In this day and age, environmental issues have become a hot topic for debate not only among the scientific and academic communities, but also among policymakers, politicians, and most especially the general public. And with the advent of social media where everyone seemingly feels the need of putting their noses on just about everything, the way these environmental issues are framed or represented plays a key role both in the rise of public opinion and the creation of public policy.
One of the biggest environmental issues that has become a hot topic for debate is the environmental impacts brought about by hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as fracking. Fracking is a technique used by oil & gas exploration and drilling industries, commonly in the extraction shale gas, tight gas, tight oil, and coal seam gas (Charlez, 1997).
Hydraulic fracturing has been a contentious issue worldwide because of its detrimental impacts to nature, most particularly in the United States and Canada, which is listed among the countries with the largest technically recoverable shale gas (EPA, 2013). The technique has been framed and represented in different, and oftentimes polarising, ways.
The main point of debate in the environmental effects of fracking is the contamination of groundwater. Proponents of fracking argue that fracking does not contaminate groundwater sources. King (2012), aware that both sides of the debate has ‘surprisingly valid arguments’, suggests that the debate on groundwater contamination is largely caused by a ‘mismatch of definitions’. On the other hand, opponents of fracking argue that the process contaminate water sources. Most advocacy groups opposing fracking lobby for legislation that would uniformly regulate gas drilling and put stricter environmental protections for water resources (Negro, 2012).
Much of the fracking debate is concentrated in the United States, where the practice has been in place commercially from around 1946 to 1949 (FracFocus, 2014). As a consequence, much of the media exposure that fracking has garnered has been in the United States. However, in recent years, debate on fracking has reached other parts of the world, most especially in Southeast Asia, where there is an estimated 12.9 billion barrels of natural gas reserves (Yew, 2013).
The way environmental issues are framed can reveal similarities on how two distinctly different groups of people view these environmental issues, it can also reveal the need for environmental justice. In this essay, we examine how fracking is represented in both the United States and in Indonesia – two distinctly different countries, politically and culturally – by looking at a peer-reviewed article by Carre (2012) and a news article in Time Magazine by Campbell (2013), respectively.
United States: Environmental issues a function of a participatory democratic process
In her article on the Journal of Social Change, Carre (2012) presented fracking by looking at the case of North Fork Valley in Delta County, Colorado, wherein 2011 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) presented to the community a sales proposal involving more than 30,000 acres of land for potential oil & gas exploration. The sales proposal map showed that the wells are adjacent to or nearby municipal water supplies.
In presenting the case of North Fork Valley residents, Carre did not focus much on the environmental debate that surrounds fracking, but rather on what impacts to the community might be generated by the potential fracking operations in North Fork Valley should the land sale push through. Aside from the concerns surrounding water contamination, the community of North Fork Valley has also taken into consideration other possible scenarios that the potential fracking operations might bring about, such as increase in heavy trucking and equipment traffic which could cause additional stress to existing infrastructure, a reduction in land values, and air and noise pollution. The concerns of North Fork Valley is also evident in other communities across the United States with a nearby fracking site; Negro (2012) has listed several examples of such communities in her report.
Considering the highly democratic context of politics in the United States, it is not surprising to note that the author seemingly presented environmental issues, in particular fracking, as a function of a participatory democratic process. The author has placed emphasis on the collective efforts of the North Fork Valley residents, acting as a single community, as key to a successfully fierce resistance against the BLM’s proposed land sale.
Furthermore, there was an attempt to shift the fracking debate from solely environmental to a more socio-political discourse. Carre criticised the policy tools used in crafting public policy regarding land sales to oil & gas companies, particularly the process of leaving the final decision of the sale to the BLM despite the public announcement of the sale and the subsequent invitation to public commentary. Citing Schneider and Ingram (1990), Carre further highlighted that errant policy tools might cause serious political implications.
Though not making generalisations, Carre has somehow shown that in the United States, communities view environmental issues as not detached from the socioeconomic and political aspects of their lives. As mentioned above, Carre highlighted that North Fork Valley residents did not solely focus on water contamination as the main point of their argument in opposing the land sale.
Indonesia: Environmental Issues Amplified by Socioeconomic Climate
While much debate has been going on in the United States, fracking is starting to gain ground in oil & gas exploration industries in Southeast Asia. In his article for Time Magazine, Campbell (2013) looked at the possible impacts of fracking in Indonesia, the first ASEAN country to employ fracking methods.
Indonesia, a country composed of more than 13,000 islands interspersed along the equator, is holds South East Asia’s largest economy with a burgeoning middle class (Campbell, 2013). Indonesia is also the world’s fourth most populous nation; the country’s national statistical agency Badan Pusat Statistik reports that the population is pegged at 237,641,326 as per the 2010 national census.
Indonesia contains one of world’s largest natural gas reserves were largely untapped until May of 2013, when, as stated by Campbell in his article, state-owned Pertamina signed the first contract to explore 16 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves in Northern Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s main islands. After Petramina signed the agreement, other oil & gas companies such as Chevron Indonesia and NuEnergy Gas Australia decided to follow suit in Duri in Sumatra (Indonesia’s largest oil field) and West Java, respectively.
Campbell’s article mentioned that fracking has already generated a considerable debate in the country, despite the method still being introduced in the country. The Indonesian government is implicitly represented by the article as a proponent of fracking, this being suggested by the statement, “dwindling supplies from conventional drilling is proving to be a major headache for Indonesia’s government.” The article also mentioned the fact that the government was supposed to set aside a fuel subsidy for its citizens amounting to USD31 billion but did not push through because oil companies put forward a price increase, a move that was met by fierce protests across the country.
The article has mentioned significantly more arguments presented by opponents rather than the proponents, giving an impression that the author, though a journalist, is against fracking. It has to be pointed out that most of the key people that were mentioned in the article are against fracking, albeit the arguments are coming from diverse backgrounds ranging from environmental to political.
It is also interesting to observe that the article presented the opponents in such a way that they view environmental issues not separate from other pressing social issues such as poverty, lack of education, and social injustice; this presentation amplifies the opponents’ concerns. For example, the article mentioning that only 10% of Indonesia’s rural population has access to clean water somewhat amplified the concern that fracking can contaminate the water supply.
The article also mentioned several challenges that fracking will have to face in Indonesia’s socio-economic and political landscape, which further strengthens the opposition’s case. Campbell enumerated these challenges as 1) poor local governance; 2) lack of financial incentives; and 3) inadequate infrastructure. He also mentioned that the issue of water pollution that can be brought about by fracking ‘has been magnified due to cost-cutting measures, lack of technical expertise, and historical exacerbation of industrial dangers by venal local authorities’.
Both articles showed that both the United States and Indonesia, two countries with distinctly different people, culture, and socioeconomic and political status, people can view environmental issues in a similar manner. In this case, both the United States and Indonesia view environmental issues as not detached from social concepts, though one took as its social issue and the other its socioeconomic and political climate. The people of North Fork Valley fiercely resisted the sale of nearby lands to potential fracking operations by having the community participate in participatory democratic actions such as consultation rounds, town meetings, and rallies; Indonesians expressed concern over the environmental impacts of the newly introduced fracking operations in the country by citing that these operations can worsen pre-existing social conditions. Both articles therefore exhibited the need for environmental justice, since, according to Warner and DeCosse (2009), it ‘never considers environmental issues separate from social justice efforts’.
Campbell, C. 2013. Indonesia Embraces Shale Fracking — but at What Cost? [Online] http://world.time.com/2013/06/25/indonesia-embraces-shale-fracking-but-at-what-cost/ [17 March 2014]
Carre, N. 2012. Environmental justice and hydraulic fracturing: the ascendancy of grassroots populism in policy determination. 4(1): 1-13
Brown, E., Hartman, K., Borick, C., Rabe, B.G. & Ivacko, T. 2013. The National Surveys on Energy and Environment Public Opinion on Fracking: Perspectives from Michigan and Pennsylvania. Ann Arbor, USA: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
Charlez, Philippe A. 1997. Rock Mechanics: Petroleum Applications. Paris, France: Editions Technip.
Dutzik, T., Davis, B., and Van Heeke, T. 2013. Who Pays the Cost of Fracking? Weak Bonding Rules for Oil and Gas Drilling Leave the Public at Risk. Colorado, USA: Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center.
FracFocus. 2014. A Historic Perspective. [Online] from http://fracfocus.org/hydraulic-fracturing-how-it-works/history-hydraulic-fracturing [26 March 2014]
Keating, M., Baum, E., & Hennen, A. 2001. Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts from Coal. [Online] http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/ [26 March 2014]
National Petroleum Council. 2011. Prudent Development: Realizing the Potential of North America’s Abundant Natural Gas and Oil Resources. [Online] http://www.npc.org/reports/ [27 March 2014]
Negro, S.E. 2012. Fracking wars: federal, state, and local conflicts over the regulation of natural gas activities. Zoning and Planning Law Report. 35(2): 1-14.
Oil Patch Asia. 2013. 9 countries or regions that ban fracking. [Online] from http://oilpatchasia.com/2013/10/ [26 March 2014]
Warner, K.D. & DeCosse, D. 2009. Lesson Five: Environmental Justice. [Online] http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/focusareas/environmental_ethics/lesson5.html [27 March 2014]
Yew, C.C. 2013. IEA Lists Challenges Facing Southeast Asian Oil, Gas Sector to 2035. [Online] http://www.rigzone.com/news/oil_gas/ [27 March 2014]