Written by Jenny Han
Arguments, in order to possess any kind of persuasive power, must be backed by supporting evidence. Science and scientific data, among other things, serve as such evidence behind the various arguments being made about the world, for example in regards to hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas - the safety, risks, benefits, and drawbacks of it. Meanwhile, scientific uncertainties surrounding said scientific data inevitably blur the judgments of individuals and organizations regarding this technology of fracking.
"Fracking involves pumping large quantities of fresh water, coupled with chemicals and sand, into shale formations to crack the rock and extract the fossil fuels. Studies have revealed that fracking fluids contain a host of toxic substances, including known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds. Fracking has the documented potential to contaminate drinking water sources, foul air and land, as well as spoiling millions of gallons of fresh water as part of the drilling process that must then be disposed."
Scientific uncertainty arises when scientists come across difficulties in linking the exposure of environmental hazards to its human health outcomes and safety – when potential risks are observed but their absolute cause and effect indeterminable. The word “potential” in itself is indicative of uncertainty. In many cases, as with the case of fracking, levels of risk are the only answers that scientists can provide. For example, finding elevated levels of volatile organic compounds like benzene and methane in wells close to natural gas operations is not too arduous of a task. What is difficult is drawing a definitive connection between natural gas extraction and these elevated levels of chemicals.
Knowledge and power are linked in a rather intimate and consequential relationship. As with many other controversial issues, politics of knowledge exist in the case of fracking. The concept of toxic trespass was mentioned previously to have occurred near fracking sites. Chemicals, toxic air pollutants sometimes enter our body without our consent, more often than not transitioning to health concerns including endocrine disruption. Such vulnerability of our bodies helps us realize that we are actually a part of the nature that we so often undermine in a dualism against us. The conception of toxic trespass as well as transcorporeality, which refers to the flow of substances and power between people, places, and economic and political systems, reaffirms our body as a threshold between the human and the environmental – powerful for it serves as the victim of physical and ideological pressures of environmental change.
Further, the concept of contested knowledge points to how risks, depending on how scientific data is produced and portrayed in the media and in turn interpreted by the public, are open to contestation. Due to such contestation, defining the degree and urgency of risks at hand is made difficult. Intentional miscommunication about fracking by its opponents often distorts public understanding and interferes with good decision-making. At the same time, proponents of fracking are using the nature of scientific uncertainty to set forth semantic arguments that narrowly define what counts as contamination from fracking, when for citizens and their bodies, the harm and environmental contamination is really what actually matters.
The political economic force of money, too, presides over the technology of fracking. The economic system of the world has gone through vast transformations with the globalization of capitalism. Capitalism is grounded in the dominant Modern Western discourse as a system based on profit and the pursuit of private property. The root word, capital, refers to the assets – profit or wealth – which can be accumulated or proliferated in the process of investment. The ones that hold such capital – the natural oil and gas industries and their investors – use the political economic structure of the modern capitalistic society to their advantage in an attempt to develop and deploy fracking technology. Natural gas exploration and production companies are capable of funding scientists to conduct studies that develop fracking technology and show positive sides of fracking, while the public fighting against fracking is unable to fund studies that prove the opposite. Further, there is evidence of industries lobbying politicians with money. Although the side of such political economic force have all too often won over the decision-making power about technology, in the case of fracking the decision-making power seems to lie with the people – the public. The modern trend towards an increase in consideration for ethical rights is allowing residents to exercise such power. It is worthwhile to note, however, that collective public input is key.
The technology of fracking, moreover, is a distributive justice problem for there clearly exists an uneven distribution of health risks dependent on the factor of socioeconomic disparity. Key natural gas resources are generally situated below less affluent rural areas where residents often rely on private wells and have limited resources to resolve water supply problems or fight against companies they feel may be responsible. These residents living near fracking sites will inevitably experience a higher risk for potential exposure to hazardous chemicals due to fracking as compared to those who reside in the heart of cities.
This all goes to say that science and technology cannot be understood in isolation from the social relations that shape them. Politics of knowledge as well as the political economic force of money preside over fracking and, to all intents and purposes, over the entirety of science and technology.