AUGUST 25, 2016
TYPE “BARNETT SHALE” into a search engine, and the top hit will be the sponsored site Indeed.com, announcing “Barnett Shale Jobs!” A lot needs doing in the shale gas fields — laying pipe, driving trucks, running machinery. “Schedulers” are sought, to coordinate everything from hydraulics maintenance to safety checks to starting new fracking jobs. Geophysicists, engineers, managers, mathematicians, even English majors — lots of sales and marketing to be done — there’s work for you.
But what about philosophers? What is a philosopher’s role in the midst of the biggest natural gas boom in history? In A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Big Oil and Gas (Liveright, 2015), Adam Briggle provides an answer. Philosophy takes on fundamental questions: How do we discern the real from the unreal, and the right from the wrong? Is there purpose in life? Is there one truth, or many truths? Philosophy is, originally, a straightforward pursuit, requiring little besides some time to think. Over several millennia and around the world, philosophy has taken many forms — dramatic poetry, societal constitutions, schemata of creation, letters, conversations, and more.
But as Briggle points out (and in early January restated in The New York Times Opinion pages), in the last 150 years philosophy has become professionalized. Its most common form these days is the densely worded journal article built from technical terminology appropriate for one philosophical subspeciality or another. Business ethics, environmental ethics, information ethics, ethical theory. Semiotics, symbolic logic, linguistics. Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger; east and west, ancient and modern. And there’s more. Professionalized philosophy produces writing about other writing, rather than about life’s puzzles. It is read, when it’s read, by other philosophers. The result is an unfortunate paradox: philosophy, the arena of thought most relevant to all people in all places, has become the least accessible. In his introduction, Briggle sums up the situation this way: “With one foot in contemplation and the other in contemporary affairs, philosophy has alternately bored and irritated the outside world.”
As he is well aware, Briggle’s not the first to bemoan philosophy’s irrelevance. And the Guide, a creative nonfiction work living at the intersection of environmentalism, grassroots democracy, and legal affairs, has plenty of well-read company, from A Civil Action (1996) to Toms River (2013). Nevertheless, the Guide is a noteworthy addition to the genre. Responding to a high-tech, perfectly legal energy production technique, rather than a noxious spill or catastrophic explosion, and set in the north Texas college town of Denton, the Guide is a timely and topical enviro-democracy saga.
Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale, which from 2000–2011 produced more natural gas than any other shale formation in the country. But wait, you say: shale is rock. Doesn’t natural gas come from swamps, or underground pockets? And so it mostly did, until the advent of fracking. What, then, is “fracking,” and why has it sparked a field philosopher’s rush to engage? Fracking combines two technologies. The first is hydraulic fracturing. This entails driving a narrow pipe into a rock formation, and then shooting highly pressurized fluid into the pipe. When the timing is right, tiny holes along the pipe’s length are blown open, and tiny, forceful fluid hammers crack the rock, releasing gasses and fluids trapped within. Hydraulic fracturing has been used to increase the productivity of wells — oil and gas wells, and water wells — for about a century. The second technology is directional drilling, whereby the borehole, after running straight down a few thousand feet, is turned to run horizontally through hydrocarbon-rich lenses of rock. Fracking makes it possible to extract copious amounts of heretofore unattainable natural gas and liquid petroleum from shale rock formations sitting as much as two miles below the surface. As Briggle notes, fracking was pioneered right there in the Texas Barnett Shale by Mitchell Energy Corporation. By 2000, Mitchell was fracking for oil and gas in Texas at a commercial level. The approach has proliferated across the country, to great effect. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2000 production of natural gas from underground shale formations was about 2.5 billion cubic feet per day. By late 2015, daily production was about 42 billion cubic feet per day, a nearly 1,700 percent increase.
But so what? We’ve been pulling ancient hydrocarbons — coal, oil, natural gas — from the earth for centuries now. “Surely,” writes Briggle, “fracking tells us something important about the way we live.” The way of life in Denton, by Briggle’s telling, is transmogrifying into life in a suburb of Mordor. This is due in part to the material facts of fracking. Cracking rock sitting under the pressure of a mile or more of planet Earth requires enormous force. Pressures of 10,000 pounds per square inch are commonly cited. It takes many noisy, dirty diesel-powered generators pushing a half-million gallons or more of fluid to crack the shale. The infrastructure is considerable. Roads are built, pads poured, utilities run, and fences erected. Trucks, tanks, generators, motors, piping, drill rigging, lighting, and more run in and out, day and night. Wastes — pipe cuttings, spent fluids, subterranean tailings — accumulate by the ton.
But the vision of Mordor’s outskirts is due, too, to the legal conditions in play. One of Briggle’s neighbors complains that “if you don’t have mineral rights, you have no rights.” Those who own rights to the hydrocarbons under the ground have a right to set drilling operations atop the ground, even if that surface is owned by somebody else. As of Briggle’s account, about 300 gas wells were located inside City of Denton limits. In Denton, as in other places, some residents have given up beloved homes, rather than suffer the noise and air pollution that fracking causes. A 2014 study by Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, looking at fracking jobs initiated since 2000, found that at least 15.3 million Americans live within one mile of one or more of those rigs.
Which leads us to the philosopher’s job in the Barnett. Many critiques of fossil fuels speak broadly for “the Earth” and for “future generations.” The Guide, though, is a here-and-now chronicle leading to a culminating event: a vote by the citizens of Denton on whether to ban fracking within city limits. As such, it is a contained account of meetings, ruminations, tribulation, and triumph. But it is also a field philosopher’s argument, forged on the anvil of current events while reaching for application beyond the moment. The argument unfolds against an unvoiced but critical backdrop, which is the fundamental difficulty with environmental protection. Where effective criminal law greases the skids of life as we know it, effective environmental law disrupts it. Real environmental protection entails major changes to business-as-usual production, distribution, and consumption. Sometimes, and always over industry protest, big changes are successfully incorporated. Examples range from catalytic converters to sanitary landfills to permanent wilderness areas.
But the US energy sector has avoided fundamental process changes to a surprising extent. This is particularly true of oil and gas exploration and production, which are exempted from several aspects of federal environmental law. For example, to protect groundwater from contamination, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) closely regulates underground injection of fluids. Because fracking involves underground injection of fluids, one would expect the location and operation of rigs to be regulated under the SDWA. But the Energy Policy Act of 2005 specifically exempts most oil and gas production from regulation under those provisions. And in addition to the initial underground injections, fracking’s voluminous waste fluids — some issuing from Denton’s neighborhood drill rigs — are deposited into deep wells dotted hither and yon across the country. The vision, one of slow but steady above- and below-ground ruination of our own backyards, so that we can flip our light switches, illustrates fracking’s deeper lesson about how we live: “Fracking exemplifies the technological wager, by which I mean a gamble or even a faith that we can transform the world in the pursuit of narrowly defined goals and successfully manage the broader unintended consequences that result.”
And that is how fracking launched a field philosopher into the fray. We develop technologies to accomplish certain things, like to get us quickly from Point A to Point B. In the process, the technologies also accomplish other things, like the death of one vertebrate animal about every 10 seconds on the nation’s highways. By some measures, a given technology’s output of undesired “side effects” and “byproducts” may well outpace its desired outcomes. But the mental challenge of internalizing these implications, combined with jaunty confidence in human ingenuity, fuels a faith-like response. Thus, the Guide casts fracking as an uncontrolled “real-world experiment” with Denton as its subject, with neither those running the trial nor those being subjected to it conscious of it as an experiment at all. Briggle, markedly ambivalent about being a “radical,” makes a careful case for how such “experiments” can be conducted ethically, if held to several conditions. And perhaps those conditions would, if applied, improve the regulatory framework for fracking. The Guide’s real force, though, is not derived from its policy proposal, but from its eloquent insistence that fracking, which appears on its face as a job mainly for engineers and marketers, holds plenty of work for the rest of us, philosophers and citizens alike.