By Néstor L. Silva, Stanford University §
In May of 2017, I visited a frack site along with a group of petroleum engineering students from the University of North Dakota. Before being allowed to go, we went through a two-day training mandated by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), followed by a few more hours of instruction at the Watford City offices of the transnational oil company running the site.
At the end of the training, we got a sticker for our hardhats that said we were prepared to visit, and our hosts presented us with an additional gift: a pair of black and fluorescent dorsal impact gloves. Brightly-colored, dense plastic ridges on the backs of the gloves are designed to diffuse and deflect blows to the backs of fingers and hands from falling equipment. We thanked them and headed on to the fracking site. My white hardhat had been given to me by an oilfield services firm in the small town of Tioga, where my fieldwork was based.
Just north of Lake Sakakawea and about a two-hour drive from Watford City, Tioga is the self-described “Oil Capital of North Dakota” because in 1951, the state’s first discovery of marketable oil happened just southwest of town. The head of the City Commission, equivalent to the Mayor, called Tioga “an oilfield town” where almost everyone is “either working in the oilfield or getting money from it.” He suggested the same was true of farming and ranching.
Farming, ranching, and hydrocarbon extraction involving fracking are the dominant forms of land use in northwestern North Dakota, shaping socioecological processes that bind together molecular analyses of soil, shale, oil, and gas; the everyday lives and livelihoods of families; and the local, state, and federal governments that oversee these industries. The region is truly an “oil assemblage” (Watts 2012): an extended network of institutions and people, objects and practices, that constitutes the hydrocarbon industry.
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is part of this assemblage. Earlier in the week, another major oil company lent us the most expensive piece of PPE we would need: flame-resistant coveralls. So, with hardhat, earplugs, eye protection, dorsal impact gloves, and coveralls, plus the steel-toed boots we had bought ourselves, we were ready to visit the frack site. The OSHA instructor who taught our class cautioned us against overconfidence in PPE, in part with story about a man who had a forty-foot piece of drill-pipe fall, end first, onto his well-gloved hand. She said it looked like a section of hand had been removed by cookie-cutter.
Uncertainty abounds in the hydrocarbon industry. The multi-stage process commonly known as “fracking” involves massive equipment, explosives, noxious chemicals, as well as machinery and infrastructure through which vast amounts of energy—kinetic, thermal, and chemical—pass every second; in the words of one industry executive, “like a bomb.”
In northwestern North Dakota, fracking follows drilling a well about ten-thousand feet deep with a horizontal leg of about the same length, usually through the Bakken shale formation. “Bakken” is the surname of the family of Norwegian homesteaders who, in the early 1950s, owned the land that held the well-site where the now-profitable Bakken shale formation was discovered. Today, “Bakken” is also a colloquialism for the geographic space that holds the state’s western oilfield, reborn in the mid-2000s with the rise of fracking.
Fracking happens after a Bakken well is drilled but before it starts producing. A series of explosives and valves, engineered according to the qualities of the well and specifications of its operator, are installed once drilling is done. The explosives open paths into the shale through which high-pressure, high-temperature fracking fluid is pumped in stages, a process permitted by those tailor-made valves. Containing chemicals meant to keep well-pipes clear and start the flow of oil, gas, and brine from the new well, the content of fracking fluids can be proprietary blends closely guarded by fracking companies.
New fractures in the shale are held open by “proppants,” sands or anthropogenic materials also engineered according to reservoir geology, the hydrocarbons’ qualities, and the desires of the owners and operators. Each frack job requires millions of gallons of water, millions of pounds of proppant, chemicals measured in numbers of two-hundred-seventy-five-gallon tanks. These are mixed in giant frac pump trucks. Lunching at a major oil services company, the group was asked not to take photos of one of these trucks, sitting behind us as we chatted over hamburgers and hot dogs.
The point is that the uncertainties inherent to frack sites are undeniable and constantly being managed by the people involved in fracking specifically, and the hydrocarbon industry in general. Measures like training and PPE are extensive, science-based, and are applied in order to mitigate that uncertainty. No one on that frack site, I believe, would have suggested that such uncertainty could ever be entirely eliminated.
But, and this is a key point of this essay, some involved in the ecology of the Bakken operate under the assumption that everything is, or can be, under control. That belief—that control is latent, achievable if occasionally absent—is a persistent facet of American settler culture. In protections for the cattle and in the PPE at the frack site, control is an aspiration. In fencing, cattle guards, and coveralls—and also in the American bison and COVID-19 as I argue below—the drawing of socioecological boundaries can be a means of reaffirming the claims to environmental control that shaped the United States.
Mitigating Uncertainty in a Settler Ecology
The company operating that frack site let the group of students visit, but not while actual fracking occurred. Sitting in pastureland where cattle ruminated on spring forage, the site was shut down in anticipation of our tour. As we arrived, one worker headed for a break, walking slowly under the weight of his PPE: a neck-to-knee apron like a thick rubber mat, heavy-looking goggles resting on his yellow hard hat, arm-length blue gloves that were textured and looked like the chemical resistant sort.
Each vehicle in our small our caravan was greeted by a site manager who expected our arrival and carefully directed us on how and where to park. Like every site of hydrocarbon extraction infrastructure that I visited during fieldwork, the rule at that frack site was back-in parking in order to expedite a hasty retreat in the event of an emergency. Training, PPE, when work occurred and where to park—even the fencing and cattle guards that kept cows and workers apart: the work of mitigating industrial uncertainty shapes people and space in the Bakken.
That shaping of people and space in response to an uncertain environment is a key concern of environmental anthropology. From Arturo Escobar’s anti-essentialist political ecology (1999) of twenty years ago to the recent edited volume Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene (Hetherington 2019), anthropologists thinking about complex socioecological systems (Berkes et al. 2003) have drawn thin and malleable boundaries between sociality and the dynamic interactions of materials, organisms, and geography that constitute ecology.
My research explores that semi-permeable boundary between ecology and culture as seen in the management of juxtaposed hydrocarbon extraction and agriculture. The cattle at that frack site were free-range, grass-fed, likely destined for sale as pricey dairy and beef products. Frack sites and well sites across the Bakken exist among millions of acres of farmland, of crops like wheat, peas, lentils, and rapeseed. Some of those crops and cattle living alongside frack sites are marketed as organic, suggesting the permeability of industrial boundaries.
And in those cows, those crops, there is boundary-making happening in relation to the uncertainties of the frack site. Well-trained, well-equipped workers, state-of-the-art technology and hypervigilance about precautions: none of these obviate the possibility that fencing and cattleguards will fail to protect cattle from an emergency on a frack site, let alone from drifting chemicals. The same could be said of back-in parking and PPE: helpful but never a sure-thing, and in the worst cases, fuel for the erroneous assumption that workers—or visiting college students—need not be concerned with the uncertainties that pervade a frack site.
Ways of mitigating uncertainty lead settler culture, in its past and present manifestations, to believe in the possibility of wielding control over people and land. At the frack site, transcending the boundaries drawn with training, restricted access, and PPE served as an embodied, geographic, and epistemic form of mitigating uncertainty. But, similar instances of boundary-making in North Dakota’s frontier history suggest the extent of American ecology’s propensity for problematic conflation of mitigating uncertainty and achieving control.
Living near frack sites undermines human health (McKenzie et al. 2012) and likely does the same for cattle. Earlier iterations of settler ecology undermined both human health and the health of another bovine: the American bison. A vital resource nearly destroyed by settler ecology, which in turn nearly destroyed some of the Plains’ Native Nations, the bison then became a governmentalized object of America’s early conservation movement and a source of further dispossession (Mamers 2020; Isenberg 2000). Whether destroying the bison or seeking to mitigate the harm caused to them, U.S. settler culture never relinquished the belief that attempted controls of the bison were beneficent, even despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Some settler ecological practices in the U.S. have consistently operated from the assumption that, across a nearby technological and/or temporal horizon exist ways of converting environmental uncertainty, among bison or hydrocarbons, into a knowable site of effective intervention. Cattle fencing and PPE can be such technologies: they imply that in some cases runaway futures are knowable, and relatedly, that interventions into those futures will yield desirable results.
This is despite the persistent fact of Native American history of the Northern Plains, from settlement to Standing Rock (Estes 2019; Lawson 2009), which shows the harms caused by settler-society’s persistent belief in the latency—rather than the unattainability—of control over the environment. And thinking about hydrocarbons in the Bakken shows that the belief in the latency of control, integral to U.S. colonial practice, continues to be applied far beyond issues and spaces commonly associated with Native Americans.
Settlement’s Latent Boundaries
Nick Estes’ (2019) work on the Standing Rock movement is an in-depth and personal recounting which locates the actions of “water protectors” within a long history of Native resistance to settler attempts at controlling people and space. In September 2017, a few months after the end of the Standing Rock Movement’s occupation of the banks of the Missouri River, President Donald Trump visited an oil refinery near the state capital, about an hour north of the Standing Rock Reservation.
There, he cheered the pipeline’s completion, and the end of U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accords. Closed to the public, the event was attended by the state’s hydrocarbon and agribusiness elite. On the subject of worst drought in decades ravaging the state that year, they cheered when the President said, “We’re working hard on it and it’ll disappear. It will all go away” (Bismarck Tribune 2017).
I wore a cap gifted to me by another oil company and a button-down shirt with red, white, and blue as its dominant colors. These, I thought, would help me blend in among the people who came to support Trump from the streets outside the refinery. Overwhelmingly in favor of natural resource extraction, a couple of the Trump supporters scoffed when I described myself as a California graduate student who studies “oil and environmental politics.” Others eyeballed me as they described the Standing Rock movement as the product of agitators foreign to North Dakota.
Anti-Trump protesters at the refinery that day had a smaller but vocal presence, raising issues of Native American sovereignty, climate change, pipeline-related pollution. These were dismissed, in part, by framing them as mitigable, under control. On the streets outside the refinery, and behind the fence, it was clear that “settler colonialism is ecological domination” (Whyte 2018:125) and its legacies include claims to control constantly revealed as incoherent and incomplete (Coulthard 2014; Simpson 2014).
The settler aspiration to control is evident in the environmental history of the Northern Plains, characterizing the settler project starting with the earliest extractive industries: the pursuit of furs by French and British settlers, then furs and gold by American ones. That aspiration to domination manifests today through the material and abstract boundary-making that, in extreme circumstances, serves as a means of indicating proximity to control.
Fence and cattle guard do more work than keeping cows away from fracking. Those constructions provide a degree of boundedness and legibility to the frack site. They allow for the possibility of demarcating the limits of the site and the pastures in which it sits, demarcating land uses being an integral aspect of settler ecological practices. However, that the environment of a frack site is not bound by anthropogenic objects and desires—such as PPE or fencing—was precisely the point of the OSHA instructor’s story about the cookie-cuttered hand.
In the bison and the cows, in the frack site and PPE, there can exist an assumption of control being accessible, sitting just beyond a technological or temporal horizon. The people who run frack sites, who maintain the Bakken as a massive oilfield sitting in farmland, pursue such control by constantly improving technologies of intervention. Most of the people I spoke to were aware that the constant and furious construction of embodied, geographic, and epistemic technologies amounted to ideological cattle fences: sincere efforts at delimiting a problem that can, in reality, exceed the technologies applied to control that problem.
I say, “most people,” because for some, like the radicals among Trump supporters at the rally and the President himself, the latency of control is a horizon to be crossed rather than an illusory remnant of settler environmental practices. The forms of “settler memory” that historically link the Dakotas to the Presidency include a degree of denialism about incoherent colonial claims to effective and beneficent technologies of U.S. government (Bruyneel 2016).
North Dakota’s current governor, Stanford-MBA and tech-millionaire, Doug Burgum stood at the refinery in support of the President when the latter assured all who would listen that climate issues like the devastating drought happening at the time were nothing to be concerned about, under control. And yet, in a March 27, 2020 official letter to Trump, regarding a “Request for Presidential Major Disaster Declaration,” Governor Burgum stresses that North Dakota’s need for COVID-19 response funds is exacerbated by disasters at the other end of atmospheric moisture spectrum: the severe and unseasonal rains and floods affecting the state in the years since that drought (North Dakota, Office of the Governor 2020a).
Ignoring the incoherence between his belief in manageable climate change and the climatological refutation of that belief, Governor Burgum also assumes control lies across a nearby horizon when it comes to the ecology of COVID-19. On May 1, 2020, using a set of standards branded “ND Smart Restart,” the Office of the Governor opened up many service-sector businesses under coronavirus mitigation practices such as PPE and social distancing (North Dakota, Office of the Governor 2020b). This, as cases are rising in South Dakota, particularly in a border county (New York Times 2020).
In a viral ecology, state and national borders serve similar functions as cattle fences around a frack site: technologies of legibility and boundary-making that, under disastrous conditions, can foster a false sense of security. Believing borders will stop the movement of this virus is the public health equivalent of believing a dorsal-impact glove will stop a forty-foot drill-pipe. And this most recent example of incoherent claims to control in North Dakota recalls the earliest example of failed attempts at such control addressed in this essay: American bison.
Hunted to near-extinction by settler society in pursuit of socioecological control, the bison then became an object of governmental intervention, and thereby, an object through which to re-engage in the pursuit of such control, regardless of evidence. From bison to COVID, America’s settler ecology precipitates uncertainty and claims control over it. In some cases, the frack site for example, such uncertainty is clearly recognized alongside the limitations of attempts at controlling an uncertain environment.
For radicals like the President and his supporters at the refinery, confidence in the ability to control climate change—or at least mitigate its effects—is often based on pseudoscience and right-wing politics rather than empirical evidence (Hansson 2017). When Trump speculates to government doctors about injecting disinfectant and inspires some Americans to consider doing so (Glatter 2020), it becomes clear that the pseudoscience of climate change discourse has only begun to suffuse the COVID-19 response (Ecarma 2020).
In both cases, right-wing radicals assume that across a proximate technological and/or governmental horizon lies a “high-modernist-controlled” environment (Wylie 2018:52). In echoes of his 2017 speech at the oil refinery, Trump announced to Americans in January, “We have [the coronavirus] totally under control” and about a month later, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA” (Stevens & Tan 2020).
The incoherence of those claims became increasingly evident as the U.S. viral ecology generated tens of thousands of deaths in a few weeks, heavily concentrated in the nation’s poor and/or non-white population (Dyer 2020). In a few decades, hundreds of thousands of people will die each year as a result of climate change, deaths distributed more heavily among marginalized people (Haines & Ebi 2019). For both climate and COVID, the federal government alternates between deprioritizing the problem and asserting that control of this existential crisis is imminent.
For COVID, the US public is made to believe that this relief will be delivered most quickly to those favored by the ethno-nationalist kleptocrat and aspirant dictator in office (De Genova 2020), by his administration which frames tens-of-thousands of preventable deaths as “a great success story” (Graham 2020). State violence includes letting certain subjects die from lack of intervention (Rabinow & Rose 2006) and is a familiar technology of settler colonial control in the Dakotas (Bruyneel 2016, Estes 2016).
The pursuit of ever-fleeting control over people and space happens through the shifting and evanescent boundaries between a cultural commitment to that pursuit and ecological evidence of its dangerously quixotic nature. Extending temporally and socially from the American frontier to the present-day U.S., the pursuit of environmental control that characterized the settler project is being practiced via COVID on all North Dakotans, all Americans, not only the Indigenous ones.
It remains to be seen if the losses this pandemic registers will lead to new modes of interacting with an other-than-human world that continuously proves itself to be too large and too small to control. The bison and cows, fracking and climate, are sites where technologies for mitigating uncertainty have been problematically conflated with evidence of latent control. Today’s COVID ecology is the latest evidence of a perilous delusion as old as the US: that socioecological control lies just across a nearby horizon, that such control is merely latent, if not available now then soon.
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This post is part of our thematic series: The Event, the Horizon.