July 08, 2011

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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