Clean Energy’s Corporate Responsibility to the Cultural Landscape

Wind Turbine Farm
Image Credit: Don Graham (CC BY-SA 2.0)

More and more companies are popping into existence on the booming clean energy market. To assist in their projects, they employ an increasing number of experts. Lawyers to work out land leasing contracts. Press relations experts to cast their energy project in the best light possible. And, of course, surveyors to aid in construction. But seldom do these companies give thought to the social landscapes that surround them. In an arena where too many of these critical projects fail due to local resistance, employing social surveyors can pay dividends.

I have written before about how the residents of Woodward County, Oklahoma and Kent County, Maryland reacted differently to clean energy production. While both regions are rural, agricultural places that pride themselves on history and heritage, only Woodward County welcomed the addition of clean energy producing wind turbines to the landscape. Despite the similarities in place and people, the residents of Kent County rejected attempts to build both a utility-scale wind farm and then a solar array within their county’s borders.

My conclusion was that one factor above all others explains this difference in reaction to clean energy development in places that are otherwise similar: familiarity with energy extraction. Woodward County has a very long history of extracting oil, natural gas, and now wind energy. Kent County never has. While the specifics of wind energy may have been foreign to Woodward residents, the general concepts of land leases, transient workers, industrial traffic, and large structures on the horizon were already very familiar in the context of oil production. For those in Kent County, they have never seen anything like this in their lives.

But with the future of energy transitioning toward small-scale, carbon free production, this type of rejection presents a problem. Historically our energy has been produced at a small number of sites in very large quantities. Going forward, we are seeing a grid where electricity is produced at a huge number of sites in very small quantities. This decentralization of the grid will present logistical problems for communities who reject the development of local clean energy projects.

But it’s also unfair to expect communities to shut up and just accept any changes to the place they have a connection to. This is land that they call home. It should be understandable that when a gigantic, multinational company blows through and proposes what residents see as a radical shift to their landscape and community, those residents balk.

So a balance has to exist. A two-way street has to be built if this critical energy transition is going to occur. People around the world must become willing to live near (or even inside of) their local power plant. But energy corporations and utilities must become mindful of the impact their activities have on local populations.

Energy companies need to demonstrate a much more adept understanding of the social factors and forces that surround their work. This is a responsibility they have to the communities in which they operate. These companies must be responsive to the concerns and criticisms of community members. They must be clear and concise in their communications. They must be receptive to input from communities. They must demonstrate a sincere desire to be a long-term community member when they move in. And they must show that there will be a clear benefit to those around them.

Most important, energy companies have to understand the collective, social identity that exists uniquely in each place they build. Let’s not beat around the bush: people are sensitive about having stuff built near them. If you never take steps to address these feelings of intrusion, you can’t be surprised when crowds of disgruntled neighbors blow up your solar energy project in a courtroom.

To date, companies have done a lousy job of this. The concept known as the “social gap” is proof positive; why is it that, in the United States, wind and solar energy enjoy an overwhelming level of general support, yet so many individual projects fail due to local resistance?

Failure is exactly what happened to a solar project in Kent County. After hearing extensive public resistance to the project, a public utilities judge denied the energy developer’s application for a 60 MW, half mile square solar farm.

In this particular case, it would have been valuable for the company to have understood that the objections of those in Kent County went deeper than the company’s first assumptions. To counter what the company thought was the key issue, they offered to plant a vegetative screen of trees and shrubs to hide the solar farm from the viewscape. But when the root of people’s objection is more about the very presence of a foreign object that many see as trampling on the agricultural identity of the county, a vegetative screen doesn’t make you forget the solar farm is there. In fact, it almost makes it worse. Using vegetation to hide the solar array means that every time people see the screen, they not only think of the solar farm they object to, but they also see a near demeaning attempt by a corporate entity to make them forget the solar panels even exist.

To be clear, I don’t think that was the company’s intention at all. I think the screen is a very well-intentioned attempt to address an issue they saw. Though a better understanding of Kent County residents’ sense of place have may have revealed more effective solutions.

In fact, I would go so far as to recommend to energy companies that they have sociologists or anthropologists on staff to assess the cultural landscape of projects. Just as the work of surveyors in assessing the physical landscape is invaluable to their operations, understanding the cultural landscape will ensure as little friction in the process as possible and go a long way toward upholding these companies’ corporate responsibility.

This new energy future we find ourselves in is clearly one of give and take. For residents, out-of-sight, out-of-mind simply does not work anymore. Just as we are used to the town’s post office, its hospital, and its water tower, we must get used to its solar farm in the same way. But for the corporations who are building those farms, they have a responsibility to understand the culture of where they build. Not only is this part of being a good neighbor, but it will help decrease the resistance that they face now and into the future. Taking the time to meticulously understand a region’s sense of place will aid in their immediate efforts as well as help acclimate us all to our new future with a little friction as possible. Decentralization is the direction we are headed in. We owe it to each other to achieve that future as amiably as possible.

The Environmental Quagmire of Nuclear Power

Cooling Towers
Image Credit: Tennessee Valley Authority

Nuclear power is in a bit of a bind. With powerful fossil fuel lobbies on one side and anti-nuclear groups on the other, some spectators feel that the U.S. nuclear industry is destined to collapse. Profitability issues, ever present safety concerns, and difficulty providing a per unit price on par with natural gas and wind are all looming over nuclear power. But for environmentally minded observers with an eye toward both carbon emissions and ethical, sustainable development, nuclear power has proven difficult to fit neatly into either the good or the bad category.

Catalyzed by the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, public opinion started to sour toward the use of nuclear fission for electricity production in the early 80’s. By the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, anti-nuclear advocacy groups had a solidly opposed public to work with. Since 1994, however, the trend line of approval recovered as more Americans found themselves supporting nuclear power to some degree. This past year, however, Gallup records that only 44% of Americans are in favor of splitting atoms to get our power; the first time supporters were in the minority since 2001. Public support is once again flagging.

The specters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima still loom large in the minds of a public concerned with safety as well as consistency. All the reassurance in the world seems to make little difference when the results of mishap can be so severe. Many proponents of nuclear power advocate retrofitting existing reactors with newer systems that offer more assurance against incident. Still, the public seems unwilling to fully embrace the technology. Even as some see nuclear power as a solution for climate change, a deep level of distrust pervades.

With nearly one fifth of the United State’s electricity being generated from 61 operating nuclear power centers, those nuclear reactions are a considerable backbone of our energy grid. The newest of these reactors to come online, the Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee, is only months old. It’s the first new operating reactor in the US in 20 years.

The opening of Watts Bar 2 has again stoked debate about nuclear’s role in the nation, and climate change has only complicated this debate. According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Watts Bar 2 is an effort to meet emission reduction goals that the massive utility set for itself. This climate angle has meant that environmental organizations who have historically been opposed to nuclear’s waste products and fuel mining are finding themselves unable to answer the question of how to replace nuclear’s generated capacity without resorting to carbon intensive sources.

This seemingly unavoidable increase in carbon emissions should all nuclear power be taken offline is a salient point.  When the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant closed for financial reasons, that electrical capacity wasn’t magically replaced by clean energy; cheap natural gas swooped in to fill most of the gap and that meant dirtier energy in that region. As a general response, some proponents of nuclear power argue that bringing a number of the United States’ 38 inactive nuclear reactors back online could immediately get us off much of our carbon based energy. For an industry already averting a sizable amount of carbon from U.S. electrical generation, it’s not a throw-away suggestion.

While many of the arguments, both for and against, seem to live predominantly in the realm of the speculative, there is one concern seen by the public on a monthly basis: rent payer’s bills. It’s an unavoidable fact that energy produced by nuclear reactions is comparatively more expensive. Exactly how much more is difficult to suss out, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration rates natural gas as winning the race for cheap per kWh energy with wind, coal, solar, and nuclear coming in further behind. Even with this uncertainty, most people seem to agree that a utility bill based on 100% nuclear power would be higher than one based on 100% natural gas. Still, some Americans do seem willing to pay more per month to help decrease our nation’s emissions (but the amount may be as little as five bucks).

But for those concerned with the environmental as well as the financial costs of electricity, nuclear power is more difficult to quantify that just in dollar signs. While wind turbines and solar panels are more agreeable than nuclear plants to the average environmentalist, it’s undeniable that the deployment rate of these technologies isn’t quick enough to totally replace the electrical capacity generated by nuclear plants. So a total shutdown of all nuclear plants would mean a jump in emissions.

And that’s the environmental dilemma with nuclear. Expanding our nuclear plants could reduce emissions quickly, but at the cost of higher utility bills when some already struggle and the remote but ever present risk of a nuclear accident. Shuttering these plants, on the other hand, would mean a spike in carbon emissions as environmentalists are in a fatiguing fight to lower them. So, what to do?

To be clear, my opinion on this topic is heavily qualified. While I’m leery myself about a heavy reliance on nuclear power, I’m much more afraid of a future with an out of control climate. While there is always a chance that nuclear power plants may lead to regional calamity, I would rather run the small chance of local catastrophe than the nearly guaranteed chance of a global one. Nuclear waste will continue to pile up and we will struggle with how to secure it, but I would rather live in a world that can at least temporarily contain it’s energy waste than one that puts it directly into the atmosphere. I’m always cognizant of the role of energy costs in social inequality, but I would rather see subsidy programs to help people pay their utility bills than ones to help them evacuate inland. While I would be lying if I said that I was entirely satisfied with the use of nuclear energy for power, the threat from unmitigated climate change is so much larger.

So we should buckle down, subside nuclear plants while we phase out our fossil fuels, and then revisit the topic of dismantling this contentious energy source. I don’t want to see another Fukushima, but I can’t bear to see the U.S. emissions spike that closing these facilities would mean. Hopefully, in the future, we can turn our attention to optimizing our power supplies.  But right now, we need nuclear’s head start on low emissions energy.

NIMBY and the Social Gap Collide

Solar Power and Tractor
Image credit: Alan Levine

Previously, I wrote about the surprising lack of conflict in Woodward, Oklahoma over the introduction of wind energy to a historically oil-soaked community. People in Woodward were already familiar with energy production and that made the new-fangled wind turbines look a lot less alien. I also noted that this introduction was set against a backdrop of the most highly concentrated pocket of climate change denial in the country. Wind turbines there were not viewed as clean energy specifically, but as just another form of energy production. And more production is always better.

~~~

Recently, I packed up all my things and moved halfway across the U.S. One thing that remained constant is that I still live in a rural area. Just like Oklahoma, the Eastern Shore of Maryland is a largely rural, agricultural place. Both are long on history and nostalgia; they scoff at “big city folk” and pine for a less complicated era.

But the introduction of clean energy into both couldn’t have been more different.

Unlike Woodward, my new home of Kent County readily sees climate change as a real and imminent danger immediately needing to be addressed. It’s definitely caused by humans and we definitely need to dedicate legislation and tax money to address it. But when utility scale solar companies recently tried to install a solar array across a number of agricultural fields in the area, they ran headlong in the infuriating enigma that is the social gap. If my new home was so ready to address climate change, why did so many local people line up to oppose the very projects they supported in theory?

The answer many gave was that solar panels just “don’t fit” in the landscape. Ours is a historic, agricultural place and planting a crop of alien power generators would ruin that history. When you ask for specific reasons why solar would be a bad fit for the county, you hear of solar farms breaking up the scenic, rolling hills and making good quality farmland unable to grow food. So while those in Woodward saw wind power’s effect on aesthetics as negative but necessary, those in Kent County see solar’s effect as negative and wholly unnecessary.

That is in fact the very case they made to a judge who rejected a license to a solar development company: this is unnecessary. But, if the county as a whole is in favor of dedicating resources to increasing clean power, then why was this project beaten back so feverishly? The social gap rears its head again. While some would place the blame for this behavior on NIMBY, I would wager that the discrepancy is due to what is missing from Kent County’s history: energy production.

If you have a one-hundred-year history of extracting energy as Woodward does, you are used the presence of the looming contraptions that undertake that work. But without that social familiarity, the introduction seems only to have negative impacts.

Unfortunately, that perception is at odds with the emerging future of our electricity production. Rooftop solar, the grid of the future, home storage, and low-capacity but numerous power generating stations; all signs point to decentralization. Historically, our power has been generated by the gigawatt at stations far out of sight. But our future seems to hold much smaller, more numerous stations that individually generate less power. Where historically electricity has flowed only from the utility to their customers, a two-way street is beginning to emerge.

Right down to the solar panels (or even just shingles) mounted on a roof that create enough power for just one house, the generation of our electricity is becoming a local matter. Interestingly, this idea of reclaiming local production has emerged in Kent County in different arena: food. There has been a push on the Eastern Shore (and, indeed, the world) to take a keen interest in where our food is coming from, to consume as much local food as possible, to eat from farms that are cognizant of their environmental impacts, and to demand a reexamination of our entire food system. So it’s not the desire for positive change that is missing from Kent County, but rather it is the physical manifestation that change takes which is troublesome. While Kent County has the social familiarity with agriculture to encourage the localization of our food sources, it lacks that same familiarity with electricity.

This puts proponents of clean energy in an awkward position. On one hand, the desire of those living here needs to be respected and changes to a place should only proceed with the general consent of the communities that inhabit it. On the other hand, our system of energy production is becoming more local which means that everyone will soon live near (or even in) their local power plant. But, having to reconcile these two factors is not simple in a rapidly changing world.

The days of large corporations building power plants that are unquestioningly deemed necessary is rapidly ending. So, too, are the days of not having to worry about where your electricity comes from. So a hybrid solution must be adopted. As we demand that energy developers become more aware of their impact on the environment, we must also become more willing to live near their operations. We need to train ourselves to see our new, clean power plants not as an unsightly necessity, but as a source of local pride and autonomy. Our new, increasingly sustainable world means more local production of everything. Of clean water. Of food. And, now, of electricity.

Community Solar Can Overhaul Utility Assistance Programs

solar-instalation-us-department-of-agriculture
Image Credit: US Department of Agriculture

Complacency might well be the most insidious force in the world today. The cessation of the attempt; failing to reach further for what is better. Never yearning to remix and remake our world for the future. Or, just sitting back and failing to acknowledge when the changes that are happening around us are recursive for the majority. Where a once blossoming promise has withered at the expense of the many, complacency can be found skulking in the shadows.

The complacency with our electrical supply systems has been holding my attention lately. Not just the physical infrastructure itself, but the financial and policy frame works that prop it up. How we get our power and how much control we have over that process turns out to be a very interesting topic for the future facing citizen.

It’s a popular suggestion that families that cannot afford to keep their homes heated in the winter should get assistance from the government. After all, shivering children should make no one giddy. But the ways in which utility bill assistance programs operate are ripe for a rethink. No matter how the money is distributed, funds for these programs ultimately come from tax payers. It is then given to the utilities to make up for a portion of the bill that families cannot afford.

But something is amiss under the surface. The shift since the 1980s to privately owned utilities means that citizens have less and less control over how their power is generated. Utilities, always with an eye to the bottom line, choose the cheapest fuel mix possible which often means a large proportion of carbon sources. When you consider that the production of fossil fuels is already subsided in the United States to the tune of $4 billion a year, the tax money used for utility assistance programs re-subsidizes those polluting energy sourcing with more public money. And when you consider that this money often comes from pots meant to modernize our energy production, this doubling down on the old is all the more egregious.

There are better solutions to making sure that people can afford to keep their lights on and homes heated. There are solutions that give communities more say in how their energy is produced. Solutions that let town halls, and not board rooms, lead on energy modernization.

Community solar is an idea that has increasingly been seen as a solution to addressing the problems of residential solar power. In short, communities build a solar array either in a field or by using the suitable roof space in town. Those for whom rooftop solar is out of reach are then able to subscribe to a portion of the array’s output. For example, even those who rent small apartments could subscribe to the output of one panel. The energy produced from that panel would then come off of their energy bill as if the panel was on their roof.

This type of system is also of great value to those in need of utility assistance. Instead of using assistance funds to simply pay off part of the bill, those funds can be used in an innovative way by giving families in need subscriptions to community arrays. It grants these families more ownership of their energy sourcing and avoids the double subsidization of fossil fuel companies. Community solar can wrest control away from the shareholder and return it to the hands of those actually flipping the switch.

This arrangement also opens a pathway to greater community cohesion as residents could elect to donate some of the power generated by their subscription to families in need within their own town. Producing power where it is consumed also grants a sense of local autonomy; the sort of do-it-yourself sufficiency that Americans mourn the loss of in the modern-day.

These are the kinds of rethinks that will drive our energy future. As utilities, both private and public, prepare for a decentralization of energy production they set the landscape for local sufficiency. Communities are beginning to demand traceability for their electricity. Doors are being opened to new ways of envisioning how we power our homes. And as we install this new, localized future of ours, we are finding innovative methods to provide for everyone in our communities. Beyond just expecting the government to help those in need, we can preserve both the environment and the humanity of those around us. Community solar is a step we all should dare to take.

The Epitaph of NIMBY

A wind turbine and petroleum pump, side by side
Image credit: Grant Samms

“How dare you stick your liberal-loving, clean-energy-producing, scenic-view-destroying wind turbines on my prime oil land!”

Or something like that. I think that’s what I was expecting to hear anyway.

For the past year and a half I have been wrestling with an idea that I have come to call energy identity. Having gone to grad school in a state where oil enters into nearly every political and economic conversation, I was sure this green energy/traditional energy dichotomy was a totality. On the right? Frack away. On the left? Wind for days.

So it was a bit of a shock when one of my grad school professors told me that there was a town in western Oklahoma that was styling itself as the “Wind Energy Capitol of Oklahoma.” Not only is western Oklahoma (or, indeed, all of Oklahoma) extremely oil soaked, but extremely conservative. Why would a conservative town in a conservative state that depends heavily on oil and gas revenue embrace something I saw as “green” and “liberal”?

The town in question was Woodward, Oklahoma and it would become the topic of my master’s thesis. The town does indeed have a past dripping in oil. Or, at least in the anticipation of it. When the first well was attempted in 1903, it came up dry. While a producing well wouldn’t been seen until 1956, residents spent those intervening fifty years dedicating their own time and resources into encouraging oil exploration on the surrounding plains. Now, another fifty years in the future, oil is all the more important to the area.

So to hear that the city had embraced the new-fangled wind industry was very surprising. Shouldn’t clean wind energy be rejected by their oil identity? Especially since the area so roundly rejects climate change; an issue that wind turbines are meant to address. In fact, in a Yale study, only 51% of the county’s residents believe climate change exists at all. Only 40% believe that humans are the cause. That’s the lowest level of belief anywhere in the United States.

I spent over a year digging up research, interviewing people, and crawling through archives documenting an expected case of collective identity conflict. And when I asked people how they felt about the turbines that had surrounded their city, the answer I got was, “we’re proud of the fact that we’re the hub of wind energy.”

Wait. That can’t be right. Let’s try someone else. “I love looking at them out there.”

Uh-huh. Anyone else? “I’ve heard us called the Saudi Arabia of wind. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Confusion was my reaction for quite a while. In fact, through my entire study, I only met one person who was expressly against wind power. Everyone else was either ambivalent or saw it with some shade of positivity. My confusion was finally reconciled by one respondent who told me that the town “has always had oil. Now we have wind. We’ve always been an energy town.”

And there it was.

“We’ve always been an energy town.” The city most definitely had an energy identity, but it wasn’t the narrow, method-specific one I had envisioned. Instead, it was one of supplying energy in all of its forms for the entire nation. This concept of being a place that specializes in the extraction of energy generally was one I heard over and over from people. “Climate change may be a falsehood,” they might say, “but Woodward will take all of the oil, natural gas, and wind extraction you could give us.” And they wanted more. I heard from people who wanted solar and geothermal and hydroelectric as well.

There’s a concept in sociology for this whole episode. It’s known as Sense of Place. People don’t just merely live somewhere; they form attachments and relationships with that place. In the case of my confusion, residents of Woodward didn’t see their heritage and identity as oil producing specifically, but rather as energy producing in general. So when you slather the landscape with wind turbines, they are seen as just another type of energy extraction.

What’s interesting about this concept is that it helps to explain a problem in the study of energy known as the social gap. Why is it that so many Americans say they support the expansion of clean energy, but react negatively when installations start to go up near their homes? Historically, the explanation to this has been the NIMBY phenomenon: Not In My BackYard! But NIMBY has a number of problems. Chiefly, it assumes that people are either for or against something based on primarily selfish reasons: if something will affect me negatively, then I don’t want it.

But under this model it is impossible to explain the case of a person I met who no longer uses their hunting lodge because of noisy wind turbines yet supports them for the positive impact they see made in the community. Or the case of a hunter I spoke with who lost a favorite hunting spot to transmission line construction yet still supports wind’s expansion. In both of these cases, individuals supported the very thing that had a sharp negative impact on them personally. But when that impact is in line with the culture of an area the power of Sense of Place shines though.

This pattern of reaction to change, based on familiarity and context, is a powerful way to examine and predict reaction to energy development more broadly. Especially as the world finds itself in the throes of a clean energy boom, understanding how and why people react to development the way they do will be critical to the success of the clean energy revolution. In the future, I’m going to discuss more examples of how energy development and society collide and what can be learned from these cases.

For now, it’s important to realize that we should always hold our own heuristics with suspicion. For me, wind energy is a symbol of the fight against climate change and the environmentally destructive fuels at its core. For many in Woodward, it’s simply a way for their town to stay economically competitive in an ever-changing world. My error was in assuming political leaning was the only data point I needed to understand them.

Denton’s Struggle for the Individual Voice

©2015 Julie Dermansky
©2015 Julie Dermansky

“It’s stressful and it makes it to where I can’t sleep at night,” Sergeant Scott Jenkins’ voice cracked through my phone late on a Friday night, “But for someone in their thirtieth year in law enforcement, this has been a really important assignment.” An undeniable sense of pride shone through the accumulated exhaustion of his previous week policing protests against oil and gas operators. Born and raised in the north Texas town of Denton, Scott Jenkins will tell you that he takes immense pride in his city, his state, and the constitution.

It’s that pride, displayed on a sunny Monday afternoon, which gives context to an action that has perplexed many onlookers. Minutes before arresting three anti-fracking protestors for trespassing, Sergeant Jenkins bent over and shook the hands of all three he was about to handcuff.

“I told them that they had achieved a great victory. I thanked them for their service to the community,” the Sergeant recalled.

“You can show respect to people even when making an arrest. We don’t have to denigrate those we come in contact with. These are our own citizens.”

He explained to me that regardless of his own views, beliefs, and political opinions, his deep respect for “that most venerated of American documents” guides him to balance the expression of rights by all sides in his policing: anti-fracking protestors, pro-fracking protestors, oil and gas workers, interested citizens, passersby, and media personnel. All people deserve a voice when an issue involves their homes, their families, and their livelihoods.

Denton had previously been the sight of a democratic show down involving oil and gas producers during the November 2014 elections. After the Denton City Council had initially voted down a motion that would have banned fracking within the city limits, local groups rallied and placed a referendum on the November ballot that would allow the citizens to directly speak to how oil and gas extraction in their community could occur. With almost a sixty percent majority, they voted as a community to not allow fracking in their borders. While there were those who condemned the vote in the strongest terms, the democratic process had spoken.

But the recent signing of HB 40 by Texas governor Greg Abbott stripped municipalities of the ability to explicitly or effectively ban types of oil and gas extraction. With Denton’s ban stripped away by the swishing of the gubernatorial pen, some Denton residents have taken to enforcing the ban themselves. As crews attempted to re-enter work zones, protestors sat in the roads to their work sites, blocking drillers and their trucks from getting back to work.

These competing laws, each backed by equally intense emotions and passions, set the stage for what some on both sides are calling ‘the battle to defend Denton.’

The debate that surrounds issues of petroleum extraction methods (fracking in particular) tends to see the creation of vast fields of strawmen; appearing real but ultimately being one dimensional. If the deafening debate is to be believed, those who operate fracking wells are greedy, heartless villains who twirl their mustaches while counting the money bought at the price of others’ lives. On the other side, but just as one dimensional, those who would oppose fracking are idealistic and stupid youths who would see society fall to economic ruin just to find a false sense of accomplishment.

But if you take the time to dig down into the complicated realities of the issue you quickly unearth something that is undeniably human. You may find a fourth generation, small town oilman weeping as he describes what he sees as the outlawing of his family’s business. He fears that new laws will force him from the only community he has ever known. The very next person you uncover may be a woman who bitterly describes the unjust suffering of her children caused by pollution from drilling rigs that drifts over her house. She will try to steady her voice as she describes the vulnerability and anger she feels every time she looks out her kitchen window at the drilling rig not three hundred feet from her door.

Which of these emotions can be said to be more legitimate? While legislative change will always benefit some and cost others, the ability to speak and to be heard should serve as the irrevocable core of our democracy. It’s that core which Sergeant Jenkins sees himself as upholding.

“We want to facilitate the expression of people’s opinion; the expression of their freedom of speech, their freedom to assemble, the freedom of the press, the right to redress grievances without violating the rights of anyone else.”

In fact, Sergeant Jenkins was selected specifically for the protest assignment because of his knowledge and focus on the constitution. For years he has taught fellow officers about constitutional law through continuing education courses.

“What we teach our officers at the police academy,” he told me, “is that regardless of what the issue is, when one group is opposing another group, our primary responsibility is to focus on the constitution. Especially in protest situations.”

Time after time in our discussion, he emphasized the community aspects of this issue. Everyone, on all sides, lives and works in the same space. They depend on each other every day to support and uphold the community. Each of them playing different roles and being vital to the community of Denton in their own way. So when conflict arises, it is critical they can speak or even disagree with the same cordiality that a police officer can display while arresting protesters.

“Just because you have interacted with someone in a predictable circumstance before doesn’t mean you know what the outcome will be this time.” That quip, spoken by a worn down yet resolute veteran police officer, serves as a perfect reminder of why the local debate should never be take for granted. If you erect strawmen of the other side, you rob that person of their voice. No person should ever be robbed of that ability. That is the principle that Sergeant Jenkins has instilled into the core of his policing efforts and those around him. That is the principle that everyone, from the CEO to the state senator to the green protester, should revere as an inalienable democratic imperative.

Everyone has a story.

Everyone has a voice.

It’s Not Fair!

Image Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons
Image Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

The very first time a new born human opens their mouth to cry they employ the simplest of all arguments: “It’s not fair.” While the phrasing of “it’s not fair” may sound juvenile, it is none the less the foundation of nearly every argument and disagreement that our species has. Oh sure, we can employ much more complicated ways of making this protest, but objection to personal slight is still the base of many of our complications. And while the content of our arguments may change and complicate with the same rapidity as our society, this primitive form persists.

For instance, take the recent laws passed in Texas and Oklahoma that prohibit local municipalities from banning certain types of oil and natural gas extraction; fracking being the most notable. The most prominent argument for these state bills is that they protect the ability of individuals to capitalize on the mineral rights that they own. Taking that away, to quote one operator at a recent Stillwater, Oklahoma city council meeting, “is like taking food right out of [his] kid’s mouths.” This concept of taking is so prominent that it has become the name of this particular discourse: the takings argument.

Because these arguments have been constructed in response to fracking it is easy to think that they must be just a novel as that very extraction method. But at its core, the takings argument objects to personal slight. For many small oil and gas opporators who find their small businesses caught up in the protest to multibillion dollar corporations, this complaint is easy to understand. It is not complicated, nor is it new. In fact, it was the same argument that was used one hundred years ago when the Taft administration, in the name of national security, limited the ability of wildcatters to stake a claim on any oil they could reach.

As the twentieth century opened America began to emerge as a burgeoning superpower. This can be partly credited to the transition of our Navy from coal burning ships to oil. While this fuel proved to be superior to the old style coal steamers, there was concern among “oil conservationists” that unregulated drilling would lead to a premature depletion of domestic oil. As such, a legislative effort ensued to ensure the Navy’s future oil supply by establishing strategic reserves. In 1909, under executive order by President Taft, large tracks of federal land were deemed untouchable to drillers. Many drillers at the time saw this as a power grab by the federal government that violated the “first to prospect; first to profit” nature that had ruled oil discovery in the American west. Previously, if any prospector had hit oil on public lands, they had the right to develop that oil. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that many westerners employed a takings argument; saying that the over-reaching Feds were robbing them of future opportunity and prosperity.

Eleven years later, the Wilson administration instituted a permitting system under which operators had to bid on leases in order to produce petroleum on federal land. These terms were signed into law by President Wilson as a way of trying to reopen the West. But to most drillers, even this intended compromise resembled interference. Drillers saw any form of restriction as a destruction of their livelihoods that had killed the open spirit of the West.

One of the biggest scandals in US history would eventually result from this feeling that the Feds were abusing their power and stealing oil from those who would develop it. Included in the lands that Taft placed in the Naval Reserve was an oil rich spot in Wyoming known as the Teapot Dome (seen in the header image). But as Wilson won the 1912 election, the change in administrations came with the inevitable change in cabinet members. Among the new blood was a Republican senator named Albert Fall who was appointed to Secretary of the Interior. As a senator from New Mexico, he sympathized with the oilmen of the west. After convincing the Secretary of the Navy to shift management of the oil reserves to the Department of the Interior, Fall accepted bribes to allow those oilmen close to him drilling permits without going through the bidding process. Once Fall’s dealings were discovered, the resulting fallout of the Teapot Dome scandal sent Fall to prison and permanently marred the Wilson presidency.

One hundred year later, when the Texas city of Denton voted to ban fracking inside of its borders, the calls of taking broke out again. When the Oklahoma city of Stillwater looked poised to outlaw the practice as well, it was met with an overwhelming pushback from the industry fearing a new president. This resistance took the form of a takings argument. After both states prohibited their cities and towns from passing such bans, state lawmakers echoed some form of the takings argument as justification. The residents of Denton continue to fight for their ban and those in Stillwater still push for tougher restrictions on oil producers. But it is worth noting that while these methods may be new, the arguments are as old as we are. It was the first argument all of us implemented in life. It is an argument that we all understand on a primal level, even if we don’t want to admit it.

For Want of a Favorable Reality

Image Credit: Grégory Tonon
Image Credit: Grégory Tonon

The coal industry of West Virginia had found themselves in a crisis. Coal had become unimportant to the economics of West Virginia. Well, that really wasn’t the crisis; exports could take care of that. The real crisis was that the people living near their operations were starting to know just how unimportant the industry really was. While the industry was only responsible for employing around 5% of the state’s workers and generating 7% of West Verginia’s gross state product, they needed people to think their industry held colossal importance to assuage public pressure for stricter regulation. So industry leaders met with a corporate intelligence company in Shanghai, China to create the “Friends of Coal” campaign. The goal of the campaign was make their industry artificially important so as to scare away the specter of being forced to actually comply with established laws.

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Last I wrote, I discussed how Otherism can be defined as the exclusion of a person based on a perceived deviation from an acceptable norm. Otherism is the engine that drives all of the hate, bigotry, and malice that humanity has ever and will ever produce.

But Otherism presents an intrinsic problem to human groups. As soon as a group of people lay down the boundaries of what thoughts and behaviors distinguish the in-group from the other, they must find a way of enforcing this boundary. This is done by way of a social hegemony; a set of written and unwritten rules held in the collective conscious that must be obeyed. Violating these rules would mean that an individual may face exile from the group and lose all of the benefits that belonging to that group entails.

This all may sound like the incessant drone of some bespectacled anthropologist surrounded by dust covered tomes in his dingy, basement office. However, we see the effect of this social enforcement every day. Take an adult visibly picking their nose in a restaurant. That individual will likely draw public ire and risks being asked to leave the restaurant for violating the social hegemony that governs that social space. A two-year-old picking their nose, on the other hand, would likely not be seen as a violation. This is the nature of the socially constructed hegemony.

While social hegemony in and of itself is not necessarily negative, its generation can have wide reaching consequences if defined by those with ulterior motives. Recently, industries have learned that they can short circuit these social processes for their own financial gain.

The targeted generation of these hegemonies is a tactic that has been used by industries all over the world to protect their economic prospects at the cost of transparency and public safety. For instance, the formation of the “Friends of Coal” campaign in West Virginia, mentioned earlier, was in response to mounting pressure on local governments from the public to actually enforce weight limits on coal trucks making their way out of the mountain top removal coal sites. Industry ignoring these limits had led to the deaths of several people as overweight, speeding coal trucks tipped over on winding mountain roads causing collisions with residents.

But following the established law is just so darn inconvenient. So the coal industry created the “Friends of Coal” campaign to convince people that without the coal industry, West Virginia would be indistinguishable from some God forsaken wasteland in the middle of a lawless hinterland. If the public felt the industry was their one and only savior, no one would dare question the industry’s practices. The trick was to appear as a grass roots campaign by put bumper stickers on the backs of West Virginian’s minivans, contracting local celebrities to sing the praises of the industry, and having “everyday people” (read: actors) hand out buttons and can cozies at high school football games. It was one of the first times that an industry had ever deliberately engineered a social movement for the sake of their own checkbooks. So unique was it that social researchers gave in the moniker of an “Astro-turf Movement”: something that looks genuine from afar, but upon closer inspection is only synthetic.

The idea that was concocted in that Shanghai conference room was to use the historic importance of the coal industry to create and enforce an artificial social hegemony to their own benefit. After all, who would question the environmental and public health catastrophes that the industry had wrought upon their state if everyone was (falsely) convinced that the industry was of the utmost importance?

This tactic was so successful that it was picked up and used in other regions of the world to enforce an artificial social consensus that was only to the benefit of a select few. The petroleum industry in Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and elsewhere readily synthesizes the appearance that immense poverty and joblessness would follow any law or ordinance that might inconvenience them. Recent bills passing through both the Texas and Oklahoma governments would take power to regulate oil and gas activities away from local municipalities and place it solely in the hands of the state legislature where the industry can exert more direct control over legislation. The nuclear industry in Japan and France has continually generated this type of social importance to enable them to shrug off accidents and secure their finances in the midst of societal change.

This is the power of industry learning to pervert social processes. Often they insist that they want to work with citizens to make sure that everyone is safe and happy. Unfortunately, their definition of every one is often limited to investors and members of their board. The rest of “everyone” is left to pick up the pieces of a broken environment, broken infrastructure, and broken communities that extractive industries leave after they are done with an area.

This power to pervert the face of reality has become a tactic employed by industries across the globe as a means of distorting the true impact they have and to secure their financial security in the face of increasing criticism. The publication of inflated economic impact statements; charging protestors as terrorists; the use of local celebrities to push decidedly false narratives; convincing the FBI to pay unannounced visits to the homes of critics. These are all part of the modern tool kit for ensuring that your multi-billion dollar corporation can profit without worry for laws, regulations, public criticism, or common human decency.

~~~

It is the new age of industry. We are not in the business of selling you goods. We are in the business of selling you a particular brand of reality. One that benefits us and cares not for you. But we want you to think that we care. Because if we have that, we can do anything we want. Your willing consent is more valuable to us than any bit of oil or coal that we can scrounge out of the chunk of earth you so inconveniently call home.

Where Does Fracking Leave Oklahoma’s Future?

Image Credit: Grant Samms
Image Credit: Grant Samms

This is part three in a three part series on fracking in Oklahoma. Read part one here and part two here.

For the past two weeks, I have written about the state of fracking in Oklahoma and the socio-political quagmire that surrounds the issue. The impetus for all this digital ink was the ban that New York recently placed on fracking in that state. This ban led some to wonder why the same type of ban could not just be placed in Oklahoma. The reasons why that request is, unfortunately, oversimplified and unrealistic were my previous subjects. However, a few people mentioned that I had failed to be critical of fracking and had not emblazoned some of its more demonic implications. This is true. My goal in the past two weeks was simply to be descriptive; to try to explain the situation with as little interference from my own bias as possible. But this week I aim to move away from the descriptive tack I have been taking and become more proscriptive. How can Oklahoma, with all the issues and forces that it contends with, ever hope to ban fracking? My suggestions here will have to be implemented at various times and by a variety of actors. While the ultimate goal of a fracking ban will only reasonably play out in the long term, we can seek better communication and peace of mind for residents today that will build toward a better energy future for the state in later years.

One of the first actors that has to be considered for change would be the industry itself. Energy companies, like Devon and Continental which heavily frack the shale plays in Oklahoma, frequently run publicity campaigns to make themselves appear to be the champions of the state. They often bluster on about how they help the communities that they work in and about all the money they bring to the state. But many of the citizens affected by the work, especially the ones that receive no direct financial compensation, often feel that their communities and daily lives are violently disrupted by the industry. It is common for feelings of resentment and betrayal to be aimed at those companies who residents see as the source of their distress. At public meetings, people have broken down into tears as they describe the legal ability of gas companies, in the right situation, to erect a fracking platform, complete with methane flair, 125 feet from their door and drill under their house without having to obtain their permission or even advise them of drilling activities. Frustrations are frequently aired over the destructive nature of heavy truck traffic on roads and the timing of drilling activities to avoid ordinance enforcement by government overseers. If the industry is sincere in its PR declarations about helping the state and communities, it would limit these behaviors and make itself aware of the true needs of people. In the pursuit of profit, gas companies often ignore the fact that they are operating in areas where human beings permanently reside; human beings who need to be able to sleep and drive to work the next day. This tone deafness to the actual needs of communities has made gas companies the enemies of many, not the heroes. It is not unreasonable for people to expect information about the extent and duration of drilling activities under their land nor for them to expect the roads and bridges on which they rely to be respected by all who use them. This communication and curtesy should become a part of the industry’s best practice lest they see themselves continue to be the enemy of those whose lives they impact.

The second group that we should examine is the role of the state government. While a cynical part of me wants to dismiss the government as being in the death grip of the petroleum industry, there are signs some in government would be willing to vote against the unfettered run of the land that the industry has had. Government hearings about the effect that drilling and waste water disposal practices are having on state residents have started to occur. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees petroleum activities in the state, stated in a press release on man-made earthquakes that, while a “definitive link of oil and gas activity to the current major seismic events in Oklahoma has not been established” they are “not waiting for one” to take action. Their steps include mandating an increased amount of well monitoring and increasing the amount of integrity tests that are run on large volume injection wells. Some lawmakers have also expressed interest in proposing legislation that would impact a wide array of issues that arise due to fracking in the state. This kindling of legislative energy to regulate the state’s defining industry is not only a positive shift for the state, but is also an opportunity to seize on for the future. My single most desired action for the government to take would be an interim study on diversification of energy generation and subsequent economic security. While Oklahoma has great potential for clean energy generation, the opportunity is oftentimes used as a way to generate conflict with the state’s energy identity: Oklahoma is an oil state and wind power threatens that identity. But the correct framing could see this improved upon, especially as more and more people are becoming disillusioned with the petroleum industry. While a hearing might seem simply like a bureaucratic time waster, its attention by the government would yield a small amount of legitimacy to clean energy in the state and serve as a starting point for an overhaul. If paired with a PR campaign for the new jobs and new economic opportunity that solar and wind would provide, a clean energy push could be made that would maintain the state’s energy identity. Combined with the possibility of attracting out of state investors and selling excess electricity to other states, an ad campaign about how ‘Oklahoma keeps America moving’ could serve as a transition into a new energy paradigm.

Lastly, the people of Oklahoma itself hold more power than they are often given credit for. Many residents think that they are powerless against the mighty forces of the industry, but the recent small shift in the government’s tune is proving they have some power. The change in government attitudes that I outlined above have been credited to pressure from common people. The city council of Stillwater, Oklahoma is currently and seriously considering a proposal to ban all mining operations (including fracking) within the city borders. That would be a huge step for the state and would be the direct result of constituent pressure. If grass roots resistance to the industry and pressure on government continues to grow, it is not unreasonable to assume that citizens may get their way by sheer force of number. But in this change, it would be important to ensure the debate does not become too polarized. While that outcome certainty is a possibility, there is plenty of ground that the majority of Oklahomans can find in common. Man-made earthquakes have been one of those places. I think that a push toward clean energy framed in terms of economic security and job growth could be another.

Oklahoma is extremely far from the type of fracking ban that New York has put in place. I cannot debate this. However, there is some reason to hope for change. A growing mass of people are demanding more regulations for the industry and more protections from the government. It would be foolish to underestimate this kind of populist pressure. Another thing I cannot debate is the fact that Oklahoma is an energy state. Any push to ban fracking is going to have to take this into consideration. All of the emotion; all of the identity; all of the history will have to be taken into account. But these forces can also be brought to bear to create change. Any ban will have to offer an alternative in its place. That alternative has to be set up in ways that will appeal to energy workers and to the general public. But I hope, as these forces begin to swell, that one day they will be able to overtake the fossil fuel industry in this state. We may see a fracking ban in Oklahoma yet.

When the Facts Cease to Matter

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.