Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has recently become a fairly controversial technological innovation. While the innovation itself is not particularly recent, its use is ramping up, and as it also sees more use near population centers, it has become quite controversial. This controversy is readily apparent in my home state of Colorado, where a recent compromise overturned the decision by the governor’s office to file suit against the city of Longmont for its local fracking ban.
Much of the discussion around fracking is over its apparent safety, as well as being part of a broader debate over expanding oil and gas extraction as opposed to utilizing more renewable energy sources. But fracking technology brings up a myriad of other issues that popular media rarely addresses.
The first issue, which the case of Colorado demonstrates extraordinarily well, is the contention between fracking and democratic politics. In the case of Colorado, many local municipalities have instituted fracking bans to protect their communities in the absence of stricter controls by the state or federal governments. In response, the governor’s office joined a suit previously filed by an oil and gas industry trade association. This expresses a set of priorities where industry interests trump democratic processes. The fight in Colorado is only partially over the technology of fracking itself, it is also over whether powerful interests can influence state governments to overthrow local regulations which came about through citizens initiatives (as in Longmont) and other more representative democratic processes. The recent compromise assuages these worries to some degree, but it would not have happened if Rep. Jared Polis had not supported two ballot measures restricting fracking and thus raising the political stakes. A single compromise is also little consolation from a governor who threatened to sue any local government which institutes a fracking ban.
This leads me to question whether hydraulic fracturing is an inherently undemocratic technology, or if it is merely undemocratic in its application. While I do not have the answer, it is not a question I have yet heard asked, and it is an important one. The assumption that technologies are neutral seems to be predominant, and that may not be the case. Langdon Winner argues that technologies are inherently political, and some technologies have particular politics inherent to them. In much the same way that nuclear technology requires greater state controls to prevent catastrophic accidents or devastating malicious attacks, it may be that hydraulic fracturing is not a viable technology for use without state governments backing the oil and gas industry to overturn local democratic land use decisions.
Part of what makes fracking so popular, even outside of the oil and gas industry, is that it is seen as part of a solution to what has been called America’s energy crisis. This form of technofix, however, provides only a technical solution for what is also a socioeconomic problem. The first problem with the idea of fracking as a tecnofix for energy problems in the U.S. is uncertainty and unintended consequences. Historical data indicates that there is no way to predict what technologies will become predominant in the future. In much the same way, it is impossible to predict what all of the secondary and tertiary impacts of a particular technology will be. In the case of fracking, it may be that it reduces greenhouse gases, but at the same time there is ample evidence to believe that it may also contaminate groundwater. The unintended consequence of polluting water counteracts to some degree the other environmental benefits of increased natural gas production through fracking. So technofixes such as fracking are unreliable because they create more problems even if they solve old ones.
It is also unlikely that the technofix will completely solve their relevant problems either. On an individual level, if one’s reckless behavior causes some physical damage, it seems obvious that fixing that damage in insufficient. It is the reckless behavior that must be changed, or else one will simply cause more damage. Likewise, it is not just a case of “bad technology” that has caused the energy and environmental problems we are experiencing today. A political system that is easily influenced by corporate interests, an economic system in which rewards and penalties are based entirely around profits thus excluding environmental concerns, and a social system in which decision makers and agenda setters are insulated from the consequences of their decisions and agendas while others are forced to bear the burdens of the consequences are all equally responsible. Fracking will certainly not solve any of these three issues, and arguably contribute to them rather than alleviate them. Thus, technofixes such as fracking are not sufficient on their own.
I also want to avoid the misconception that science and technology have no part to play in solving issues such as climate change. Certainly even changes in social systems will be of no use if American civilization ramps up the use of coal for energy, for example. It is, thus, important that while keeping techno-optimism in check, we do not quash out optimism in a just technological future in general. Problems such as climate change and the related energy crisis are not purely technical problems, but nor are they purely social. They are technosocial problems, and as such require technosocial solutions.