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.