Another perspective on fracking

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2014

Regular readers will know that one of my favourite themes is drawing parallels with the past, particularly in relation to how engineering and technology have advanced, and how society’s expectations and demands have evolved. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, or at least the background to it, resonates with the UK shale gas protests today, although thankfully without the same level of violence and loss of life. At the heart of both is the question of land ownership, mineral exploitation – and by whom and at what price?

The battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876 was sparked by the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of Dakota a few years before, and the desire of the US Government to award concessions to exploit that gold. The trouble was, the land had been signed over in perpetuity to the native Sioux tribes and, having already been squeezed into ever smaller reservations, they were in no mood to accept the offer of compensation. They could see more encroaching settlement was destroying their natural habitat, and in particular the herds of wild buffalo on which their lives depended.

Here is how Wikipedia summarises the background to the battle, with my modern take in parentheses: ‘Tension between the inhabitants of the Great Plains (Sussex Downs) and the encroaching settlers (drillers) resulted in a series of conflicts known as the Sioux Wars (fracking protests). Even though many agreed to relocate to other reservations (to new homes), some resisted (protested)’.

Unfortunately, the Sioux learned the hard way how difficult it is to stop so-called progress, particularly where mineral extraction is concerned. Today, mining and timber extraction in the Black Hills has all but finished, and instead tourism and leisure now provides the mainstay of the local economy. But the dispute continues, albeit more peaceably. In 1980, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were illegally taken and that remuneration of the initial offering price plus interest of nearly US$106 million be paid. Like their forefathers, the Sioux rejected the settlement and continue to do so, believing that accepting it would allow the US Government to justify taking ownership of the Black Hills, and the Sioux wars that resulted.



As you read this column I will be on vacation, enjoying a much-anticipated trip to the USA, the highlight of which – for me if not my family – will be a tour of the Little Bighorn battlefield. It is an appropriate way to sign off what is my fiftieth Material Matters column, and I will be taking a short sabbatical before returning later in the year to continue on a more ad-hoc basis. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing these columns and I am grateful to the Institute and the editorial team at Materials World for the opportunity. Over the last four years I have tried to put across my opinions in a balanced way, although I am proud of what we as engineers and scientists in materials, minerals and mining do day-to-day and over the course of our careers, so inevitably I am biased in this respect. My taking a back seat has given the editorial team at Materials World an opportunity to cast the net for a wider cross-section of opinions than my own. So I would encourage anyone who has enjoyed reading these columns (and anyone who hasn’t) to consider putting fingers to keyboard and writing down what you think matters. I know that Melanie, the new Editor, would be delighted to hear from you.

Craig Durham CEng MIMMM