From the Archive: Oil Liberation!

As an over-the-weekend teaser for a couple of posts I’m planning for next week, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek entry from my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, from April 7, 2014.


Oil Liberation!

A longtime friend posted a link on Facebook to an article bearing the headline:

Vast oil trove trapped in Monterey Shale formation

The article describes the difficulty of extracting the oil while still turning a profit, with passing mention of some of the environmental and social concerns associated with the extraction processes that might be involved.

This is not a blog post about hydraulic fracturing, per se, but a brief comment on the use of language: the headline reveals a way of framing the meaning of shale oil that cuts off any debate about the advisability of extracting the oil before it can get started.

It comes down to a matter of metaphor.

To trap something is to confine or limit it when it would otherwise move freely.

To say the oil is trapped is to suggest that oil in its natural state is free. The oil would be free, could be free, and should be free but for the damned, cruel, oppressive shale formation holding it back!

What’s proposed then is not “fracking” – such an unpleasant word, “fracking” – it’s Oil Liberation!

Imagine another headline with the same grammatical form:

Adorable kitten trapped in Monterey linen closet

Aw! The poor thing! Somebody open the door! What do you mean the door is stuck? Break the damn door, then!

So, if the oil is trapped in the shale formation, break the damn shale formation to let the oil out!

Now, I’m not suggesting anyone thinks of oil as especially adorable or as literally oppressed by shale.

I am suggesting that the trap metaphor does seem to tilt the whole discussion in favor of extraction, by the metaphorical implication that extraction is what you do with things that are trapped.

To demonstrate the force of the metaphor, consider other ways the headline might have been cast, also removing the far more obvious metaphor of the treasure trove:

Quantity of oil natural part of Monterey Shale formation


Quantity of oil held safely out of human reach by Monterey Shale formation

or, more viscerally,

Quantity of oil snuggled securely in Monterey Shale formation

Aw! Just like a little kitty with its mommy! Why would the mean people want to separate them?

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