4 12 2012

There’s a story making the rounds of the mainstream media these days, frequently trumpeted as “International Energy Agency says U.S. to overtake Saudis as  top oil producer.”  This may, technically, turn out to be true. But, as they say, “The devil is in the details,” and in this case, there’s definitely a Hell’s worth of details behind that headline that are all too frequently overlooked in this, our oil-based culture’s cargo cult moment.

“Cargo  cults,” to refresh your memory, were a religious movement that flourished briefly in the South Pacific after World War II.  The natives, who had been living a largely neolithic existence, saw that our troops came in, built an airstrip, and then airplanes landed, bringing all kinds of wondrous things, never before imagined, to the island, and the islanders.  Then,when the war was over, the mysterious strangers packed up and left, the airplanes no longer arrived bearing their magical cargoes,and the airstrips grew up in brush.  Some of the natives thought that, if they just rebuilt the airstrips, the planes would come again.  So they tried it, but it didn’t work, at least not directly, although the brief peak of our now-declining civilization has, in fact, brought the airplanes–bearing tourists, not soldiers, this time–back to many of those once-isolated tropical isles.

But no such temporary relief awaits us.  In fact, the granting of our wish for the oil age to continue bears such a horrific price tag that it’s a sad wonder that most people seem all too willing to buy it.  I’m going to examine the thorns of this “petroleum rose,” and, I hope, push the chorus of voices crying “DON’T TAKE THAT DEAL!!” to a volume level that just might save us from the fraudulent, Faustian  fracking bargain.

First, there’s the claim that the U.S. will pull ahead of the Saudis and Russians in oil production, if we just pull out all the stops and frack everyplace we possibly could. The other component of this scenario is that Russian and Saudi production has peaked and is going to fall off in the next few years, while, according to the IEA, there will be a 33% increase in demand for oil over the next 25 years, due in part to population growth worldwide, and partly due to increased oil use in China and India, whose booming, industrializing,westernizing economies may be better equipped to pay a higher price for oil than the admittedly “consumer driven” U.S. economy.  The “quantitative easing” that has been the Fed’s main tool in its attempt to reignite growth in the U.S. economy just happens to have the side effect of devaluing the U.S. dollar relative to other currencies, kind of like a cholesterol-clearing pharmaceutical that just happens to cause muscle atrophy.  Let’s face it:  an economy that actually makes things is going to be inherently stronger than an economy that, for the most part, merely buys things.  So, while the fracking boom is being framed as turning America into “the next Saudi Arabia,” the true comparison may be “the next Nigeria,” a country whose residents see only massive pollution, and little or no benefit, from their country’s oil wells.  After all, the Keystone XL pipeline is being built to connect Alberta and North Dakota with refineries on the coast, near Houston, a major U.S. oil transshipment point, even though all the rhetoric about it assures Americans that the pipeline is necessary for American energy independence.    However, this whole scenario–that U.S. oil production and world oil demand will surge–fails to factor in either economic or ecological collapse.  Don’t think about those elephants, OK?  We’ll get back to them.

Claim number two of the fracking fraud is that it will maintain the prosperity we have all been used to most of our lives.  But…. fracked oil is more expensive to extract than the oil sources from which we’ve been developing and feeding our addiction for the last century.  Our “traditional” oil sources have been very easy to tap into–just stick a pipe in the ground and stand back!  The “Energy Returned On Energy Invested” for a “gusher” is in the neighborhood of seventy or a hundred to one.   In other words, you get seventy to a hundred barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil it takes to get that oil out of the ground.  But for fracked fuels, the EROEI is…six.  That is not good for the ol’ bottom line.  It costs a lot of money to frack, money that might otherwise be spent on low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels–solar, wind, and conservation.

What the high price of fracking means, according to the International Energy Agency, is that  America’s oil will need to be priced in the neighborhood of $125  a barrel in current dollars.  But gee…every time the price of oil goes over a hundred dollars a barrel, the economy starts to grind its gears and overheat, and then come to a smoky, catastrophic stop, because we’re not just dependent on oil, we’re dependent on cheap oil, dammit.  Cheap oil chugs our consumer goods across the ocean from the Chinese factories where cheap oil is turned into the plastics of our consumer dreams.  Cheap oil makes it easy to put those plastics in trucks and move them across the country.  Cheap oil runs the tractors and creates the fertilizers and pesticides that provide us with cheap food which, like our more obviously oil-dependent needs, travels, mostly by diesel truck, an average of 1500 miles to our plastic tables.  And cheap oil means cheap gasoline, so consumers can pilot their gas hogs to the nearest shopping mall and bring home the bacon and other goodies.  When the oil ceases to be cheap, as is happening, Americans will be increasingly unable to buy the fix they’ve been used to, and, when junkies can’t get their fix–be it heroin, tobacco, coffee, or consumer goods–there’s hell to pay.

Factor three of the great fracking fraud is the duration of the alleged “oil boom” it will create.  One of the things that the fracking fraudsters don’t want us to know is that fracking wells have a much shorter productive lifespan than their older, conventional cousins.  “Spindletop,” the first big Texas oil field, produced profitable quantities of oil for forty-five years.  Production from fracked wells, by contrast, declines at an average rate of 40% per year, giving them a productive life of less than a decade, even without taking into consideration the likelihood that the easiest, most lucrative well sites will be, or have been, developed first.  In other words, North Dakota’s oil boom may be all over by the mid 2020’s, and all the fracking money will be going elsewhere–like, maybe, Tennessee.  What will this short-lived boom leave in its wake? Here’s how Frack-Free Tennessee puts it:

Preparing a typical frack site involves the clearing and leveling of two to ten acres of land, construction of a large storage pond, and turning forested areas into gravel and grass. These sites can be placed every 600 feet and may be placed within 200 feet of a house or drinking water well or 100 feet from a stream or river. Access roads and supply pipelines are built and maintained. Hundreds of trucks may be used to bring in water and chemicals with large impacts on local roads.

….Hydraulic fracturing has the potential to pollute streams, rivers, and below ground aquifers, adversely affecting human health and the environment. Where water is used as the fracking medium, the polluted wastewater must be stored in surface ponds until it is hauled away to be reused as frackwater or injected into abandoned wells or underground caverns. Surface pond liners may leak or be overrun by flooding. Injection is not presently being used in Tennessee but probably will be as deeper deposits are mined. Whatever medium is used, even in the case of nitrogen gas injection, there is a serious risk of contamination of aquifers and drinking water due to the release of methane and other substances found naturally underground, such as radioactive elements and cyanide.

The large quantities of water that fracking consumes may tax already strained local and regional water supplies once deep well injection commences. (See Tennessee Department Environmental Conservation website for maps from 2006, 2008, 2010 showing water shortages that Tennessee is already experiencing). Tennessee’s karst geologic systems are characterized by sinkholes, disappearing streams, springs, and caves which creates many channels for contaminants to find their way into aquifers.

Risk to Air  Quality: There is also the risk of air contamination from poorly maintained storage tanks, chemical-laced water solution storage ponds and inadvertent releases of methane. Because methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, if more than four percent of the methane is released into the air, fracked natural gas becomes a greater contributor to global warming than coal.

And let’s not forget that air and water pollution don’t just smell bad and render the water undrinkable–they make humans and other animals sick, sometimes sick unto death.  That’s a high price to pay for oil company profits, but what do they care?  That money isn’t coming out of their pockets!

music:  Grateful Dead, “Deal

Yes, friends, this issue is no longer about North Dakota or Pennsylvania or Arkansas, it’s about your back yard and mine, and, at the other end of the scale, it’s about the whole planet’s ability to continue to support life as we know it, and the coverup and denial around that issue hides one of the most horrific aspects of the great fracking fraud:  natural gas, especially fracked natural gas, is not the “clean fuel” that its promoters claim it to be.  Not only is it a fossil fuel that will release more carbon into the atmosphere at a time when we need to stop adding carbon dioxide, its extraction and use is as harmful to our planet’s ecology as coal burning.  By the oil industry’s accounting methods, the destruction of the planet is an “externality,” something whose cost they don’t need to factor in to the way they price their product.

And that brings us back to those elephants I asked you not to think about a little earlier.  China and India may not make it into the First World.  They may just dry up and blow away, in places, and sink into the ocean in others.  The global warming that has already occurred is causing both countries to become increasingly drier.  All the major river systems of both countries originate on the Tibetan plateau, where there is enough permanent glacier and snow cover that some refer to it as “the third pole.”  But nothing is permanent, as the Tibetans like to say, and the ice fields that feed all of southeast Asia’s major river systems are melting.  China and India are both pumping their ground water dry.  Meanwhile, sea level rise due to global warming is likely to inundate much of the Chinese and Indian coasts, causing massive refugee problems and drowning both productive farmland and the port cities that are essential to the world trade that is forecast to make these countries wealthy.

And so, at this point, we need to have a little discussion of the facts of life, the facts that are even more basic than those concerning reproduction.  You can live without natural gas.  You can live without electricity.  You can live without mass-produced manufactured goods.  You can live without money.  For 99% of the time we have been a species, we have done just fine without these things.  But we cannot live without food, potable water, and breathable air, and it is just those essentials that continued fracking, among other current human pursuits, will deprive us of, both by directly polluting the environment surrounding fracking sites, and by adding to the carbonisation of our air and our oceans.

Yes, America–and Canada–may be “the next Saudi Arabia,” alright, as oil-driven, human-induced climate change turns both countries into vast, barren wastelands, our fresh water supplies sucked up and poisoned with fracking chemicals, then taken out of the hydrological cycle by being injected deep into the earth, or left sitting in tailing ponds where they will remain lethally radioactive for thousands of years.

And then there’s the strong possibility that the warming of the Arctic will release massive quantities of methane from the sea floor and tundra, spiralling our planet into an environment that is completely hostile to complex life forms such as ourselves.  Burning coal, fracking for oil, and clearing forests all push us in that direction.  We had better stop before it’s too late, and hope it’s not too late already.

Now for the good news:  these dismal prospects are getting the attention of people with money and influence.  It ain’t just me on a Podunk radio station, writing a blog that maybe a couple of hundred people read on a good day.  It’s multibillionaire Jeremy Grantham saying

“we should not unnecessarily ruin a pleasant and currently very serviceable planet just to maximize the short-term profits of energy companies and others.”

It’s the World Bank weighing in with a report that warns that we are setting ourselves up for 4 degrees C of global warming, and says:

“A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2°C,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”

It’s been a while since I gave a “Truth in Strange Places” award, but Mr. Grantham and the World Bank are definitely this month’s winners.  Maybe, just maybe, the tide is turning.  On the other hand, the World Bank will be spending about $5B on coal-fired power plants in the next few years, in spite of issuing such a strong warning.  Well, I call it “Truth in Strange Places,” don’t I? Ironically,the main resistance to curbing new coal plant construction comes from China and India, who are building scores of new coal plants, even though they are two of the countries with the most to lose from global climate change.  What part of “This is the only planet we have to live on” don’t they understand?

And more good news, courtesy of NPR:  a University of Texas study that claimed that fracking was completely safe was withdrawn after an independent review found it was “scientifically unsound and tainted with conflicts of interest”–namely, the “Professor” who wrote it was on the board of a natural gas drilling company and had received over a million and a half dollars from this position.  He chose early retirement, and UTEX was perhaps too kind in allowing him to do that rather than be fired.  The dean of his department, who had approved the study, also resigned from UTEX.  NPR further pointed out

“This is the third time in three months that fracking research by energy-friendly university industry consortiums has been discredited. The Shale Resources Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo was closed after questions were raised about the quality and independence of its work. And an industry (group) canceled their fracking study after professors at Penn State University refused to participate.”

Here in Tennessee, though, the government hasn’t gotten the word, and short-term venality still rules.  In a “cost-cutting measure,” the governor merged the state water quality and gas and oil boards, which allows the gas extractors to decide whether what they want to do is a threat to our water quality or not.  Something about foxes and henhouses here, I think?  The result of this little move is that the board approved fracking rules for Tennessee that gave the gas drillers everything they wanted and completely ignored the environmental community’s input, even though the tone of that input was “let’s allow fracking but regulate it.”  Our dear state legislators have, essentially, put fracking on the same level as gun ownership–anywhere, any time, and you don’t have to tell anybody anything.

To combat this laissez-faire attitude about a practice that could get us all killed just as surely as turning the state into a free-fire zone, a group of concerned Tennesseans has adopted the moniker “Frack-Free Tennessee.”  I attended the group’s “Frack Meet” at the Nashville Peace and Justice Center yesterday, with well over 20 very lively people in attendance, enthusiastically planning their–or rather, our, next set of actions–a website, a Facebook page, a special edition of The Green Living Journal, a fundraiser, a public education campaign, and a statewide anti-fracking meeting in the Spring. All those are still in the planning stage, but we will definitely be meeting again at NPJC on Saturday, January 12, between 10AM and 2PM, including a potluck lunch.

So here’s what it boils down to:  which would you prefer–clean water, healthy ecosystems, and breathable air, but little/no fossil fuels?  or plenty of gas, oil, and corporate profits, but a  poisoned ecosystem?  which way could you live longer?

I used to think of chasing down difficult-to-extract fossil fuels as the equivalent of rifling through the couch cushions looking for enough change to make the rent, but, as the picture of what will happen if we continue to burn fossil fuels becomes clearer, I can see that it’s something far worse than that.  It’s the moral equivalent of selling our children to a pedophile to buy another hit or two of meth.

It has taken four billion years to get us where we are now, an at least partially self-aware species that understands how small it is in comparison to the vast universe around us, a vast universe that, as best we can tell so far, contains nothing else like us.  It would be a real pity to blow four billion years of evolution for the sake of twenty more  years of imaginary money, home heating fuel, and widescreen TV.


Incredible String Band: Sleepers Awake

Eliza Gilkyson: Wildwood Spring

B 52’s: The World’s Green Laughter

Eliza GIlkyson:  Beautiful World

Jimi Hendrix:  All Along the Watchtower



2 responses

13 12 2012

Since writing this, I have found even more positive confirmation that the plan is to export fracked gas rather than use it domestically–check out

10 03 2013

[…] there is still a chance it can be slowed down or stopped.  I covered the dangers of fracking in December, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about why it’s a bad idea now, except to […]

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