Reviewed by Donna Meredith
In 2009, Adam Briggle accepted a position at the University of North Texas in Denton as a philosophy professor. He soon discovered he had moved into the heart of the Barnett Shale Formation and fracking wells were being drilled throughout the community. Near playgrounds. Next to schools. Beside homes. The risks began to concern him. A few wells experienced blow-outs. His neighbors complained they were ill from breathing in chemicals.
As a father who felt responsible for his family’s health and safety, Briggle decided he should learn all he could about hydraulic fracturing. At the same time, he realized that exploring his new community in this way would jibe with his belief that philosophy should not remain cloistered behind academic walls. He saw himself as a field philosopher, one whose “essential job is to show how we cannot escape thinking in the real world,” one who wanders around questioning experts to figure out “what we really know and which choices we should make.”
A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Oil and Gas (New York: Liveright, 2015) not only details what Briggle learned about the new technologies, it also tells the story of his reluctant transformation into an activist. During initial interactions with local government, Briggle simply wanted to ensure that reasonable safeguards were in place regarding fracking. Only after citizen input was ignored did he become a leader in pushing for an outright ban on new wells within the city limits.
Anyone interested in learning more about fracking—especially those wanting to prevent wells from invading their own communities—should read this book. Denton illustrates that concerned citizens can successfully stand up to Big Oil and Big Money, but the process is far from easy.
Engineers, Briggle points out, invent new technologies, gambling that future innovations will bail them out of “problems created by present innovations.” In the case of fracking, he argues that is not a reasonable conclusion.
Of deep concern to him is that citizens don’t have the opportunity to give the informed consent necessary for ethical innovation. Fracking is altering the world in ways most of us don’t understand. Consider the enormous resources consumed to extract oil and gas with the new technologies. The typical well requires 6 million gallons of water, 3 million pounds of sand, and 100,000 gallons of chemicals. These must be trucked to well sites. Much of the water is contaminated and removed from the hydrologic cycle permanently. The sand requires new mining operations. Toxic chemicals injected into the ground remain secret because they are exempt from the Clean Air and Water Act that governs other industries.
An engaging feature of Briggle’s story is the involvement of his wife and children in the effort to ban new fracking operations within the city. He also describes the inevitable tensions created by the conflicting goals and personalities of leaders on both sides of the issue. These human elements add warmth and dimension to what might otherwise read as a dry recitation of facts.
The book presents thorough documentation of contaminated wells, aquifers, and air as a result of fracking. Briggle argues for an approach that asks for evidence that fracking can be done safely, rather than an approach that addresses problems after they emerge.
Fracking is, he says, a major public health experiment being done on a massive scale without adequate assessment of risks. Briggle urges citizens to find their voices when they are put in harm’s way. When Denton’s citizens demanded an end to new drilling within their city, their ballot initiative passed, despite being outspent and despite deceptive tactics employed by the oil and gas industry. The message is clear: Ordinary citizens can achieve extraordinary results when they speak up together.
Besides teaching philosophy at the University of North Texas, Briggle holds a PhD in environmental studies and serves on a citizens’ advisory group. He contributes to Slate, Truthout, and other publications.