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At the Very Least We Know the End of the World Will Have a Bright Side

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Adam Boffa | Longreads | December 2018 | 9 minutes (2,324 words)

The oil industry in the U.S. has had a busy few years. In North Dakota alone, barrel production increased more than tenfold between 2005 and 2015. The state’s daily oil barrel output surged from a low of 90,000, and within a decade it was consistently producing over one million barrels of oil per day. A majority of this oil was extracted via fracking, a controversial practice linked to a litany of harmful health and environmental effects. But if there were to be a public reckoning with fracking’s dangers in North Dakota, it would have to overcome steep challenges. A recent collection of research on the oil boom includes Sebastian Braun’s account of how pro-fracking sentiment, propped up by corporate lobbyists (like the American Legislative Exchange Council) and others who stand to gain, is so strong in the state that, during a speech at an energy conference, the audience didn’t bat an eye when a presenter likened EPA regulation to terrorism. Braun, an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of American Indian Studies at Iowa State University, alleges that this lobbyist-generated atmosphere of consensus is hostile to local researchers investigating topics including air and water quality. Another study in the collection by Ann Reed, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology at ISU, points to the oil industry’s spending on “community outreach initiatives” within the state, funds which it disperses in order to establish a positive reputation for itself (and, as a side effect, make some citizens feel pressured to stay quiet about their apprehensions regarding the industry’s practices). As of 2018, the state continues to set daily oil production records.

It’s not just North Dakota, of course. Similar efforts helped silence debates around fracking, pollution, and renewable resources in the lead-up to this year’s elections in Colorado, Washington, and Arizona, eventually helping defeat reform initiatives in those states. But these are only regional instances of the broader, global trend of the suppression of research and stifling of public discussion on the impacts of fossil fuel extraction. The most significant example probably involves Shell and ExxonMobil, who studied and documented the catastrophic effects of climate change decades ago but kept their findings confidential and, in ExxonMobil’s case, funded denialist campaigns and anti-regulatory efforts based on false information. While the public spent years fruitlessly debating the legitimacy of climate science, oil giants obscured evidence, promoted research amenable to their interests, and kept drilling, happy to make hay while the warming sun shone. Read more…