Learning from a Fracking Fracas
In this chapter, I reflect on my work as a field philosopher in the politics of fracking in Denton, Texas. ‘Fracking,’ entails the use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to obtain oil and gas from non-conventional shale formations. Mine is a story about the conflicts that arise when the same place is pictured as both community and resource extraction site. I worked on this issue for five years. For roughly the first half, my philosophical efforts involved trying to find ways to make these two views (community and commodity) compatible. I spent the second half working to pass and then defend a ban on fracking in Denton.
I first report my experiences as a field philosopher, which are told in more detail in A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking (Briggle 2015). I then offer reflections with the hope of speaking to themes that pertain to other field philosophers. Finally, I use my case study to ask assessment questions: Who is judging the field philosopher? With what criteria? What evidence indicates success or failure?
The Fracking Case Study
Field philosophy is social in a way that disciplinary work rarely is. The field philosopher is working with and for—in and against, through and around— other individuals and groups. This poses challenges to the characterization and evaluation of this work, because efforts are distributed across multiple agents and impacts are multi-causal. To talk about what I did as a field philosopher risks individuating a complex social activity. The ‘field’ in field philosophy is structured by histories, power, institutions, and other contexts. I will first look at the larger picture and indicate some of the cross-cutting perspectives framing the situation.
The most salient contexts are twofold. First, there was the improvement of high-volume hydraulic fracturing and its convergence with advanced seismic imaging, plus the invention of horizontal drilling at the turn of the twenty-first century. This was the result of public-private R&D efforts that had their epicenter a few miles to the southwest of Denton. The fracking that started on the Barnett Shale in Texas around 1998 would soon push U.S. oil and gas production levels to all-time highs and spark a global fossil fuel boom with massive environmental and geopolitical consequences.
Second, all of this happened in a part of Texas that was experiencing record levels of population growth. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. As construction spread westward, gas wells spread eastward. There was bound to be a clash between energy extraction and neighborhoods. Conflict bubbled up in several towns. It completely erupted in Denton. By 2010, there were over 200 gas wells located within the city limits, and people were protesting outside of City Hall.
There were two main reasons people opposed fracking in the city. For a vocal minority, fracking was a global environmental issue about climate change. Most Dentonites, though, don’t object to fossil fuels or agonize about climate change. They do, however, want to enjoy peace and quiet in their homes. Fracking is an industrial process with loud noises, bright lights at night, lots of truck traffic, and noxious smells. In other words, most people who objected to fracking did so on the basis of neighborhood safety, health, and livability.
They took their grievances to City Hall because the city governs land use. The state of Texas regulates mineral extraction, and state laws preempt or trump city laws. Indeed, fracking could occur in residential areas because mineral rights predominate, i.e., carry more legal weight, in Texas than surface rights. It was not that the city council liked fracking or that the city saw it as a major revenue source (it did provide some money, but not much and not consistently). In a conversation with the mayor of Denton, he said “our hands are tied ... we have to approve permits to frack or we’ll get sued by the industry and the state.”
There were also two main reasons why some Dentonites favored fracking. For one group, it was about supporting an industry that is vital to the Texas economy and the American way of life. For others, it was more personal, because fracking in Denton made them significant money. Elsewhere I detail the distribution of mineral royalties from the gas wells in Denton (Fry et al. 2015). Basically, a few local residents were getting rich (some of them would later spearhead the opposition to the fracking ban), but most of the royalties were held by people who did not live in Denton.
All of this was coming to a head in 2010, the same year that Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland raised national consciousness about fracking. That was the year after I moved to Denton as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas (UNT). At the time, I didn’t know any of this. And those who did know one or another part of this story didn’t know me. No one thought of this as a philosophical issue. People assumed it was a matter for lawyers, politicians, scientists, and engineers.
There was one person in authority, though, who did see fracking as an interdisciplinary issue with philosophical dimensions. In 2011, Kevin Roden, then a newly elected member of the city council, approached the UNT Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity (CSID). I was a faculty fellow with CSID, a research center led by Robert Frodeman.
Roden told us that in the wake of a controversial decision to approve a gas well near a park and a hospital, the city was going to revise its gas well ordinance. The city council had appointed an official Task Force to advise them. Three of its five members, though, were from the oil and gas industry, which undermined their credibility. Roden asked if CSID would put together an unofficial citizens’ advisory committee to gather wider perspectives and offer recommendations.
CSID was looking for case studies in field philosophy, so I jumped at the chance and used a snowball technique to identify people who might want to serve on what I called the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group (DAG). Ten people signed up—nurses, professors, realtors, business people, and others. All of them knew more about Denton and fracking than I did at the time, so I spent most of the first year listening and reading. There was a clear anti-fracking bias to the group. But given the bias of the official Task Force, I felt that this was a permissible counterbalance. Plus, I made sure that DAG invited a wide range of perspectives to take part in our public forums. We hosted eight townhall style meetings where the public could learn about fracking from representatives of the industries, lawyers, regulators, politicians, scientists, and engineers. I saw my role primarily as a facilitator of these conversations.
I also started blogging to share information I learned from my research. The blog (dentondrilling.blogspot.com, now defunct) was my own but many saw it as the work of DAG. What seems odd in retrospect is that we didn’t have any social media accounts (we did set up a Facebook page belatedly but rarely used it). Eventually, as I gained mastery of the subject, I began writing articles for Slate and op-eds in local and regional papers. I even cultivated relationships with representatives of the industry who took me on frack site tours and hosted meetings with me in their corporate offices.
This irritated other members of DAG who saw the industry as the enemy. To some, my efforts at bridge-building bordered on treason. This tension within DAG gave me a great deal of heartbum. I didn’t want the group to fall apart, but I also felt it was in keeping with our mission to tty’ to work toward mutual understanding and compromise. I tended to see the city council as an ally whereas others in DAG categorized them as too friendly to the industry or even hostile to Denton residents. I pictured the issue as a matter of good faith negotiations between reasonable parties. Others in DAG pictured things in far more adversarial terms.
DAG eventually wrote two reports for the city council with recommendations for improving the ordinance. We drew from our meetings and forums as well as comparative readings of other ordinances from cities on the Barnett Shale. The official Task Force frequently referenced our reports. The city council also acknowledged our work as they passed the revised ordinance in January 2013. The ordinance did contain many of our recommendations, though not some of the most significant.
For several months, DAG lapsed, and I thought our work was over. We had struck a compromise that might allow continued resource extraction with added protections for public health and neighborhood livability. Then, in September 2013, we got news of two drilling rigs working within 200 feet of homes, even though the new ordinance stipulated a 1,000-foot setback rule. Over the next few months, we learned that the new ordinance did not apply to this situation because the plats for fracking were issued prior to the 2013 rules and were grandfathered under older, more lax regulations. We also learned that this situation applied to several thousand acres of land in Denton. It looked like we were facing a recipe for mass neighborhood industrialization and potential decline in home values unless we did something more drastic.
In February 2014 we announced the Frack Free Denton campaign to ban fracking in the city limits. We worked with a lawyer to have Frack Free Denton classified as a political action committee (РАС) so that we could raise funds. We utilized the affordance in the Denton Charter that allows for ordinances to be passed via citizens’ initiatives (bypassing the need for city council approval). This entailed working with lawyers to craft the language of the ban, gathering approximately 3,000 signatures to support a ballot on the ban, and engaging in a long campaign to promote the ban. Now we had a very active Facebook page and website that I helped to manage. I helped with campaign strategy, produced memes and advertisements, wrote blogs, authored op-ed columns, walked the neighborhoods, spoke in debate-style public forums and neighborhood meetings, organized events, crafted talking points for our supporters, testified at city council meetings, produced short videos, and gave dozens of media interviews.
In November 2014, the ban was approved through popular vote—we won with nearly 60 percent of the vote despite being outspent by the opposition РАС (Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy) by about 20 to 1 (much of their money came from oil and gas companies). The day after the vote the city of Denton was sued by the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the State of Texas. The following spring, the Texas legislature considered a bevy of bills aimed at overturning the Denton fracking ban. Eventually, they passed HB 40, which didn’t just ban fracking, but also changed the long-standing common law precedent whereby the legality of municipal ordinances is evaluated. Previously, courts largely deferred to towns and cities (albeit within the limitations imposed by preemption and the predominance of the mineral estate). With HB 40, the standard was changed to favor the industry by stipulating that any local ordinance must be “commercially reasonable.”
I wrote an op-ed that criticized our state representative for voting for HB 40, which prompted her to call me complaining that I had hurt her feelings. At about this time, the President of the University of North Texas called me to his office. He reprimanded me for a tweet in which I called one of our state senators a bad name. The President told me that on his latest trip to the capitol in Austin he had received “an earful” of complaints about my work on the fracking ban. (A year or two later, in a conversation with Frodeman, he said that my reputation with the Texas legislature was “lower than whale s**t.”) In a comment that has gained resonance today, the opposition campaign described me as a Russian operative. Some major donors to UNT told the President that they would not make further contributions until I was fired. Nonetheless, I had been awarded tenure during the fracking campaign.
Through the first half of 2015, I worked with DAG and the city to lobby Austin against HB 40. I continued to write blogs and op-eds. In June 2015, shortly after HB 40 was passed, I was arrested at a fracking site in Denton in an act of civil disobedience. We were blockading the entrance to the first active fracking site after HB 40 had overturned the ban. I had hoped that more residents would protest how their vote had been nullified by state politicians. Alas, the resistance to HB 40 fizzled. In 2016, feeling defeated and burned out, I resigned from DAG.