Hydraulic Fracturing, Newspaper Coverage, and Social License to Operate

We have been hard at work transforming research originally prepared for our report for Canadian Water Network into a series of interdisciplinary peer-reviewed publications. The first of what we hope will be a trilogy of articles was published today in the open access journal Sustainability. The article — “Comparative Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Wastewater Practices in Unconventional Shale Development: Newspaper Coverage of Stakeholder Concerns and Social License to Operate” — was co-authored by an interdisciplinary team, including Joel Gehman (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Strategic Management & Organization), Dara Y. Thompson (former M.Sc. student at the University of Alberta, Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology), Daniel S. Alessi (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), Diana M. Allen (professor at Simon Fraser University, Department of Earth Sciences), Greg G. Goss (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Biological Sciences).

The starting point for the overall project was the conceptualization of the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context as comprised of three potentially interrelated spheres of action (Figure 1). By delineating between operator practices, regulatory requirements, and stakeholder concerns, our goal was to better understand the extent to which these different spheres affected one another, if at all. In essence, we conceptualized the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context as a dynamic process in which any one sphere has the potential to influence the other two. Relative to the overall conceptual framework, this article focuses on one of these spheres specifically: stakeholder concerns.

Figure 1. Conceptualization of the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context.

Continue reading

Sharing a Wealth of Information

Today, a summary of our SSHRC-funded research on “The Effectiveness of Fracking Disclosure Regimes in Canada” appeared in The Hill Times. Founded in 1989, The Hill Times is an Ottawa-based weekly newspaper that covers Canadian government and politics. The article is available below and online: Sharing a Wealth of Information: How Regulators Can Improve Fracking Disclosure Practices. Continue reading

Showing Versus Telling and the Debate Over Unconventional Shale Development

Over the past decade, it has become clear that unconventional shale development poses major challenges to the state agencies tasked with regulating it. In many cases, the concerns are related to issues of information containment and information disclosure. For instance, Pennsylvania and its state agencies have been criticized repeatedly, most recently in a scathing report by the Commonwealth’s Auditor General.

Although the Department of Environmental Protection has born the bulk of this criticism, the Department of Health has come under fire too. According to StateImpact Pennsylvania, two retirees from the Department say “its employees were silenced on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling.” The issue of “organizational silence,” or the collective-level phenomenon of saying or doing little in the face of significant problems, is an area of considerable research. Although in many cases organizational silence comes about tacitly, in this case, the retired employees claim the silence was deliberate.

Michael Wolf is Pennsylvania’s current Health Secretary. In a recent newspaper editorial, he responded to these criticisms of the Health Department. Below are some excerpts from his editorial, as well as some observations that occurred to me in the course of reading his comments:

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has specific protocols for all public health inquiries and concerns that employees must follow.

This sounds very promising. Inquiring minds want to know:

  • What are these protocols?
  • Are they adequate for handling inquiries and concerns related to unconventional shale developing and hydraulic fracturing?
  • How often are the Department’s protocols followed and ignored?
  • How do these protocols compare, such as with other state protocols and with peer-reviewed literature regarding the potential health impacts of unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing?

All inquiries are immediately reported to the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, the experts who have training in controlling and preventing the spread of disease or illness, for review and follow-up. This is a strict and standard protocol for any health report the department receives, whether it’s related to Marcellus Shale or other environmental health issues. The process includes a review, investigation, data collection and a formal response to the complainant. The Bureau of Epidemiology works directly with the caller or patient’s physician in charge for follow-up, and any immediate threats to the public’s health found would be given a priority…. A log is kept of each complaint that comes in, responses are tracked, and outcomes noted.

Based on this statement, it seems that the Department of Health (unlike the Department of Environmental Protection) should be able to quickly provide answers to questions such as:

  • How many inquiries related to Marcellus Shale have been received?
  • What is the status of the review process and what responses have been issued in relation to these inquiries?
  • What are the outcomes of the investigations?
  • What “immediate threats to the public’s health” have been found and how are these being prioritized?
  • Are there any examples of situations where these procedures “controlled” or “prevented” the spread of potential health impacts related to unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing?

Our goal is, and will continue to be, to provide information and a forum for discourse on public health issues.

This is an admirable goal. As one check on how the Department has done with regard to its goal of providing information and a forum for discourse on public health issues related to unconventional shale development and hydraulic fracturing, I used the “search Agency” box on the Department website to search for terms such as “Marcellus,” “shale,” “hydraulic fracturing” and “fracking.” The results below suggest that the Department is not providing any such information on its website:

  • For “Marcellus” there were 23 results. Of these, 22 reported on the number of newborn children who were named “Marcellus.” The other document was entitled “Final Progress Report for Research Projects Funded by Health Research Grants.” The document refers to a $66,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation for “Use of information in Marcellus Shale environmental and health quality public discourse debates.”
  • For “shale” there were 8 results. Of these, 6 reported on the number of newborn children who were named “Shale.” Another result was to the same Final Progress Report referenced above. The final result was entitled “Boron Fact Sheet,” according to which, “Boron is a naturally occurring element found in many types of rocks including shale.”
  • There were no results for the terms “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”

We may not have a multi-million dollar health registry right now at the department as some have called for, but the records are kept, the proactive follow-up and coordination is happening and we are leveraging the talents and resources we have to get the job done.

The expression “show, don’t tell” is well known among writers of all kinds. By comparison, the Secretary’s editorial is long on telling and short on showing. Perhaps in the future, the Department of Health will provide evidence of its claims? After all, the strongest rebuttal to the allegations that have been made would be evidence to the contrary. But on that point the Department of Health remains … silent.

Are the Amish Getting Fracked?

According to an article in the New Republic, “The Amish Are Getting Fracked” by energy companies that exploit an Amish religious prohibition against lawsuits, especially companies involved in unconventional shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing.


Curious about these claims, I decided to do a bit of research. One of the books I read was The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, Steven M. Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). In turns out that, indeed, the Amish refuse “to initiate litigation or use the law aggressively to defend themselves” because they “view such as coercion, which violates the nonresistant teachings of Jesus to love enemies and avoid retaliation”; in most Amish communities “transgression of this deeply held belief will trigger excommunication” (Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner, & Nolt, 2013: 353).

In addition to confirming this tidbit, I found The Amish to be extensively researched and beautifully written. It offers a rare blend of detailed academic scholarship coupled with a compelling human narrative. The overall organization of the book is excellent, with a total of 22 chapters (!) organized into five major sections: roots; cultural context; social organization; external ties; and the future. The text is rich in detail, nuance and sophistication. The authors somehow manage to be exhaustive without appearing to have done violence to their topic, subjects and setting.

Academic readers are sure to revel in the endnotes. As just one example, consider Chapter 7 on “Symbols and Identity.” The third paragraph (p. 116) notes: “Amish cultural norms prescribe how to act toward and think about moral objects–material items, ideas and activities. Like other societies, the Amish distinguish between desirable or ‘clean’ moral objects and forbidden or ‘dirty’ ones. Boundaries and labels distinguish between things that purify the community and things that pollute it…” Of course, this sounds (to me) like something Mary Douglas might have written, especially her work on Purity and Danger, but also Natural Symbols, Risk and Blame, etc. And neatly tucked away in the endnotes (p. 435, en 1) we find the following: “Our analysis of distinctions in a group’s moral order rests on the classic work of Bourdieu, Distinction; Douglas, Purity and Danger; Wuthnow et al., Cultural Analysis; and Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order.”

In sum, Kraybill, Johnson-Weiner and Nolt have offered us a highly readable and thoroughly engaging lens into The Amish, and in doing so offer readers an opportunity to reflect on themselves and their own cultural milieu. What’s more, academics from diverse backgrounds will also see themselves in this book — including anthropology, culture studies, ethnography, geography, history, political science, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and many more I am sure.