In the frothing debate over what energy resources we should use to stay on top, natural gas keeps bubbling to the surface. Oil has become too costly, and not only in financial terms. At the risk of sounding Gaye, war is not the answer. “Drill, baby, drill” makes for a great campaign slogan, but our oil reserves have been on a nosedive since the 1970s. Wind and solar power sound groovy, but the resources required to create them will continue to dwarf the energy they produce for at least another 20 years. France is happy with nuclear power, but getting Americans to accept nuclear energy is about as easy as getting them to accept France. Natural gas burns 30% cleaner than oil and 45% cleaner than coal, though some say methane-gas problems reduce that number to less than 25%. So what’s the problem? In a word: fracking.
What the frick is fracking? One of the best ways to obtain natural gas is a technique called hydraulic fracturing—hence, “fracking”—where the drill goes straight down and then splits off horizontally using water and chemicals to fracture the shale and seize the gas that gets released in the process. This was a fool’s errand for most of the past century, but the last ten years have seen it catapult into the hot new way to get fuel. Despite contentious debates over its profitability, fracking produces 90% of the country’s natural gas; the controversial shale fracking that incenses the environmentally sensitive supplies a good 25%. But it’s grown so fast and with such fervor, some huge mistakes have been made. The most serious was when fracking chemicals shot off in the wrong direction and polluted Pennsylvania water wells. Such mistakes were spotlighted in an incendiary documentary called Gasland that shows small-town American folk hoisting jugs of toxic diarrhea that oozed from their taps.
Right now, the fracking debate’s Ground Zero is Sullivan County, a relatively poor enclave of upstate New York that borders the all-fracked-up state of Pennsylvania and has more shale than you can shake Tommy Lee’s dick at. I live here most of the summer, and the ground has been clear-cut so many times there is no longer any topsoil. It’s so rocky, you dig holes with a pickaxe instead of a shovel. Most farming disappeared three generations ago, and the only industry the area ever had was when Pennsylvania would throw us a log and let us process their timber. I say “us” with some audacity because at best I’m considered a “weekender”; at worst, they refer to me with such horribly urbanist terms as “cidiot.” I am apt to join neighbors such as movie star and anti-fracking activist (fracktivist?) Mark Ruffalo, who sees no need to risk polluting our wells and blowing all future vacations to help big business. However, eco-activism is a luxury of the rich. One of the local store owners near my house (the only store owner, actually) agreed to lease his land to an oil company and was paid on the chance the legislation would make it possible. Despite this move leading to no danger and no drilling, he’s persona non grata among the weekenders, and that means only real locals will shop there. But real locals shop at WalMart, so his business is doomed.
While the extravagant naysayers bask in a world of black and white, the working class is stuck with the gray. If my family ever moves here full-time, my kids will go to the local private school and eventually become hedge-fund managers back in the city. The only opportunity for publicly schooled young people around here is to clean the weekenders’ pools or go fight in the Middle East. Virtually all the gigantic manicured lawns have large NO FRACKING signs on them, while the ones with cars on cinderblocks are conspicuously sign-free. My blue-collar neighbor has a son in Afghanistan right now and would love to lease his land to a big oil company such as the surreptitiously named EOG (Enron Oil and Gas), but the boomers have decided to keep the frackers at bay. Like African professor Kofi Bentil pleading, “Please, Europe and America, spare us!” to the Western environmentalists forcing his people to burn cow dung, the uneducated suffer the consequences of “educated” decisions.
Pennsylvania farmer Seamus McGraw says the fracking debate lacks nuance. He wrote a book on the subject called The End of Country that documents the area’s decline and the potential hope natural gas provides. In the same breath, it also claims oil companies cannot be trusted because they are beholden to profits and nothing else. McGraw says the battle for Sullivan County has become a culture war where rich leftists choose the fashionable route and the poor are left to choose whatever the left leaves. A self-proclaimed “dyed-in-the-wool liberal,” Seamus is a father and temporarily leased his land to a drilling company so he could be sure his son would never be forced to go to war. “It’s something I’m still ambivalent about,” he says cautiously in a phone interview. “I’m someone who drove around in a car that ran on vegetable oil. I know these companies are ruthless and they need to be policed, but nothing in life can be policed to an acceptable level. So you need to find a balance between risk and survival. That’s something the old-timers understand and the weekenders don’t. You never say ‘never.’ You say, ‘All right, under these conditions.’” (He also says “mmm-kay?” at the end of every sentence, but I kept it out so as not to annoy you.)
As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been saying for a while, the irony of the fight against natural gas is how crucial it is to the Green movement’s future. Right now we use coal to generate electricity to power hybrids. Electricity from natural gas would burn cleaner and drastically shrink your Prius’s carbon footprint. Solar panels from coast to coast need way too much water and millions of pounds of copper wire to work. A wind-power infrastructure is just as difficult to create and even less reliable because wind is even more inconsistent than sunlight. Though skeptics call it a cliché, natural gas is still a “bridge fuel” that can make all these other alternatives more viable. It can even make itself more viable. Right now they don’t even use natural gas to mine natural gas. The trucks burn diesel. The way to make fracking work is to impose restrictions and fees on these companies that include things such as: regulation within an inch of the project’s life; more use of natural gas in the drilling process; programs to train locals to be part of the whole operation (Pennsylvania’s problems are often blamed on Texas engineers unfamiliar with mountainous terrain), and most importantly, a separate escrow fund to pay for potential calamities.
As I write this, it appears fracking in this area will remain forever forbidden. When I asked McGraw about this, he called it a sham. “There isn’t any gas in Sullivan County, you fool,” he said, laughing, “Why else do you think [Chesapeake CEO] Aubrey McClendon would agree not to drill there? Because he cares? This is the same guy who once bought a stretch of beach on Lake Michigan for no other reason than to keep it out of the hands of environmentalists. He knew the leases he held in the Catskills were worthless, so he set up a fake victory to make Chesapeake look more benevolent.” Like the money it may have wrought and the class-based rhetorical dance-off surrounding it, the elusive profits from mining Sullivan County will remain floating around in the ether forever.
I asked McGraw if this fake victory means anything at all in the fight against fracking and he said, “Fracking will continue in places like Pennsylvania and Texas where it is profitable and there is nothing we can do about it. Our role as landowners is to not throw the baby out with the frackwater, but to do everything we can to ensure it happens on our terms, mmm-kay?” (I left that one in.)
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