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November 14, 2014

The Fuss about Fracking: Bringing the Issues to Learners

The rapid development of unconventional sources of oil and gas continues to generate controversy and media attention, particularly in Canada, the US and the UK. As extraction of diminishing traditional reserves becomes more expensive, the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) technique has been ‘credited with spurring an oil and gas renaissance … unlocking billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas’ (1). The allure of gaining access to reserves of natural gas estimated to meet our projected energy needs for decades carries considerable weight in political and economic camps.  Conversely, the potential environmental and health risks associated with unconventional methods of drilling have served as a rallying cry for opponents of fracking.

The potential impact of fracking has significant consequences, regardless of whether one supports or opposes the technique. The corporate arguments proclaim increased reserves of energy, high-skill jobs and government revenues, low energy prices and a ‘cleaner bridge’ fuel as the world moves towards less-damaging, renewable sources of energy. On the other hand, the associated risks of fracking include increased climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, damages to the natural environment, waste and contamination of water, and an assault on aboriginal rights.  The lines drawn are clearly antithetical: proponents claim ‘the waste water generated in the process can be disposed of or treated safely; opponents say run-off, industrial accidents and cost-cutting make contamination inevitable’ (2).

There are arguably traces of truth in the positions espoused by both camps. It is not unusual for controversial issues to be characterized by ‘grey areas’. Evidence can be put forward to support various positions along the continuum; from the corporate, business-as-usual development perspective to the environmentalists who advocate the total banning of hydraulic fracturing as the only defensible option. A teacher’s challenge is to facilitate a learning process through which students can assess and critique the best available information upon which to reach an evidence-based and ethics-based decision on the wisdom of fracking.

As Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yang-Ming once put it: ‘To know, and not to act, is not to know’ (3).  As students learn more about hydraulic fracturing and its associated pros and cons, they may be moved to act, and engage in the process to impact decision-making in their community and beyond. Actions can range from doing more research, to joining green/environmental groups, to lobbying political leaders.   Depending upon classroom-specific factors (such as student interest, curriculum linkages, and available time), the fracking issue lends itself to both expansive and intensive treatment. Aspects having particular relevance include climate change, peace and conflict, development, human rights, disaster risk reduction and gender implications of fracking. There may be further nuances within each of these aspects; for example, gender issues include not only the differing attitudes towards fracking between males and females, but also that fracking can be framed as a manifestation of macho-ism (4).

A newly published article, Fracking: Unlocking the Great Debate (5) offers a self-contained instructional unit for the critical analysis and evaluation of the practice of fracking, including: basic information about the process, discussion of the potential benefits and dangers, and a framework for critical media analysis of the issue, along with resources for use in the high school classroom.  For an abstract, click here.

- By Bert Tulk

(1) retrieved 31 July 2014.

(2) Bozzo, A., Fracking called both a savior and a scourge, NBC News Business, 21 June 2012.

(3) Rowson, J., A new agenda on climate change: facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels, December 2013, p. 3 retrieved 31 July 2014.

(4) Monbiot, G., What is behind this fracking mania? Unbridled machismo, The Guardian, 19 August 2013.
retrieved 7 November 2014.
(5)Tulk, B., (2014). ‘Fracking: unlocking the great debate’ Green Teacher, 104, Fall 2014, pp. 12-15.

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