Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Environment and Society

Committee Chair(s)

Joseph Tainter


Joseph Tainter


Roslynn Brain


D. Layne Coppock


Peter D. Howe


Barty Warren-Kretzschamr


This research examined how people communicate and create knowledge about energy-related risks. Analysis of the discourse, frames, and content surrounding unconventional energy policy and development in the Western United States was conducted using three case studies. The results contribute to an understanding of energy-related risk perceptions in social and historical contexts.

Discourses contained in newspapers and public comments to the Bureau of Land Management presented arguments on the basis of risks to the environment; climate; human health and safety; jobs and economic prosperity; property rights; and local governments. Governments were seen as risks when they were perceived to allow misuse of public resources or threatened to override democratic processes. The quantity of water, energy, and land resources that would be consumed in the production of unconventional fuels were perceived to be social and environmental risks.

Findings indicate that national identity and expectations of democracy were commonly-held values. Other entities, such as energy, the oil and gas industry, and property rights, were constructed in ways that created polarization and conflict among discourses. Different underlying assumptions about the role of government and what should be protected created social tensions and competing accounts of risks. Overall findings lend support to theories of risk and indicate possible communication and trust-building strategies for scientists and policy-makers.