Truth cannot be transparent: Theorizing virtual excavations of the Permian Basin

Authors: John Kendall*, University of Minnesota
Topics: Cultural Geography, Political Geography, Social Theory
Keywords: oil, virtual, digital, ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2020
Start / End Time: 8:40 AM / 9:55 AM
Room: Spruce, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Automation, predictive modeling, and artificial intelligence are dramatically reshaping a American oil industry. These new digital technologies are valued not only for cutting costs and boosting efficiency but also helping mitigate ecological and geological risks. Environmental harm, in turn, has become increasingly treated as the amenable result of errors in human decision-making, and by supplanting judgment with predictive, digital tools, the industry claims to safeguard against harm (and, to be sure, liability for subsequent ‘accidents’). On the other hand, developments in ‘tertiary’ techniques of oil extraction, e.g. carbon flooding, have allowed the speculation of millions more barrels of retrievable oil in places thought nearing depletion. This intensification of activity has, unsurprisingly, brought more than just oil to the surface: cases of subsidence, gas leaks, and groundwater contamination are quietly surging—variables which always seem to miss calibration in the ‘green’ extraction of oil. Scholars and activists have addressed these problems by mapping instances of harm in order to reveal larger, hidden ‘truths’ about deleterious industry practices. These responses, however, have not been ignored but in fact absorbed by the industry, which, strengthened by the technologies mentioned above, boasts its own ‘virtual’ maps where ecological threats are safely sequestered behind computer screens, and a mindful provision is made a priori for groundwater reservoirs, corroding wellheads, and the like. This paper argues, then, that we are approaching dire limits in our capacity to respond to the contradictions intrinsic to the syntagma ‘green, digital oil.’

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