Voice of Reason, Or Equivocation? Seamus McGraw Stirs Shale Gas Debate

If you live in Pennsylvania, and you haven’t read it yet, download/buy/borrow The End of Country right now. Done? Author Seamus McGraw is not only well-informed, he’s irreverent and blunt. To wit, his recent post on Facebook: “I’ve long argued that the two most dangerous chemicals that are used far too liberally in the fracking process are testosterone and adrenaline.”

As a man who facilitated the leasing of his mother’s land to Chesapeake Energy (testosterone), he is often perceived to be a part of the problem by angry fractivists (adrenaline). I would suggest that here’s a guy, a self-proclaimed environmentalist and early biofuel user, who understands the very real dangers of fracking, namely disease, water and air pollution, yet he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is. He’s saying what urban fractivists like me don’t want to hear (but secretly know is true): Shale gas is happening, whether we want it or not, because there’s too much money to be made and the U.S. has been singularly pig-headed about energy. Not since Jimmy Carter told us to put on a sweater have we seen a real sustainable energy policy. And while you can surely blame the 150,000 planned shale gas wells on T. Boon Pickens and the powerful Oil & Gas lobby, you can’t blame the nearly 4,000 active gas wells on the bankrupted dairy farmers and beleaguered coal mining communities in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier.

I don’t agree with everything McGraw has to say. In particular, having learned more about wastewater recycling technology (still very much in its infancy) and the relatively short life-spans of triple cement casings, I don’t believe hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus can be done without forever compromising our water supply. I believe the risks are too great, and that a drilling tax won’t even begin to solve all the problems we’ve yet to face.

No matter how you feel about shale gas, check out The End of Country’s Facebook page. The posts are friendly and refreshingly frank, and the point-of-view is precariously balanced. Why not put your two cents in? Naturally, I decided to join the fray…

Hi Seamus,
I recently got off the ideological fence. Had lunch with a hungry liberal fractivist and asked, “Can hydraulic fracturing be done safely with the technology available today?” His answer, “Not economically.” I try to be a peace-loving moderate progressive, and I remain a label-wary blogger, but lately I can’t help but see that gas is more curse than blessing. We’re a nation of energy fat-asses! Drillers are insisting (still) that they’re not responsible for a single case of groundwater contamination. Corbett’s people joke that renewables exist only in “fantasy land” while they de-fund successful programs like Growing Greener II. They act like shale gas is a gift from god, and water isn’t. I worry about the aquifer – and disease. Still, I’d never presume to say whether it’s better to be responsible and wrong, or landless and right. Only history can answer that. Next time you’re in Philly, I hope we can meet for lunch. Liz Rosenbaum, KeepTapWaterSafe.org

Beneath a photo of his totally cute kid, Liam, at the 5H site on his mother’s farm, McGraw’s caption reads:
I remain ambivalent about this, torn really. But maybe, if they can do this right, if they, to borrow the phrase of the lunatic right, can drill here and drill now, maybe in 12 years my 6-year-old son won’t have …to drill at Fort Drum or Camp Pendeleton or at some forward base in some godforsaken corner of the world to defend, as so many of our other sons and daughters have, somebody else’s oil in Iraq or Iran or North Africa.

I don’t trust Halliburton, or Slumberger, or Cabot or Chesapeake or that frothing moron James Inhoffe. But I also don’t trust those prep school dillettes in their weekend homes, sending out missives on how bad it is to do anything at all about our energy crisis, other than to pretend that solar powered unicorns to some day show up on their own accord; hammering away at their Apple keypads, oblivious to the stench of sulfur from the coal that fuels those computers, ignoring the devastated landscape that yielded all the mined metal that make up their circuitry, pretending that the plastics on that latest model computer that they’re using to pontificate didn’t come from fossil fuel.

What they’re doing at the farm right now is dangerous as hell. Doing nothing is too.

[Tim Bartlett “Likes” this]

Me: Whoa! What kind of computer do you use? If this prep-school dilettante could power her Mac – and her children’s tubby – with a genuinely clean mix of renewable fuels, she would!! Don’t judge people like me, Seamus, and I won’t be tempted to judge you! [Saturday at 7:10am]

McGraw: I’m not judging, Liz.I too would love to use nothing but renewables to power my Mac, and I wish it didn’t use petroleum product-plastics, and badly mined metals in its construction. But the truths is, 53 percent of the energy I’m using to write this comes from the dirtiest, deadliest form of energy there is. Coal. All of the plastics in it are petroleum products. It’s been 40 years since we hit Hubbert’s Peak, 30 since Ronald Reagan ripped the solar panels off the white house, 20 since the Israeli government gave me my gas mask so I could cover the SCUD missile attacks on Tel Aviv and the West Bank during the War for Oil 1991 edition, and we’ve done nothing. As I’ve said repeatedly, the best that we can hope for and the least that we can demand is that if we’re going to use this natural gas, we must do it safely, and we must use it to buy back some of that time we’ve wasted to develop more reliable and productive alternatives. Not doing it as safely as possible would be a disaster. So too, I argue, would be doing what we’ve been doing. Nothing. [Saturday at 8:40 pm]

Then, Saturday at 9:06pm, McGraw:
It took me five and a half hours, Liz, to make the 175 miles from my home to Syracuse for a reading last night. Two of those hours were spent making it through three miles of flood ravaged Binghamton. From there south, along same path traveled by Hurricane Agnes in 72, there was a path of devastation that they told us back then would happen once every 500 years. Now those storms are happening every few decades and the 100 year storms are yearly events. No scientist in his right mind would point to any one of those storms individually and say “that’s global climate change.” But taken together, they paint a picture of apparent instability, a picture of what global climate change looks like. That’s the penalty we pay for using coal, for using oil. If not now, soon and very soon.

Tomorrow is 911, and for all of our heart rending remembrances, few of us are going to talk about the role that oil played in the cascading event that led to that atrocity, and to the tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths that have occurred since.

Here’s where you and I differ, I think. I believe that time is running out, that we need both a temporary alternative, and I don’t see one in the immediate horizon other than gas. I believe that we could and perhaps should be working as hard as we possibly can to craft intelligent policies to develop that alternative in the short run, and to use a significant portion of the resources generated from that, to support the research and development of non fossil alternatives for the long run.

You and I both know that they’re not going to stop drilling. It’s not going to happen no matter how much you or I or anyone else might want it to. There’s too much money at stake. There are too many people who stand to benefit. So the only choice left to any of us is to do what we can to make it happen on terms that benefit us as well as them, and by that, I don’t mean financially. I mean environmentally. There is a way to do that. There are plenty of tin eared egoists like Aubrey McClendon, but there is also a John Pinkerton, saying Tax us, use the money to regulate the industry, to clean up after it where necessary, and to expand the use of natural gas to run our steel mills and railroads, the make the plastics for our MACs and to supplant coal and use it generate the power to run those MACS. And then we can use those MACS to design the next generation of power.

I fear however that we’ll do what we’ve always done, Find the fracture, the fissure, line up on either side of it, two thirds of us behind McClendon, a third of us behind Josh Fox, and do what we’ve done for decades. Trade debating points instead of idea, while time runs out.

[I “Liked” this]

Me, a few seconds ago: Amen to that! I’m weary of this ideological divide, and our collective failure to meet the “test of national character” as you have so aptly called it. There are too few productive solutions out there. Hard-core environmentalists are also opposed to the bird slaughter and whale confusion that accompanies wind power. And solar calls for materials that can be even more dangerous and nastier to extract than shale gas. There are no easy answers, but it’s just plain galling to see Corbett, Krancer and the rest of the Mayberry Machiavellians in Harrisburg be entirely dismissive of renewables, pretending shale gas is a bridge fuel while they’re de-funding successful programs like Growing Greener II. Let’s get these frackers out of office!

btw, most of the old White House solar panels are now on the roof of the cafeteria of Unity College in Maine, and one can be found in a museum in China.


You can read my July review The End of Country: A Great Fracking Read on this blog, or at BrynMawr.Patch.com

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