The Rest of the Shale

I understand that we have to at least think about all our options for energy as we move forward and oil becomes more expensive and scarce. It is only a matter of logic that if humanity survives long enough we will have to find and develop renewable sources of energy, so it is easy to make the case that we should be focusing on that now. Still, I realize there are plenty of interests that want to make sure we exploit all of the finite sources we have so that we can squeeze as much profit out of them as we can, and who believe that is the only way to get enough energy.I also understand that each of us, and that includes me, will–either consciously, unconsciously, or both, out of ideology, ignorance, or both–selectively use facts and evidence to make our case. So, since David Brooks today made his case for the expansion of use of natural gas from shale as one solution to our energy woes, I feel obliged to provide what I see as the other side of the story, or the rest of the story.
Brooks cites much from John Rowe, who he identifies as the CEO of Exelon, to support his position. Exelon generates most of its power from nuclear energy; it is the largest producer in the country. They also produce a great deal of energy from natural gas, so one could question his objectivity about it as an energy source. I also found it interesting that on the Exelon corporation’s home page there is featured a nice drawing of a field with windmills as far as the eye can see. So they understand that at least from a PR standpoint, pushing their “green” bonifides, such as they are, is the way to go. Brooks tells us that Rowe “says that shale gas is one of the most important energy revolutions of his lifetime.” Later in the column, Brooks calls Rowe “one of the most trusted people in the energy business.” Any environmental problems with fracking, which is the process used to get the natural gas from the shale, Brooks dismisses by saying “A few sloppy companies could discredit the whole sector.”
Exelon and Rowe have been a recent convert to shale gas because it has become cheaper to produce than nuclear power, which has been the company’s bread and butter. (And if they don’t get in on the game, another energy company will.) And like many (if not all) an energy company executive before him, Rowe has been a significant player in political contributions, to both parties, which is how they do it. Not mentioned in the Brooks column are the fines Exelon has paid for violating environmental laws. Also see here, here, and here. I guess I’m just wondering who it is that so trusts Exelon and John Rowe (who is retiring soon as his Exelon merges with another energy giant).
The other big piece of evidence that Brooks cites to support his position is a report from MIT that says that the environmental record of shale gas is for the most part a good one. He doesn’t link to the report, and it can be found here. What Brooks is either unaware of or chose not to mention was a study by Cornell that had very different findings than the MIT study, finding that shale gas may actually have a greater greenhouse gas impact than oil. The whole debate about shale gas played out quite extensively in the newspaper that Brooks writes for, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that his column was too short to mention any evidence that challenged his premise. it makes for some interesting reading if you’re interested. Just follow the links. Also not mentioned is the Times expose on internal emails from the natural gas industry trying to spin the whole thing to their advantage. Unlike Climategate, there may be something here.
Brooks christens shale gas from fracking as a “blessing” to America. I guess it may be. It just seems that it is a complex issue with more than one side and a lot of evidence for different points of view. And I don’t think we should simply take as unquestioned gospel the view of an industry CEO with obvious interest in making it look good .
I’m also troubled by the ease with which he downplays other (beyond greenhouse gases–though unlike most of his conservative fellows he can at least write those words seriously) environmental problems with shale gas and fracking, particularly groundwater contamination. I would love to watch “Gasland” with David Brooks. “Gasland” is a film by Josh Fox that was nominated for best documentary at last year’s Academy Awards. It provides a history of fracking focusing on its effects in Fox’s own community, and features a much highlighted scene where a resident sets his tap water on fire because so much gas has gotten into the groundwater due to fracking for natural gas. Fox had to weather a propaganda counter-offensive by the industry that was about as intense as the health insurance industry’s attack on Michael Moore when his film Sicko came out (an attack well-documented by whistle blower Wendell Potter, a former health insurance company executive, is his important book “Deadly Spin”).
My point is not that we should or shouldn’t use natural gas or use fracking to get it out of the earth. My point is rather that we should not simply take the industry’s word for it and call it a blessing (after all, they are the ones who will profit). We should look closely at all sides of the issue and try to come up with the best solution for the short-term and long-term sustainable energy needs of the country.

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About JP

We're two guys who met in college, in 1980. We've stayed in touch, and like to talk politics, current events, music and religion. JP is nore liberal than Sid, but not in every way. We figure that dialogue stimulates ideas, moderates perspective, and is in general friendly. These are things we need badly in these dangerous times. The blog name is taken from a song by Bruce Cockburn.
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