Sunday, November 7, 2010

Shale Drilling and the Bogeyman

I arrived home this evening after a somewhat late dinner with my wife to find my Sunday New York Times sitting on my porch (it wasn't that late of a dinner). I perused it quickly (sports first, business second) and found an article about the Haynesville Shale on the first page of the business section.

The article is not terribly enlightening to anyone who follows shale drilling, but it draws an interesting (although somewhat incomplete) parallel between the relative comfort that Louisianans (and Texans) have with gas drilling compared to the fear that residents of Pennsylvania feel.  Interestingly, the article failed to point out that while there has been gas drilling in Louisiana for the past 100 years, there actually has been gas drilling in Pennsylvania for the past 151 years.

After an election cycle filled with fear-mongering, fear seems to be the dominant currency of public expression.  Fill people with feelings of uncertainty and dread and they will become an army of cooperative minions.  That has been the model in the Northeast, where people are deathly afraid of hydraulic fracturing because they think it will ruin their drinking water and kill their pets.  These fears are ironic given the terrible surface and groundwater pollution that coal mines have caused in the region for generations.

I scratch my head about this all the time.  Why do they get so worked up about gas drilling when coal mining is so much worse?  Last week, I was watching a special about the history of Halloween when it struck me that the big difference is the Bogeyman.  The Bogeyman became a common device used to generate irrational fear in an audience.  Concepts can be scary, but when you can focus on one particular person or thing - the Bogeyman - you amplify the fear exponentially.

In this case, hydraulic fracturing is the Bogeyman for the natural gas industry, while coal mining doesn't seem to have one.   It's easy to point to fracking as the evil, even when you can't substantiate that fracking has ever caused any environmental damage.  With coal, there may be this amorphous cloud of evil, but there's no handle, no foothold, nothing to grasp.  With fracking, you've got something on which to hang your proverbial hat.  Even the word "fracking" sounds evil and dangerous.  Clearly it was not coined by the marketing and PR department.

I don't offer any solutions at this late hour, only observations.  Just mind the Bogeyman - his bark is definitely worse than his bite.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Eloquent and accurate.

Joe said...

Robert,
You are spot on with this! Clearly the influence of the Coal industry, whose union jobs are threatened by a clean burning fuel, has done a fantastic job of putting the Boogyman face on well stimulation. It really bothers me that certain groups put a spin on the truth to convince the public that pumping a harmless liquid slurry in a well can be more hazardous than putting dozens of men in a hole a half a mile deep into the side of a mountain.

Robert Hutchinson said...

Thanks. Don't forget all the tailings and contaminated water from coal mines. Or the gas that escapes and gets in groundwater. I wonder why people bitch and moan about the potential for fracking to cause groundwater contamination when the coal industry has ruining drinking water (groundwater and surface water) for generations!

I sometimes feel paranoid that the coal industry is secretly behind the anti-fracking folks, but then I wonder if they would be that crazy and hypocritical. You know that their lobbyists are whispering false propaganda in the ears of our elected officials. At least if they get caught being the hypocrite nobody will be surprised.

Rich said...

Mountaintop Mining???

Robert Hutchinson said...

Mountaintop mining? Oh, that little thing? At least the EPA has taken action, although they are catching tons of flack for it. Expect more pressure in SUPPORT of mountaintop removal in the new Congress. What little intestinal fortitude was mustered in favor of natural gas in coal country was beaten back in the November elections. Score a big win for coal. One step forward, two steps back.

There has been some outcry about mountaintop removal from the environmental set, but I guess since it's being done in West Virginia, the folks in the Pennsylvania and New York either don't notice or don't care.

The Sierra Club has been outspoken on the subject, but since the national organization can't even corral its local chapters on the subject of fracking, its voice has been diluted somewhat.