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The Fractured Left

Good news on natural gas is bad news for a Democratic party full of environmental true-believers

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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With the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations having demonized the oil and gas industry for such a long time, and with local opposition to gas development mounting among Sierra Club chapters in New York State and elsewhere, Pope apparently felt, however, that he could not disclose publicly the Chesapeake Energy funding. When Time magazine finally revealed it in 2012, Pope’s successor, Michael Brune, issued a letter of apology. Seeking to expiate the Club’s sins, Brune has become a strident anti-fracking activist, even as the Sierra Club illogically continues to promote sharp reductions in coal use—and now also reductions in gas use. As a result of these twists and turns, the current Sierra Club policy appears to be the following: The United States should radically curtail use of electricity until renewables are available on a large scale sometime in the future.

Despite their strong opposition, many environmentalists seemingly don’t understand the details of how gas is retrieved through the fracking process.  

In February, for example, the highly regarded environmental think tank Resources for the Future (RFF) released details of a survey of 215 government, industry, university, and nongovernmental organization “experts” on the health and environmental risks posed by fracking. RFF concluded that “shale gas development is extremely controversial, in part because the potential health and environmental risks related to the drilling and production activities are not well understood.” 

It’s really not that complicated. The extraction of gas from shale by fracking involves two stages. First, what is essentially a conventional vertical oil and gas well is drilled, typically to several thousand feet or more below the surface. It is only when drilling reaches this great depth that the more novel part of the process—applying techniques developed in Texas in the 1990s—comes into play: The well shaft previously drilled vertically is redirected to become horizontal, with the drilling continuing until the shaft extends horizontally anywhere from about a half-mile to a mile. 

When the drilling is finished, water (combined with chemicals designed to reduce friction and serve other purposes) is injected from the surface into the well shaft at very high pressures, fracturing the shale rock formations far below and making it newly possible to economically extract the natural gas embedded in the shale. 

Occurring far underground (often 5,000 feet below the surface, for example, in the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania), the hydraulic fracturing of the shale (the “fracking”) cannot plausibly have any direct impact on the land surface above or on the water aquifers that are typically located much closer to the surface. Indeed, some geologists think it is physically impossible. 

The release of methane into aquifers can and has occasionally happened. But it is nothing new: Cement casing failures and other well-bore problems have been occurring for as long as the oil and gas industry has been drilling vertical oil and gas wells in the United States. 

A January 2013 Congressional Research Service report thus explained that “the challenges of sealing off the groundwater and isolating it from possible contamination are common to the development of any oil or gas well, and are not unique to hydraulic fracturing.” According to the logic of fracking critics, however, it would seem that we should be banning all oil and gas drilling everywhere in the United States. 

There is, however, one new element to the fracking process that is not encountered in traditional oil and gas drilling. When the high water pressure is released after the fracturing of the shale, typically 10 to 30 percent of the water injected into the well (and occasionally much more) comes back to the surface. This “flowback water” contains both natural contaminants picked up underground during the fracturing process and the chemicals used by the driller to facilitate the fracturing. The water must therefore be disposed of safely or—as is increasingly the case—cleaned up and recycled to be used for the next gas well. 

This has proved to be the most environmentally challenging part of the process. Abuses such as dumping flowback water into rivers and streams have occurred. Flowback water was sometimes sent to municipal treatment plants that didn’t have the full capacity to remove all the chemicals and other contaminants. As a result of increasing regulation, however, and a growing recognition within the gas industry that its future depends on public acceptance, the treatment of flowback water has improved greatly. Thus, as the 2011 MIT report on natural gas concluded, “the environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable.” 

The fracking hysteria sweeping through the environmental community, along with the conflicting signals coming from the White House, appears to have paralyzed EPA. On the one hand, compliance with EPA’s proposed regulations and other plans to control greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act will require a large-scale shift from coal powered electricity generation to natural gas. An obvious corollary is that fracking will have to occur on a growing scale to supply the necessary low-cost gas. 

But EPA refuses to explicitly acknowledge this reality. For example, in 2009 the House of Representatives asked EPA to study the impact of fracking on drinking water. EPA agreed, but took two years to begin the research. Then last December EPA issued a progress report that managed not to answer any of the key questions, promising continued research. 

Why would the environmental movement be attempting to persuade Americans to adopt such a nationally self-destructive strategy as spurning the shale gas windfall with which the United States has been blessed? And why is the movement also placing large new strains on its longstanding close ties with the Democratic party? 

The answer is: The environmental movement’s opposition to fossil fuels of any kind has become an article of religious faith, not to be questioned. And fracking is not the only instance. Led by longtime environmental activist Bill McKibben, similar protests and extreme language have been directed against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, putting the White House in a no-win position. As the Washington Post editorialized after the State Department released its most recent environmental-impact report on the proposed pipeline in March, Keystone “has become a counterproductive obsession for many in the environmental movement.” 

McKibben has been a prominent figure in the environmental movement since the 1989 publication of his book The End of Nature. Matthew Nisbet of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government focused a March 2013 spotlight on him. McKibben wrote in 2006 that “the science” of climate change exhaustively detailed in The End of Nature “was only one part of the book, and not the most important.” Instead, as Nisbet relates, 

the science was a [way of] warning that humans—through their pollution—had for the first time become “the most powerful force for change on the planet.” Crossing this new threshold “made this historical moment entirely different from any other, filled with implications for our philosophy, our theology, our sense of self.”

In short: Human beings were ever more sinfully playing God with the earth.

McKibben is following in a long American romantic tradition, dating to the New England transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau, in which, as University of Wisconsin environmental historian William Cronon explains, wild areas are “frequently likened to Eden itself.” As Nisbet observed, “there is also a strong religious dimension to this tradition, as these settings are where ‘the supernatural lay just beneath the surface,’ enabling people to ‘glimpse the face of God.’ ” 

In the view of McKibben and his devoted followers, greenhouse gases are the greatest threat ever to Nature—and to God’s Creation—because their “unnatural” warming will extend to even the remotest parts of the earth. 

For environmentalists such as McKibben, science is not the point. Just as a precisely accurate explanation of climate change was never the central purpose of The End of Nature, so the actual fate of the Keystone pipeline or even of fracking is seemingly not the greatest concern. 

Drawing on the writings of Stanford University historian Richard White, Nisbet writes that “McKibben’s main subject in most of his work has not been nature, but rather ‘the exploration of the meaning of being human.’ ” As White himself has written, nature for human beings is “an instrument for putting themselves—and a larger American self—in relation to the world.” Thus, White suggests, “McKibben’s deepest interests are less ecological than religious and philosophical.” Even when “he quotes scientists, he is most concerned with what nature signifies, which is something science can never tell him.” 

One can admire McKibben for his heroic effort to save our souls—there is a lot that needs saving in the world. It would be better, however, if he returned to writing books and giving speeches as the main outlet for his religious passion. Using public debates over government policy decisions, such as whether or not to build the Keystone pipeline or to use fracking to develop the nation’s immense natural gas resources, could prove a very costly form of religious edification for the American public.

Some Democratic politicians—such as Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose state government continues to ban all fracking despite studies by its own environmental experts concluding that fracking offers significant economic benefits and poses environmental risks that can be adequately managed—may be endangering any national political ambitions they have. Fracking poses a good test of character. Real leaders do not sacrifice great national economic and environmental benefits when confronted with irrational public fears—sometimes deliberately stirred up by Hollywood and other opportunists—and the parochial concerns of some local groups.

It could also be costly for the environmental movement itself, which risks alienating longtime supporters and discrediting itself further if it continues to take positions that may have strong religious appeal for true believers, but which fail altogether by a more pragmatic standard—a fact becoming increasingly evident to the rest of the nation.

Robert H. Nelson is a professor of environmental policy in the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland and a senior fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. He is the author, most recently, of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America (Penn State Press, 2010).

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