Culture or Law? What counts more in social-environmental change?

Last night I tagged along to a dinner in Bangkok where I met a couple of executives of Thailand’s national energy company. Needless to say that, as someone with environmentalist proclivities, I was deeply interested in their ‘insider’ views of the industry, as I have learnt from experience that these can be revealing. Although, like taking a ring road bypass to dodge rush hour city traffic, all questions of the environmental impacts of such processes as fracking were skillfully avoided, several things struck me as the conversation turned to the company’s ambitions in the United States.

Fracking is a process of hydraulic fracturing that uses up to 300 tons of chemicals and injects large amounts of explosives and water to crack rock and release natural gases from deep wells. It presents an opportunity to get at previously untouchable gas and every oil and gas explorer wants a piece of the pie. However, according to the executives, the confidence with which the non-renewable industry operates is somewhat geographically determined.

“People in Texas are used to having oil wells in the backyards and their kids’ school playgrounds. Whereas in states like Ohio they are just not used to that kind of a thing and go up in arms about any prospect of drilling,” said one of them.

This seemingly spatial difference is of course more of a cultural one. Texas’s long love affair with oil—that began on January 10, 1901 when a 100 foot gusher spewed into the air and catalysed regional oil extraction that made many people very rich to the present day, displacing agriculture as the principle driver of the local economy and forever guaranteeing the state’s conservative blue vote—is deeply engrained. Although once a major producer of domestic energy, Ohio, on the other hand, has a more critical and suspicious culture as far as natural resource extraction is concerned and, over the last few months, Ohioans have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest new laws that would allow oil giants to frack in the state.

If these particular energy executives’ readings of the corporate culture of the sector are correct, then on the international level, it is the political and regulatory environment that makes more of a difference. To paraphrase one of them:

“You know, energy companies are nervous when working in the U.S. The regulations are rigid and it would take just one slip up, one disaster like an explosion or a leak for the wave of public and political opinion to turn against you. You mess up and everyone votes you out. They don’t have this problem somewhere like Nigeria, you can do anything and anything can happen; They [energy companies] don’t care as no one will hear about it.”

Whereas popular social resistance continues to use protest and media to push against harmful environmental and social energy extracting practices in the United States, Nigeria’s lack of legal enforcement that has led to record numbers of almost weekly oil drilling accidents—“oil’s shame in Africa”—remain largely unheard of and unreported. The energy corporations implicated are of course mainly from North America and Europe; Ten percent of America’s oil comes from Nigeria and the country’s elite earn in excess of US$10bn per year oil revenue from such companies as Shell, Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Agip, Elf, and Texaco, while poverty and environmental destruction, often at the hand of the industry, are widespread.

Of course this won’t come as any kind of a surprise to many of you as the unfortunate ‘common-sense’ of any business operation would be to follow a path of least resistance. But it did get me thinking about the chicken and the egg situation of social and other change; which comes first a cultural shift or a legal one?

Ohioans’ raised environmental and social consciousness—they are worried about damage to underground aquifers as a result of fracking and the industry leveraging economic power to take advantage of poorer communities in the state—and subsequent widespread protest and blockade resistance is winning some battles in regulating tougher standards should fracking begin in the state. Whether they will be able to prevent the practice altogether remains to be seen, but state officials and energy companies are treading carefully as environmentalists do have the public largely by their side to push for legal changes.

In Texas, however—where from the age of ten kids are taught that “oil is king”, the state’s “black gold”—they have historically not seen the same popular support. The bias is deeply institutionalized too as “gas companies’ right to drill supercedes a community’s or an individual’s right to resist.” Community objection to the more damaging techniques like fracking is building, but slowly and it is mainly limited to stern activists. The plan of resistance seems to have been at the legal, institutional level, with small wins and partial successes; In February this year, for example, the council of the city of Denton voted unanimously in favor of a 120-day moratorium on fracking as a city task force considered new gas regulations.

In Nigeria, the balance of power lies on the side of the domestic and international elite and few institutions are in place to give the people a voice. Although villages are set against the harms of energy extraction, the cultural sentiment alone is not enough to affect change.

In “Nigeria, you can do anything and anything can happen; They [energy companies] don’t care as no one will hear about it.”

It comes down to a few individuals, like the pro-bono environmental law advocate Simon Amaduobogha, to give communities a voice and represent them in their claims against unlawful oil and gas extraction practices. It also calls for more radical action when even the state in not on the environmental side. One example of a more radical approach is MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigel Delta, that has managed, through its action against oil infrastructure, among other things, to reduce Nigeria’s oil output by 10 percent.

“And on December 22, 2010. MEND temporarily shut down three of the country’s four oil refineries by  damaging pipelines to the facilities,” writes Lierre Keith Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet.

You may be  against damage to property as a way of stating your point, but what choice would you have if neither the international community, the businesses in question nor the government (that is supposed to protect you) are on anyone’s side rather than that of profit?

Different circumstances inspire different results and call for tailor-made action. If a local culture supports a cause, legal change can be catalysed and, in a positive spiral, once institutionalized it will drive further cultural support to strengthen the change to the status of a social norm. This may be the route against fracking in Ohio. This works both ways of course and, as we saw in Texas, cultural norms and the institutions that support them can be hard to penetrate once in place. Small victories on the legislative and cultural levels can chip away at them. When laws are broken and institutions and political will are not in place to enforce them, as in Nigeria, the road to change is hard and long, and probably necessarily radical. Perhaps the question of social change is not one of the chicken or the egg but, with cultural and legal changes deeply intertwined, it is one of both.

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Ioulia Fenton is a research lead at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD. 

For your reference:

“Fueling the Devastation: Oil Drilling in Nigeria,” Environmental Law Alliance, September, 2004.

Jenson D., Keith L. and Mcbay A. (2011) Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, Seven Stories Press, Kindle Version.

“Oil Shame in Africa,” The Daily Beast, October 18, 2010.

Natural Gas Fracking Fires Protest,” the Guardian, September 20, 2012.

Texas Alamanac: The Culture of Oil



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