Thursday, March 19, 2015

Fracking Pros and Cons (For Me, and Maybe You) [28 Oct. 2014]

"Where you stand depends on where you sit." — Rufus E. Miles

I'm beyond ambivalent on hydraulic fracturing — fracking — so let's say I'm "multivalent" and strongly conflicted.

            * Fracking has contributed to what is, as I write, a relative glut of oil, driving down the price. And that is generally good in economic terms, but not so much, to start with, for me, personally.
                        In my young 20's, I had three summer jobs that required a significant commute to work, and I vowed to never, if possible, ever do that again. It turned out to be possible, and even in California I don't have to spend much on gas, capping off my Prius once every couple of weeks or so, and getting change back from the $20 I pre-pay; so lower gas prices are nice, but not, for me, as a consumer, a big deal. On the other hand, in terms of my minute participation in the economy as a would-be producer — specifically of films — rather than a consumer, a continued boom in North Dakota (and higher prices of gold [it's complicated]) would be a whole lot more important.
                        Low oil prices, though are, again, fairly minor and mostly good for Americans, but they are major issues, and not good, in places like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. My grandparents fled the Russian Empire, and I have no great love for Mother Russia, and I don't care much one way or another about Iran and Venezuela. Still, American foreign policy will be helped with Russians and Iranians who are fat, comfortable, calm, at worst mildly corrupt, and up for some cooperation where interests coincide. Similarly with that awakening (and geographically pretty close) giant, Venezuela. Anyway, Iranians and Russians who feel threatened and insecure are likely to get seriously belligerent toward us, and will be a problem. We don't want any of those three to have money to throw around on military adventures, but we do want them in a mood to deal. Especially Iran and Russia: we must deal with them on nuclear arms issues and on an Islamic fanaticism (at least of the Sunni variety) that has long bothered Russians and in current forms scares even Iranian theocrats.
            * Fracking has helped keep down the price of natural gas, and electricity, and back when I lived in Ohio, that was important: One winter month my gas bill for a two-bedroom, well-insulated house, with most of the rooms closed off, and with me depending a lot on space heaters and layers of clothing — was $320. But in "south-central-coastal California," where I now live, I keep my furnace turned off almost the entire year and keep money on account for my gas bill — which includes gas for cooking — by mailing off a check for $100 every eight months or so. Like most of my neighbors, I don't have air-conditioning and the sort of power bills that come with A/C, so I'm not much affected by changes in the cost of electricity that come with changes in the cost of natural gas (plus, of course, I'm an old fart, and I turn off lights and any electrical devices I'm not using). So the price of natural gas means little to me personally but will be very important to my friends and family and fellow citizens "Back East" if we have another hard winter.
            * By making North America more energy independent, fracking reduces the importance of oil as a component of US calculations in foreign policy in the Middle East, and it may indirectly and over the long haul reduce the influence of natural gas in the relations between the European Union and Russia — both of which are Good Things. Probably. In any event, the thought of being able to tell the Wahhabist elite of Saudi Arabia (a wholly-ruled possession of The House of Saud) to go screw a Ferrari fleet, is unquestionably attractive.
             * For all the positive economic possibilities, however, hydrocarbons from fracking —especially cheap hydrocarbons — are an environmental problem.
                        The cheaper oil and natural gas get, the fewer the incentives to leave them in the ground for future generations — even if we get room-temperature fusion power, people will probably want petrochemicals — and to burn them now. The more we burn them now and over the near future, the more greenhouse gases and the more the human contribution to climate change. The last time around for global warming, the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, was peachy-keen if you lived in Scandinavia and were setting out for Iceland or Greenland. If you lived in areas that were already hot and dry however, long-term warming could be very, very bad. At least there seem to be correlations going back to ancient Sumer and pharaonic Egypt between (a) long hot spells and (b) political nastiness at best, and the disappearance of civilizations at worst.
                        For you folks who live in areas with Great Lakes and mighty rivers, where the water falls out of the sky, drought is probably not an immediate concern. In California and the US southwest, where stealing water is a long-standing inter- and intrastate sport, water is a crucial concern.
                        Insofar as fracking contributes indirectly to global warming, it's a problem. Insofar as fracking can pollute or poison water supplies, it's an immediate threat.
                        In some ways in California, fear over water is good news. We've been fracking for oil out here for a generation without problems serious enough to come to public attention; however, the public, and, far more important, California's AgriBiz Hegemons of the Universe are concerned enough about water that the General Assembly has started regulating fracking very carefully. But California is a heavily Democratic state nowadays, and tolerant of regulation (although pretty much uniquely, we don't charge extraction fee for oil: Standard Oil of California may be long gone as a corporation, but their influence lives on; but I digress). California will probably regulate fracking to ensure the safety of the strawberry crop (etc.), but if you live in an area that's still subject to decent rainfalls and indecent deniers of science — and worshippers at the carboniferous altar of Coal, Gas, Oil, and Deregulation — you may be drinking your water from bottles fairly soon and learning that a daily shower is not a necessity.  
            * A more remote concern is that fracking — or disposing of fracking wastes — may cause earthquakes. In California earthquakes are to be feared, but it would be good to have a number of small earthquakes if that puts off for another couple of lifetimes The Big One. And as a California convert who lived in the Midwest when during oil shortages a lot of Texans had bumper stickers on gas-guzzlers reading, "DRIVE FAST; FREEZE A YANKEE!", the thought of some quakes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is not totally unpleasant. Also, the only earthquake I've ever experienced that got me (and the neighbors) out of the house and asking "What the fuck?!" was in Oxford, Ohio. That was maybe fifteen years ago — I'd have to check when I first bought earthquake insurance — but quakes far away from the edge of tectonic plates have happened and will happen again (Can you properly mispronounce, "New Madrid"?). And triggering Midwestern quakes is a legitimate fear.

Well, etc.: including concerns about transporting oil by rail or pipeline, discouraging development of cleaner energy sources not based in carbon, and fracking operations on oil-drilling platforms that aren't in my backyard exactly but are easily visible from our slowly-recovering city beach. So I will courageously and unambiguously assert firmly, Well, yeah, we in the US should proceed with fracking, but slowly, carefully, cautiously, and in moderation. And to encourage caution, keep an close eye on the weather, and let's have some significant taxes on carbon emissions and, more generally, fossil fuels. 

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