Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

CSTPR Noontime Seminar: Adam Briggle

Guinea Pigs of the Shale: Informed Consent and the Politics of Fracking

by Adam Briggle, Department of Philosophy and Religion, University of North Texas

Abstract: Critics of fracking often argue that it represents not just an unsustainable energy policy but also a crisis of democracy. The claim is that 'the people,' not corporations or technocrats, should decide where, whether, and how to frack. This is often couched in terms of 'community rights,' which has become the predominant moral and legal justification behind municipal bans.
But most of the fracking occurs in rural, unincorporated areas. So, why is the ideal of community rights (and local control) only applied to the institution of municipal government? It may be because municipal government is a convenient legal tool for anti-fracking interests to assert their will. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, but it would suggest Realpolitik is behind local bans at least as much as any idealistic reimagining of democracy.

I think that a new democratic ideal might be better formulated in terms of 'informed consent.' As is the case with human subjects in biomedical research trials, those most vulnerable to harm should have the greatest say in decisions about fracking. The current political scheme thwarts the achievement of informed consent in many ways. Municipal government is the best existing institutional vehicle for the vulnerable to meaningfully participate in decisions that impact their lives. But to live up this ideal, we need far more than greater municipal control over fracking. We need to reform our democratic institutions so that anyone made vulnerable by a proposed industrial activity would be empowered to dictate the terms of that proposal. We need to create the political conditions in which the authority of the people living in proximity to possible harms would be recognized and made legitimate. We can catch a glimpse of what this looks like with institutional review boards and with the economist Elinor Ostrom's notion of 'polycentric governance systems.' Once we do that, I think we discover just why it is that fracking is inherently anti-democratic.

Biography: Adam Briggle is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies and a faculty fellow at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at the University of North Texas.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014
2014 - 12:00 to 13:00





  • CIRES employees
  • CU Boulder employees
  • General Public
  • NOAA employees
  • Science collaborators


  • Seminar
  • Open to Public



CIRES Auditorium