Hear No Fracking, See no Fracking: The psychology behind bad judgment

Hear No Fracking, See no Fracking: The psychology behind bad judgment

(An Opinion Article by Karl Emmerich


It was mandatory reading in graduate business school.  But it was nonetheless captivating.  The article was called “Consistency Theory – Hobgoblins of the Mind”.  It was part of a course called, “Organizational Psychology” and it was part of a module to understand how people can be made to do something entirely opposite their better judgment, contrary to what is self-evident, and often to the detriment of self & others.


It went like this.   As part of a case study, a group of researchers approached a neighborhood on foot.  Acting as if they were part of a community campaign, they asked some local residents if they would mind placing a small 2-foot by 3-foot sign in their yard.  Similarly, they asked another group (the control) to place a much larger, 6-foot by 10-foot sign (large enough to obstruct the street-side views of their homes) in their yards.


As you might expect, not one person consented to accepting the larger sign, but a few consented to the smaller sign.  As weeks passed, those who consented to the smaller sign were then asked if they would exchange the smaller signs for the more obtrusive larger signs.  To the amazement of researchers, the small sign group unanimously consented to ‘upgrade’ their signs to an obnoxious new standard.


The City of Commerce City’s Council has been persuaded to obscure their own views of the city by similarly and incrementally buying into more and more compromise of rules, procedures, morals, ethics, and values.


The Council is, however, less egregious than victimized by the Oil and Gas industry’s crusade to justify their inherently dangerous oil and gas extraction process of “fracking” in the name of a less dependence on foreign fuels and increased jobs.  Commerce City’s nine council members live here like the rest of us and have been told ad infinitum that the process of “fracking” contains carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals), is being vented into our air, holds a potential to contaminate our water supply, and is under investigation by the EPA.


Yet in the face of the staggering evidence that “fracking” is contra-indicated to the wellbeing of our community (to put it mildly), it’s equally concerning to us what they’ve concluded, as is why they’ve concluded it.


To date, the City Council of Commerce City has chosen not to vote to approve a moratorium against fracking, following the oil and gas industry’s decline to continue its gentleman’s agreement.


Why?   It’s understandable on the surface, at least.   Here are the false premises which we’ve heard to have justified their effective condoning of ‘fracking’ along with our rebuttals.


The False Premises.

(The alarming ‘what they concluded’)

1.  Premise:    “Oil and Gas have a right to frack”.   Rebuttal: “Rights” are not universal, particularly when an entity’s “rights” infringe upon those of others.  Legally, the term “negative externalities” is applied when one societal group is adversely affected by another.  Our right to “free speech” for example, doesn’t include yelling “fire” unnecessarily in a crowded public place and one’s “right” to inject poisonous chemicals into residential neighborhoods doesn’t trump the rights of health and wellbeing of others.


2.   Premise:  Regulation can create a ‘safe fracking solution’.  Rebuttal:  Historical record shows to the contrary.  In 2011, the percent of un-inspected active wells was 73.9%.   In Colorado, 15 inspectors “inspected” 12,239 wells (not all the wells).


3.  Premise:  Fracking means jobs.

Rebuttal:  So do weapon building and other legal-but-detrimental activities.  BP’s gulf oil spill cleanup also employed thousands but is the destruction of our ecosystems something to be prescribed?


4.  Premise:  Fracking hasn’t been proven to cause ill effects.  Rebuttal:  A review of the literature proves this blatantly false.  Consider that The EPA reported in 1992 that an estimated 1.2 million oil and gas wells were abandoned in the U.S. of which 200,000 were leaking.


5. Premise:  Fracking means less foreign oil dependence.  Rebuttal:  Not true.  Domestic energy recovery means less foreign oil dependence.  Fracking is only one method of oil and gas recovery.  Fracking is not a necessary means of becoming foreign oil and gas independent, but merely an optional method of doing so.



The False Contexts.

(the more alarming ‘why they concluded it’).

Being “politically correct” is as much a rule of etiquette as it is a necessity for getting things done decently and in order.  It means being tolerant of others’ comments, restraining personal opinion, and pursing “compromise”.   But under a ‘perfect storm’ of adverse influence, the most moral, the most religious, the most legally trained city councils and commissions can do exactly opposite.  And in the specific case of Commerce City’s council regarding their consideration of fracking, here’s how it happened:

The ‘perfect storm’

1.  The money.

There’s lots of oil and gas revenue from fracking and it’s an incentive to cities and counties to forego better judgement.  As one city council member stated privately and prescriptively for Commerce City:  “Weld County has made lots of money from oil and gas.”

2.  The gaping hole in Commerce City’s budget.  It’s a hole estimated to be in the millions.  and Commerce City’s approach to the negotiating table is like a trip to the grocery store when they’re famished.  What restraint could they possibly have against an industry pledging to fill the financial gap that could otherwise challenge staff jobs, city services, and capital improvements.

3.  The presumption of a ‘judicial forum’.  City Council is a forum of sworn and elected representatives of the people – not a commissioned set of jurors.  That being said, could their having been coached to act to the contrary by city staff have affected their self-perceived roles?

4.  The presumption of ‘compromise’.

The Council was advised to negotiate a position, to reach a compromise. But why?  Are other agendas held to such esteem or are they simply ruled upon to be within or without compliance ?  And is public safety within the realm of ‘compromise’?

5.  The charge to set aside personal bias.  Council members were instructed to forego personal beliefs, experiences, and bias as they approached roundtable discussions with Oil and Gas.  But why?   City council members were elected for their collective experience, morals, and education.  Their having been instructed in their disregard was as much a stripping-away of their patronage to the electing public as it was a misrepresentation of their roles.

6.  The guise of a state ‘fracking’ sanction.

Oil and gas have a conditional right in matters of local fracking but not a mandate as some representatives of the industry have suggested.

7.  The presumption of a ‘universal right’.

No one possesses the “right” to trample on another’s constitutional rights. But council has instead accorded the presumption of equity to the oil and gas industry while reciprocally according a burden of proof to the people.  And rather than thanking the public for their assuming the position of defense that was thrust upon them, good public citizens have been publicly scorned, humiliated, and ridiculed by the city council members; and accused of spreading lies and rumors.

8.  The ‘broad powers’ directives of a city charter.  As a backdrop to the City Council’s “ear to the people”, the City Charter of Commerce City prescribes very few rights to the people and offers even less regard to the collective opinion of city residents.  Instead, it authorizes broad powers for the city.

9.  The falacy of limited options.

Positins held by council have included the proposition of fracking against an exclusive, more evil alternative.  Here are some of the pseudo opposites:  “fracking or no job growth” and “fracking or foreign oil dependence”.    In reality, job-producing industries like the residential home market and tourism might very well suffer from the results of fracking, and foreign oil dependence can very well be achieved without as invasive and dangerous an extracting procedure as fracking.

10.  Ignorance of fact.  The Rocky Mountain Arsenal’s historical record has even come under scrutiny.  While it was a superfund cleanup site and cemetary for many tons of poisonous wartime munitions, these facts have even been challenged as anything other than fact by some council members, and in the justification for their advocating for “safe fracking” near the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

Conclusion.   This article is meant not to justify the position of council, but to strive to understand the divergence between their actions (or lack, thereof) and the views of the people over the health dangers imposed by the process of “fracking”.

But the sheer exhaustion of citizens’ committees in attempting to prove the factually apparent to their elected officials is otherwise completely non-understandable.

The hope given by understanding the city council’s ring of compromise is to one day change the way the residents are regarded and the way the city is compensated.