Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Frick, Frack

In the city of Frick, the people are taking a stand against Frack.

Today I attended a rally in downtown Pittsburgh to protest industry plans to drill tens of thousands of natural gas wells (through a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) into the Marcellus Shale formation that lies beneath our fields, forests, and cities. A broad coalition of environmental and citizens’ groups has formed to push for a state moratorium on drilling until further research into its environmental impacts has been conducted, to call on lawmakers to impose a severance tax on the drilling companies to help mitigate environmental impacts, and--most radically--to declare the city of Pittsburgh off-limits to drillers, permanently. The latter ordinance is working its way through Pittsburgh City Council. If passed, it would be the first such ordinance nationwide.

The rally was attended by none other than Josh Fox, rogue visionary behind the film Gasland. Fox whipped the crowd into a frenzy by citing the copious evidence (all of it denied by industry) of negative environmental and health consequences of drilling. He also showed his characteristic flair for the theatrical, calling up the Republican governor-elect of Pennsylvania on his cell phone and, while the crowd hooted approval, leaving a message with the man’s secretary. But the grandstanding had a serious purpose: as Fox represented it, the fight against fracking is the environmental battle of the day. Win this one, he told us, and we secure a greener, brighter future. Lose it, and we concede a future of runaway environmental and human degradation.

Now, all environmentalist prophets say these sorts of things. For Aldo Leopold, the issue was land. For Rachel Carson, it was pesticides. For Al Gore, it was global warming. Environmentalism thrives on these sorts of dire prognostications of utter collapse if that one issue, whatever it may be, is not addressed.

But this time around, I tend to agree with Fox. The natural gas industry stands in the way of healthy environments and communities not only in Pennsylvania, but nationwide (if not worldwide). This latest boondoggle by the fossil fuel industry represents an effort to keep our future locked into the same sorry path we’ve been walking since the time of the industrial revolution, a deal with the devil where we forfeit environmental and communal wellbeing for the luxury lifestyle offered by rapacious robber barons. The rush to drill is based on two deeply flawed propositions that, if exposed and rejected, may well set us on the road to recovery as a people and as a world:

1. Natural gas is a clean energy source. This is, quite simply, bullshit. While natural gas is marginally cleaner-burning than coal or oil, the process by which it’s extracted is brimming with environmental hazards: contaminated water, damaged soil, toxic air. Of the three, the threat to water is perhaps the most ominous: the amount of water required to drill one well is astronomical, and there’s precious little regulation concerning where that water comes from and where it goes after it’s been drenched in hazardous chemicals. As several speakers at today’s rally pointed out, if drilling is as safe as the industry claims, then why did they enlist Dick Cheney and his cronies in Congress to ensure that legislation would be passed exempting the fracking process from key provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Superfund law? To tout natural gas as a “clean” alternative to oil is akin to praising crack as a safer-burning form of cocaine.

2. Natural gas represents a “transition fuel” to a clean energy economy. Again, total bullshit. If you look at the history of the fossil fuel industry, you’ll find plenty of transitions--but only from one fossil fuel to a yet more cheap, abundant, energy-intensive, and environmentally destructive fossil fuel. From charcoal to coal to petroleum, the industry has tried them all, and they’re seeking newer and unhealthier sources of energy (tar sands and the like) even as we speak. There’s simply no incentive for the industry to do anything else, and anyone who thinks it will diversify out of the goodness of its heart or concern for its customers has been drinking its toxic Kool-Aid for way too long. (We all saw how well BP fulfilled its vow to move “beyond petroleum,” right?) Unless the rest of us make it inconvenient, unprofitable, and in fact illegal for these vampires to conduct their filthy business, the industry will continue to suck fossil fuels from the planet until it’s literally sucked dry. If we are to embrace a clean energy future, it has to start now, with heavy investment in renewables and disincentives for business as usual. This will hurt in the short term, but it will not hurt nearly as much in the long term as a continued dependence on fossil fuels.

So if you’re following this issue, keep your eyes on Pittsburgh. If my hometown can secure victory in this battle--if we can claim our land, our communities, and our health as inalienable rights no one can steal--then the collapse of the fossil fuel industry is within grasp, and a sustainable world within reach.

Drill in Pittsburgh? As they chanted at today's rally: "No fracking way!"

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