Friday, October 12, 2012

How to Dismantle Frac Sand Industry Rhetoric: Notes on the Resource Exploitation Framework

By Thomas W. Pearson, University of Wisconsin-Stout

A controversial issue such as frac sand mining is commonly seen as something "under debate," with at least two sides facing off and the truth lying somewhere in the middle. However, the two sides often talk past each other. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that at least two very different conversations are taking place (if not more). Each conversation represents a unique set of taken-for-granted assumptions and values, a conceptual or normative "framework" through which people view the world.

One such normative framework was on display at the Conference on Silica Sand Resources of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I'll call this framework, which is represented by the frac sand industry and its supporters, the resource exploitation framework. Held October 1-3 at the Earle Brown Heritage Center, Brooklyn Park, MN, the conference was organized by the Precambrian Research Center of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration, and sponsored by dozens of private corporations that operate in the mining and energy sectors. The first evening featured a keynote presentation by a retired ConocoPhillips executive, and a series of technical sessions were held the second day, attended by several hundred people. The third day was a regional tour of silica sand deposits, active mines, and other infrastructure. I attended the technical sessions on Day 2.

Deconstructing industry "framing" devices

The technical presentations I attended addressed such issues as the geological origins of silica sand, commercial uses of silica sand, including use in hydrofracking and drilling for oil and gas, and silica sand mining, processing, transportation, permitting, regulation, reclamation, and economic impacts. 

Across these presentations, it became clear that most speakers used a common rhetoric and operated within a shared conceptual framework that guided their view of frac sand issues. What I mean by conceptual framework is an underlying set of shared beliefs and values that remain tacit, never fully articulated, but which guide and organize a person's view of the world. These are filtering lenses, so to speak.

We all rely on such frameworks, sometimes referred to as our cultural belief system or worldview, to help us make sense of the complexities of the world around us. Conceptual frameworks are often supported by and embedded in specialized language or rhetoric. The language itself can work to "frame" or structure one's perspective, setting boundaries around what is talked about and how. Since these frameworks are usually unstated or taken-for-granted, one of the tasks of the social sciences is to identify their key elements, to raise them to the surface, so to speak, for discussion and critical analysis.

So what are some of the elements that constitute the resource exploitation framework?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Engaging the frac sand PR machine

The frac sand industry has responded to my Dunn County News guest column "Sand doesn't equal community well being," with Aaron Scott, the plant manager of a mine located just outside Menomonie, writing a letter to the editor titled "Sand mining has economic benefits."

For the most part, I feel honored that my ideas have caught the attention of the mining industry. In a way, it's validating that they see a need to respond in a public forum. The operation that Scott manages is owned by Wisconsin Industrial Sand, a subsidiary of Fairmount Minerals, headquartered in Chardon, Ohio, which operates at least three frac sand mines in central Wisconsin. Fairmount is also a founding member of the new Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association (WISA), a lobbying group recently formed by four companies.

Scott's letter simply repeats a series of claims about jobs and economic benefits that have been widely disseminated by Fairmount Minerals through their substantial public relations efforts. Coordinated now through WISA, frac sand interests are actively seeking to frame public discussion and perception of their industry.

What frustrates me is that Scott calls my article "misleading," suggesting that I am spreading "false information." Anyone who reads my article and thinks about it will recognize that I am raising questions and highlighting a wider context. There is nothing misleading or false about this.

I suspect Scott, however, is more concerned with his company's public image than substance.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Vista Sand withdraws rail spur proposal in Menomonie

On Wednesday, September 19, Vista Sand withdrew its application to rezone property in the Town of Menomonie, ending its effort to build a transload facility for loading frac sand for shipment along the UP rail line. The sudden turn of events came as a surprise.

A week earlier the Planning, Resources and Development (PRD) Committee had recommended that the county deny Vista's request for the rezone (see Dunn County News).

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Economics of Sand Mining in Buffalo County

I recently learned about a report on the economics of sand mining prepared by Carl Duley, UW-Extension, and Steven Deller, UW-Madison/Extension, for Buffalo County:
While their analysis focuses on the specific conditions of Buffalo County (comparison with other counties should be done with caution), the report raises some important questions that are relevant to the broader region. Some of the highlights:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sand doesn’t equal community well-being : Dunn County News

Sand doesn’t equal community well-being : Dunn County News

Here is a much shorter version of my article about the socioeconomic impacts of frac sand mining, published in the Dunn County News on Wednesday, September 5. (The Dunn County News website includes a head-shot photo with the article, but the photo is ridiculously huge... not sure why.) My hope is that some of the questions I raise in the article will contribute to the broader debate about the future of frac sand mining in this region. Do local decision-makers read the Dunn County News? I hope so. I've heard many local officials and frac sand advocates make simplistic and misleading claims about the presumed economic benefits of industrial frac sand mining, with local officials invoking "economic development" as a rationale for their decision-making. There may be benefits for some, but also costs, often imposed on others or on future generations. These are serious issues that require accurate information and careful assessment, not wishful assertions backed up by the empty guarantees of mining companies striving to profit from frac sand.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Does Frac Sand Create Socioeconomic Well-being?

by Thomas W. Pearson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Stout

The recent boom in frac sand mining in Wisconsin has been touted as a source of economic growth, and especially job creation. Some frac sand corporations have adopted the slogan "sand = jobs," a phrase repeated by many sand mining advocates. But the role of frac sand in community economic development is much more complex. Local elected officials, policy makers, economic development planners, and citizens need to think more critically about the claim that “sand equals jobs.”

‘Job Euphoria’

In the wake of the economic recession and in a highly charged political atmosphere where the economy remains a hot button issue, “job creation” has become empty political rhetoric. Often it's nothing more than an obligatory phrase for elected officials seeking support among voters or corporations seeking the consent of economically battered communities. Who would possibly be against job creation, right?

We regularly hear people say that sand mines create dozens, hundreds, even thousands of jobs, with the assumption that any amount of jobs must be a good thing. But what does that mean? Has the euphoria of job creation become a rhetorical smokescreen that obscures other issues we should be talking about instead?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Frac Sand and its Effect on Local Democracy

Local townships have recently been overwhelmed with proposals by frac sand mining companies, and many of us have scrambled to educate ourselves about the possible impacts of this rapidly growing industry. The impacts, however, go beyond sand.
For decades, social scientists have documented the efforts of mining companies to subvert local democratic control over land use decisions. Such trends have been observed in many places around the world where mining takes place and community members ask questions. When large corporations seek to extract natural resources, they often view the concerns of community members as a barrier to future profits.