How to Dismantle Frac Sand Industry Rhetoric: Notes on the Resource Exploitation Framework

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This article orginally appeared on the web site Contested Landscapes

A controversial issue such as frac sand mining is commonly seen as something "under debate," with at least two sides facing off and the truth lying somewhere in the middle. However, the two sides often talk past each other. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that at least two very different conversations are taking place (if not more). Each conversation represents a unique set of taken-for-granted assumptions and values, a conceptual or normative "framework" through which people view the world.

One such normative framework was on display at the Conference on Silica Sand Resources of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I'll call this framework, which is represented by the frac sand industry and its supporters, the resource exploitation framework. Held October 1-3 at the Earle Brown Heritage Center, Brooklyn Park, MN, the conference was organized by the Precambrian Research Center of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration, and sponsored by dozens of private corporations that operate in the mining and energy sectors. The first evening featured a keynote presentation by a retired ConocoPhillips executive, and a series of technical sessions were held the second day, attended by several hundred people. The third day was a regional tour of silica sand deposits, active mines, and other infrastructure. I attended the technical sessions on Day 2.

Deconstructing industry "framing" devices
The technical presentations I attended addressed such issues as the geological origins of silica sand, commercial uses of silica sand, including use in hydrofracking and drilling for oil and gas, and silica sand mining, processing, transportation, permitting, regulation, reclamation, and economic impacts. 
Across these presentations, it became clear that most speakers used a common rhetoric and operated within a shared conceptual framework that guided their view of frac sand issues. What I mean by conceptual framework is an underlying set of shared beliefs and values that remain tacit, never fully articulated, but which guide and organize a person's view of the world. These are filtering lenses, so to speak.

We all rely on such frameworks, sometimes referred to as our cultural belief system or worldview, to help us make sense of the complexities of the world around us. Conceptual frameworks are often supported by and embedded in specialized language or rhetoric. The language itself can work to "frame" or structure one's perspective, setting boundaries around what is talked about and how. Since these frameworks are usually unstated or taken-for-granted, one of the tasks of the social sciences is to identify their key elements, to raise them to the surface, so to speak, for discussion and critical analysis.

So what are some of the elements that constitute the resource exploitation framework?

The citizen-deficit frame

One of the most widely held but unstated framing devices used by the frac sand industry is the "citizen-deficit" frame, which shapes how industry deals with public officials and local communities. Most speakers simply assumed that concerned citizens lack accurate information, that their concerns and opposition to frac sand mining stem from misunderstanding, fear, and lack of knowledge. It is assumed that if citizens had more information, they would support frac sand mining or at least not oppose it.

Most of the speakers took the citizen-deficit frame for granted, as part of "the nature of things," but it was most clearly illustrated by a presentation delivered by a private consulting company. The Consultant (as I'll call the speaker) has a background in geology, but was asked to give a presentation about the economic aspects of frac sand mining. He began by emphasizing the extensive research he did to prepare for his presentation, suggesting he sought out hard data about the economic costs and benefits of sand mining. The Consultant concluded that the "economic benefits are pretty huge," including such things as jobs and the "pretty obvious" tax revenues. He stated that these benefits are "quantifiable" and "verifiable," yet he didn't bother to cite any data or sources to support his claims. He didn't even try. And this is a key aspect of how conceptual framing devices operate: the accuracy of the frame is not the issue, the issue is what meanings are carried by the frame and how the frame sets parameters around what is discussed, by whom, and with what consequences.

Making no effort to hide his disdain for critics of mining, The Consultant then asserted that claims about negative economic impacts are "estimated" and "assumed." "There's no proof, it's all allegations," he stated. He flatly asserted that "there is no data" on the negative economic impacts. He then went on to say that the biggest cost he has identified stems from local moratoriums and restrictions on mining. "People are shooting themselves in the foot," he said, they are turning down jobs, taxes, and economic benefits. "These people," said The Consultant, as if talking about some foreign Other, drawing lines between us and them, "are moved by emotions and fear," and "their sources of information are social media," "where misinformation dominates." "What drives them is not clear," he stated. They succumb to "Not In My Backyard, or NIMBY, syndrome," and "feed off of fear mongering, as if miners are boiling kittens in hot oil." His comments were gleefully received by most of the audience, who applauded enthusiastically at his unfounded assertions.

Most, if not all, of what The Consultant said was untrue. But the point is not the accuracy of his comments, rather how he sought to frame the issues and the people involved. The citizen-deficit framework begins with the assumption that the public is lacking adequate information and simply incapable of understanding "technical" or "specialized" issues related to mining. This framework does not even allow for viewing citizens, communities, and the public on equal terms with so-called "industry experts." It casts citizens and opponents as misinformed and motivated by emotion and fear (as opposed to reason and science, presumably represented by The Consultant and other industry experts). It also stigmatizes citizens as selfish and narrow-minded, helplessly overcome by a "NIMBY" affliction (as opposed to making a rational determination that it's probably not good to have open-pit strip mining and associated industrial operations near your home or in your community).

Sadly, most speakers operated within this conceptual framework, suggesting a much larger pattern for how the frac sand industry relates to citizens, local communities, and the general public. From the standpoint of industry, citizens are not allowed a legitimate voice within this framework. Rather, it functions to close off discussion and debate before it can even get started.  It is assumed that the questions raised by citizens are invalid, their concerns unfounded. The standpoint of "citizen" or "the public" is dismissed as lacking authority and legitimacy, and the focus of industry is to figure out ways to appease the "fears" of citizens, overcome local opposition, or navigate around regulations. Interaction with community members is simply a "public relations" or marketing issue.

It's not at all surprising, then, that the conference organizers made no effort to include representatives of community groups.

"Can you imagine your life without silica sand?"

Other rhetorical strategies were deployed throughout the day to frame the conversation and close-off potential avenues of question and critique. Many of these frames revolved around the assertion that sand is an integral part of our society. I've come across these claims numerous times over the past several months, and many were mobilized during the conference as part of a promotional video produced by Fairmount Minerals (Wisconsin Industrial Sand), screened for us by a V.P. of marketing.

The flashy, sophisticated video portrayed happy middle-class families engaged in mundane activities, using everyday products that have some connection to sand. The theme of the video was "people, planet, prosperity." Some of the key framing devices included:

  • Sand is mundane. The video emphasized that silica sand constitutes 43% of the earth's crust. 
  • Sand is everywhere. The video emphasized that sand is used by various industries as a raw material to produce lots of stuff, such as glass, metal casting, roads, golf courses, fiberglass insulation, and so on. 
  • Sand is timeless. The video emphasized that sand has been used and mined for hundreds, no, thousands, of years. 
  • Our civilization was built on sand. The video flatly stated: "For thousands of years, sand has been a critical component of our civilization." 

These framing devices seek to insulate the current frac sand industry from critique. They do so by framing industrial frac sand mining as pervasive, inevitable, timeless, natural, even the linchpin of civilization. Why bother questioning or opposing such an activity? From this perspective, it seems contradictory to raise questions about frac sand mining, because we use so much sand. It's also apparently treasonous, since to question sand is by implication to question civilization as we know it. Pretty serious stuff.

What these frames conveniently ignore is that people are not opposed to the mere existence or commercial use of silica sand. People are concerned about the rapid and haphazard growth of industrial mining activity, suddenly concentrated in a fairly small region of the country. The frac sand industry generates short-term wealth for a few people and for large, usually out-of-state corporations, while leaving the rest of us to worry about the consequences: destruction of existing landscapes, new environmental health problems related to silica dust and water quality, new safety hazards on our roads, and uncertain economic impacts.

But within the conceptual framework adopted by the frac sand industry, there is little if any opportunity to articulate these concerns. Such concerns are dismissed, stigmatized, and cast as irrational or unthinkable.

Disguising private interests

As has been widely noted by concerned citizens, the Conference on Silica Sand Resources was misleadingly promoted as a balanced effort to examine the various questions, concerns, and issues related to frac sand mining. The conference description even states that: "In the face of this rush to expand current operations and develop new mines, there is an urgent need among the public, media, government regulatory agencies, and energy and mineral resource industries for credible information about this industry. This conference seeks to answer many of the questions various stakeholders have raised about the development of this resource."

One would assume that all of the actors listed -- the public, media, government, and industry -- would be represented at the conference. And indeed, there were a few speakers affiliated with other universities and state regulatory bodies. But a quick glance at the conference schedule reveals that the list of speakers is overwhelmingly dominated by private corporations and people interested in promoting frac sand mining. Non-industry speakers merely provided basic background information about regional geology and existing silica sand resources, or about the regulatory process at state, county, and local levels. No one representing community or citizen perspectives was included, nor were researchers who raise legitimate questions about social, economic, environmental, or health concerns. Yet the conference was portrayed as if "all concerns" and "all perspectives" had a seat at the table.

The conference sought to advance the interests of the mining industry, disguised as a "neutral," "fact-based" endeavor. The conference webpage was hosted by the University of Minnesota-Duluth and prominently displays the logo of the Precambrian Research Center. On the surface, the conference drew on the aura of a public university and widely-held expectations about academic research (such as use of empirical evidence, consideration of multiple viewpoints, peer review, and prioritizing of the public interest, among other expectations). This was a shallow effort to lend the legitimacy associated with a public university to what was ultimately a private industry affair.

Concerned citizens sniffed this out early on, and organized a demonstration to protest the narrow focus of the conference and to raise awareness about their concerns. More than 50 protesters greeted attendees of the conference on the first night, chanting, displaying signs and banners, and scrawling messages in chalk on the sidewalk. Then, on the third day, a smaller group of protesters climbed on top of a bus that was to shuttle conference attendees on a regional silica sand tour. They delayed the tour by more than 90  minutes until police arrived, and unfurled a banner over the windshield of the bus that read "Our tragedy is not your tour."

Community empowerment or corporate power? 

Resource extraction industries such as frac sand mining have arrived in Wisconsin and Minnesota to exploit and profit from a natural resource currently in high demand for use in hydraulic fracturing, an equally questionable and controversial activity that has caused social and environmental turmoil in rural communities throughout other parts of the country. The Conference on Silica Sand Resources was largely an industry exercise to develop strategies for overcoming local democratic control over land use, natural resources, and community development.

Concerned citizens and critics of industrial frac sand mining are not motivated by fear or misunderstanding. By contrast, they are motivated by an acute realization that our region is undergoing a dramatic transformation, one that is potentially permanent and fundamentally unfair. Throughout the region, neighbors and community members are organizing, educating themselves, and pushing for transparency and informed decision-making. This the heart of local democracy, a process that we should work to enable and empower, not silence.