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A Fractured Society: The Socio-Legal Environment of Fracking in the United States


This dissertation examines the relationships between law and society when encountering disruptive, risky economic activities. In doing so, it assesses how culture, politics, civil society, and powerful industry interests influence the laws and legal instruments intended to protect or benefit citizens exposed to such activities. My case is the domestic shale-energy boom brought about by “fracking,” which, over the past decade, has revolutionized the US energy economy and sparked controversy for its potentially detrimental effects on local communities and the environment. By examining sociological influences on states’ fracking regulations and revealing inequalities reinforced in individual mineral-rights leasing contracts, I span time and space to analyze the social forces that shape who wins and who loses when fracking comes to an area.

The dissertation is organized around three empirical studies. In the first, I draw from theories of social movements, organizations, politics, and markets to examine how social movements, economic industries, and state institutional environments influence the decisions of states to issue new regulations governing fracking or ban it altogether. Analyzing a longitudinal dataset of 34 states at risk of fracking from 2009 to 2016, and consistent with findings from political sociology and social-movement literatures, I find that increased economic security and increased environmental movement organizational capacity in a state boost the likelihood that a state will regulate the fracking industry or even ban fracking entirely. I also find that higher potential profitability (and accordingly, potential environmental risk) for fracking in a state moderates the effects of state government ideology and resource dependence on industry. These findings support my argument that the effects of non-state actors and institutional context on the regulation of disruptive industrial activity in new markets depend, in part, on the extent of potential economic benefits and societal risks posed by the economic activity.

In the second empirical chapter, I examine the political, economic, and cultural factors influencing how stringently states regulate fracking. Analyzing state fracking chemical disclosure requirements from 2009 through 2016, I find that a state’s expected chemical disclosure stringency is most positively influenced by how stringently its geographically proximate peer states regulate. Interacting economic hardship with fossil-fuel industry political influence is associated with less stringent regulation. I argue for a field theory-based approach to state-level regulation, which conceives of states as both constitutive of their own regulatory fields and embedded within broader fields, taking similarly situated states into account but susceptible to industry capture during particularly difficult economic times.

Finally, in the last empirical chapter, I move from the state to the local level and investigate how social inequalities become reinforced in legal instruments. Specifically, I analyze economic disparities in a ubiquitous but understudied aspect of the fracking boom: mineral-rights lease contracts. Lease contracts represent an alternative, but no less important, way that socio-legal processes determine who stands to gain, and who stands to lose, when fracking comes to town. I analyze a unique proprietary dataset of nearly 90,000 leases in Texas’s Barnett shale. I find that 1) local-community embeddedness yields expected higher payments to mineral-rights owners when compared to those who reside outside of the local community, and 2) people of color, in particular those of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, receive significantly lower royalty terms when compared to whites, all else equal. The results hold when extended to a national-level analysis. These findings suggest that local ties can open pathways to locally sourced information and confer social capital, which can be beneficial during contract negotiations. They also support sociological theories of how social biases and categories affect economic transactions, resulting in patterned inequalities and discriminatory effects for socially disadvantaged groups. This chapter opens a new empirical domain—subsurface property rights—for socio-legal studies of contracts, and it offers new theoretical directions into how social inequalities become reinforced in legal instruments.

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