Abstract This article offers a relational account of the emergence, development, and impact of a social movement against urban fracking in Denton, Texas. It highlights the role played by the interactions between grassroots activism, local officials, and other stakeholders in the political construction of shared understandings of environmental risk. Drawing upon scholarship on risk perceptions and on social movement outcomes, the article argues that as a result of relationships of conflict and cooperation between activists, officials, residents, and oil and gas industry representatives, a field of opinion about the potential (negative) impacts of fracking emerged. It shows that grassroots, face-to-face, joint action played a key role in the campaign to ban fracking. Localized collective action should be at the front and center of social scientific examinations of shared understandings of environmental danger. fracking, social movements, relational sociology, environmental justice, risk Located on the Barnett shale, the city of Denton, Texas (pop. 113,000), has been the site of intense gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), of widespread residents’ complaints about its environmental consequences and health effects, and of effective collective action. In November 2014, in an unprecedented referendum, nearly 60 percent of city residents voted in favor of banning fracking within city limits. Existing accounts of the emergence and expansion of the “Frack Free Denton” movement (Bernd 2014; Briggle 2015) point to the fact that activists managed to challenge widely shared assumptions about the positive role of oil and gas in local development. How did they bring about the rupture of deeply held beliefs about the benefits of this form of oil and gas production and extraction or what, borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1977, 2000; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992), we could call “fracking doxa?” This article provides an account of the emergence, development, and impact of a social movement against urban fracking in Denton, Texas, in order to highlight the role played by the interactions between grassroots activism, local officials, and other stakeholders in the political construction of shared understandings of environmental risk.1 Drawing upon scholarship on risk perceptions and on social movement outcomes, we argue that as a result of relationships of conflict and cooperation between activists, officials, residents, and oil and gas industry representatives, a field of opinion about the potential (negative) impacts of fracking emerged. In particular, we show that grassroots, face-to-face, joint action—what political communication scholars would call “retail politics” (Trent and Friedenberg 2000)—played a key role in the campaign to ban fracking. One key general implication follows from our relational reconstruction: those who ignore localized collective action in the analysis of shared understandings of environmental danger run the risk of misunderstanding the sources of individual and group perceptions. Depending on when they stop their accounts of the campaign against urban fracking in Denton, Texas, media reports have described the movement as a success (as aforementioned, the ban on fracking put forward by the movement passed by a wide margin in a public referendum in November of 2014) or as a failure (in July of 2015, the Texas State Legislature passed HB40, widely known as the “Denton fracking bill,” preempting local bans on oil and gas activities). However, recent social science scholarship avoids using terms such as “success” or “failure” to account for movement outcomes, recognizing the potential impacts of social movements on public attitudes and the broader culture (Giugni 1998; Goodwin and Jasper 2009). Since the effects of joint actions are typically broader than the explicit demands made by activists in the course of a social movement (in this case, the banning of fracking within city limits), the terms “victory” or “defeat” seldom capture their impacts. In order to understand fully the effects and consequences of a particular social movement, we need to grasp its relations and dynamics. As Charles Tilly (1999) reminds us: “There is no way to trace outcomes of such complex social processes [as social movements] without having robust descriptions and explanations of their operations” (pp. 255-56). Accordingly, this article provides a relational account of the movement against urban fracking in order to understand its impacts on the ways in which residents of this Texan town came to publicly express their understandings of the risks posed by fracking, first in a petition drive and then in the ballot box. How did the movement emerge? How did activists frame their claims? How did these “information entrepreneurs” manage to trigger what cognitive psychologists would call an “information cascade” (Kuran and Sunstein 1999; Sunstein 2006), ultimately persuading a majority of the local population that urban fracking was a dangerous proposition?2 This article begins with a review of the literature on risk perceptions in which we delineate what can be gained, both theoretically and analytically, from combining three seldom overlapping strands of scholarship (social science research on risk perceptions, cognitive psychology scholarship on risk assessment and judgment, and research on social movement outcomes), after which we provide an overview of existing scholarship on the risks produced by hydraulic fracturing. We then introduce the main implications of our empirical study, describe our methods, and present our findings. Our chronology of the social movement against urban drilling in Denton—from its beginning in 2009 as a series of localized protests up to the passing of the ban in 2014—shows that it included nearly all of the displays that characterized social movements during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, from public meetings to street demonstrations, the creation of specific organizations, production of statements for the media, distribution of pamphlets, and posting of identifying symbols (Almeida 2014; Tilly 2008). Our analytic reconstruction, however, will zoom in on (1) the relational aspects of the movement and the campaign, particularly the interactions between the local government and the groups advocating for and opposing the ban, and (2) the construction of a contentious discursive arena around (or a field of opinion about) fracking that served to challenge typically uncontested beliefs or “doxa” (Bourdieu 1977, 2000) not only about oil and gas extraction and production but also, implicitly, about local politics and the possibilities of collective action. THE SOURCES OF RISK PERCEPTIONS During the last three decades, research on risk has significantly expanded (for a recent review, see Tierney 2014), emphasizing the socially and politically constructed character of the varying ways that lay persons, policy makers, organizations, and communities (Auyero and Swistun 2008; Beamish 2001; Brown and Mikkelsen 1990; Clarke 1989; Couch and Kroll-Smith 1991; Eden 2004; Erikson 1976; Heimer 1988; Jasanoff 1986; Little 2014; Vaughan 1990, 2004) understand risk and assess hazards (see also, Caplan 2000; Clarke and Short 1993; Dietz, Stern, and Rycroft 1989; Lupton 1999a, 1999b; Stallings 1990; Tierney 1999). Mediating between a potentially hazardous environment and the subjective experiences of it, one finds cognitive structures or frames (DiMaggio 1997; Eden 2004; Vaughan 1998, 2004) that shape what people know, think they know, ignore, or (mis)interpret about surrounding dangers (Petryna 2002). Organizations (Perrow 1984, 1997; Stallings 1990), institutional interests (Clarke 1989), expert systems (Beamish 2001; Proctor 1995), the state (Freudenburg 1993; Pollak 1996), and, particularly important for the task at hand, social movements (Brown 2007; Brown and Mikkelsen 1990; Capek 1993; Lapegna 2016; Lerner 2005; Levine 1982) mold public “risk frames.” Studies of risk perception can certainly be enhanced by a cross-pollination with studies of social movement outcomes and consequences, notwithstanding the latter perennial problem of causal attribution (Amenta et al. 2010; Andrews 1997; Giugni 1998). The political consequences of social movements have been extensively studied, from their more or less effective influence on policy making to their attempted impacts on the legal and judicial fields, party politics, state bureaucracies, electoral process, and, more generally, democratic rights (Amenta et al. 2010; Baumgartner and Mahoney 2005; Gamson 1990; Giugni 1998, 2007; Piven 2006; Skocpol 2003). Scholarship that investigates the “cultural domain of social movement outcomes” (Bosi and Uba 2009:409; Diani 1997; Gamson and Wolfsfeld 1993; Giugni 1998; Meyer and Whittier 1994) highlights the impacts of social movements on shared perceptions of given issues, of the kind described—but seldom theorized—by scholarship on environmental collective action (Bullard 1990; Checker 2005; Lerner 2005; Levine 1982; Mazur 1991). This literature is indeed filled with empirical accounts of such “cultural outcomes” of local social movements (see also Brown and Mikkelsen 1990; Kaplan 1997). While case studies usually provide detailed descriptions of the ways in which activists persuade residents of the presence and impact of toxins or other environmental hazards in their communities, they typically pay scant attention to the ways in which shared understanding emerges out of relations of conflict and cooperation between residents, activists, officials, and other interested parties. Two prominent exceptions to this infrequent relational focus inspire our analysis of local anti-fracking activism: Phil Brown’s (2007) account of struggles around environmentally induced diseases (or “contested illnesses”) lays out the contentious relationships between professional scientists, government agencies, and laypeople at the root of the emergence of an environmental health movement. Stephen Kroll-Smith and Stephen Couch’s (1990) study examines the dividing effect that an underground environmental disaster had on community interactions—fractured relations that eventually led to the disintegration of a small mining town. Cognitive psychologists have crucially intervened in debates around how to understand and explain the ways in which individuals perceive risk, documenting a series of heuristics that individuals rely on to simplify the selection and digestion of an overabundance of information under conditions of uncertainty (Gilovich, Griffin, and Kahneman 2002; Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky 1982) and paying particular attention to the impact that activists, or “availability entrepreneurs” (Kuran and Sunstein 1999), have on the flow of information about surrounding dangers—what they call availability or informational cascade (Sunstein 2006). Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein (1999) highlight the rational dimensions of the process: There is nothing irrational about participating in an informational cascade. Often people have little information about the magnitude of a risk or the seriousness of an alleged social problem. They stand to gain from turning into, and letting themselves be guided by, the signals of others (p. 689). As we will see, the emerging social movement against urban fracking makes this industrial activity “unacceptable” by framing it as widespread, uncontrollable, highly disruptive and hazardous, and pregnant with a history of accidents. In setting the availability cascade in motion and in framing the risks in a particular way, activists are not alone: they are contending with others who minimize or deny the risks, and they are sustaining interactions that ensure that the information travels person-to-person, house-to-house. Cognitive psychologists rarely examine these two highly relational aspects of grassroots activism. Drawing on in-depth interviews with residents and activists in Denton, Texas, archival research, and mapping of risk sources, campaign activity, and electoral results, this article seeks to fill this void by reconstructing the relational dynamics at the root of the campaign to ban urban fracking and the resulting emergence of a discursive arena around the potential impacts of this industrial activity. The article will also highlight the creative ways in which these activists, as have many before them (Tilly 2008), convey the message that they are WUNC—worthy, unified, numerous, and committed—and construct a local identity (i.e., a shared understanding of who residents were) as a “community” that is “in danger.” Beyond shedding light on the case of a campaign against fracking in what one activist described as “the belly of the beast” (i.e., Texas, the heart of the oil and gas industry and the birthplace of fracking [Gold 2014]), the ensuing analysis has both substantive and analytical implications. Although the literature on the history and impacts of fracking is vast and growing (see Bamberger and Oswald 2014a; Gold 2014; Finkel 2015; Jerolmack and Berman 2016; Perry 2011; Zuckerman 2013), attention to the comparatively more recent development of “urban drilling”—or, as an educational video displayed in the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas puts it, “where there’s homes and stores and schools”—is sparse (for two exceptions, see Gullion 2015 for Texas; Wilber 2015 for Pennsylvania and New York).3 By focusing on the campaign against fracking in Denton, we seek to explore this under-examined (and quite contentious) dimension of the energy boom. The following case study also has analytical implications. In a recent article, Matthew Desmond (2014) joins the two decades long “relational turn” in the social sciences (Emirbayer 1997; Mische 2008; Tilly 2002; Zelizer 2012) in making a case for “relational ethnography.” We need, he persuasively argues, to move the substantive and analytic focus of ethnography—and, we could add, of qualitative research in general—from groups and places to relations, conflicts, boundaries, and processes. Although our empirical universe is constituted by a group (anti-urban-fracking activists) in a place (Denton, Texas), our analytic object is constituted by the relational dynamics of collective action. By way of empirical demonstration, we show that the study of contentious collective action—its tension-ridden relational processes and the localized understandings and boundary making to which they give birth—can make crucial contributions to the understanding of individual and collective definitions and judgments of risk. FRACKING: WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT ITS RISKS The development of shale oil and gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing entails massive industrial activity that requires the in-migration of equipment, materials, and specialized workforces and brings with it the possible risk of various kinds of environmental degradation, including threats to water, air, and land resources (Jacquet 2014). Existing peer-reviewed scientific data suggests that there are potential risks that could influence public health, but research assessing the human health impacts of such threats is scarce and limited in scope (Lave and Lutz 2014; Shonkoff, Hays, and Finkel 2014). This is in part because the development of shale gas extraction through fracking has played out in the United States in a rapid, generalized, and unmonitored manner—a “blind rush,” in the words of science writer Charles Schmidt (2011)—making it difficult to track and assess the nature, quantity, and distribution of environmental impacts, potential human health and ecosystem risks, and social impacts on individuals and communities (Small et al. 2014). Although most studies agree that more research is needed to clarify the magnitude of these concerns, some effects on water, air, and human health have been documented (see Adgate, Goldstein, and McKenzie 2014; Barth 2013; Fontenot et al. 2013; Hildebrand et al. 2015; Jacquet 2014; Moore et al. 2014; Rabinowitz et al. 2015; Shonkoff et al. 2014; Small et al. 2014; Thomas et al. 2015). Fracking, most studies agree, is a hazardous enterprise for the environment and for human health (see Barth 2013; Moore et al. 2014; Rabinowitz et al. 2015; Shonkoff et al. 2014; Small et al. 2014; Thomas et al. 2015). There are various environmental pathways through which water can be contaminated during the process of hydraulic fracturing; the most common are during wastewater transport and disposal and via poor zonal isolation of gases and fluids due to deficient well integrity (Shonkoff et al. 2014; Small et al. 2014; Vengosh et al. 2014). Studies have detected elevated concentrations of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in surface water samples collected in dense drilling areas, as well as levels of arsenic, selenium, strontium, and total dissolved solids that exceeded the EPA’s drinking water maximum contamination limit in water samples from private drinking water wells located within three kilometers of active natural gas wells (Fontenot et al. 2013; Kassotis et al. 2013). An analysis of groundwater samples collected from private and public supply water wells overlying the Barnett shale in Texas and in areas of active natural gas drilling found multiple volatile carbon compounds known to be associated with drilling techniques (Hildebrand et al. 2015). We also know that air emissions from the natural gas life cycle include greenhouse gases, ozone precursors, air toxics, and particulates. Such emissions can result in elevated air pollution concentrations that exceed U.S. EPA guidelines for both carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic health risks (McKenzie et al. 2012; Moore et al. 2014). Researchers are also beginning to link chemical and other stressors from shale gas development to health effects. Communities near development and production sites are vulnerable to a variety of stressors, including air pollutants, ground surface water contamination, truck traffic and noise pollution, accidents and malfunctions, psychosocial stress associated with community change, and lack of trust in information sources and perceived lack of transparency concerning industry and government action (Adgate, Goldstein, and McKenzie 2014; Ferrar et al. 2013; Small et al. 2014). Thurka Sangaramoorthy and colleagues (2016) found that fracking contributes to a disruption in residents’ sense of place and social identity, generating widespread social stress. Studies have also linked negative health outcomes with proximity to natural gas well sites.4 Findings include an increased prevalence of low birth weight among those residing within a one-and-a-half mile radius of shale gas development sites and higher incidences of birth defects in areas with dense gas well concentrations (Hill 2013; McKenzie et al. 2014). Ruth McDermott-Levy, Nina Kaktins, and Barbara Sattler (2013) provide a list of acute health problems reported by people living in communities with fracking, including burning eyes, dermatologic irritation, headaches, backaches, and nosebleeds. The number of reported health symptoms per person has been found to be higher among residents living within one kilometer compared to two kilometers from gas wells and hospitalization rates increase with gas well proximity (Rabinowitz et al. 2015; Thomas et al. 2015). METHODS How did activists in Denton understand and explain this risky industrial activity? How did they seek to shape residents’ perceptions? In order to provide a relational account of the emergence, development, and effects of the anti-urban-fracking movement in Denton, this article carefully traces “what follows what” (George and Bennett 2005): what sorts of relationships were established in the process and what the impacts were of these relationships on the movement’s dynamics and framing of its claims. In order to do so, we compiled all fracking-related articles and letters to the editor published in two state newspapers (Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle) and one local newspaper (Denton Record Chronicle) between 2008 and 2015, print and virtual campaign materials, and the texts of speeches, op-eds, and articles written by campaign leaders. We analyzed all of those materials using open and focused coding based on theoretically relevant and emergent themes. In addition, we used the written materials to identify the core organizers of the campaign for the fracking ban and conducted in-depth interviews (lasting one to three hours) with the five most prominent organizers.5 We also conducted 32 interviews with residents in three different Denton neighborhoods as part of a larger project on risk perceptions in North Texas. The three neighborhoods were selected based on their proximity to fracking activity, and researchers then canvassed those areas to recruit study participants. The group of interviewees included an equal number of males and females and equal numbers of individuals who have been living in the neighborhood for more than ten years and those who have moved into the neighborhood within the last the decade. The material gathered in these interviews is used in this article as contextual information. All of the interviews focused on interactions between activists and between activists and residents, particularly during neighborhood canvassing, and on the particular language used to persuade residents and to argue at public forums and rallies. We tape-recorded, transcribed, coded, and systematically analyzed our interviews for their content. Applying the evidentiary criteria normally used for ethnographic research (Becker 1958; Katz 1982, 2001, 2002), we assigned higher evidentiary value to words and deeds reported by at least two of the interviewees as well as in written reports or materials. In order to unpack the relationship between sources of risk (fracking wells), local political action, and voting on the referendum for the fracking ban, we accessed and mapped the locations of existing oil and gas wells within the city of Denton together with ban referendum results by precinct. In addition, we mapped the residences of the two thousand voters who had signed the petition to put a fracking ban on the November 2014 ballot. We also mapped the residences of the 34 activists who had canvassed neighborhoods and tabled at community events to collect petition signatures. We use the geographic clustering of petition signers and of activists as a proxy for campaign activity in order to visualize the relationship between proximity to fracking, political activity, and support for the ban. COLLECTIVE STRUGGLE FOLLOWS LOCAL GOVERNMENT’S FAILURE According to newspaper descriptions and participants’ accounts (written and in interviews), the first collective action of what would later become the anti-urban-fracking movement took place in McKenna Park in 2009. Five years separate this first protest from the beginning of the campaign that would result in the (temporary) banning of fracking in Denton. As our relational account will show, the movement emerged out of the local government’s failure to regulate the industry. Two neighborhoods (the area around McKenna Park and the Meadows at Hickory Creek) and a small, politically heterogeneous, group of core activists are central in the story of this grassroots effort. In 2009, Range Resources, a natural gas exploration and production company, drilled and fracked on the corner of Bonnie Brae and Scripture Streets, right across from the purple playground and picnic tables of McKenna Park and from the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital and 1,500 feet away from the house of home health nurse Cathy McMullen, who would lead her neighbors in a series of protests at the local council against “this brutal, brutal process for people living around it” (Malewitz 2014:1). As activist Deb tells us: I lived only about a mile from McKenna Park, and they put a frack rig right across the street … right there and it’s a park, and you know, there’s children and everything, and right literally across the street they had a flaring with the fire and everything, just releasing those chemicals and … it was really bad, so people were going, “how can they put this less than 100 feet close to a park?” and [we] started going out to city council, trying to get them to reject what’s called a special use permit for the company to have that frack site there. [That’s when I] met Cathy McMullen, and she was like, “What the fuck?” basically, so we put together a listserv of all of the neighborhood, so we knocked on doors and put together a listserv about anyone interested, and we had a huge protest there in 2009, that like made the local news …6 Fracking was not new to soon-to-be-fractivist McMullen. “She is familiar with the disruption gas companies can cause,” reads a report in Al Jazeera America (Halperin 2014). According to this report: Several years before, McMullen and her husband moved to a rural area about 20 miles west of Denton [Decatur, in the heart of heavily drilled and fracked Wise County] where they had hoped to raise miniature donkeys … She came home one day and found the three-mile country road to her home filled with trucks, perhaps as many as 80. The couple lost a fruit and pecan orchard they had planted. They managed to find a buyer for the house and moved back to Denton—where they soon found themselves in the vicinity of a new well. The daily aggravations caused by drilling close to homes (first vertical wells and, in numbers skyrocketing since 2005, horizontal wells [U.S Energy Information Administration 2011]) and subsequent individual complaints (Brown 2011; Heinkel-Wolfe 2008) had prompted the creation and revision of a gas well drilling and production ordinance by the local council since the early 2000s.7 Until the protest at McKenna Park, however, no public collective contention had emerged. When she learned that a fracking operation was about to begin in the neighborhood to which she had just moved to escape from fracking, McMullen “got mad and got busy” (Briggle 2015:52). She first appealed to the City Council to deny permits and then organized her new neighborhood, hired a local attorney, got doctors in the adjacent hospital to sign letters in opposition to fracking in the area, and began “raising funds to gather baseline air quality samples” (Briggle 2015:52) that in the “blind rush” (Schmidt 2011) of fracking are typically not taken, making impacts on air quality difficult to evaluate. In contrast to the classic “Erin Brockovich” scenario described in journalistic accounts of environmental protest and in not a few scholarly descriptions (Lerner 2005; Mazur 1991), however, this grassroots activism emerged in deep entanglement with local-level government structures (for other examples see Brown 2007; Lapegna 2016). As Candice Bernd and Adam Briggle (from whose detailed descriptions of the early stages of the movement we have reconstructed our account) explain, as public opposition to fracking in McKenna Park grew, council members delayed voting on Range Resource’s drilling permit request until the threat of legal action against city officials became imminent. As Bernd (2014) states, on October 6, 2009, “The council approved Range’s permit in a 6-1 vote. Former council member Chris Watts, now Denton’s mayor, said Range Resources and surface owner Allegiance Development had put a ‘gun to [his] head’ by threatening legal action against the city if it denied the permit” (p. 5). Although residents’ signatures and rallies did not stop the fracking, public contention pushed the city council into amending the city’s drilling and gas ordinance to include a 1,200-foot setback distance between new gas wells and homes and new noise limitations and, even more importantly, into creating a task force that would advise the council during the overhaul of the city’s drilling ordinance (three of the five task force’s voting members came from oil and gas industry). Political process models and relational accounts of the emergence and development of social movements (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001; Tarrow 1998) alert analysts to the crucial role played by interactions between members of the polity and challengers in the dynamics of contention. The creation of an “unofficial ‘shadow’ advisory body to counterbalance the industry tilt of the official task force” (Briggle 2015:34) vividly illustrates the central role played by these interactions and proved to be key in the origins of this particular social movement. Aware of the heavy influence that industry would have in the advisory task force, council member Kevin Roden invited Briggle, a young assistant professor from the University of North Texas, to form what activists would call “a real citizen research committee, free of oil and gas industry representatives” (Bernd 2014:8). The organization that four years later would organize a massive drive for the ban on urban fracking (DAG, or Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group) was thus born out of an opening created, in part, by the very same local government that would become the object of its claims. This first episode of public protest over a proposed fracking site thus missed its explicit goal, but, as is true in many social movements (Amenta et al. 2010; Bosi and Uba 2009; Tilly 1999), it had certain effects that proved fundamental to the subsequent round of collective action. Public contention over fracking at McKenna Park and the protracted attempts by the city council to set limits on fracking by placing specific mandates in local ordinances8 became crucial moments in the emergence of the movement that would put a municipal fracking ban onto the ballot. Although the details of the council’s rewriting of the ordinance do not concern us here, it is important to highlight that, as this process was taking place, the newly formed DAG was not only attempting to influence deliberations inside city council (Briggle 2015) but, most importantly from a social movement perspective, was also hosting public forums both with experts on city and state regulations, environmental research, and industry practice and with individuals living in areas affected by fracking. DAG was slowly becoming a presence in Denton’s public sphere and beginning to appear in local news headlines. “Caution is Their Watchword,” reads one such headline in the Denton Record Chronicle. The article presents the main recommendation of DAG’s initial report: “City leaders overhauling Denton’s gas drilling ordinance should err on the side of caution to protect the public amid uncertainty over the industry’s environmental and health impacts” (Brown 2011). Implicitly aware that the definition of risk is an exercise in symbolic power (Bourdieu 1991; Kahneman 2013), DAG gradually triggered what cognitive psychologists call an “availability cascade” (Kuran and Sunstein 1999; Sunstein 2006) of information about the risks associated with fracking, counteracting the “responsible and safe” narrative that would become publicly prominent as the campaign against the ban got into full swing. In the process, DAG members became “availability entrepreneurs” as they ensured that the news about the potential impacts of fracking on air, water, and health flowed continuously. Denton Record Chronicle reporter Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe (2014) describes one such event in the cascade of information that began once the campaign for the ban had begun: About 100 people filled the tables and bar stools at Dan’s Silverleaf on Saturday afternoon to get help sorting through the facts and the rhetoric surrounding the proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing [ …] A three-person panel each made opening and closing statements and in between fielded questions from the audience for the two-hour event. [One of the panelists said] “Because the industrial activity of drilling and fracking has moved into urban areas, there is a bigger fear factor … The uncertainty makes it a risk … So the question is, how much risk are you willing to take?” In January of 2013, Denton City Council approved a revised drilling and production ordinance that reflected few of the changes that DAG had recommended (Heinkel-Wolfe 2013). At a meeting in the home of one local activist (also attended by smaller, more radical groups such as Denton Off Fossil Fuels and Occupy Denton), members of DAG expressed their frustrations with the new regulations. As Briggle (2015) recollects: We all agreed the new ordinance did not go far enough to protect public health and safety and, thus, did not achieve the goal of compatibility. The setback distance for wells from homes was still 1,200 feet, though we had asked for 1,500. Compressor stations—loud and very polluting engines that pump gas down pipelines—were still allowed in town. Pits to store fracking fluids were still allowed. There was no requirement for air and water monitoring or a comprehensive environmental impact or waste management plan. Venting and flaring were still allowed. The use of low-toxicity drilling fluids and low bleed valves was not required (p. 65). Seeing no available alternatives to the ordinance, DAG went into hibernation until, nine months later, fracking disrupted the lives of residents in another neighborhood in Denton, a new development called Meadows at Hickory Creek. The 1,200-foot setback established by the new ordinance did not apply to existing wells. The new ordinance had another important loophole: housing developers could build new homes as close as 250 feet from existing wells.9 Both openings were exploited by Eagle Ridge Energy, a Dallas-based oil and natural gas company, and by D. R. Horton, one of the nation’s largest home builders, in the Meadows at Hickory Creek. There, in September of 2013, Eagle Ridge announced plans to frack three existing wells, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for close to 6 weeks. “All of a sudden,” recalls electrical engineer and mother of two, Alyse Ogletree, “there’s noise, there’s commotion, and it’s loud and vibrating, and it’s horrible” (Halperin 2014). “It was the very kind of neighborhood industrialization we [at DAG] sought to prevent with the ordinance,” writes Briggle (2015:67), “Yet here it was happening, despite the new requirement for a 1,200-foot setback distance.” Fracking in the Meadows shook DAG out of inactivity, while other groups (such as Denton Off Fossil Fuels [DOFF] and Occupy Denton) pushed DAG members into what even insiders would call more “radical positions.” Activist Deb tells us: It gets to a point where DAG realizes that there's no other option left, there's no other like, legal … regulatory option but to go for a ban, you know? To get a citizen-led referendum, and to ban it, because we've gone through all the processes like, we've gotten new rules, we tried to do everything we could, and now the only thing left is to try to just ban it.10 Drilling at Meadows and the “frustration and helplessness” (Halperin 2014:10) of the local council would validate the more radical groups’ position. Briggle (2015) again: On January 6, 2014, the members of DAG convened at [activist] Rhonda’s house for what would turn out to be our most important meeting … A nervous tension filled the air. It was time to answer the ultimate question: To ban or not to ban? (p. 130).11 The core group that decided in favor of pushing for the ban was composed of roughly ten volunteers. They formed a political action committee called “Pass the Ban,” adopted the slogan “Frack Free Denton,” and on February 20, 2014, launched the petition drive. In order to put the fracking ban measure before the City Council, they needed 596 signatures (25 percent of the 2,385 ballots cast in the city’s last election). In a clear expression of how numerous they were (the N in WUNC), four months later they delivered 1,936 signatures to City Hall. On July 15, the Council voted not to adopt the ordinance, which meant that it would be sent to the November 4 ballot as a public referendum (Dermansky 2014). In the meantime, a group formed in opposition to the ban, calling itself Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy and funded by the oil and gas industry. Four months later, on November 4, 2014, almost 60 percent of Denton voters voted for the ban on urban drilling and fracking. Mapping of referendum results together with well locations suggests no relationship between residents’ proximity to oil and gas activity and their propensity to vote for the fracking ban; the western precincts with the highest density of wells nearly all voted against the ban (see Figure 1). Politics are a more reliable predictor of a precinct’s vote: with a few exceptions, precincts that voted for the Democratic candidate for state governor voted in favor of the ban and those that voted against her voted against the ban. The exceptions are the 12 precincts surrounding the city center to the north, east, and southeast, in which mapping of petition signatures suggests there was significant canvassing activity (see Figure 2). Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Ban Outcome and Party Majority with Wells, Petition Signers, and City Landmarks Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Ban Outcome and Party Majority with Wells, Petition Signers, and City Landmarks Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Fracking Ban Electoral Outcome and Political Party Majority by Precinct Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Fracking Ban Electoral Outcome and Political Party Majority by Precinct DISSECTING THE INFORMATION CASCADE: THE RELATIONAL FRAMING OF FRACKING The analysis of our interviews with residents, activists, campaign materials, newspaper reports, and two first-person accounts written by activists, as well as the mapping of the electoral results and the petition drive, point to the highly localized, grassroots character of the campaign. In an age of social media, activists chose to knock on door after door, canvassing—according to our interviewees—close to 95 percent of individual residences within city limits during the four months of the campaign in favor of the ban (July to November 2014). Most of the first 30 initial submitters of the petition (among them the core activists of Frack Free Denton) live in the city center and in two residential areas (Meadows at Hickory Creek/Vintage and SouthRidge). Our mapping of the almost 2,000 signatures shows their high concentration in precisely these three areas—evidence of localized neighborhood networks at work (see Figure 3). Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Fracking Ban Petition Signers and Submitters Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Fracking Ban Petition Signers and Submitters Once the City Council voted to send the ban to the ballot, and with training from Texas Campaign for the Environment and (limited) financial support from Earthworks, volunteers canvassed door-to-door, spreading out from their own places of residence in what activist Stephanie describes as “insane, exhausting work.” They not only knocked on doors but also organized benefit concerts in which popular local bands performed along with flash mobs arranged by dance teachers from Texas Women’s University. A local troupe known as The Frackettes performed satirical pieces in public meetings in the main square, and mini frack rigs were set up at the university campus and paraded through town.12 Activist Julie recalls the face-to-face character of the campaign and the “close-to-home” kinds of arguments they used: At one of the houses [I canvassed], a little kid opened the door, and I was like, “hey! is your mom or dad home?” and so he went and got his mom, so I opened with this, “I'm with an organization called Frack Free Denton and we're local Denton citizens, we are trying to get the word out about this ballot measure regarding fracking in city limits,” and she goes, “oh, I hadn't heard about that,” and I said, “yeah, well we've been debating this issue of fracking for a long time because there are all kinds of air and water quality concerns, like Denton has one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the country,” and she was like, “oh …” In stressing over and over a few basic facts about the situation created by fracking as “uniquely bad,” activists managed to trigger what Kuran and Sunstein (1999) call an “information cascade.” Fracking in town, activists emphasized, was widespread (pointing to the 281 existing wells within city limits), too close (as the campaign material reads: “Fracking has been done by Denton homes [200 feet away], schools, parks, and hospitals”), and uncontrollable (again, campaign materials point out: “Due to the vested rights, Denton cannot stop even more of this from happening” without a ban). Fracking, they highlighted, produced no significant benefits to the city (the campaign material stresses that: “Only .5 percent of Denton City General Fund comes from fracking revenue,” and “Only 2 percent of mineral royalties from Denton go to residents of Denton”), was hazardous (there is “presence of benzene emissions at frack sites near playgrounds” [Briggle 2014]; “Denton has the worst air-quality in the state;” and “It is simply not safe for public health” [Heinkel-Wolfe 2014b]), highly disruptive, and likely to produce accidents (“A recent blowout in Denton lasted 14 hours, releasing hundreds of pounds of toxins and thousands of gallons of hydrochloric acid and proprietary chemicals kept secret even from first responders. Nearby homes were evacuated” [Briggle 2014]). A ban, activists argued, was the only possible alternative. As one activist put it in an interview with the Denton Record Chronicle, “With the developers, the industry, and the city against the residents, we were convinced we had no other choice” (Heinkel-Wolfe 2014b). Or as Briggle (2014) emphasized, “The ban is the only responsible option left” to prevent “mass neighborhood industrialization.” Stressing the possibility and likelihood of change, they contended that the ban was something “doable,” noting on campaign flyers that “Dryden, New York, successfully defended its fracking ban for less than 40 thousand dollars.” In other words, both the petition drive and the ban campaign consistently employed what social movement scholars call resonant prognostic and diagnostic frames (Benford and Snow 2000; Snow and Benford 1988, 1992). They identified a problem (urban fracking), spread the news about its risks, and as importantly, proposed a credible solution to it (ban fracking within city limits). The Frack Free Denton frame merged various risks that both scientific and journalistic discourses about fracking tend to disaggregate, emphasizing threats to “public health,” hazards, and disruptions, as opposed to discrete risks to water and air, or to the presence and effects of specific chemicals. The frame was also self-limiting in that it focused attention on banning urban fracking, silencing the demands of the “lunatic fringe” (the term is Briggle’s [2015:55]), such as an opposition to all drilling activity in town and to fracking everywhere. Opposition to hydraulic fracturing within city limits was the demand around which activists were united (the U in WUNC). Activist Deb puts it this way: The core organizers of this, a lot of them are anti-fracking. Like I'm anti-fracking, a lot of people on DAG are outright … like … they don't want it anywhere. [A lot of us] see this fight as one that's fitting into a larger struggle for global climate justice … [But] during the election time, it was a real political game on our part, like a lot of … we had to adopt the language that a lot of us didn't support [to emphasize the issue of proximity] to appeal to Republicans, you know? To appeal to the right, and we were successful. During that time, there was a lot of in-fighting about [these] things [i.e., this political game], there were tense moments … Stephanie, one of the campaign coordinators, and Christine, another core activist, tell us that, as they were going door-to-door, this self-limiting frame became an important argument to persuade people who did not have much idea what was going on: Stephanie: The campaign was about urban fracking … [and neighbors were asking us] “Oh, wait a minute, it's here?” [We told them] “This is about urban drilling … drilling in high concentrations of people, so the only thing that we're debating here today is: ‘Do you want this within city limits?’” Christine: I think the most compelling [argument] was that they were actually fracking less than 200 feet from somebody's bedroom, so if you ask them to think about that, that this is an industrial process going on right next door, essentially, how would you like it? [We were talking against fracking] just in the city limits … just in the city limits [… ] I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have won anything more comprehensive … we really knew what our boundaries were. Merging risks and limiting claims went hand-in-hand with the crafting of a local identity as residents of a city receiving few of the benefits of fracking and all of its risks. In other words, the making of their claims was coupled with the assertion and incessant deployment of a shared self-understanding as local well-intentioned and worthy residents protecting their city (the W in WUNC). One of the flyers that circulated widely during the campaign, appropriately entitled “Defend Denton,” makes this local identity visibly clear, mentioning the name of the town six times. As Stephanie puts it: “[During the campaign] we were just neighbors talking to each other,” To use another example, the block walking script employed by volunteers during the campaign reads: I’m________. I’m your neighbor (or “I live in Denton”) and I am working to pass a ban on fracking in the city of Denton on November 4. We need a ban on fracking to protect our air and water, our health and safety, and the enjoyment of our property … Activists were aware of competing frames. As Briggle (2015) recalls: Even as my opposition to fracking intensified, I always recognized that you could paint a very rosy picture of it without resorting to any lies whatsoever—you just have to frame it in terms of jobs, economic growth, lower prices, energy security, and displaced combustion of dirty coal. Of course, that framing boxes out other dimensions that occupied my mental field of vision—air and water pollution, intensified fossil fuel reliance in an age of climate change, earthquakes, disenfranchisement of communities, and neighborhood industrialization (p. 13). In triggering the information cascade favorable to their cause, activists were not relying only on existing data about fracking in urban areas and emerging science about its harmful effects. The “Frack Free Denton” frame was a dialogical product of activists’ encounters with opponents of the ban, whose visible organizational expression was the group “Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy,”13 which relied heavily on funding from the oil and gas industry. The campaign against the referendum sought to counteract the self-limiting strategy by framing the ban as an all-encompassing claim with potentially disastrous effects for the state and even the country. They portrayed the proposed ban on fracking as a ban on drilling. As the head of the industry group Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, also opposing the ban, put it: “Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale, and drillers there must use the technique known as hydraulic fracturing … Banning fracking in Denton bans drilling, period” (Ireland 2014). He warned about the precedent a ban on fracking would set, noting that it could “embolden the radical environmental groups that are trying to stop the production of fossil fuels … If they happen to be successful, they might take it elsewhere” (Osborne 2014), disrupting the “energy independence” towards which the country is moving as a result of the “energy boom” that “began in the Barnett Shale near Denton” (Ireland 2014). “If it gets a toehold in Denton … no one knows what will be next” (Baker 2014). In addition, Ireland emphasized the economic impacts of the ban in terms of revenue lost (which would “require city tax increases … or budget cuts …” [Ireland 2014]) and mounting legal fees (pointing to years of litigation that would come both from the state of Texas and from mineral owners). Along similar lines, Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy (DTSE) pointed out that Denton’s drilling ban will shrink the economy, violate property rights, expose the city to litigation, and jeopardize America’s energy independence … [and] security.” DISCUSSION The analytic reconstruction presented in Figure 4 shows that the petition drive that put the ban on the ballot and the campaign that banned urban fracking were not the outcome of a single group of activists but the product of relations of conflict and/or cooperation among various actors: a diverse group of activists, residents, state officials (who routinely tried but failed to regulate the industry), and supporters of urban fracking. Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Relations of Cooperation and Conflict Around Fracking, 2010–2015 Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Relations of Cooperation and Conflict Around Fracking, 2010–2015 Drawing upon the relational turn in collective action scholarship (McAdam et al. 2001; Tilly 2008) and some of the scholarship on environmental and health movements (Brown 2007; Kroll-Smith and Couch 1990), our account complements those provided by Jeanne Simonelli (2014) and Thomas Pearson (2013) on the community level collective actions taken in response to fracking by focusing mainly on interactive processes as a way of providing distinctive explanations of political struggle and the emergence of a shared understanding of risk.14 We do not know what Denton residents’ understandings of the risks of fracking were before the petition drive and the ban campaign began, so we have to be careful in assessing the exact impact of the movement on risk perceptions. However, the analysis above shows that those relations of conflict and cooperation created what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1991) would call a “field of opinion” around fracking. Initially in 2009, and increasingly since 2012, the widely shared beliefs about the positive contributions of fracking to economic growth and energy independence, in addition to ideological commitments to property rights and suspicion of government regulations, came under fire.15 Publicly questioning those firmly established beliefs, local environmental action challenged what we might call, to use Bourdieu’s term, the “doxa” of fracking. As symbolic challenges presented by activists mount, representatives of the oil and gas industry typically find themselves in the position of having to straighten residents’ beliefs about fracking—reinforcing aspects of fracking that are now subject to opinion (“Who really benefits from fracking?” “Who regulates the industry?—questions that were not explicitly and publicly conveyed before [for an example, see Briggle 2015]). When as a result of these public “heterodoxic” contests the doxa breaks, we usually witness the in-flow of orthodoxy—attempts by dominant spokespersons to restore once undisputed beliefs or, as Bourdieu would say, to return to “the primal state of innocence of doxa” (Bourdieu 1977:169; see also Bourdieu 1991). CONCLUSIONS Fewer than 12 hours after Denton residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of the ban, Texas’s largest petroleum group (the Texas Oil and Gas Association) and the Texas General Land Office each filed suits against the city stating that the ban was unconstitutional. A few months later, the State Legislature passed HB40, preempting local control over a wide range of oil and gas activities, and in May 2015 the governor signed it into law. Towards the end of that month, fracking resumed in Denton—but not without protest. Three volunteers of the Frack Free Denton campaign blocked the entrance to the fracking site for about an hour and kept trucks from entering. They were arrested on criminal trespassing charges. Two of them were members of The Frackettes and the third was Briggle, the professor who had formed DAG five years earlier. After a three-hour stint in the county jail, Briggle told reporters: “We’re not done fighting. It’s like the vote in November, they can’t take that away from us, and they can’t take the community we build away from us” (Malewitz 2015). As we write this, many of those who participated in the Frack Free Denton campaign are organizing to oppose the addition of two natural gas power plants in the city.16 “What we saw in Denton,” writes Briggle (2015:250), “was a victory for grassroots democracy—the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen anymore in the age of big political money.” What the leader of DAG calls “big political money” failed to win the majority of Denton votes. But with HB40—a law demanded by the oil and gas industry—”big money” arguably succeeded in turning the expression of collective will into something futile. What HB40 could not do, however, was to turn back the clock on the cultural dynamics unleashed by the relations of conflict and cooperation between activists, residents, officials, and industry representatives. Outside the purview of social movement scholarship but central to the substantive concern of this article and to the ultimate fate of the ban, further research should investigate the relationship between oil and gas interests and local legislative action. In her comprehensive and detailed review of studies of the production and perceptions of risk, Kathleen Tierney (2014) argues that macro-level explanations that emphasize large-scale processes such as urbanization or globalization in the production of risk tell only part of the story … A more theoretically and empirically sound approach starts with the assumption that large-scale conditions and trends exert influence through processes that take place at smaller-scale levels of analysis, such as regions and communities, organizations, and institutions (p. 41). This article began with such an assumption but, rather than analyzing discrete entities, its focus has been on the relations between different actors. These relations are central, our analysis has shown, in the production of risk (to allow or to prohibit fracking within city limits) and in the construction of understandings of risk (understandings that were publicly manifested in the petition drive and in the ballot box). Risk and vulnerability are, Tierney also reminds us, products of the exercise of relationships of power (Tierney 2014), and our analysis has scrutinized this exercise as it unfolded from a localized protest into a full-fledged public and sustained collective action. Although the ban was itself banned, the field of opinion unleashed by such collective action might not be that easily outlawed. As our current ethnographic fieldwork among Denton residents is uncovering, the movement had a lasting impact on the way in which they think and feel about hazards—as one man living across a gas well recently told us: “There were problems with the well. I don’t know what they were … but a lot of students were here hanging out all around with signs … they said something about the water being contaminated.” What we might call the “cultural legacies” of environmental collective action—in this case, how the risk frame proposed by the campaign travels beyond the referendum and into daily shared representations of danger—deserve closer scrutiny.17 Future work should also extend our analysis into lesser known movements who are organizing against the presence of hazards in their communities (such as those in communities near Denton, like Flower Mound or Azle) to understand and explain their potential impact on risk evaluations and judgments. The authors are grateful to activists and residents of Denton, Texas, for opening their homes, spending time and sharing stories with them. Previous drafts of this article were presented in the Sociology Department at UCLA and the Ethnography Lab at UT-Austin. The authors wish to thank participants in these fora for their suggestions and the anonymous reviewers for their advice and critical comments. Funding for this project was provided by the College of Liberal Arts and the Population Research Center at UT-Austin. Footnotes 1 We here follow an agreed-upon definition of a social movement as a conscious, collective, organized, and sustained effort by ordinary people to change some aspect of their society (Goodwin and Jasper 2009). This movement was not originally part of a larger anti-fracking movement—though during the campaign it established links with out-of-state environmental groups and, after the state legislature “banned the ban,” it attempted to establish relations with other anti-fracking organizations. As this article will describe in detail, DAG (Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group) was the group that “represented and shaped the broadly held preferences” (McCarthy and Zald 1977:1219) of this particular social movement and, as such, should be considered a social movement organization. 2 Kuran and Sunstein (1999) define information cascade as a social process “through which expressed perceptions trigger chains of individual responses that make these perceptions appear increasingly plausible through their rising availability in public discourse … A local informational cascade is one limited, for example, to a geographical area, a demographic subgroup, or a core of activists who share a political objective” (pp. 685-6). Information entrepreneurs are those actors who comprehend the dynamics of information cascades and attempt to “exploit their insights” (p. 687). According to cognitive psychologists, this cascade is a key process in the formation of collective beliefs (Sunstein 2006). 3 Gullion’s (2015) detailed and insightful work focuses on the experiences of Barnett Shale residents dealing with the perceived environmental and health threats posed by fracking, on what she calls “reluctant activists”—i.e, white, middle-class residents who supported the social movement against urban drilling. Our article, on the contrary, focuses on the relational origins and dynamics of the social movement and the social movement organization at its center. 4 See Boyle and colleagues (2016) for an impact assessment and hazard ranking methodology that allowed for the systematic evaluation of hazards as well as recommendations to minimize the hazards. 5 All names are pseudonyms. 6 See “Protest Planned Against Rayzor Gas Wells” (Denton Record Chronicle 2009). 7 Horizontal drilling is “a drilling process in which the well is turned horizontally at depth. It is normally used to extract energy from a source that itself runs horizontally, such as a layer of shale rock … Since the horizontal section of a well is at great depth, it must include a vertical part as well. Thus, a horizontal well resembles and exaggerated letter “J.” When examining the differences between vertical wells and horizontal wells, it is easy to see that a horizontal well is able to reach a much wider area of rock and the natural gas that is trapped within the rock. Thus, a drilling company using the horizontal technique can reach more energy with fewer wells” (Fershee and Fay 2015; http://repository.jmls.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2580&context=lawreview). For a full explanation of differences between vertical and horizontal wells, see http://repository.jmls.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2580&context=lawreview. 8 See detailed accounts of local government’s efforts in www.truth-out.org/news/item/27014-why-there-s-a-real-chance-my-texas-town-might-ban-fracking (retrieved September 17, 2017). 9 “The ordinance presumes that homebuyers in that situation are knowingly consenting to the presence of gas wells when they buy their home. So the ‘reverse setback’ distance (when new homes come to old wells) was significantly reduced” (Briggle 2015:69). 10 Or as Briggle (2015) recalls: DOFF saw DAG’s participation in the revamping of the ordinance as: “a giant smoke screen. If you cut through all the nuance and legalese, they thought, a simple conclusion was evident: we had to ban fracking … At that time, several cities in New York and one in Colorado had banned fracking, so the feeling was in the air that we could push the envelope much further” (p. 65). 11 “To ban or not to ban” is a reference to push for the vote on a ban on urban drilling. 12 See www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD5r8WGYAug (retrieved September 17, 2017). 13 As The Star Telegram reports: “Concerned that a ban on fracking in Denton could spark similar protests across Texas, the oil and gas industry is pumping nearly $700,000 into mailers, television ads, and billboards to defeat the initiative on Tuesday’s ballot. The pro-drilling group Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, which was formed with the gas industry’s aid, filed campaign finance reports this week that show it has raised nearly 10 times as much as the $75,000 raised by its opponent, Pass the Ban” (Baker 2014). 14 Simonelli (2014) explores the role played by social, political, and economic contexts on the ways in which communities understand (and act on) the impact and infrastructure associated with this novel form of oil and gas extraction, and Pearson (2013) provides an overview of the main areas of contention, the trajectory of community organizing and response from the industry in a frack-sand mining conflict (see also Malin and DeMaster 2016). 15 For different accounts of dominant framings and popular understandings of fracking see Hudgins (2013), Matz and Renfrew (2015), and Willow (2014). 16 See www.sierraclub.org/texas/blog/2015/12/denton-citizens-city-council-time-out-gas-plants-go-big-renewables (retrieved September 17, 2017) 17 For recent work, see Wylie and Albright’s (2014) study of the successes and failures of WellWatch, a web tool designed to create a collaborative space for communities and academics to monitor, study, and respond more effectively to the shale gas industry. 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Social Problems – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2019
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