The Uneasy Technocratic Alliance

John Siegmund set the tone for the City of Denton’s appointed Gas Well Task Force. He articulated a classic engineering technocratic position that goes as follows. The problem with fracking is capitalism. The short-term profit motive of capitalists leads to the cutting of corners and the use of shoddy products and practices. If engineers are in charge and use best available technology (BAT), then drilling and production can be rendered essentially “problem-free.” Wells “do not need to pollute,” they only do so 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 from exploration to abandonment. The capitalists will naturally 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 moratorium, but recognizing this as a hard sell, they are choosing instead to throw their weight behind this strategy. This is a point of friction in the environmentalist camp, because some would rather just ban it outright rather than hide behind technocracy.

The environmentalist-engineering coalition is “uneasy” for at least 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 (in the eyes of engineers) will at the very least 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 more by what the engineers think is high quality rather than what makes economic sense to install. It also stems from a sense of “available” that might mean something more like “has been invented but only 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 on DAG recommendation 1.1 regarding electric motors. We saw there that when it comes down to language specific enough to be in an ordinance, a great deal 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 or interpret feasibility in engineering terms. 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 break-down looks like inefficiency: how long can it take to discuss electric motors! But from a democracy stand point this looks like a pluralist society engaged in reasonable deliberations: imagine that!

Now, the staff embraces the technocratic alliance, but only so long as they control the drafting of the actual ordinance language. 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” or “trust us to take all factors into consideration.” The staff wanted the task force to stick to the “concepts” or the “essence.” The framing here is that citizens supply general ideas, staff translate those into technical code. This keeps the machinery of government humming along, because of the technocratic consensus at the level of general concepts.

Now, staff uneasiness is with any process that challenges the dichotomy between concept and language (thus between 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 very concept or idea depends on the language. How the ordinance is drafted in its specifics will determine whether and when operators purchase wind power. So, who should have the power over language? 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.

But a veneer is what we ended up with last night. 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 along; 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 we move forward?” This sounds a lot like they just voted to “let the experts do it behind closed doors.” Technocracy wins.


This entry was posted in Accountability, Environmental policy, Gas Fracking, Philosophy & Politics, Public Philosophizing, Science and technology ramifications, Sustainability, Risk Management, & Long-Term Security, TechnoScience & Technoscientism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Uneasy Technocratic Alliance

  1. Ben says:

    The only thing I take issue with is the use of ‘democracy’ to describe the process of deliberation by the task force. It’s certainly not democracy for the City of Denton or for its people, if those are different things. It’s not democratic because it involves 2 people who don’t live in Denton making decisions for those who do live in Denton. Even if the task force makes the right decision and recommends that city staff consider air regulations, we shouldn’t call that democracy any more than we call it democracy when a Wal-Mart executive boardroom meeting decides to donate $100,000 to charity this xmas.

  2. Will says:

    Great evaluation of what happened. Thanks for this article.

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