Fracking and environmental (in)justice in a Texas City

It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here. After more than a year of peer-review, my co-authors, Matthew Fry and Adam Briggle at the University of North Texas, and I have gotten our economic and environmental justice study of shale gas development in Denton, Texas published in Ecological Economics. 

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My infinite gratitude to Matt and Adam for their tireless effort on this project, and everyone who made it possible along the way. You can access the full text for free here until August 22nd. Please feel free to share far and wide. It’s important that we spread our findings with the greater civic body, especially in light of Denton’s strategic repeal of its fracking ban in the fight against HB40.

Justice is largely a matter of distributive equity and procedural fairness. It is also about recognizing the plurality of values and stakeholders that make up our civic world. When it comes to shale gas development, it’s all too often that the freedom of communities to self-determine is undermined by twisted and unjust procedures dictated by corporate and centralized political interests with financial stake in silencing those affected by anthropogenic hazards. The consequent social inequity and ecological decline, some of which we outline in our study here, is staggering. Information-sharing and civic awareness is central to the free and open discourse fundamental to moral public decision-making. It’s up to us to empower ourselves and our communities with knowledge, subject to the scrutiny of credible others (i.e. peer-review), to rectify injustice where it lurks.

Debunk the delusion, ecologize the economy! Let’s get it together humans.

Are we lobsters?

I am not a Constitutional law expert, but I have had a fair amount of legal education between my BA in Government and MS in Environmental Policy—and I’m sure I’ll receive more as I move through my PhD. For a while I’ve been reluctant to even mention the recent espionage and whistle-blowing controversies surrounding the Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and its 2008 amendments, NSA, PRISM, FBI, DOJ, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden because of, let’s say, ethical questions I had yet to flush out for myself. But in light of recent events I feel I can keep my silence no longer.

The Constitution of the United States of America is, I believe, among the most successful manifestations of secular liberal Enlightenment political philosophy. Obviously its amendments have had some good work done to them since the 18th century (slavery, suffrage, prohibition’s repeal, presidential term limits, etc.)—but why has it been so “successful”?

Loosely, because the Constitution represents one of those rare cases where what is legal also happens to be what is moral. Far too often morality appears smothered by the technicalities of law, but our Constitution is an exception to the common and unfortunate division between legality and morality—the gap between principle and policy.

We are a people of principle. Many codified as amendments, many as implicit social obligations. Among our implicit principles “is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Franklin’s adage is especially true today concerning the state of the 4th, 5th, and 8th amendments of the Bill of Rights.

The 4th amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Generally, for the government to extend its hand into the privacy of a private citizen entails a rather involved process of obtaining a warrant via probable cause for said search or seizure. But in the wake of FISA, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and domestic communications surveillance, this precept is no longer seems so straightforward.

However, according to an opinion handed down by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, such domestic surveillance activity under FISA is unconstitutional, re: the Fourth Amendment. The DOJ tried to keep the ruling under wraps, but a DC court has now ordered the pertinent FISC opinions to be released under the Freedom of Information Act. DOJ fought it, but then reluctantly agreed to release redacted versions of the documents. So we’ll see what those look like.

Driving this point home even further, former White House Green Jobs Advisor Van Jones recently affirmed the existence of domestic spying programs despite the President’s reassurances on the Tonight Show that no such programs are in place. Jones says we should be trying “balance” domestic spying rather than “pretend like there’s no balancing to be done.” Presumably, the “balance” he’s referring to is one between the Executive’s prerogative to spy on Americans and our Constitutional right to privacy.

Before moving on to the federal government’s abuse of the 8th amendment, I’d like to mention a potential bright spot pertaining to the 4th amendment. A federal judge, Judge Shria Scheindlin declared New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” law to be a practice of unconstitutional unreasonable search and seizure. Scheindlin also brought the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause into her opinion because stop-and-frisk has been notorious for indirect racial profiling. However, the Judge only ordered that stop-and-frisk be reformed, not abolished altogether. If, for instance, police are equipped with body-worn cameras to deter wrongful conduct on their part then the law could be permissible. In any case, Bloomberg will certainly take Scheindlin’s judgment to the appellate court, so again, we’ll see what that ends up looking like.

Next, the 8th amendment—our protection from cruel and unusual punishment—is also taking fire. Bradley Manning wasn’t convicted of aiding the enemy, so he escaped the death penalty, but before his trial ever took place he was subjected to morally questionable “suicide watch” treatment. Manning was regularly stripped of his clothing, vision, and left in the dark while imprisoned before he was ever convicted of anything. It is an unnerving reality, to say the least, if authorities are allowed to treat pre-trial prisoners, military or not—who are, at that point in due process, still innocent until proven guilty—as if they had already been sentenced.

Thirdly, a recent US Supreme Court decision—Salinas v. Texas—that largely snuck in under the radar of mass media has broadened the Constitutional permissibility of police questioning. Now, the 5th Amendment gives American citizens the right to abstain from self-incrimination. In Miranda terms, the 5th gives us our right to remain silent. Or so we thought. It seems that the 5th amendment, too, is not so straightforward.

Apparently, according to Justice Alito, writing for the 5-4 majority of the Court, it is a longstanding precedent that our 5th amendment rights don’t apply until they are explicitly invoked by the subject or explained by police in the midst of an arrest. It seems, outwardly at least, that the 5th does not mean “a complete right to remain silent but only guarantees that criminal defendants may not be forced to testify against themselves.” Very well…perhaps this ruling narrows its meaning, but does similar logic apply to other rights? Must we declare our right to free speech every time we speak our minds or else we have no such right to do so?

Finally—regarding the moral elephant in the room—Guantanamo Bay is still open for business, rife with human rights violations ranging from indefinite imprisonment without trial or charges to waterboarding and the use of force-feeding tubes to keep hunger strikers alive for further imprisonment and coercive interrogation. Of course, those imprisoned at Guantanamo are not US citizens, so legally we are not obliged to abstain from cruel and unusual punishment, nor are we compelled to provide a speedy trial, proper representation, or any semblance of due process. Morally, however, have we forgotten that our own Declaration of Independence enshrines the self-evident truth of the equality of all people? Those interned at Guantanamo may not be US citizens, but are they not human beings? Do they not deserve basic dignities simply for respect of their being alive?

Again, I am no constitutional lawyer, but these questions seem increasingly salient. Are our constitutional rights being systematically dismantled? Will we, like lobsters in a slowly warming pot, one day suddenly realize we’ve been boiled?

The whole situation smacks with the acrid taste of principled hypocrisy. If nothing else, we may assert–with more or less safety–that the United States’ moral high ground, our self-proclaimed superior and uniquely American respect for Constitutional and human rights is being, if not already, lost.

Love your country, question your government.


To frack or not to frack? That is the question

After a year’s work between Texas and New York studying the science, politics, and ideology of natural gas development–my Master’s thesis is complete. The full text is available through the Bard Center for Environmental Policy and forthcoming for publication. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

To Frack or Not to Frack: The Ideological Roots of Support for and Resistance to Natural Gas Development


The modern vision of the Good Life—indistinguishable from the idea of progress—is energy intensive. We go to extreme lengths to harness energy resources, conducting vast technological socio-environmental experiments to satiate the human demand for energy. But energy development is risk-laden, and people approach the risks of progress differently, which manifests as political contention.

Bookending the continuum of risk-related ideology, the precautionary and proactionary principles have become pillars of philosophic and political debate. Natural gas development—hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking”—is particularly risky and, in turn, the politics of fracking have become correspondingly controversial. On one hand, precautionaries about natural gas development spurn fracking as guaranteed disaster, while on the other, proactionaries hail natural gas development as an ideal energy opportunity.

But why are people precautionary and proactionary about natural gas development? To Frack or Not to Frack explores this question using an international survey instrument and statistical causal analysis. Evidence indicates that precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences about natural gas development are a function of relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs.

Precautionaries about natural gas development tend to be knowledgeable of the risk-related scientific literature on fracking and to especially value environmental stewardship and public health and safety. Proactionaries, on the other hand, tend to principally value economic growth, believe that technology is generally trustworthy, and believe that either plenty of scientific research has already been
done on natural gas development orthat more science is still needed.

When determining specific permitting and operating requirements for natural gas development, policymakers should directly engage the relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs that drive the precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences of their constituents via regular, open participatory policymaking procedures and statistical analysis of risk-related preference data gathered through public polling. Natural gas development policy should reflect the moral nuances of its constituency. Natural gas development policy should also reflect that developers are morally responsible for researching and internalizing the risks of harm related to development, including literal physical or environmental harm and exposure to risk of harm.

The ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology and the idea of environmental policy

A friend and colleague from Bard CEP, Taylor Evans, and I were brainstorming the thesis topic of another BCEP’er, Tim Maher, and we came to a point of contention that demanded a new distinction. Tim’s thesis explores the ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology (AmPT). AmPT uses “smart” technology to subliminally influence human beings to behave in certain ways that address one problem or another. Essentially, in an ideal world, AmPT manipulates the parameters of the choices immediately available to us so that we have no choice but to make morally desirable choices. Clearly, handing such immense power to technology is morally questionable. If everything goes perfectly, we solve our problems without even realizing it. But if things go poorly, techno-paternalism could spiral into hyper-modern Orwellian totalitarianism.

Naturally, given our common interests, Taylor and I were discussing AmPT in the context of environmental policy. Theoretically, AmPT could be used to improve environmental problems, but it could also represent a paternalistic imposition of environmental values on society–eco-authoritarianism. The difference is a matter of ethics—a matter of how AmPT should be regulated. But therein laid the difficulty. Before we could discuss how AmPT should be regulated, we needed to figure out exactly how the ethics of AmPT connect to the idea of environmental policy. We needed to divulge the relationship between principle and policy. To accomplish that, we needed a new distinction within the meaning of “environmental policy.”

The ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology entail a new theoretical take on the meaning of “environmental policy.” Environmental policy in the typical sense means public policy that compels people to act differently toward the environment—meaning the atmosphere, land, hydrosphere, and all the life therein—whereas “environmental policy” in the ethics of AmPT means public policy pertaining to the environment’s capacity to compel people. But it’s more than that. The values of the designers of AmPT are inherently embedded in the design of the technology itself. AmPT is the environment manipulating people, but ultimately it is people manipulating the environment—the very space we regularly and immediately occupy—that then manipulates people. Not only do we hand over tremendous amounts of autonomy to technology, the technology itself is value-latent. But the ethics of AmPT also connect to the idea of environmental policy in another more specific sense through the how the technology is applied.

Specifically, AmPT can be used to employ the environment to compel people to act different toward the environment. AmPT, in that sense, realigns itself with the typical mission of environmental policy. Hence Taylor and my (and presumably Tim’s as well—we have to wait for the verdict of his thesis) concern.

The ethics of AmPT and its two senses of connection to “environmental policy” involve the implicit distinction between the built environment and the natural environment. For philosophical reasons, the distinction between the built and natural environment ultimately dissolves—humans and our cities are no less natural than bees and their hives. But in practical terms, the ethics of AmPT in the environmental policy context specifically involve people using the “built environment” to influence the human impact on the “natural environment.”

The ethics of AmPT connect to the idea of environmental policy in several important ways. The regulation of AmPT involves regulating the human influence on the environment and regulating the environment’s influence on humans. But ultimately it entails regulating the human capacity to influence the environment’s capacity to influence other humans. But how AmPT should be regulated is a much deeper question. AmPT, like all technology, carries as much opportunity for progress as for catastrophe. Luckily, Tim is on that for us.

EDIT: The “eco-authoritarian concern” is purely theoretical–I only specify “eco” authoritarianism because of the environmental policy context. Eco-authoritarianism is probably the last kind of authoritarianism we need to be worried about if we assume that AmPT will actually be ubiquitous.

To Frack or Not to Frack

The survey component of To Frack or Not to Frack is now closed–many thanks to all who participated. Results will be publicly available here and through Bard CEP. Stay tuned…

To Frack or Not to Frack

A survey of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

Dear energy consumers,

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas plays an important role in the debate about our energy future. As an energy consumer, you may have beliefs about, or beliefs that relate to, the use of hydraulic fracturing technology. Given the prominence of natural gas in today’s energy discourse, I am using my Master’s thesis at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy to study the political and ideological dimensions of hydraulic fracturing. My goal is to develop a more thorough understanding of the relationships between socioeconomics, political alignments, philosophical beliefs, and support or lack thereof for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology – but my research depends on your participation. Here and below you will find a link that directs you to a survey with questions related to the current debate about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:

To Frack or Not to Frack

To help me with my research, I ask that you complete the survey and then share this message and link with your friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and other contacts so that they might do the same. If you have any questions please email them to and I will answer you promptly. Thank you for your participation.


Jordan M. Kincaid