Dr. ‘Blackgold’: or how I learned to quit worrying and love hydraulic fracking

In discussing infrastructures and mobility, I found it pertinent to examine an infrastructure that hits close to home—hydraulic fracking in west Texas. As I grew up during the peak of fracking in Texas and on a national level the  U.S., it was a fascinating piece of energy infrastructure to examine under an anthropological lense with specific regard to the infrastructure this frontier of sorts created.

The physical infrastructure challenges that this method of drilling have created are vast, ranging from seismic activity to water issues. The amount of water necessary to undertake hydraulic fracking is almost unfathomable—each well averages 1,830 truck trips through its lifetime (EPA 2012). Why all the truck trips? Well, chiefly because the bulk of the drilling takes place in water-poor areas of the country. Not only does this cause issues with the water supplies being depleted and contaminated, but it also has unanticipated consequences such as an exponential rise in earthquakes in one of arguably the most geologically stable places in the world: 1.3 a year from 1980-2013, 585 in 2014 alone (EPA 2012).

In addition, the constant traffic on the roads in Texas due to fracking has caused approximately two billion dollars worth of damage according to the Texas Department of Transportation. This creates a unique dynamic in which global corporations with no ties to the lands they are drilling, other than their contracts and mineral rights, are conducting business at the local and state citizens’ expense. The taxpayers are the ones who end up paying for these damages.

Overall the piece I was most interested in was the idea of the frontier (Harvey & Knox 2015) in relation to infrastructure. They discuss how the frontier is notably marked by absences, and if we remove the notion that frontier must be tied to physical space, we could potentially apply this concept to a previously inaccessible technological frontier such as fracking. As the areas that are being fracked have previously been locations where the oil industry already dominates, the ‘frontier’ would be fracking’s ability to extract oil and natural gas in a previously unknown way. These relationships that arise from place and technological innovation is one that need be explored. While it may be the same “thing” that is being extracted, it is seemingly changed through this new process. The method is unique, and the infrastructures that have taken up around this new piece of the industry is something that are novel as well. The infrastructure, it appears, has changed the thing as much as the thing has changed the infrastructure.

While it seems obvious when looked at in this way, to the local people who live around and in this world this is far from the case. The conception of “oil” casts a wide net over these communities. Instead of seeing the harm that fracking can do, it instead looks like the same old well pads on the surface (albeit with more traffic). The laborers in these communities whose livelihoods and world view revolves around oil are largely blinded by the political swirl around this resource. As Harvey and Knox have shown, this is an important point because infrastructures are pertinent “sites for the analysis of political relations” (Harvey & Knox 2015, 23). So, what else is hidden below the surface? What other relationships have gone unforeseen with this frontier? The networks of circulation that have been formed, entangled, and altered as a result are incredibly expansive in scale and scope.It will be fascinating to follow this and see how the thing and the infrastructure evolve and adapt in the future.

Sources:

Harvey, Penny and Hannah Knox (2015) Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. Ithaca: Cornell University Press (particularly chapters 1 and 2)

Texas Department of Transportation

United States E.P.A.

Image: http://theamericanenergynews.com/markham-on-energy/state-oil-patch-permian-basin-slowly-ramping-takeoff-2017

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