Phil-osophically Speaking: August 4, 2011

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Finding and Refining Energy Resources

Fric or Frac — that is the question. I’m going with frac as in fracking. Never heard of it? If you’re sick of sky-high gas and oil prices it pays to familiarize yourself with the technology. Fracking is the hydraulic process that involves pumping water, sand and traces of chemicals under high pressure into a completed wellbore to penetrate geological formations such as shale. The resulting fissures allow oil or natural gas to flow into the well. By drilling at depths often two miles below the earth’s surface, this ingenious method has unlocked vast stores of natural gas. With natural gas deposits in New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone containing more BTUs of energy than the oil reserves in all of Saudi Arabia, and the Rocky Mountains containing another 70 percent of recoverable oil shale that lies beneath federal land, it would seem we hit the energy jackpot as well as an avenue to create thousands of high paying jobs.

It’s the nature of democracy to stir up controversy and debate. At the outset of Constitutional government in this country there were the Federalist and Anti-Federalist contingents. Today, we have the frackers and the anti-frackers. The anti-frackers, as you might have guessed, are violently opposed to the new drilling technology because of their concerns for the environment. The EPA, true to their job-killing legacy, will probably come out against it and retard progress for years. Most of the reasons for opposing fracking run the gamut from the ridiculous to the absurd.

Anti-frackers claim that the technology could blow up your house by igniting the water from your faucet into some kind of firebomb; or its toxicity could poison the water supply, or create greenhouse gasses and even cause earthquakes. As we’ve learned from the recent scare about our local water supply being contaminated with bacteria and E. coli, it doesn’t take much to stampede the herd. The overreaction from that episode is being played out in the same fashion with fracking. People are consulting their fears and little else. Yet, as far as I can determine, the only legitimate concern regarding fracking is the massive volumes of water that it uses. This usage has severely taxed drinking water aquifers, but this problem has virtually been overcome by shifting to water sources not used for drinking such as recycling wastewater after treatment. Nevertheless, Congress has directed the EPA to do impact studies on the effect that fracking has on drinking water, which is scheduled to appear sometime in 2012. Some may view this as a prudent measure since, as Confucius once said, anything done quickly is not done thoroughly.  But as a subaltern to this aphorism, I will submit that anything done in a partisan fashion is not done equitably or truthfully.

Part of the problem in selling this technology is in the packaging. Fracking is such a harsh and barbaric sounding word. What tone-deaf linguist thought up that neologism? Fracking sounds like something the Huns and Visigoths did when raping and pillaging the civilized world. Couldn’t these entrepreneurs come up with a more sonorous and mellifluous sounding term that is not so lexicographically grotesque? Then again, these are oil tycoons and not the committee that translated the King James Bible into deathless prose. Nor are people in the industry helped by the “Drill baby drill” crowd. The phrasing has such an anti-intellectual ring; a mindless mantra that signifies a bunch of hyperventilating, gluttonous slobs with no concern for anything but their own insatiable appetites.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere surrounding the fracking study is rife with suspicions that the EPA is excluding anyone with professional expertise in the industry; that the federal agency will do forensic analysis only on a few troubled wells out of the hundreds of thousands that have been maintained safely and effectively. The old truism about government becoming an interest group on its own behalf rather than for the people it is supposed to protect is once again coming to fruition. Whether the EPA study is already a fait accompli I’m not prepared to say, but it will be the height of folly to reach a pre-determined conclusion on a process that could feed and nourish an energy hungry world. Fracking isn’t free of risk nor should it be advertised as such. But we should not ignore the enormous opportunities it presents for manumitting ourselves from the shackles of oil shortages and the despotism of oligarchies who exploit it for their own enrichment.  With this source of energy at our fingertips we can finally, over time, escape the crushing burden of oil prices with this innovation, which will result in new jobs and increased revenues through private rather than public investment.

Few things have been said more times and with so little effect than that energy is the “life-blood” of a modern, industrial economy. As the economies of China and India (as well as so many other parts of the globe) become more complex and diversified, the greater their need for black gold. It’s foolish beyond measure to adopt policies that inhibit exploration and development, making gas and oil and having nations at each other’s throats. In 1798, Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population in which he predicted recurring bouts with global starvation and disease to keep the population in check. Malthus believed that food supply grows arithmetically but the population grows geometrically. From this harsh calculation, Malthus formulated what he believed to be an ironclad law: “That the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apex of the Industrial Revolution:  the food supply accelerated much faster than the world’s population. While the global population grew fourfold in the 20th century, the supply of food increased nearly 19 fold. What prevailed over the Malthusian imperative was the energy revolution — the advances in energy derived from oil. Energy is indispensable to a growing and expanding world; it’s the Holy Grail of agronomics. Finding and refining energy sources (including nuclear power) must be a priority, but in a world sensitive and mindful of the environment, it should be advanced tactfully rather than zealously.

 Despite the anti-frackers paltering the truth with nullities and falsities that fetter winged ankles with chains, Governor Cuomo of New York is seriously considering proceeding with hydrofracking in areas along the Southern Tier of New York, provided there is strict regulatory oversight. It’s the right move at the right time.

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