Programme

(T148)
STS Underground: Ignorance and Invisibility in the Worlds of Mining and Underground Extraction
Location 112a
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Abby Kinchy (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) email
  • Jessica Smith (Colorado School of Mines) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

How does the earth's subsurface become visible and knowable, and why does knowledge about the effects of mining and extraction often remain buried?

Long Abstract

The papers in this panel all grapple with questions of ignorance and invisibility as they pertain to the extractive processes of mining and other forms of natural resource development. This is a rich new area for the field of STS, unearthing insights about the expertise, knowledge, and power animating extractive practices. The mapping and extraction of underground resources are technoscientific practices that engage multiple, and sometimes competing, forms of expertise. An STS perspective on extraction examines the technoscientific aspects of how questions about extraction are posed and deliberated, how extraction itself occurs, and how the consequences of such extraction are addressed. Underlying each of these areas are issues of knowledge, expertise and power. How does the earth's subsurface become visible and knowable, and why does knowledge about the effects of mining and extraction often remain buried?

SESSIONS: 3/3

This track is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Engineering the Underground to Settle the Surface: Sociotechnical responsibility and engineering in the extractive industries

Author: Jessica Smith (Colorado School of Mines)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic research with engineers in the mining, oil and gas industries, this paper explores how they understand the connections and disconnections between the underground worlds that they map and manipulate and the social worlds in which those extractive activities take place.

Long Abstract

Much social science research reveals the ways in which the extraction of natural resources generates new forms of social organization and practice, particularly those which seek to halt those activities or make them more socially and environmentally just. Less is known about the inverse process, or how concerns and controversies that take place on the surface shape—or fail to shape—the ways in which the subsurface is understood and engaged by people working in those industries. Drawing on ethnographic research with practicing engineers in the mining, oil and gas industries, this paper explores how they understand the connections and disconnections between the underground worlds that they map and manipulate and the social worlds in which those extractive activities take place and are contested. How do features of the social terrain factor into how the underground is made knowable and extractable? The depoliticization of engineering—the belief that engineering engages objective knowledge and technological artifacts, as distinct from the subjective social world—can encourage engineers to bracket the domains of the subsurface and the surface, as the latter appears unruly and subject to social conflicts that cannot be resolved by appeals to objective knowledge and facts, in contrast with the underground, which appears to operate according to predictable scientific laws. This paper reveals, however, that mounting public pressure for companies to practice social responsibility generates deep concern among engineers over how to make these two domains legible, translatable and responsive to one another, partially blurring the boundaries between these domains.

The Making and Unmaking of a Mining District: Quantification and the Contestation of Resource Representations in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Author: Karen Hébert (Carleton University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper tracks a controversy over proposed mining and different modes of resource representation in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska, known for its vibrant salmon fisheries.

Long Abstract

Over the past decade, the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska has been embroiled in a controversy over prospective mineral development in the headwaters of one of the world's most vibrant salmon fisheries. Following the release of a state land-use plan that appeared to promote large-scale mining in the region, a coalition of actors drew on existing state data to generate an alternative plan that sought to restore priority to subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering activities. In the contest over mining, these different resource representations were legitimated and contested by an array of actors, including indigenous groups, environmental organizations, and state and federal governments. Competing narratives took shape through vying efforts to empty out and fill up maps and other registers with representations of resources in the form of numbers based on scientific measurement. Ethnographic research in Bristol Bay demonstrates how the reliance on quantification that has shaped the controversy over mining affects which resources and relationships become visible, knowable, and present—and which are subject to absence, ignorance, and invisibility. In probing the effects, the paper argues that while the emphasis on numbers it tracks reinforces the authority of scientific expertise, it also motivates other projects of adding together, such as coalition building, which contribute to assembling new publics in opposition to resource-extractive designs.

A Desire for Ignorance: Financial speculations in the cosmoeconomy of gold mining in Mongolia

Author: Mette High (University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

My paper considers a desire for ignorance within the conjuncture between international money flows and gold sold by ‘big bosses’ in Mongolia’s gold rush. The traders’ financial speculations show how gold and money are potent matters entangled with human and nonhuman forces in underground extraction.

Long Abstract

This paper considers the much sought-after conjuncture between international monetary flows and the large amounts of gold sold by the 'big bosses' in Mongolia's illegal gold trade. As an object, gold is implicated in multiple and competing regimes of value, knowledge, and expertise. Among those intimately familiar with the process of extraction, gold mining is seen to transgress fundamental taboos related to the land, making the generated mineral wealth fraught with fear and suspicion. As an object with 'black footprints', gold is said to bring misfortune to those who become part of its circulation. In order to be able to sell this potent object and avoid the receipt of 'dead money', the 'big bosses' express a desire for ignorance of the gold's origin among their Chinese trading partners. While recognizing that this ignorance renders their earnings less traceable in the event of police investigation, the 'big bosses' also have their own elaborate understandings of what role their monetary dealings play in the risky cosmoeconomy of the gold rush. Rather than trading in generalized inanimate objects of abstraction that are readily available for transaction, the 'big bosses' financial speculations demonstrate how both gold and money are potent matters entangled with various human and nonhuman forces involved in underground extraction.

Volunteers and Commercial Water Testing Companies in the Struggle to Reveal the Impacts of Fracking

Author: Abby Kinchy (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the social organization of research on water pollution caused by shale gas production (fracking) in Pennsylvania (USA).

Long Abstract

This paper examines the social organization of research on water pollution caused by shale gas production (fracking) in Pennsylvania (USA). Companies began extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania almost a decade ago. Since then, there have been two distinct areas of controversy regarding water pollution. First, are methane, drilling chemicals, and other contaminants migrating into underground drinking water supplies? Second, are spills and discharges polluting surface water (rivers and streams), and what cumulative effects do drilling activities have on watershed heath? Scientists at government agencies and universities have examined these questions, under a great deal of public scrutiny and criticism. At the same time, "extramural science," to use Rebecca Lave's term for nonacademic forms of expertise, has risen to a prominent role. The distinctive material challenges in monitoring water underground and on the surface—particularly the invisibility of flows of pollution—are contributing to the formation of both for-profit and non-profit water monitoring organizations. In the case of underground drinking water supplies, the commercial water testing industry has become indispensable to homeowners who fear that their well water will become contaminated. In the case of surface water, volunteers and nonprofit organizations have mobilized a vast stream monitoring effort across the state. This paper considers how extramural science is filling knowledge gaps and how different forms of invisibility contribute to organizational differences in the practice of environmental science.

Who Speaks for the Subsurface? A Decade of Groundwater and Natural Gas Conflict in the Four Corners Region

Author: Adrianne Kroepsch (Colorado School of Mines)  email

Short Abstract

The Northern San Juan Basin is one of the most intensively studied natural gas basins in the world, and yet its subsurface dynamics are described in opposite ways by companies, scientists, and landowners. Such epistemic conflicts complicate the management of subsurface energy and water resources.

Long Abstract

The Northern San Juan Basin (NSJB), which sits in Colorado's southwest corner, is one of the most intensively studied natural gas basins in the world (Snyder & Fabryka-Martin, 2007), and yet its subsurface dynamics are described in opposite ways by energy companies, state and federal scientists, and landowners. The dueling narratives of the basin's inner workings differ in their descriptions of hydraulic connectivity and, relatedly, on the question of whether removing groundwater in the process of coalbed methane extraction could drain surface water systems and harm senior water rights. Such epistemic conflicts are common in zones of unconventional oil and gas extraction and complicate natural resource management in those areas (National Academy of Sciences, 2010). In this case study, I examine the contest of NSJB subsurface narratives as waged via groundwater models and empirical data across several institutional venues, including the Colorado Supreme Court. In 2009, the state's high court sided with Four Corners ranchers who argued that that groundwater removed from the subsurface by extractive industries should be tracked and governed like any other water in the state. My analysis is based upon in-depth reviews of six modeling projects, policy and legal documents, interviews, and tacit knowledge developed while contributing to a geochemical study of NSJB hydrogeology in 2010. I combine Political Ecology's strengths in critiquing environmental narratives (Robbins, 2011) and Science and Technology Study's strengths in investigating the production of the scientific knowledge that is bound up in those narratives (Haraway, 1988).

Earthly Graves for Environmental Futures: techno-burial practices

Author: Matthew Kearnes (University of New South Wales)  email

Short Abstract

An exploration of projects of technologically-mediated burial—long term geological storage of radioactive waste and soil carbon sequestration.

Long Abstract

While scholarly consideration of the underground has tended to focus primarily on resource and mineral extraction, in recent years subsurface strata have increasingly been presented as promising sites for the remediation of a range of persistent environment issues. Proposals for the deep geological storage of radioactive waste and the re-injection of liquefied carbon dioxide in disused mining wells presents a cornucopian vision of the underground as a site for technologically-mediated burial. Closer to the surface, technologies designed to increase the concentration and stability of carbon sequestered in soil are situated at the interface between notions of the sustainable intensification of agricultural productivity and the deployment of 'negative emission' techniques designed to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century" (Article 4.1 COP21). Focusing on the proposed burial of radioactive waste and the development of a range of soil carbon sequestration projects, this paper explores the ways in which the subsurface is made both visible and invisible through the assemblage of scientific and technological projections, the creation of systems of commensuration that enable financial exchange between above- and below-ground and the circulation of participatory and regulatory imaginaries in the speculative governance of the subsurface. I conclude by commenting on the temporal horizons of these projects whereby notions of the long-term geological stability of the underground are set against images of the social and political dynamism of the above-ground.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.