Throughout the modern era, particularly with the development of new and innovative technologies, conflict has existed between the environment and those who inhabit it. With the advent of highly industrialised technology during the 20th century conflict has been on a steady increase as there are often dialectical processes involved between those creating technological innovations and those who become unwittingly involved in them. One environmental conflict called hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ as it is commonly referred to, is a profitable industrial practice whereby natural gas is extracted from rock layers in the ground. Fracking is an environmental conflict arising from economic and political marginalisation based primarily on class divisions. This will be demonstrated first through describing fracking and how it is an environmental conflict, by explaining how fracking fits into a political and economic framework, and by finally outlining the cultural component, that is how marginalised socio-economic and ethnic groups are affected by the practice of fracking. Political ecology theory will be applied in order to gain an understanding of the complexities of fracking as this theory focuses on the mutual development of both political and ecological change. It is acknowledged that whilst applying a political ecology perspective is an effective anthropological method, it is also necessary to apply other anthropological theories in order to gain a more holistic analysis.
Fracking, in the current context of horizontal drilling, as opposed to vertical drilling, is a relatively new technological innovation in mechanic engineering (Rapier, 2012, pp. 57-61). Through fracturing shale rock formations natural gas is able to be harvested in an economically efficient way. This means that in certain areas around the world there is a newly created abundance of untapped natural energy and simultaneously an economically viable and profitable market opening. The first action involved in fracking requires massive land acquisition as a starting step towards drilling (Mooney, 2011). Once this is achieved, foundations such as pipes, concrete casing, and wastewater ponds are set up. From there, sizable amounts of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground in a horizontal direction and this fractures the shale rock and releases the natural gas for collection.
The implications associated with fracking are manifold and a topic of much debate around the world, particularly in the United States as the practice has been linked to several environmental adverse effects. For example, there have been documented cases where methane gas, alongside other chemical compounds, where found to have leaked into nearby water supplies and contaminating local drinking water (Marsa, 2011; Mooney, 2011). There is controversy surrounding whether harvesting gas from shale rock is actually a cleaner source of energy than other energy-creating techniques, as a considerable amount of methane gas is leaking out during the process (Charman, 2010; McGraw, 2011). This gas is comparatively more harmful to the ozone layer than carbon dioxide and alongside the diesel and generator energy needed to create and power fracking devices, the ‘clean and green’ image of fracking starts to fade. Finally, there is the seismic activity reported with earthquakes measuring 4-5 on the Richter scale in close proximity to fracking devices (Kerr, 2012; Rapier, 2012, p. 62). This brings into question the safety of fracking, or at least the current conditions that it is practised in, and sets up the circumstances for an environmental conflict.
In analysing how fracking is an environmental conflict it is necessary to outline the basic theoretical premises of political ecology and how a conflict is defined in those terms, along with the practices of fracking that have caused environmental and health-related issues. In broad terms, political ecology looks to examine the interaction between the environment and societies which inhabit it (Zimmerer & Bassett, 2003, p.3). It specifically investigates how political economies and structures, alongside cultural and social norms, affect both local and global environments. One of the main focuses of political ecology, as outlined by Watts, Stott & Sullivan, is to attempt to understand the circumstances that bring about environmental degradation in regards to the political dimensions of power (Robbins, 2012, p. 16). This refers to examining the conditions placed upon local regions and people, usually in the form of uneven power distribution, that lead to environmental conflicts. Understanding the causes of environmental conflicts and the impacts they have are paramount for political ecologists and help to bring clarity into understanding the interconnectedness between the environment and political economy.
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- Massey University, New Zealand