Adam Briggle: Uneasy alliance forms

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Adam Briggle

The city of Denton's Gas Well Task Force met recently to debate the issue of air quality as it guides the formation of a new municipal drilling and production ordinance.

At that meeting, task force member John Siegmund, a retired petroleum engineer, set the tone for what is to come. He articulated a classic technocratic position that goes as follows: The problem with fracking is capitalism. The short-term profit motive of capitalists leads to the use of inferior products and practices. If engineers are in charge and use best available technology (BAT), then drilling and production can be made essentially "problem-free." Wells "do not need to pollute;" they do so only when the free market, with its principle of near-term profit, trumps engineering with its principle of quality. So, what the city ought to do is hire an engineering consultant to specify how operations must proceed in Denton.

The capitalists will complain about the cost, but such is the price of quality. This is all straight out of Thorstein Veblen's 1921 The Engineers and the Price System.

I see on the task force an uneasy coalition around this technocratic core. Some members - let's call them the environmentalists - embrace this framing, because they believe that using BAT will essentially render fracking too costly.

Thus, technocracy is the road to a de facto ban, because when the "best" technology is defined in engineering terms, price is not the determining consideration.

Environmentalists may want to come out swinging for a ban, but recognizing this as a hard sell, they are choosing instead to throw their weight behind this strategy.

But the environmentalist-engineering coalition is "uneasy" for two reasons. First, if "available" means those technologies that are cost-effective, then corporate profit again becomes the determining factor.

This means a de facto ban by expense may not happen.

Second, engineers and environmentalists may disagree on what "best" means. Even a perfected technical system will continue to extract and combust fossil fuels, thus failing to mitigate climate impacts.

This is not to mention all the disagreements these two groups might have about noise, proximity to protected uses, emissions, chemicals, etc.

There is also the industrialist faction of the task force that embraces the technocratic core. But it does so only insofar as BAT means cost savings for corporations.

So, for example, this faction will favor vapor recovery units and "green" completions, but only when those measures make economic sense for the operator by capturing carbon (i.e., money) that is otherwise vented. The uneasiness here stems from an understanding of "best" that is driven by what the engineers think is high quality rather than what is profitable.

Corporate unease also arises when "available" means something more like "exists in a prototype stage." That kind of availability makes no market sense.

This twin uneasiness is why, I think, the task force took so long to debate electric motors. We saw there that when it comes down to language specific enough to be in an ordinance, much hinges on the wording.

The industrialist faction pushes constantly for the "whenever feasible" qualifier. Here, "feasibility" is understood in terms of profits: It is feasible if it does not hurt the bottom line.

The environmentalists will want to strip that language. They want, in this instance, operators to purchase wind power no matter what the cost. The technocratic core here falls apart, because engineers could go either way depending on what technical variables they seek to optimize. If carbon emissions define a variable, then engineers will opt for wind. But this is a political choice, not a technical specification. So, in comes the city staff.

But first, to summarize: The technocratic alliance holds when discourse is confined to generalities. It fails when specifics are at stake. From a technocracy perspective this breakdown looks like inefficiency: How long can it take to discuss electric motors?

But from a democracy standpoint this looks like a pluralist society engaged in reasoned discourse. Imagine that!

Now, the staff embraces the technocratic alliance, but only so long as they control the drafting of the actual language.

The city staff repeatedly said things like, "Don't get bogged down in the specific language," or, "The task force need not take on the burden of legal review. … We will do that for you."

The staff wanted the task force to stick to the "concepts" or the "essence." The framing here is that citizens supply general ideas; the staff translates those into technical code. This keeps the political machinery humming along, because of the consensus at the level of general concepts.

The staff is uneasy with any process that challenges the dichotomy between concept and language (citizen and expert) and opens up the language-writing black box.

What they portray as a "burden" is, looked at differently, where all the real power sits. As we saw with electric motors, the concept depends on the language. How the ordinance is drafted in its specifics will determine whether and when operators purchase wind power.

This is why I am concerned less with industry representatives on the task force (at least their voice is public) than with the scientific and legal experts behind the scenes who will do the "burdensome" work of actually writing the ordinance.

So, who should have the power over language? The staff certainly has expertise here, but there must be some inclusivity if the democratic impulse behind the task force is to be more than a veneer.

Yes, the process was stumbling along when task force members debated the language. But they were really deliberating. Once they capitulated to the concept/language dichotomy, things started to move more quickly, but at the expense of democratic deliberation.

Notice what they actually started voting on: "Should vapor recovery units be a concept that the city looks at?" and "Should the city evaluate 'green' completions as it moves forward?"

This sounds a lot like they just voted to let the experts do it behind closed doors. Technocracy wins?

ADAM BRIGGLE is a faculty fellow at the University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity and assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies. He is the chairman of the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group.

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