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Putting fracking in its place: A social science look at hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional energy

Anti-fracking protest in Yukon. Photo credit should read: Kate Harris.
Photo: Kate Harris

‘There is no planet B!’

‘Frack off—leave our land alone.’

‘I’m not a protestor, I’m a protector.’

These signs, held up at a rally in 2015 in northern Canada, could have been taken from any of dozens, or even hundreds, of protests around the world over the past decade. Hydraulic fracturing, known colloquially as ‘fracking’, has provoked intense controversy. Technically, the process involves fracturing rock through high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals, often used in combination with horizontal drilling. But the term fracking is also used strategically to stand in for other invectives and to draw attention to social and environmental concerns about oil and gas extraction.

As the effects of climate change are felt around the world—from hurricanes and flooding in the Caribbean, the US, and southern Nepal; to drought in Jordan and Bolivia; to wildfires in Chile, Australia, and Canada—the impacts of our energy consumption are under increasing scrutiny. Still, energy demands increase, and while the world runs short of easily extracted conventional oil and gas, companies and governments are turning to “unconventional” sources, with forms of production that are increasingly water- and energy-intensive.

But beyond sparking creative slogans such as those above, has the development of these technologies simply increased the supply of oil and gas, or has it altered the energy sector in significant ways? A synthesis of social science research on hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional energy suggests the latter, leading us to rethink the global politics and economics of oil and gas.

Environmental concerns and social science gaps

Scientific concerns about unconventional energy sources abound, including surface and groundwater contamination, increased seismicity, and methane emissions. But evidence for this concern is mixed. In some cases, new extraction technologies create impacts that surpass those of conventional oil and gas, in part because of production intensity. In others, impacts are equal to or even less harmful than energy from conventional sources. For example, scholars at Duke University found that water use for hydraulic fracturing was lower than expected, using less water per unit of energy produced than coal and uranium.

But while scientific work on unconventional energy has been widely communicated and synthesized (if contested), social science work has remained more obscure. Yet social scientists, too, have been closely observing the consequences of these developments. While numerous, these studies have to date largely been conducted within disciplinary silos and isolated regions.

Research on the politics of conventional oil and gas has generally focused on three areas:

But unconventional resources differ from their conventional counterparts in three key ways: 1) the increased density of wells and new technologies of drilling alter environmental impacts; 2) the low-carbon, “bridge” fuel and “clean” energy narratives associated with natural gas complicate environmental responses; and 3) the differing ownership structures of unconventional oil and gas change industry influence, especially in the United States where small-scale companies lead natural gas expansion. As a result, current energy politics are not captured by state-focused security, independence and geopolitical frames.

Shifting the lens of analysis

Integrated analytic approaches are needed to understand the multiscalar dynamics of unconventional energy resources, which raise interconnected questions of security, land rights and environmental protection. Two sets of findings illustrate these intersections.

First, the rate and scale of unconventional energy development cannot be explained by technological constraints or capacities alone. Development has been rapid in some places—by 2014, for instance, gas from unconventional sources represented nearly half of US natural gas production, and projections suggest it could rise to over two-thirds by 2040. The US has framed shale gas as an opportunity for economic recovery and energy security. Yet other countries with large shale basins have had much less commercial development of their resources. France (in 2011) and Bulgaria (in 2012) were among the first European jurisdictions to ban hydraulic fracturing. Poland was at the forefront of exploration until a combination of public opposition and corporate withdrawals slowed the sector’s momentum. In Canada, Australia and South Africa, unconventional energy developments have come up against environmental activists and Indigenous land rights claims, leading to inconsistent outcomes over time and across sub-national regions.

The uneven uptake of unconventional energy across countries thus results from the intersection of social, political and economic factors, from public opposition to corporate finance to government priorities. Regulatory variation across and within countries can be accounted for in part by differences in mineral ownership and royalty regimes, the relative importance of energy security and environmental concerns, and national perceptions of risk. Further, the clean energy narrative associated with shale gas complicates local and state responses to these developments, with varying enthusiasm and skepticism about these fuels as bridges to a low-carbon future.

Second, different unconventional energy types lead to different social, political, and economic impacts. The literature reveals that shale gas has had a strong impact on world gas prices, whereas shale oil has not significantly influenced world oil prices. These fuels have differing market types, with integrated global oil markets but fragmented regional gas markets, as well as differences in the substitutability of fuels, with interactions between natural gas and coal but less so with oil. Further, differing ownership and taxation structures for mineral resources across countries and regions lead to varying consequences of their extraction for local communities.

The histories of different communities shape public and political responses to unconventional energy projects. While some communities might feel threatened by new extractive industries, others welcome developments or have conflicted views. Groups that have historically relied on extractive industries may be less likely to identify the specific threats of a new industry, and may feel torn—especially when their social identities and economies are associated with industrial activities. Others might mobilize against projects, although some might face repression, and still others might be confronted by counter-campaigns from project proponents. Moreover, these conflicts take place at multiple scales, and involve time lags, cumulative effects and many interactions.

Implications for scholarship and policy

The surge of unconventional energy offers both challenges and opportunities to scholars, policymakers, industry and communities around the world. The challenges are numerous: water use and contamination, resource rights and competing land uses, social disruptions and economic impacts, and more. But the opportunities also abound, especially for creative approaches for understanding and responding to linked social and environmental impacts.

Unconventional energy is a “nexus” area, which connects energy with food, water, land, climate, transportation, and more. Activists and scholars alike can extend their networks and develop solidarity across communities, linking local issues with global ones, rural with urban households, and social with environmental justice. A plurality of perspectives is needed when evaluating the risks and benefits of energy transitions, especially from those most affected by the developments. Such perspectives include the worldviews of Indigenous peoples, as well as those of communities whose identities are embedded in extractive industries. Unconventional energy reinforces existing power structures associated with conventional oil and gas, but also creates new political and social dynamics. Careful attention is needed to the range of views and values implicated in these changing relationships.

The United States has led developments in global shale resource exploration and extraction, and this is reflected in the abundance of social science literature on US case studies, particularly on regulatory variation and protest. However, the global literature on unconventional energy is also growing rapidly. Scholarly work on unconventional energy has, among other findings, led to innovative data visualization, bridged knowledge and legal systems, supported new methodologies for ethnographic study, and provoked creative collaborations among scholars and artists. These cross-cutting, interdisciplinary research projects have led not only to a better scholarly understanding of the energy sector, but also to tools that allow many audiences to assess and respond to the shifting dynamics of energy and the environment. Among these tools are maps to illustrate the global reach and political responses to hydraulic fracturing projects.

As advances in science and technology continue to present new challenges to communities and policymakers, social science scholarship is needed to help stakeholders address the complex and interconnected impacts that accompany new developments. By making these projects and their impacts more visible, new opportunities arise for responding to these innovations and their many consequences in more thoughtful and just ways.

Further reading

Neville, K.J., Baka, J., Gamper-Rabindran, S., Bakker, K., Andreasson, S., Vengosh, A., Lin, A., Nem Singh, J., and Weinthal, E. 2017.  Debating Unconventional Energy: Social, Political, and Economic Implications. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 42: 2.1–2.26.

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