Monday, November 19, 2012

Fracking and the Fate of the Earth?

Ellen Cantarow has a piece out in Salon today titled "America's Secret Fracking War." I wish there was a good word for hyperbole in the fracktionary - "frackerbole" sounds dumb, so does the fracking-hysteria blend "fracksteria." Anyway, someone should invent a term for this and crown Cantarow the queen of it.

Here she is in full throat: "As unlikely as it sounds, the fate of the Earth may rest with the residents of…tiny villages and small towns you’ve never heard of."

Indeed, it does sound unlikely. But that doesn't stop her from saying it.

She embraces the military metaphoric framing of the issue with verve: "There’s a war going on that you know nothing about between a coalition of great powers and a small insurgent movement.  It’s a secret war being waged in the shadows while you go about your everyday life."

This is the "war" between overmatched but spunky never-say-die environmental activists and a death star coalition of evil-empire-building oil and gas corporations.

Just when you think she can't dial the rhetoric up any higher she hits a new register of apocalypticism: "In small hamlets and tiny towns you’ve never heard of, grassroots activists are making a stand in what could be the beginning of a final showdown for Earth’s future."

Wow. Final Showdown.

That must be why Cantarow sees the only possible response as a total ban on fracking. Indeed, she equates democracy with total prohibitions. Cities and towns must stop the frack altogether. There are two options for municipalities – take a stand or die.   

Why is that? Well, instead of grounding her conclusions in an argument, she just adds hand-waving to the hyperbole. First, she waves at climate change, conjuring up droughts, fish kills, wildfires, super storms, and a prediction that 100 million people will die if fossil fuel consumption is not reduced by 2030. (No mention of how many would do if fossil fuel consumption is reduced). Yikes, fracking caused Sandy!

The assumption, I guess, is that fracking will worsen climate change. But that’s debatable. The alternative really is not wind farms and solar panels – it is coal. Natural gas does better than coal in terms of CO2 emissions. Now, methane leaks are a problem. But they can be reduced through better regulations. And industry wants to reduce fugitive emissions, because that is money lost in the air. But, remember, the only option is a ban. So, hello coal!

Then, she waves at a recent GAO study, claiming that it concludes that “fracking poses serious risks to health and the environment.” Actually the report never uses the phrase “serious risks.” It does point out the risks (and uncertainties) involved. But lots of things are risky – things, like driving, that we don’t ban because benefits come with the risks. Indeed, the GAO report notes the benefits of fracking in terms of a better balance of trade and reduced air pollutants from less dependence on coal.

This might make one pause and think, just perhaps, that we might want to see if we can’t retain the good things while minimizing some of the bad things. Maybe we could do that through smarter regulations. But, no. Not for Cantarow and her army of “insurgents.” They are dead-set certain that fracking is evil.
It would be nice to have such moral clarity on this issue. And it is an alluring position. It is so easy: simply stop the frack attack. Cantarow cites an engineering professor who classifies fracking as a case of “the health of the many versus the wealth of the few.” How crisp and clear.
But it is just far too simplistic. Millions of Americans benefit from natural gas – it is part of our collective wealth as a modern society with all the comforts and conveniences that brings. Indeed, it may be the health of the few (those closest to fracking) versus the wealth of the many. But that is also too simplistic. I think it is a jumble of goods and bads.
If it’s not apparent by now, I take umbrage with Cantarow’s piece – the hyperbole, the militaristic framing, the reduction of options to “ban” or “end of the world.”
I can respect a call to ban fracking. I don’t like fracking either. I can especially respect it when it is a matter of empowering people in decisionmaking processes that impact what happens in their communities. But what I can’t stomach is the moral certainty and the hysteria of it all. I don’t think fracking is a clear-cut, doomsday evil.
Rather, I think it does some good and some bad. I also think there are ways to do it that bring more of the good with less of the bad.
I think Cantarow does a disservice to the grassroots movement. I’ve been a grassroots participant in the fracking debate for nearly two years now. But I’ve decided to take the path of working for better regulations, which includes working with corporations to try to hammer out middle ground, sensible solutions. I’ve met in town halls AND corporate board rooms. This includes opening the black box of “fracking” to see all the variety of suppliers, contractors, materials, processes, equipment, and operators – and then picking the best ones and pushing those to get even better.
Cantarow leaves no space in her worldview for this kind of work. Now, I won’t claim the fate of the world rides on it, but I think it is important.


  1. I like you, man, but we get it: The extremes are extreme. But just because someone uses what you perceive to be a false dilemma does not mean that you're not guilty of trying to achieve a false compromise. If one side says fracking will destroy the planet and the other says fracking will save our economy, that doesn't necessarily mean that the truth must be in the middle somewhere; to assume as much would be just as "simplistic" as the argument you lambaste. None of this is to say that the middle ground is a bad idea, just that you can be just as biased towards it as someone else is towards the extreme.

    Do what works, drop what doesn't, and fight for the stuff worth fighting for based on your priorities. Not everyone is going to end up happy, and you might have to take the gloves off for the first time at some point, but if you're wasting time taking "umbrage" to a hyperbolic extended metaphor, you might want to figure out your priorities first.

    1. oh, I was also going to say I don't think it is a waste of time to critique ideas in the public sphere - I think it is vital to learning and dialoguing. I bet you feel the same, actually, or you would not have 'wasted the time' replying ot my blog.

  2. ha! neat reply, thanks. Yes, bias is unavoidable. I just wish I could find better arguments justifying a ban other than "it is so risky!" Because we tolerate lots of risks - why not this one? I would rather just see the case made that "this is our community, we say what happens here, not some corporation." That seems more honest to me - and we don't need all the huff-puffery about climate change to make that claim.

    1. I can choose to participate in and tolerate "lots of risks." In this case, people have no choice. It is currently impossible to regulate away all the impacts even if you can force industry to use their own best practices. People will be damaged and sacrificed for the supposed "good of the whole." Yet, there is no mechanism for reparations once they are damaged. They are left on their own against the most powerful industry on the planet. Good luck and thanks for your sacrifice.

      Whomever leads and decides on this issue will ultimately decide who suffers and how much they suffer. That they will suffer is a given. I think all the deciders should be forced to offer themselves and their families up to the sacrifice zone.

      You could spread the word that this suffering is not necessary.

  3. Wow, Adam! I'm stunned by this blog post. I think what might be more honest is for you to spend more time in the ACTUAL gas patch rather than the VIRTUAL one and to read the Howarth & Ingraffea study again. Oh, and you might want to listen to the tapes from the PSYOPS conference. ijs

    1. Well, I would like to spend more time learning - maybe we could tour around together? I would especially like to tour around with Shale Test - perhaps I am deluded to think fracking is bad but not end-of-the-world bad; that it has some redeeming qualities and is not an unmitigated evil - if so, I welcome being corrected and am always open to learning.

  4. Wow. Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
    I have just watched the most interesting series on the Dust Bowl and the correlation between the boom and bust of the wheat production and natural gas production are scary. The "suit case farmers" and the natural gas production companies have used the same play book. They both place profit above any environmental or community damages which might occur because of their "make money fast" approach to business. If the farming techniques used during the 1920s had not been changed to prevent any further environmental destruction it would have been a doomsday scenario. That is not hysteria those of the facts. I think we are headed down the same path if we do not change the way natural gas is extracted in this country.
    The natural gas industry has brought the strong distrust of the public's perception upon themselves. I have faithfully attended as many of the EPA, TCEQ, RRC, and local municipal meeting as I possibly have been able to and my take on all of this, after 4 years, is the natural gas industy is not willing to compromise. This exploitation of the facts have created a fear, anger, and a backlash which is making a ban on hydraulic fracturing a viable next step the public may needs to consider.
    When Devon is at the Denton meeting to discuss the proposed new ordinances have you ever heard them say "we can do that" "we want to work with you to protect you family, community, proper values so if it makes you feel more comfortable then we will use vapor recovery"? No they threaten to sue or the dreaded "unintended consequences".
    Unless you have every lived close to a drilling operation, tried to breath during a vapor release, watched the silica released into the air during fracturing you really don't know how bad it can be.
    It is easy to sit safely outside of the impact zone and judge how other people should react when they perceive their lives and family are in danger from enviromental problems which are preventable.
    If the production companies would improve their method of extraction which would "somewhat" prevent or minimize risk of hydraulic fracturing I do not believe people would be talking about banning hydraulic fracturing.
    We are just "kicking the can down the road". In twenty or thirty years when your children are grown they will be faced with trying to develop renewable energy when all natural gas has been depleted. Where will the water come from for future generations if we continually deplete from our aquifers for hydraulic fracturing?
    Natural gas production companies will never do better unless they think there will be some "unintended consequences" of their actions. Maybe a ban on hydralic fracturing is not the answer but it might bring the natural gas industry to the table to discuss how to protect our environment better.