Conservatism Is Not Consumerism, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 17 2012 @ 7:49pm

A few more readers keep the thread going:

I'm an environmental engineer with a specialty in water resources and I'm taking some issue with your petroleum engineer reader who wrote about fracking. The biggest issue is that natural gas fracking is essentially unregulated and they are injecting who knows what. That's a huge problem as it relates to groundwater. Methane and other chemicals are reaching groundwater in some areas where fracking is occurring, there is no denying this. Not sure about you, but I like my water to be free of harmful chemicals.

His main argument is that it creates jobs. Yeah, and so does sex trafficking and other activities that are harmful to people or the environment.

While a bit hyperbolic and slightly unfair this argument is, it boils down to a "just because we can doesn't mean we should" situation. Sure, we could exploit the natural gas reserves we have to keep prices artificially low now, but that just depletes our resources faster without regard to future generations. A better use of the money going to oil and gas companies would be for developing sustainable energy platforms and boosting efficiency of our existing infrastructure. We waste upwards of 60% of our energy in the US with about 90% of that loss coming from inefficiency in our electricity generation and transportation sectors. We have the capability to drastically improve efficiency right now, but money and regulations are not being promoted in the appropriate ways to achieve this. The recent dust-up over the incandescent light bulbs is a great example of how our politicians continue to screw the pooch on this and clearly don't understand energy.

I realize jobs are important, but the argument for exploiting natural resources to benefit us now and only now is a non-starter for me. I'm for developing sustainable solutions, and going whole hog into fracking is not a path to sustainability.

Another writes:

I have a lot to say in response to your reader who said we should not "exaggerate" the impacts of Marcellus shale.  First, let me say that I was born and spent 27 years of my life in the oil and gas fields of northwestern Pennsylvania.  This area was impacted by the oil and gas industry long before the onslaught of Marcellus shale.  The first successful oil well in the United States was drilled in 1859 about 40 minutes west of my childhood home in Titusville, PA.  The oil and gas barons (with the help of the timber barons) stripped northwestern Pennsylvania's forests of its trees in the late 1800s and early 1900s and replaced those forests with oil derricks.  (Note that this photo was taken near Tidioute, PA in 1871).  The Marcellus shale – and Utica shale, which the gas industry also plans to exploit – is just the latest "boom" that will, as it always does in the oil and gas industry, go "bust."

Second, I noticed that the reader never said whether he was actually from or working in Pennsylvania.  Rather, he said: "I work for an engineering company which provides services to gas companies working in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania." Many of the people working in the Marcellus shale are not from Pennsylvania.  The gas industry has imported many workers from out-of-state, where shale drilling has been going on for a while (such as the Barnett shale in Texas).  And while the influx of all these people obviously has a positive effect on local business (i.e., restaurants, hotels, etc.), you cannot ignore the dramatic and long-term impacts this industry is having on Pennsylvania. 

Which brings me to my third point. No one is exaggerating the impacts of Marcellus shale.  If anything, far too few are taking seriously enough the impacts, not just to water quality, but also water quantity, air quality, and wildlife habitat fragmentation.  Just recently, Youngstown, Ohio was hit with a magnitude 4.2 earthquake and the prime suspect is an injection well that is receiving wastewater from Marcellus shale drilling operations.  No one from the gas industry notified landowners that one of the consequences of disposing of millions upon millions of gallons of wastewater underground could be earthquakes. 

The only thing being exaggerated is the economic benefit that that will be visited upon you if you just sign on the dotted line (oh, and if you don't sign that lease, the gas industry will try getting the legislature to pass legislation forcing you to give up the gas beneath your land … and if you don't want a gas pipeline running across your property, the gas industry will try getting the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to give it eminent domain authority so it can condemn your land).  Can't you smell the small government conservatism!

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all, however, is the complete lack of awareness of how the Marcellus shale gas boom is rapidly changing Pennsylvania's landscape.  Pennsylvania has an amazing state forest system, one of the largest in the country.  The area north of State College has at least five or six large state forests totaling over one million acres.  It is a breathtaking and under-appreciated part of the country for its outstanding opportunities for recreation and solitude – and it is being destroyed by the Marcellus shale gas drilling boom. 

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has leased over 700,000 acres of state forests for oil and gas drilling (that includes both shallow wells and deep Marcellus wells).  This vast, remote part of Pennsylvania is being destroyed and nobody seems to notice or care.  All we hear are jobs, jobs, jobs.  Well, jobs are not everything.  And when the jobs being created come at the expense of something as beautiful as northern Pennsylvania's forested hills and valleys, we should think long and hard before plunging headfirst into the Marcellus "salvation." (Here's a local blog from someone experiencing the Marcellus gas boom in southwestern PA.)

I think too many conservatives and Republicans have lost connection to their conservation roots.  It was Teddy Roosevelt who established the National Wildlife Refuge System and established many Forest Reserves (which are our National Forests today).  Sure, Roosevelt did it partly because he loved shooting animals, but he also understood the value of having vast stretches of land where nature can exist without the heavy footprint of humans.  This notion is completely lost on Republicans and conservatives today.

And that whole "American energy" thing – don't buy that either, because the industry is planning to export that "homegrown" energy as soon as it gets a terminal constructed in Chesapeake Bay.  How about that?  Landowners in Pennsylvania getting their land condemned to build pipelines to send Marcellus (and Utica) shale gas to a terminal in Chesapeake Bay so it can be exported.

But don't get me started.