methane and CO2 on the climate. To the average activist, these aspects all pose very present and realistic fears. When they are combined with the often dismissive attitude of local, state, and industry officials, it leads to a large amount of fear, anxiety, and anger toward oil and gas companies. It is rare that activists will offer up anything positive about fracking. When considering the views of the oil and gas companies, activists often see the companies as pressing forth a litany of false positives while conveniently and consciously dismissing their wrong doings. Under the surface of all of these claims lies a feeling of deep seated injustice. Activists feel as though their government turns a blind eye while the oil and gas industry abuses the state’s land and water and then leaves broken communities in its wake.

On the flip side, the industry sees itself as a champion of the state’s economy. They frequently advertise all the money and jobs that they add into the economy. As I mentioned last week, the claim by the OERB (a government board to propose oil and gas regulations voluntarily funded by oil and gas companies) is that oil and gas is responsible for a third of Oklahoma’s Gross State Product. The industry often expresses the view that the biggest problem with fracking is that people don’t know enough about the process and would recognize how great it is if they only received good information. This, at least, seems to be what they publicly see as the positives and negatives of fracking. But what is actually said behind corporate doors is anyone’s guess. The industry says that activists are just extreme factions that make completely baseless claims and are waging a war to smear the industry and all it does for the state. They often resort to straw man tactics to make their antagonists appear baseless in their claims. Regarding the “fracking causes earthquakes” claim from earlier, industry representatives often say that there has never been a link shown between fracking and earthquakes. While this is technically correct, it assumes that activists are only talking about the physical cracking of the shale when, in fact, most activists use “fracking” to mean the entire process and all it entails. The actual objective facts here though are hard to parse out. While it is undeniable that the industry plays an important role in the state economy both directly and indirectly, all of the data comes from the industry and bodies that they fund. Economic studies have shown that the figures these groups come up with often do not account for costs of their presence with any accuracy. For instance, they often fail to account for the cost of damage to roads and the opportunity costs to the economy caused by their damage. As for the other evidence against their activities, they often find technicalities that make the evidence less absolute. Sort of like how smoking has never technically been proven to cause lung cancer.

In the end, it is harder to take stock of the subtext underlying a faceless corporation’s activities. But if I had to guess, I would say that behind closed doors they are scared and anxious of the activists they publicly dismiss. Recent examples from Denton, Texas and Longmont, Colorado show that grass-root activist organizations can mobilize entire towns in even staunchly conservative places to outlaw one of the industry’s most lucrative practices. It isn’t hard to imagine the industry in a war for the hearts and minds of the people when they need their land and mineral rights.

So by taking into account how differing parties subjectively view a situation and paring that with an understanding of the objective facts, we can start to draw a much more accurate picture of the problem that Oklahoma faces with fracking. Perhaps if this where a dry academic issue the facts would be all that mattered. But this is not academic; it has become a deeply emotional and polarizing social issue. Recognizing this is critical to understanding the deep implications of any suggestion that is made for Oklahoma. But what suggestions can be made when so much hangs in the balance of every decision? Industry wants to proceed unopposed which would not be without serious consequence. Activists want to see that activity severely crippled or outlawed which would also come with a heavy price. So what beginning steps could Oklahoma take to start it toward the goal that any observer of climate science knows it needs to get to? Paths forward into that future will be the subject of the last part in this series to be published next week.

You can read part three in this series here.

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