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I am sure my New York readers and some others have seen these signs:

You don’t have to drive very far from where we live in Western, NY to see them (more on this below). I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last year studying the natural gas boom in the Eastern US but rather than talk about supplies, prices, what fracking is, etc. I wanted to remind folks of a few basic points.

For the uninitiated, the term “fracking” is short-hand for “hydro-fracking”, a natural gas recovery procedure that saw its birth just after WWII, and that is enjoying a renaissance in the Eastern US and parts of the South-Central US. It basically involves sending a slurry mixture of water and a whole host of chemicals, which may include diesel fuel, benzene and a host of other things, down into the rock formations where natural gas is thought to exist. The slurry is sent under very high pressure and this pressure is used to fracture the rock formations and make it easier (or releases it) to extract the gas from wells once thought to be uneconomical to pull gas from.

Now I will NOT discuss the relative safety of this or just how abundant gas is or even what developing gas resources could do the local economies,  I want folks to think about a couple of even simpler things that few folks have mentioned. First, if “we” really need a cleaner energy source to avert a climate catastrophe it is abhorrent to see the knee-jerk anti-development sentiment surrounding natural gas. While natural gas is, itself, methane, a greenhouse gas known to be 20 times more “greenhousy” than Carbon Dioxide, when it combusts it breaks down into carbon dioxide and a few other things. We know that burning natural gas as fuel, instead of burning coal or oil, is much cleaner for the environment. In other words, per BTU of energy generated, natural gas releases much less harmful stuff into the air. For every million BTU of energy generated from gas 117 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced while for oil that figure is 160 pounds and for coal that figure is 200 pounds. When was the last time you saw a fractivist (my term for them) say anything about what natural gas fuels would be replacing? As always, to be a good economist or a good environmentalist the question that has to be asked is, “compared to what?” So even if fracking does have some negative side effects (again which I will not get into here), pure utilitarian calculations have to weight the net costs of using gas with the net costs of using more carbon intensive fossil fuels. I would argue that gas is cleaner under almost any conceivable arrangement. What the fractivists seem to be arguing is this:

“before fracking, the world was pristine and pure, and fracking is a bit of an ugly procedure, so we should not allow it.”

This is, of course, not right.

Second, here is a government energy web-site directed at educating children:

Many of the areas that are now being explored and developed for natural gas production are relatively pristine and or are wilderness areas, and development of these areas have large impacts on the area’s environment, wildlife, and human populations.

There is absolutely no evidence presented for any of this, nor do I think folks would care. The same exact point applies to wind, solar, biomass and other “green” energy sources. In fact, one virtue of fracking is its relatively small “footprint” as compared to other new energy sources (the same is true of oil, which has an incredibly small footprint). So “E”nvironmentalists don’t think that needing solar panels the size of the state of Delaware to power the US has any impact whatsoever, but putting a well is akin to paving over pristine wilderness? Here is an image from a non-friendly site. Tell me how that compares to growing millions of acres of corn, or “planting” silicon panels on millions of acres of land?

Here is another quote similar in spirit:

“When geologists explore for natural gas deposits on land, they may have to disturb vegetation and soils with their vehicles. A gas well on land may require a road and clearing and leveling an area to make a drill pad. Well drilling activities produce air pollution and may disturb wildlife. Pipelines are needed to transport the gas from the wells, and this usually requires clearing land to bury the pipe. Natural gas production can also result in the production of large volumes of contaminated water.

Ahh, right. So when we erect windmills all around rural America, no vegetation (or bats or birds) or soils are disturbed. And of course, no new electric lines are needed, and those non-lines that are not needed to get electricity from North Dakota to Cleveland certainly do not require any clearing of land. And there are certainly no roads that have to be built to any other “blessed” technology. Again, see point #1 above. It is really an infantile line of argument to say, “well, we cannot frack, because to do so requires, you know, someone to actually be there doing the fracking.” Incredibly, that sort of argument really does persuade people these days.

Now look, there is certainly a possibility that fracking will spell the end of the world. But remember, we are being told that the end of civilization is looming from our use of oil and coal, and now when we have a marginal improvement right on our doorstep, and an improvement that also respects this quaint idea, and one that is very good for local economies, it is being dismissed out of hand. I had the pleasure of watching an actor say this to Keith Olberman the other day, “This is an industry that is the dirtiest, slimiest, most arrogant, and negligent that you can imagine.”  Maybe it is, but I’ve seen this same actor give several speeches and the most he can get himself to say is, “you know, we have other technologies and they are better and more cost-effective than they (who they is, he never says) are letting on.” Oh yes, wind and solar are just so cheap and it is the influence of the oil and frackin companies that are preventing Americans, who are famous for wanting more for less and for getting stuff cheaply, from making those choices. These are the same Americans who are chided by “E”nvironmentalists and authors for buying “too many toasters” because they are now so darn cheap.

And remember, that for many of the renewable and green fuels that we apparently are just around the corner from using, we still need some backup or perhaps even base-load generating capabilities from them. And the candidates for those sources: coal, oil and gas. I don’t see the Fractivists in Albany waving around pictures of this:

Because, you know, mountaintop removal of coal doesn’t really impact the landscape as much as a some steel and some trucks for a gas well. Well, maybe the chance for contamination of water with oil drilling is smaller than for gas? I don’t see fractivists waving this picture around:

But they should. Because this is the sort of thing that natural gas would be supplementing and hopefully replacing. But let’s not be bothered by asking the most basic question of all – as compared to what – let’s just look at each way we use the planet on a case by case basis and condemn any and all uses that do anything to it.

And just some food for thought – suppose the claims of the fractivists are 100% correct, and they may be. After all, it is pretty compelling to see a glass of drinking water being waved around that looks more like liquid vaseline than it does water. I’ve never seen a study that shows the extent of the damage. And I’ve never seen a single study that does any cost-benefit about it. This might sound awful, but if 10 guys’ wells are contaminated because of a poorly constructed gas well (again, I am just granting all of the fractivist points, they are by no means unassailable in any way) that does not tell me the fracking should be stopped. And yes, I understand property rights issues, there certainly is a role for regulators to make sure people are made whole and that the gas companies clean the water up …

And think about this – who do these fractivists think they are for telling farmers what they can or cannot do on their land (again, contamination and property rights issues notwithstanding)? For many farmers, the chance to obtain royalties from gas leases is a godsend, indeed it might be what enables them to continue farming.

And that brings me to one final observation. You’ll see those No Frack signs all over western, NY. Our family drives a lot around New York State – for pleasure. And we probably saw more No Fracking signs on what is known as the “Bluff” of Keuka Lake than in any other place in New York. The bluff is the piece of land between the two forks of this wonderful lake. Many of the homes are spectacular, and the place is generally one of the more attractive places to have a vacation home in this part of the world. I swear that every fifth house had a no Fracking sign on it as we meandered through the other day. I found this interesting for two reasons.

(1) I couldn’t help but be amazed at how elitist it all felt. Here are these very well off people telling other people that they cannot obtain the means to get rich themselves. Yeah, I know, they truly were worried about spoiling their little plots of land up on this nice lake. Anyone from around the area should go up there – I highly doubt that any fracking would happen near that bluff, again which I found odd.

(2) Point (1) may be stupid, even though it is still resonating with me like this does.  But this point is most certainly notstupid. Many of the No Frack signs were in yards with cars that had stickers like “Buy Local” on them, which I found to be ironic. But what is more ironic is that the Keuka Lake bluff sits just south of a huge belt of farmland, including many large dairy farms. Did it ever dawn on the fine folks from the bluff that despite their cuteness, those cows posed a much larger risk to the global environment AND most certainly to the Keuka Lake that they love so dearly than any amount of fracking in the area could ever pose? Do they realize that cattle are responsible for nearly 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted across the entire world? Do they realize that runoff from farms is perhaps the most serious risk to watersheds like the Keuka Lake watershed? Yet I have never in my entire life seen a sign that says, “No Cows.” Never.

Really then, what exactly is it that the fractivists want?

17 Responses to “What Do the Fractivists Want?”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    GREAT post! Gonna link to it tomorrow. See this I posted a few weeks ago, on topic: http://bit.ly/lrdgzW

  2. Rod says:

    Speedmaster, I like your blog!

    I have seen news clips of the same family showing news reporters their contaminated well — sort of like Fox News showing the same oil-soaked Pelican over and over after the BP spill. If fracking causes so much water well pollution, one would think there would be news reports of the hundreds or thousands of affected property owners. All the better to win the argument. Instead, there are very many anti-fracking signs, and many of those are identical (indicative of a single source that’s paying for them).

    The truth is that northern Pennsylvania is booming economically, and that nearly everyone up there is tickled pink that the farmers who have toiled in a cold climate for so long are finally the beneficiaries of this modern-day gold rush.

    As for cows being the source of 20 percent of the greenhouse gases, I find this statement to be libelous to cows. I will take up their cause, however: I will hire a slip-and-fall law firm to advertise on television for cows to join in a class-action lawsuit.

    Dairy farms everywhere are being whipsawed by a business cycle that has been shortened by the sexing of semen: one can now impregnate cattle with semen that has a 90 percent chance of producing heifers instead of bulls. Thus the population of cows can increase quicker than it might have thirty years ago, and overproduction of milk invariably coincides with higher prices for feed. The federal government sets milk prices according to the price of manufacturing milk in Minnesota and Wisconsin, a formula that is inherently disconnected from the costs and risks of producing milk near Lake Keuka. The moral of this story is that it won’t be long before those dairy farms that could pollute Lake Keuka are gone. Al Gore would explain this in terms of Gaia ridding itself of an environmental disease.

  3. Speedmaster says:

    Thanks, Rod. Wintercow is my muse. 😉

  4. Joe says:

    This is an excellent post that summarizes plenty of flaws in the hydrofracking debate. I’m half tempted to create lawn signs that say “Everything He Knows About Fracking came from Watching Gasland” with a left or right arrow aimed at the No Fracking sign next door.

    I broke down and watched Gasland a month ago. In the end, the only evidence he found was several wells with really bad water, and they were possibly caused by improper drilling. This is too bad, and having lived on well water for many years, I can certainly sympathize with those residents. Losing a well is an expensive calamity for a rural resident. However, even if it was proven that all these wells (10 perhaps?) were damaged by drilling, it seems like an awfully small amount of damage given the 20,000+ drilling sites that supposedly exist from NY to Colorado.

    Those familiar with wells know that a good well today is not necessarily a permanent state. On a rural road in Honeoye Falls, a large gravel pit opened, and several functioning wells within ¼ mile dried up. Those residents were certainly not happy, but no campaign to ban gravel pits was ever started to the best of my knowledge. And some wells go bad for no apparent reason whatsoever.

    Maybe we should blame climate change for those.

  5. Harry says:

    Having extensive practical experience with the transportation and distribution of natural gas, from wellhead to stove, I can say definitively that pipelines and gas companies, at least the big ones are obsessed with safety and good maintenance. That actor, whoever he is, has slandered them.

    Speaking of buying local, what is better for a New Yorker — to buy gas from Utica or from Liberal, Kansas? (All other things being equal)

    My take is that the frackophobes are more interested in promoting socialism than they are in the environment, and that is why they willfully ignore Wintercow’s point about complete combustion as being clean.

    Today I heard a guy on PBS blame Mexican poverty on Capitalist Agribusiness, which had killed the fish with fertilizer and thus had caused Mexico’s state farms to fail and cause migration across the US border. He also blamed US fossil fuel use for the latest ten years of drought in Afghanistan, said high fuel prices were good, said that soon we would have to rely on wind and solar and HYDRO.

    The hydroelectric part threw me, since I thought that had been pretty farly built out already.

  6. Speedmaster says:

    Joe, I blame “Big Gravel.”

  7. Harry says:

    A question: if cows are responsible for 20% of greenhouse gases, how come they do not get a blue ribbon for saving the planet from being as cold as the moon (dark side)?

    Not that methane, if it did not oxidize naturally, would not be a problem. Indeed it is a problem in Appalachian flyover country, where many wells already contain methane; this accounts for the stories of people lighting a fire at the spigot with a lit Marlboro.

    I would add that not all environmentalists are Fracophobes, or socialists, but some Fracophobes are socialists and some of them do not care much about the environment, unless it suits their design.

  8. Harry says:

    One problem is that they do not care about ignorance or contradictions.

    By the way, I used the word “socialist” the same as Hayek, not intending an ad hominem argument, but to refer to the right people.

    And Speedmaster, you are a master of quickly getting to the point.

    We all are waiting for someone from the Frackophobe community to disagree. Where are you, Dr. Frakenstein?

  9. Harry says:

    You were not around for it, wintercow, the heyday of SDS, Bill Ayers and the Weather people. I was not in the middle of the action, nor were people at Amherst. The overt revolution was on the west coast, but soon people would be making bombs and blowing themselves up in Greenwich Village. I was in the company of people who wanted violent revolution to establish their socialist vision and to adolescently destroy America, which they hated, and told the rest of the world about it as they went on summer vacations to Europe.

    Charles Manson, not that smart but smart enough to figure out that revolutionary politics combined with drugs could get him laid, fell right in with this messianic philosophy. It took murder to have the academy briefly to question the course they were following. They flipped in, then flipped out. Bill Ayers became an education teacher, moved into a place on the south side of Chicago, and spent years making people stupid.

    Now they are in charge.

  10. Michael says:

    Geez, I don’t now why we have to do all this drilling and stuff. Look, I can get all the power I want from these little holes in the wall. (Some people actually believe this.)

  11. chuck martel says:

    But these same folks bought a lot near pristine Keuka Lake, had an ugly hole dug for the basement and connection to city water and sewer, displacing many species from their native habitat, had favorite perches for songbirds cut to make room for their homes and paved over the playground of the earthworms for an apron for their garage. But, that’s OK, once they’re established, we forget about all the wilderness they themselves made extinct.

  12. […] Last week, we attempted to understand what exactly the folks who are opposed to Natural Gas Fracking were really opposed to. I came down on the side that they simply didn’t want to see any energy development, nor the prospect of anyone getting rich just by having the good fortune to own property on top of a gas field. […]

  13. […] million BTUs of energy cost 1/5 of what they did when the new millenium started. Where are all the bumper stickers? We here at the UnbrokenWindow understand that greed is always around us, not generally increasing […]

  14. […] do I bring this up? Because the Precautionary Principle has been invoked when it comes to Fracking. There has been a moratorium on new leases for fracking in New York since 2008, and it has to this […]

  15. […] friends a place to have beers over the weekend. I have no such needs. I would have advised him to ask this fractivist a single […]

  16. […] here is my question to the fractivists, who are the paragons of science: comparing the 5+ million gallons of fresh water that are used to […]

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