Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Political power, social construction, and the Marcellus Shale

This exercise asks us to examine public perception and political power of parties involved in our problem (Marcellus Shale development). I have a pet interest in the psychology of social power, especially as it relates to political processes, so I was happy to see this exercise in the workbook. Thus far, the authors’ claim of ecological economics being transdisciplinary seems to hold true.

The two dimensions on which we are instructed to evaluate each group are:

· Social construction (SC): how they are perceived by society, and

· Political power (PP): the extent to which they can effect societal outcomes.

Setting the two orthogonally, we can group people into four categories, which the text labels:

· Advantaged: High SC and high PP, eg., newspaper editors

· Dependents: High SC and low PP, eg., teachers

· Contenders: Low SC and high PP, eg., corporate executives

· Deviants: Low SC and low PP, eg., urban poor people

While political power is relatively straight-forward to determine, social construction is trickier, because different sections of society view various groups differently. This becomes clear as soon as one tries to label any group as having low social construction – some people will always have higher opinions of that group. This is especially important with regard to our problem, as energy extraction in West Virginia is extremely contentious. It often feels that we live in a fissured society, where you’re either with the energy companies (cars with “friends of coal” bumper stickers abound) or against them (“I love mountains” bumper stickers are nearly as common, if more often stuck to things other than cars. The now-disgraced Massey Energy even produced a response bumper sticker to the I Love Mountains campaign.)

All that is to say that it will be tough to evaluate social construction of all the affected groups. I will try to take an “average," but I think it's important to acknowledge that my evaluation will be influenced by the cross-section of society I come into contact with via my work, personal life, and media consumption.

So, on a scale of 1 (very low) to 10 (very high), how do the following groups operate in society?

· Surface rights owners, often farmers. For clarification, for most of the land around here, the owner of the surface does not own the minerals that are under the land, the coal, gas, etc. Obviously, the surface owner is more likely to incur costs of gas development, while the mineral owner receives more benefit. See the excellent documentary Split Estate for more on this.

o PP – 3. Though they often cannot stop their land from being developed, my understanding is that they can have some influence on how wells are put in, and they may receive enough pay to relocate.

o SC – 7. Salt of the earth.

· Energy company executives

o PP – 10. Chesapeke Energy is one of the biggest players in the Marcellus Shale. Their CEO made $112 million in 2008, making him the best paid CEO in the country. In a political system where money is power, and in a state where politicians live and die by the support of energy industries, no one has more power.

o SC – 2. Maybe there are people who think more highly of these guys, but if there are, I don’t know them. I bump them one point from the bottom because I assume there are business students for whom these people are idols.

· Energy company labor

o PP – 5. West Virginia was the epicenter of the labor battles of the early 20th century. The unions are alive and well, and coal and gas employees are paid more than twice the state average. However, their influence on political processes is dubious -- one need look no further than last year to see that the political system has failed to institute regulations to keep these workers safe: see the Upper Big Branch disaster or the Inidana Township gas well explosion.

o SC – 8. Among the pro-coal, pro-gas folks, these guys are heroes. Though there are some on the other side who malign them, I think there is a wide-spread differentiation of the executives and the labor. For example, the anti-mountaintop removal group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth followed up their “friends of the mountains” bumper sticker with on that read “friends of mountains and miners.” You might be against the war, but everyone respects the troops.

· Local residents

o PP – 2. What do you do if your neighbor sells her gas rights and the fracturing destroys your water well? You probably just take it. This is a poor area of the country, so folks’ legal options and prospects for relocation are limited. The residents of Morgantown recently put an exceeding amount of pressure on City Council that lead to a ban of hydraulic fracturing in and around town. However, that is the exception that demonstrates the rule, the outcome of the ordinance is in legal-limbo, and it does nothing to protect the air and water coming into town from further than the 1 mile buffer extends.

o SC – 4. I was going to say 5, since we are of all stripes, but the places where hydraulic fracturing is happening—rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Texas, western Colorado and Wyoming—are rural and poor. As Steven Colbert points out, “Most of the stream poisoning [from mountaintop removal] happens in Appalachia, and the only people it affects are the one remaining group that everybody still feels comfortable making fun of: hillbillies."

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