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.

Our Failed Climate Change Defense

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Image Credit: Claudia Dea

Let’s talk about legal defenses that should not work. You get pulled over. You get asked if you’ve been drinking. You have. You try to deny it. You conjure up all the rationale and excuses you can find in your ethanol addled mind to explain why this isn’t what it looks like. But when the officer asks you to step out of the car, you, with vapors of gin and whisky stumbling off your tongue, come up with the perfect legal defense: You can’t be drunk because you weren’t paying for the alcohol. “Solid point,” says the officer, and lets you on your way to continue careening down the freeway; endangering everyone that shares the road with you that night.

For the past thirty years, the United States has been employing this same defense as to why it shouldn’t be held responsible for the emissions that we spew into the atmosphere like a debauched club goer. The language should sound familiar. “But China won’t do anything!”  Employed by politicians and everyday people alike, the argument goes how can we be expected to act when our actions will only be a drop in the bucket as compared to the big polluter that is China? Or India? Or Russia? Putting aside that fact that the U.S. still emits far more per capita than China (16.4 kilotons per person to China’s 7.6), a large portion of the United States’ carbon bill is actually paid for by China. This is because the groups that tally up carbon bills use the same method that a bar does: Whoever directly creates the carbon spewing activity gets the tab. But what happens if that activity is slid down the bar to the U.S. who has convinced other nations to buy the drinks? The carbon emitted for all of the TVs we buy, the clothes we wear, and all of the cheap chachkies we mindlessly consume gets charged to China even though we get the physical goods. And, for the record, all of the emissions cause by shipping those good across the Pacific on heavily polluting bunker oil don’t get charged to anyone. They don’t really get tracked or accounted for at all.

In this way, the United States (and, indeed, all developed nations) have found a way to hide a sizable part of our total emissions within other nations ledgers. The demand originates in the rich nations, the items are consumed in the rich nations, but the pollution, including the carbon dioxide, is burdened by the developing world.

Yet we wonder what on earth is wrong with nations like China when they can’t seem to get their air pollution under control. “If only they could be environmentally conscious, like those of us over here, they wouldn’t have to suffer under a hazy smog that is literally choking the life out of them.” And so, confident in our assessment that we can’t do anything until China does something about the pollution that we have put there, we tell ourselves that we might as well wait until they get their act together. After all, it’s only fair. Meanwhile, our world continues its slide into a future where the environment is so chaotic that we can’t fully predict how many (or even how) humans may live on it.

Now, in case you’re thinking “we don’t force this on China. It’s their choice to engage in this type of global trade,” you must remember that this problem of outsourcing environmental consequences while importing physical goods isn’t isolated to one country. The history of globally produced consumerism is clear on the business model: park in the cheapest country with the loosest labor and environmental regulations for as long as possible. When that country decides to improve the standard of living for their people, you move on to the next nation. This migration is easy to track based on who the stereotypical producer of cheap stuff is. Japan, to Korea, to China, and now to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The wave of consumerism sweeps from developing nation to developing nation while we hide our pollution in their skies.

But how can consumers be expected to curb this dangerous cycle of climate blame laying? To be sure, the average American consumer has no power in the court of the World Trade Organization. But they do have a wallet, and the solution to rampant, mindless, climate-destroying consumerism can oddly be solved by some of the rallying cries of American capitalism itself. “Vote with your wallet.” “Buy American.” “Shop local.” All credos of the same lawmakers that abhor any attempt to place the needs of the planet before that of the bottom line. But buying local goods cuts down on untracked cargo ship emissions. Buying American ensures that we must bear the pollution burden of our consumption. Voting with your wallet by buying products that are mindful of their impact helps us internalize our personal impact. Alternatively, voting by not opening your wallet for all of those cheap chachkies may be the most socially and environmentally sound vote you could cast.

Personal responsibility. Another rallying cry of the laissez-faire politician. But in this they are correct: when we take seriously the responsibility to balance our consumption with our environmental impact, we can improve ourselves. When we insist that the products we consume are made with the same attention to planetary preservation as we are in selecting them, we can improve our world. And when we tally up this mindful consumption in whole, acting with sober mind and clear understanding, we can save our future.

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.

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.

What’s so Different about Oklahoma’s Fracking?

Image Credit: CREDO
Image Credit: CREDO

This is part one in a three part series on social factors on fracking in Oklahoma

I rather distinctly remember a graduate student at Kansas State asking me about my opinion on hydraulic fracturing during my undergraduate career. He was specifically probing me for an anti-fracking stance. At the time, I was a sophomore in a state that didn’t have any fracking in it so far as I was aware and I gave him the only answer I thought was reasonable: “I don’t know enough to have an opinion.” It was an honest answer. At that time, I was only vaguely aware that it was a practice currently in use. I sort of knew that it had consequences and I sort of knew that I was supposed to hate it as someone being educated in conservation biology.

It’s humbling how an issue can precipitate out of a nebulous state into something so corporeal with a change in location. Over the summer, I moved from Manhattan, Kansas to Stillwater, Oklahoma to begin a Master’s program. Unknowingly, I had moved into a region of the country where an amalgamation of social and governmental issues had left most of the citizens in a cultural crossfire. Data and opinions on fracking were being thrust onto the stage of my academic mind at a dizzying rate. With many of my faculty advisers and fellow students paying so much attention to the social and environmental benefits and costs of fracking (many of them born in the state) the intellectual change was as drastic as breaking through a thin, distancing sheet of ice to be drenched in the mire below. Suddenly my answer from three years ago no longer felt justified but rather an inappropriate and ill-advised diversion.

But as my perspective and opinions on the problem as a relative outsider began to formulate, I found that it did not square with either of the camps in what has become a bitterly polar issue. The depth of the emotion that surrounds fracking is nigh impossible to escape on the streets and in the bars. Broaching the topic can turn a roomful of pleasant southern and mid-west types into a seething, self-consuming mob. I have seen numerous people on both sides of the issue get so heated during community meetings on fracking that they had to be escorted from the room by police. So deeply are the emotions felt that, five minutes into a pleasant conversation with a total stranger, I was all at once told that “people just need to get the fuck over fracking.” Until that point, it had been all pleasant banter. The downturn in our conversation had come when I mentioned that my work involves the effects of fracking on communities.

For much of the country, and for many other scientific editorialists, fracking has become an easy thing to demonize. It has become an issue around which environmentalists can guarantee solidarity. Two weeks ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made official a ban on fracking in his state. It was a move that was supported by roughly half of the state’s citizens and implemented over health concerns regarding the unknown (though sometimes known) toxicity of chemicals used in the process. And while this successful ban has increased the calls from environmental quarters for more bans, the view of this displaced Kansan is a little more sobering. It’s not that I disagree with the ban per se, but the troubling implications that action would have on my new home state are impossible to ignore.

Speaking about the recent New York ban, Cuomo stated that “I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘I believe fracking is great.’ Not a single person in those communities. What I get is, ‘I have no alternative but fracking.’ ” If this is true, than the view from Oklahoma is strikingly different than the one from New York. There are many land owners in Oklahoma who see fracking as a great thing. And unlike New York, these land owners almost never see any direct benefit from the activity. In Oklahoma, land rights and mineral rights are bifurcated. So while many people in the state have super lateral wells directly under their houses and pastures, they see no financial benefit nor are companies required to get their permission. While some people do choose to lease land and water rights to companies in exchange for financial compensation, hold-outs are frequently threatened with legal action if they do not sign. While these threats are ultimately hollow, antidotal evidence suggests that they frequently work as land owners have limited knowledge and resources to know the law or hire counsel.

And yet, despite this, the presumptive majority of the state is entirely fine with this activity. Many of the country’s top energy companies, companies that frack both the Marcellus shale formation in New York and the various shale formations in Oklahoma, are headquartered in Oklahoma City. As with other states, the taxable revenue and jobs that these companies bring in is often the source of support for their presence and activities. It is estimated by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board that over a third of the Oklahoma’s Gross State Product is generated by oil and gas activities. They also estimate that the industry has created of tens of thousands of jobs. The OERB also estimates that oil and gas activities accounted for nearly one billion dollars for public funds in 2010. But these numbers are of questionable accuracy. In a move borrowed from coal companies in Appalachia, the OERB is a governmental board voluntarily funded by energy companies. It generates economic data in conjunction with a local college primarily underwritten by those same companies and then uses that data to make governing recommendations to the state legislature on how to best manage themselves. But, unfortunately, many citizens see the activities of these companies as vital, and this holds true even if the OERB’s numbers are incredibly inflated. It is impossible to acknowledge that our state and many of its public services would not be in existence if not for fracking activities.

The final factor that changes the view from that of New York is the social forces that are present in Oklahoma that seem to be lacking in New York. Bluntly put, Oklahoma is an oil state. It is an identity deeply baked into the native citizenry. The halls of the state capital building are lined with paintings and photographs that document this heritage. A large painting outside the governor’s office, depicting three Native American men gathering oil from a spring, is entitled (and I swear this is true) “The Magic of Petroleum.” To many, oil and now natural gas are a huge part of what gives Oklahoma its place in the world. Energy companies know this and run advertisements to reassure Oklahomans of their fossil fuel heritage (another tactic borrowed from coal). While there is a present and growing number of citizens and lawmakers beginning to demand more oversight and accountability, talk of an all-out ban is uncommon. If Andrew Cuomo was truthful in his statement that no one has told his that “fracking is great”, I can change that within five minutes on an Oklahoma City street.

While there are definitely people in the state who would support a New York style fracking ban, more people would say that fracking is their only good option. The majority, though, would hail it as a great thing for the state. Reasons for this opinion aside, it lends a social aspect to the puzzle of fracking in Oklahoma that complicates it beyond the relatively simple action taken in New York. This social puzzle then, is something that I want to explore in two more parts to come in the next couple of weeks because, in a state like Oklahoma, demonization of fracking is nearly impossible. The tactics that have even the slightest chance of ending fracking, then, take serious consideration, study, and discussion. We have to change the culture of our state before we will change its central economic tenets. It’s not something that I feel comfortable saying will never happen, but it is something that will not come about as simply or as cleanly as New York has proven can happen.

You can read part two in this series here and part three here.