by Jimmy

One Saturday, my six-year-old daughter woke up and crawled into bed with me. Enjoying not getting up at 5 a.m., I ignored her until she said “Daddy, my throat hurts, my head hurts, and my tummy hurts.” I rolled over thinking, Shit. What’s wrong?

“Does your throat hurt inside or outside?”

“Outside.”

“OK, let me feel under your jaw.” She lay there quietly as I felt the glands under her jawbone. They seemed a little swollen, the way mine feel when I get sick. Neither of my kids get sick very often, so I figured my daughter wasn’t faking. “OK, honey, thanks. You can go get dressed now.”

“I’m going to put on a turtleneck for my throat,” she said, and walked out of the room. She did not ask to watch TV. Hmmmmmm.

I rolled over, weighing whether I should go back to sleep. Wretching from my daughter’s bedroom answered for me. I jumped up, my daughter meeting me at the doorway.

“I puked.”

“That’s ok, baby. Go to the bathroom.” She turned around, trotted into the bathroom, puked a couple more times, and then walked past me while I cleaned up her room. She finished dressing. “You feel better?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Can I watch cartoons?”

A rare event: My daughter sleeping on my chest. No crummies in her tummy.

A rare event: My daughter sleeping on my chest. No crummies in her tummy.

I’m no doctor, at least not the medical kind, and I couldn’t help but wonder if her illness was somehow connected to gas drilling. A few years ago, I would have wondered what disastrous bug was upon us, like when she spent a long night trooping in and out of the bathroom with a stomach bug. Should we call the doctor? She kicked the bug in 24 hours. I kicked it in five days. That event was BNG—Before Natural Gas. Now, I see my kids’ health ANG—After Natural Gas. That changes things.

I’m sure my reaction will seem hysterical to some people, a term we usually save for women who question things we don’t want to hear (see Rachel Carson). This place seems cleaner, less dusty and brittle, than it has in a couple of years, partly due to the cleansing power of winter’s snow and partly due to the slow down in drilling activity.  Even though I don’t believe the industry has affected my kids’ health (at least, not yet), I’m amazed at the power of this impulse within me every time one of my kids complains now of an upset tummy or a headache. In the U.S., we have a terrible record of protecting our kids from environmental toxins. Researchers determine the toxicity of chemicals based on adults, not kids, and we now know that kids are more susceptible to toxic crap than adults. And few tests are done on fetal effects or whether toxins cross the placenta. That’s further complicated by the fact that kids develop physically over many years. For instance, our brains stop developing in our early twenties. Anything that affects development early affects development later. It’s like starting up a long hill on a bike in too big a gear and out of breath—you won’t fully recover. You’ll be a long way behind everyone else.

I’m amazed at the power of a culture that values the rational so damn highly. I’m a guy. I’m expected to be rational, to control my emotions. Back when I climbed a lot, my climbing partners appreciated the fact that I didn’t get flustered when shit turned bad. I could keep my act together, like when Lilace and I got caught in a lightning storm at Lovers Leap too far off the ground to get down safely with one rope. I led a pitch in the rain, belayed her as she climbed up to and then past me to the top. I untied and yelled at her to pull up the rope and run for it while I finished the climb. The climbing was easy, but the lightning and the rain made it nerve-wracking. When I popped onto the top, I saw she had left me a coiled rope. Badass, especially since she was seven months pregnant with our son. She doesn’t freak either.

Lilace doesn’t freak about the kids’ health as much as I do. I walked downstairs and told her about our daughter’s puke episode. She looked up from her book, “She probably picked up another strain of the crap that’s going around.” Back to reading.

But.

I know some of my fears are rational. I know that environmental causes of illness exist. There are too many books out there, too much research, for anyone rational to believe otherwise. I see my kids’ health through the terms of these books. I see their health through the experience of watching my eight-year-old cousin die of childhood brain stem glioma (benign) when I was around fourteen. (My eleven-year-old brother would not go into my aunt’s house for a long time after Sarah died there.) To my great comfort, my family has a history of living long lives, especially the women. My Aunt Mary is 102. My great-grandmother died at 98, my Dad’s Dad at 93, my Dad’s Mom at 92, my Mom’s Mom at 91 (and she had diabetes). I see my kids’ health through that lens, too, and I want my kids to get the same chance as Aunt Mary, Nana, Papa, and Nanny.

A few weeks ago, I read “The Lorax” to my daughter’s class at school. As happens every time I read that story, I breathed deeply through the first few pages, trying to control the hitch in my voice as fifteen wide-eyed kindergartners listened, entranced by the story. (Guys don’t cry, right? Especially not in front of kids. It ain’t rational.) I fought my default question of “What are we doing to y’all?” by focusing on the way Seuss changes the background colors over the arc of the story from yellows and greens to grays and blacks, moving from playful to somber, hope to despair, finally landing on hope: Unless. About the time the Whisper-ma-Phone slupped down, I found my groove, trading comments with the kids (one little guy in glasses said, “I really like your beard”) and marveling at how “Thneed” sounds so whiny, like the gas industry when someone proposes regulations they don’t like. I finished, my daughter gave me a hug, and the kids clapped and thanked me in that sing-song chirp of five- and six-year-olds. I left the class abuzz, charged on the energy of kids in the hall laughing about stories they had heard earlier as they got into lines to go wash up for lunch.

Seuss was brilliant enough to put his fears of dirty air and water and destroyed forests in a story that ends hopefully. Plant the seed! Water it! Grow that truffula tree!

We value kids. This I know. We show it in different ways, from hugs to elaborate birthday parties to praising their efforts at building or drawing or writing to steering them away from maguro at the sushi bar. Somehow, we need to translate these daily acts of valuing to a larger context, like when the camera close-up of a racing cyclist zooms out to encompass the entire race. But even that macro shot may not be large enough, though we have taken the long view before when we stopped using DDT, PCBs, and lead-based paint. We need more of those seeds.

But how rational is it to plant seeds in a National Sacrifice Zone? This is the question I ask myself.

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by Jimmy

Not surprisingly, the gas industry has its own lobbying groups or cheerleading squads or whatever you want to call them. Two prominent ones are the Marcellus Shale Coalition and Energy in Depth. That these groups exist is not news, given the long-standing American tradition of pumping money into groups to argue for particular political, social, or economic outcomes. Such groups are a fact of life, like getting slower on the bike. But lobbyists like MSC and EID pollute the waters of good information. One way they do this is through red, white, and bluewashing.

MSC is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and its board and members are people employed by the gas industry and associated businesses. Its spokesperson is Kathryn Klaber, who is widely quoted throughout PA in the press. MSC maintains a slick website that contains a lot of information about gas drilling. I’ve learned a lot there. The main page states:

 The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) works with exploration and production, midstream, and supply chain partners in the Appalachian Basin and across the country to address issues regarding the production of clean, job-creating, American natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale plays.

We provide in-depth information to policymakers, regulators, media, and other public stakeholders on the positive impacts responsible natural gas production is having on families, businesses, and communities across the region.

These statements frame natural gas development favorably. Again, no surprise, but you don’t have to push too hard on the language to begin to see cracks. For starters, MSC addresses “issues” about developing the resource of natural gas. “Issues” implies that there are, well, issues with gas drilling, and that questions surround the development of gas, the answers to which may not always be good. Yet, in the next statement, MSC explains that they are interested in providing “in-depth information” about the “positive impacts” of natural gas production. Now, when I have issues with something that means I have questions. I’ve never had an issue with anything that I saw only as “positive.” But MSC glides right over the issue part of “issues” and heads straight for “positive impacts.” It’s a crafty move, and one I would mark in any first year composition paper I read, because it’s sloppy.

Drill rig flying Old Glory.

Drill rig flying Old Glory.

I wonder how MSC can give “In-depth information” when they focus only on the “positive impacts” of gas development. When I encounter in-depth information, it usually includes good and bad, and parts that are not settled and may even be controversial. In depth means everything. When information excludes the negative, I see that information as compromised or incomplete, because, as much as I may wish otherwise, most “issues” are complex. MSC flushes the nuance out of their information by focusing on the positive. Things aren’t usually all positive or all negative. Life don’t work that way.

Partly, MSC fills these cracks by wrapping itself in the flag. I love how “clean, job-creating, American natural gas” echoes the industry’s most prominent selling points for developing the Marcellus. Environmentally sound? Check. Economically sound? Check. Patriotically sound? Hell, yeah. Those five words serve as shorthand for, as we have been told over and over, all that is righteous about gas.

Many of us know better than to buy what MSC is selling, but such language has a way of shading the public conversation about natural gas. Energy is a complex issue, and focusing only on the “positive” aspects oversimplifies the issue while admitting that there are issues. I should use that kind of logic when I think about my teaching.

I am not a perfect teacher, and I know it. I constantly analyze my classes, ask students what they are learning, read articles and books about teaching writing, and share my writing projects with students to help them understand that writing is not easy for anyone. Students see me make errors. In one exercise on style this past semester, a student found an error in a page of my dissertation, announced it in class and then, he said later, on Facebook. I laughed, proud of him for catching the error and willing to point it out. It was a “teachable moment” that led to serious discussion about the difficulty of writing well. I also made a mental note to mark every single error I could find in his papers. Like I said, I’m not perfect.

Now, I should be careful here, and not equate “positive” with “perfect,” but the thinking is similar—ignore anything that may cast aspersions on me or my work or my actions. Thinking positive all the time can distract us from looking at serious problems. (Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about the problems of focusing on the positive. Her take? Looking at the bright side all the time means that we often don’t call bullshit when we should.) If I created my own little lobbying group called the Best Educator EveR, or BEER, a group who excluded all comments questioning or criticizing my teaching while gushing about my awesomeness, then I would become a less effective teacher and threaten the learning opportunities for my students. Hearing only the positive, the students and I would lose perspective on what really occurs in the classroom. I would like to assume that my teaching works well and meets all my students’ needs all the time, but I know it doesn’t. Education is too complicated. Too many variables. Same with gas drilling and production. I would love nothing more than to know that gas drilling impacts are always positive. But that’s not the case.

The Netherlands are in Bradford County, right?

The Netherlands are in Bradford County, right?

I appreciate MSC telling me up front that they are not interested in reporting anything negative, because it tells me that they are not considering carefully any evidence that might challenge the story of gas they build through their rhetoric. That’s sloppy thinking, unscientific, the kind of poor analysis I hammer my students (and myself) on all the time. But MSC is not paid to think carefully, except for the way that they spin evidence to maximize the goals of the gas industry. They do it well, celebrating anything that puts gas drilling in a positive light while challenging anything that questions their rosy world view of gas drilling and wrapping it all in the flag. That is red, white, and bluewashing.

Red, white, and bluewashing shuts down discussion or possibilities. It focuses attention on a part, on what our reactions might be as loyal, smart Americans, not the whole. It takes the complex and makes it appear simple while calling to mind deeply held beliefs about our country. Because of this tendency, the academic in me claims red, white, and bluewashing is unethical. It uses language in ways that asserts certainty where none exists, using patriotic impulses to divert our perceptions. The dude in me who lives here calls red, white, and bluewashing bullshit, because it leads to confusion and uncertainty by injecting misleading information into the bedrock of the communities. It fractures them, like shale, and I’m convinced it’s intentional, a sort of PR frack drilled from two well-funded well pads. I have never lived in a place where I experienced so much day-to-day confusion about so many things, admittedly not all of it coming from the gas industry. I believe that when it comes to our day-to-day muddling along, the more we know the better. Our sense of security comes from accurate information, and our lives depend on it. Knowing more helps us see more possibilities, more options, which helps us make better decisions. Knowing more can get maddening—sometimes I just want to make a decision dammit—but my best decisions come from knowing a lot about, say, my teaching. Or shale gas drilling.

Nothing would suit the gas industry more than to have a bunch of Americans waving the flag in a sacrifice zone. It’s a unifying image that would make the industry’s work easier. That the communities are split over the gas works well for the industry, too, because people spend time arguing with each other, rather than clearly understanding the issues. What the industry doesn’t want: communities unified against them—see New York. So the MSCs and the EIDs construct a language that spews the story they want and to hell with the evidence. Unfortunately, by looking only at the positive, the cheerleaders create an illusion of red, white, and blue goodness that poisons knowledge like thermogenic methane contaminates water.

Then there’s the question of who’s really the patriot here. MSC’s Board Members and Associate Members are made up of American companies and companies from the Netherlands (Shell), Norway (Staoil), Talisman (Canada), Japan (Mitsui Oil Exploration), and France (UGI Corporation and Schlumberger). Then there’s the push to export gas, touted on MSC’s site, since it’s worth around four bucks here but fourteen bucks elsewhere. The story keeps changing—“energy independence!” to “patriots export!”—depending on which way the economic winds blow.

Patriots indeed.

by Jimmy

I rolled down our snow-covered drive to Ore Bed Rd. on the Mocha Stout and headed left to meet Tom for a couple of hours of winter cruising. Snowflakes blew northeast as I pedaled through slushy snow, past a Budweiser can, a goat chewing his cud, and a couple of shaggy horses crunching hay. The temps were mid-thirties, and I wished I had remembered my fenders as cold, muddy water and cinders flew onto my feet, legs, ass, and into my face. Wet mid-thirties rides are the coldest: snow melt soaks you, challenging the limits of high-tech clothing to keep you warm. You bake on climbs and freeze on descents, and your fingers freeze while sweat pours from under your helmet. Rides like these are uncomfortable and weirdly fun, and remind me that I’m not nearly as much of a badass as I think I am.

The Mocha Stout.

The Mocha Stout.

Plus, I needed to ask Tom, builder of beautiful bike frames and the local guru of all things bicycular, a question about bikes and drill rigs. I value Tom’s thoughts. Many rides ago, he provided me with an insight into cycling that I’ve come back to repeatedly, the idea that bicycles amplify our experiences of a place or landscape. It seems obvious in hindsight, which is probably why I didn’t figure it out years ago, and I buy it. On a bike, cold feels colder, heat feels hotter, roads feel longer, hills feel steeper, trees, bears, and beer cans appear in more detail, and my body’s limits feel closer. Bikes get me out there and into my body at the same time.

As we coasted down Moore Rd. toward Hollow Rd. with a vague plan to link back roads to Arnot, I asked Tom: “Are drill rigs an extension of the bike?” The question relates to my previous post about getting comfortable with gas (not the bean-induced kind) and understanding the rhetoric of drill rigs, pipelines, and compressor stations. That is, the rhetoric of them as things. We coasted a few yards before Tom answered: “Yeah, I guess, if you think about drill rigs as being like a farm for our mechanized society, to keep it running. I mean, farms supply cyclists with food so they can ride.”

The Drill Rig. Photo: Scott Detrow/Stateimpact Pennsylvania

The Drill Rig. Photo: Scott Detrow/Stateimpact Pennsylvania

“I can see that,” I replied. “I guess what I’m mostly thinking about here is the way that bikes extend human power in the same way that drill rigs do. I mean, I can ride farther than I can walk. I can drive a car farther than I can ride. If we compare riding a bike up Firetower Rd. [a two-mile stretch of gravel road that climbs 1000’], I can ride up it faster than I can walk up it. In a car, I can climb it even faster. Gas helps me do a lot of things I couldn’t do otherwise, or at least not as easily.”

“True,” Tom said. “But riding a bike up Firetower is really hard compared to walking up it. I don’t know about running. A car’s easy.” By then, the bitter wind blowing northeast and amplified by our descent chilled my hatless head (not helmetless!) into a screaming headache. I could no longer talk or think because it felt like a spoke was being driven into my brain. Thankfully, the pain subsided quickly once we started climbing Hollow Rd.

My conversation with Tom also relates to my earlier post on the seductive power of power and perhaps explains why our machines—bicycles and drill rigs—are so damn attractive. Both literally extend us, that is, they amplify and magnify our power or what we can do with two feet and two hands. I rode 3000 miles last year spread out over 200 hours of saddle time. It would take me 1000 hours to walk the same distance. The bike makes it possible for me to cover a mile in about four minutes. Walking, I cover a mile in about twenty minutes. Technologies like bikes and drill rigs extend what we fragile humans can do, which gives us a sense of power out of proportion to our physical capabilities. Instead of building a fire, I turn on the stove to warm that lovely venison stew Lilace made, which means I can do something else, like write this blog post or open a beer. Of course, the deer was killed by another technology that extends power.

One aspect of the rhetoric of bikes and drill rigs appears to be the same as that of the roads: Use me. Make me work for you. That’s one way bikes and drill rigs connect. Each is used in ways that affects us differently, sure, but the connections are becoming clearer to me. There’s a problem that arises when we begin to focus on the differences between the bicycle and the drill rig at the expense of seeing the connections. As long as I consider myself to be a badass for riding my bike to work in single-digit temperatures, I am working actively to distance myself from fossil fuel users and fossil fuel extractors, both of which I am connected to and need to understand. This is not to say that bikes and drill rigs are the same. They aren’t. The way each uses resources creates possibilities and limitations. Part of the reason I ride a bike is because I understand that the way I live has consequences, but I also ride a bike because the bike itself extends my physical power. I like both those feelings.

Focusing on the differences between those technologies at the expense of seeing the connections is a problem. Part of the message I project while riding my bike is a green one, though I also project a message about the possibilities of human power. But my bike could care less about what kind of message I project. The message it projects: Ride me. Ride me to work, for fun, to escape zombies, whatever. Just ride. In that sense, riding my bike is not much different from driving a car. (Of course, our cars project images of us as well, but the cars as things don’t care.) Add a drill rig to the mix and we have three technologies that serve the same basic purpose—magnifying human power. If I had to feed and clothe myself without access to bikes, roads, cars, rifles, or natural gas, I would have to work a lot harder and I would accomplish fewer things. I would also have a smaller footprint. But thanks to these technologies that extend my power, I can do way more than my physical body could ever accomplish on its own and still have time left over for other stuff, like drinking bourbon or roughhousing with my kids.

Kenneth Burke’s work suggests that language performs two basic functions: it brings us together and it divides us. We have to figure out ways to guard against the divisive nature of language, because that’s when we run into problems dealing with our problems. I want to see differences between bikes and drill rigs, and much of the rhetoric we encounter encourages this. When we examine the rhetoric of the industry, the politicians, and the public, we see those functions swing primarily, I would argue, toward the division end of the continuum. (I’ve given examples in other posts.) Instead of seeing how we connect, we see how we don’t. That works in the industry’s favor. As long as we see broken links, we find ways to avoid identifying with others which means that we find ways to overlook the bigger picture—how we are all part of a larger environment that makes demands of us. I’ll never move completely back to the land, give up my bikes or books, but I do need to look closely at how I’m connected to industrial processes I don’t trust fully. I want to feel like I’m conserving resources and making the world a better place for my kids, so I ride my bike, teach students to write, study environmental rhetoric, and think green thoughts. Focusing on the differences instead of the connections leads me to be more comfortable with myself and my actions, a comfort that is misleading because it hides how drill rigs are, in one sense, nothing more than elaborate bikes.

I’m not naïve enough to think I can live with zero impact. I know better. The key is to be mindful of my impacts and to fully account for them. That’s why I eat locally (as much as possible), process chickens, ride my bike to work, keep the heat set at 65 degrees, live in a smaller, more weatherproof house, and mow the damn grass as little as possible. Part of that mindfulness has to come from resisting the urge to get comfortable with my choices, from being bamboozled by my own rhetoric (“You’re a fine moral example, Jimmy, for riding your bike to work when it’s seven degrees to avoid burning gas!”). Perhaps if we saw the connections between bikes and drill rigs more clearly, we’d take things like climate change more seriously, because we might recognize our deep-seated urge to pedal further or drill deeper. But the connections get buried under the surface of the stories we tell ourselves, only popping out here and there, like gas lines, when we look for them.

Somewhere along Mudge Rd., I told Tom about the bound copies of the St. Nicolas Magazine my cousin gave me this past summer. Published in 1887, February’s issue has an article called “Among the Gas-Wells,” written by Samuel W. Hall, and March’s has a rejoinder, “More About Gas-Wells,” written by G. Frederick Knight. When I first skimmed the magazines, what grabbed me were the illustrations  of the rigs (viewable at the links), the pipelines, the flared wells, and how much they resemble drilling today. We’re probably in some ways safer today; in others, not so much.  Even as we work to make drill rigs more efficient, the lack of basic structural change suggests to me that these technologies work and that we are comfortable with them. Bike tech works the same. As Tom said, “Bikes haven’t really changed all that much either.” Those crazy cool frames built of space-age material these days are based on the same old design.

Gabe's technology du jour.

My nine-year-old’s technology du jour.

We need technologies that say something other than “Use me.”

Then I see my son outside with a shovel, digging a tunnel for his sister through the snow piled at the end of the driveway. Of all the things he could choose to do, he decides to pick up the shovel—a tool that extends human power—and dig. Who knows what motivates him to dig, but I do know this: if the shovel didn’t exist, he wouldn’t use it. But he would find something else. We need to think more carefully about the rhetoric of things. They are saying something to us, something seductive. And once we understand that message clearly, we need to make some choices. What technology are we using? How? What are the ramifications? What’s sustainable? Where do I draw the line?

So far, physics is answering them for us.

Beer Cans and Well Pads

January 12, 2013

by Jimmy

How come we see these . . . .

How come we see these . . . .

On a recent cold and sunny day, I pedaled the Mocha Stout, my singlespeed, up Ore Bed Rd., out for a casual spin. As I pedaled up a climb, I spied a shiny Miller Lite can in the ditch beside the road. Unlike most beer cans I pass, this one looked like it had been tossed there about a minute ago, the can crisp and clean, glinting in the sunshine. I thought: Who was the bastard that threw that out? Then I thought: I am a bastard who has flung beer cans from cars—well, trucks—in the past. So I’m guilty, too. (Now that I’ve matured enough to drive without drinking, I don’t fling cans anymore. Southern habits die hard.) But I’ve noticed that the older I get, the less tolerant I am of beer cans on the side of the road. I’ve always despised all other sorts of litter—I carry twice as much trash out of the woods as I carry in. My buddies and I used to drag garbage bags through Grindstaff Caves in Tennessee in order to clean out the trash. We usually brought out twice as many beer cans as we took in. All empty, of course.

I pedaled on up the hill, thinking about beer cans, staring at the gravel road in front of me, dodging potholes and wondering: why do I see beer cans and not the roads? Why do beer cans strike me as out of place, unnatural, while roads meld into the landscape? Both are unnatural, that is, both were put there by people with some sort of purpose in mind, be it tossing the evidence or traveling from point A to point beer store. What’s interesting to me here is the way that I don’t question the presence of the road, don’t see it for the disturbance that it is, yet an empty beer can strikes me as litter now that I’m not the one tossing it out. I see beer cans as pollution, but not the road. Both beer can and road change the landscape; both can be removed. Both alter the way we see a place. What gives?

(I encountered a similar phenomenon when I worked construction: smokers don’t see cigarette butts as trash. While a job superintendent, I was mystified by guys who would pick up every speck of trash, every single nail when we cleaned up a job site—except cigarette butts. The roads are my butts, I reckon.)

Not surprisingly, for me, this is partly a language issue. We see signs that say “No Littering” and “No Dumping” planted by the roads, which turns our attention toward the litter alongside the swath of asphalt or concrete or gravel that cuts through the mountains or across the plains. Road signs direct our attention differently: “55 mph”; “Bridge Ices Before Road”; “School Zone”; “Ore Bed Rd”; “Charleston Township”; “Lane Ends Merge Left”; “Pipeline Rd 7.” Such signs are designed to help us move, heading toward our destinations while avoiding all the other people heading toward theirs. Road signs don’t say “No Driving” or “No Road Building.,” though some do say “Stop.”  Although roads change the landscape much more than beer cans, roads are seen as acceptable, necessary, as a price we pay for living in this car-centric world. We aestheticize them in ads and abstract them in maps. Taken together, these signs create what I call the rhetoric of the road: Go somewhere. The medium of the road is its message.

. . . but not these as pollution.

I appreciate roads for the way they get me to and from wherever I am going and enable me to ride my bike all over the countryside witnessing all kinds of cool things while physically experiencing the landscape itself. But there’s something wrong when a beer can on the side of the road bothers me more than the road itself. It’s as if the road has become an aesthetic part of the landscape—not something to carry the machine into the garden, but a part of the garden itself. Like Gandalf the Grey, I believe in the importance of the little things, but my tendency to lose sight of the road while staring at a beer can disturbs me. It’s too comfortable.

The problem here is that, as we get more familiar with something, more comfortable with it, we begin to see it as a given or a sort of truth. Research has shown that people who hear a false statement repeated enough times begin to believe it. I believe there’s a similar process at work in physical experiences. When I teach mountain biking, I have to ratchet my ride expectations waaaay down. A ride that may take me 70 minutes will take my class 150 minutes. A trail that seems like a sidewalk to me will appear full of hazards to my students. Part of the issue is that I see only what I need to see to keep my bike on the trail while my students see a confusion of trees, roots, rocks, hills, creeks, and mud, most of which will not affect them unless they pedal off the trail. Which they are more likely to do than I am. The reason I see what I see is because I’m comfortable. We see beer cans beside the road only so often, but we see the road all the time.

Of course comfort can bite us. I crashed my bike in November 2011, breaking my collar bone, three ribs, and knocking myself unconscious. I blame the crash on being distracted by the gas industry, work, and other shit that goes along with living a busy life. But I’ve realized now that I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to let my attention wander so far away on a route I didn’t know well. I was looking at the road, but not seeing it. If bikes have a cruise control, I was on it and thinking about stuff other than what was in front of me. Bike, meet pothole. Jimmy, slam road. Being comfortable holds consequences.

I resist the urge to get comfortable with, to become acclimated to, the damage that occurs around me from drilling for gas. Like with roads, this is difficult. The comfort doesn’t come from being satisfied with the process or the politics of drilling. If anything, I’m getting more pissed. (Case in point: William Bennett advocating for opening more state and federal land to drilling. I missed the tale in Bennett’s book about the virtue of giving public land to private companies.) I’ve seen the industry of drilling every day now for several years, and while I still get angry, I’m becoming comfortable with it. I see a pad go in, a flurry of activity to drill and frack it, and then it becomes a few Christmas trees among a graded field, ready for the deer to reclaim. Flooding Tioga and the surrounding counties with the stuff of gas drilling is undoubtedly part of the industry’s rhetoric—bombard the community, the landscape, with drill rigs and trucks until we get used to them. Until we get comfortable. Until the industry’s presence becomes a kind of truth. We’re like the proverbial frogs in the gradually heating pot of water. A myth, I know, but there’s wisdom in it.

I still can't believe I imagined one of these going anywhere.

I still can’t believe I imagined one of these going anywhere.

Not long ago, I imagined a drill pad going in between our house and the house east of here. The lot between the houses is roughly ten acres, well pads require “only” five—why not? I could hear the clatter of the dozer carving out the pad; the rattle of dump trucks hauling in gravel and other materials; the beep of the semis backing the various rig structures into place; the thrum of the cranes as they lifted the rig; the grind of the drill bit as it bored through the aquifer toward the Marcellus; the roar of the frack. I could see the tank trailers parked around the pad, like beer cans scattered around a campfire. I imagined what I might do to track the progress and make myself a pain-in-the-ass, like recording the hoopla via a 24-hour well pad cam. I imagined what it would be like to sleep through the drilling and whether my kids would be able to do it. I imagined the arguments Lilace and I would have—yelled over the frackin’ fracking noise—about whether to stay at a friend’s or what a brilliant move it was buying this house the country.

That has to be what the industry wants—people imagining pads on undeveloped land. I’m a guy who almost never imagines building anything in any sort of undeveloped place. (A small cabin in the piñon pine forest on the west side of Owens River Gorge near Bishop, California, would be cool. All that sweet rock climbing right there. . . .) I always prefer the trees or the dunes or whatever nature builds. That I can imagine a well pad going in freaks me out. It means I’m getting more comfortable than I want to be, a comfort bred from nothing more than familiarity.

Same As It Ever Was–Updated

November 25, 2012

by Jimmy

Worth a read.

I finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!: a Novel the other day. The novel’s about the US oil boom in the early 1920s, and it’s a fascinating read. Maybe better than The Jungle, and scary for the way Sinclair’s portrayal of the oil boom sounds like our very own natural gas boom. (A “boom” sounds healthy, doesn’t it?) As I did with Carson’s Silent Spring a while back, I thought I’d share a passage or three. By the way, if you’ve seen There Will Be Blood, you’ve seen a loose translation of the book. The movie is worth watching—more eerie echoes of today—but doesn’t some close to capturing the complexity of Sinclair’s story, which involves mule-driver-turned-oil-baron J. Arnold Ross (aka “Dad”), his Socialist-sympathizing playboy son Bunny, evangelical preacher Eli Watkins, bodice-ripping movie star Vee Tracy, and union-organizer Paul Watkins, to name a few. Their story unfolds primarily in California, but trips to Washington, Canada, and Europe make up part of the plot as well. Sinclair uses the novel to explore and expose the way labor, politics, energy, and social class interact. Things haven’t changed much.

Without further ado, here’s Sinclair:

Once more the valleys and gorges of Guadalupe Grade resounded to the flying echoes of honking horns. This time it was not one car, but a whole fleet of them, a dozen seven-ton trucks, broad and solid, with broad and solid double wheels, and trailers on behind, that carried even more tons. The first load towered high, a big stationary engine, held in place by heavy timbers bolted fast at the sides; that truck went carefully around the curves, you bet! Behind it came the ‘mud-hogs’ and the ‘draw-works’; and then the ‘string’ of drilling tools, hollow tubes of the best steel, that were screwed end to end and went down into the earth a mile or more, if need be. These tubes extended over the end of the trailers, where red flags waved in warning; on the short curves they swept the road, and if you met a car coming in the opposite direction, you had to stop while the other car crept carefully by; if there was not room enough, the other car would have to back to a place where the road was straighter. All this required a continuous clamor of horns; you would have thought some huge flock of prehistoric birds—did the pterodactyls make noises?—had descended upon Guadalupe Pass, and were hopping along, crying ‘Honk! Honk! Honk!’”

After the slow down this past summer, traffic is not this bad now, though it seems to be picking up again. But I remember similar experiences two summers ago when driving or pedaling up the two-mile hill west of Mansfield on Highway 6, cycling on Packard Road and out past Bungy, and in other parts of Tioga County. Sinclair again:

All this summer and fall, Dad and Mr. Roscoe [another oil baron] had been carrying a heavy burden—they were helping to make over the thinking of the American people. A presidential campaign was under way; and the oil men, having made so bold as to select the candidate, now had to finish the job by persuading the voters that he was a great and noble-minded statesman. Also, they had to pay part of the expense, which would come to fifty million dollars, so Bunny learned from the conversations at Paradise [Dad’s oil field] and at the Monastery [Mr. Roscoe’s mansion on the coast]. This was several times as much as would get recorded, since the money went through local and unofficial agencies. It came from the big protected interests, the corporations, the banks—everyone that had anything to get out of the government, or could be squeezed by politicians; the process was known as ‘frying out the fat.’ The oil men, having grabbed the big prize, were naturally a shining mark for all campaign committees, county, state, and national. Dad and Mr. Roscoe received visits from Jake Coffey, and from bosses of the state machine, and listened to hair-raising stories about the dangers of the situation.

It was necessary to persuade the American people that the Democratic administration for the past eight years had been wasteful and corrupt, ignorant and fatuous—and that was easy enough. But it was also necessary to persuade them that an administration by Senator Harding was likely to be better—and that was not so easy. Naturally, the chairmen of campaign committees wanted to make it appear as difficult as possible, for the more money that passed through their hands, the larger the amount that would stick. As the campaign drew to a close, Bunny had the satisfaction of hearing his father swearing outrageously, and wishing he had taken his son’s advice and left the destinies of his country to the soap manufacturer who had put up the millions for General Wood!

The senator from Ohio was a large and stately and solemn-faced person, and conducted what was called by the newspapers a ‘front-porch campaign.’ That is to say, he did not put himself out to travel on trains and meet people, but received deputations of the Hay and Feed Dealers of Duluth, or the Morticians of Ossawotomie. They would sit in camp-chairs upon his lawn, and the statesman would appear and read an imposing discourse, which had been written by a secretary of Vernon Roscoe’s selection, and given out to all the press associations the day before, so that it could be distributed over the wires and published simultaneously on fifty million front pages. That is a colossal propaganda machine, and the men who run it have to lose a lot of sleep. But the majestic candidate lost no sleep, he was always fresh and serene and impassive; he had been that way throughout his career, for the able businessmen who groomed him and paid his way had never failed to tell him what to do.

Bunny now dwelt upon an Olympian height, looking down as a god upon the affairs of pitiful mortals. Dad and Mr. Roscoe let him hear everything—being sure that common sense would win in the end, and he would accept their point of view. They had a philosophy which protected them like a suit of chain-mail against all hesitations and doubts. The affairs of the country had to be run by men who had the money and brains and experience; and since the mass of people had not sense enough to grant the power freely, the mass of people had to be bamboozled. ‘Slogans’ must be invented, and hammered into their heads, by millions, yes, billions of repetitions. It was an art, and experts knew how to do it, and you paid them—but by Jees, the price made you sweat blood!

Those four paragraphs sound so much like now I don’t know where to begin. So, onward! From the conclusion, called “The Honeymoon.”

It was the morning of election day: the culmination of a campaign that had been like a long nightmare to Bunny. Senator LaFollette had been running, with the backing of the Socialists, and the great issue had been the oil steals [based on the Teapot Dome scandal]; the indicted exposers of the crime against the criminals in power. At first the exposers had really made some headway, the people seemed to care. But the enemy was only waiting for the time to strike. In the last three weeks of the campaign he turned loose his reserves, and it was like a vast cloud of hornets, the sky black with a swarm of stinging, burning, poisoning lies!

It was the money of Vernon Roscoe and the oil men, of course: plus the money of the bankers and the power interests and the great protected manufacturers, all those who had something to gain by the purchase of government, or something to lose by failure to purchase. Another fifty million dollar campaign; and in every village and hamlet, in every precinct of every city and town, there was a committee for the distribution of terror. The great central factories where it was manufactured were in Washington and New York, and the product was shipped out wholesale, all over the land, and circulated by every agency—newspapers and leaflets, mass meetings, parades, bands, red fire and torchlights, the radio and the moving picture screen. If LaFollette, the red destroyer were elected, business would be smashed, the workers would be jobless; therefore vote for that strong silent statesman, that great, wise, noble-minded friend of the plain people known as ‘Cautious Cal.’ And now, while Paul Watkins lay gasping out his life, there was a snowstorm of ballots falling over the land, nearly a thousand every second. The will of the plain people was being known.

Smart guy.

That’s just three of many passages that echo my experiences with and knowledge of petro-culture now. Though Sinclair was writing about the past (I’m quoting from the Boni edition of 1927), the book reads like he was predicting the future. I can’t decide if it’s depressing that we’re dealing with the same old shit or satisfying that I recognize what’s happening. Maybe both.

In case you were wondering, the first passage came from page 50; the second, pages 364-365; the third, 514.

Update: I’m not surprised (which bothers me) about the news that potential Secretary of State candidate Susan Rice holds investments in TransCanada, the Canadian oil company responsible for the Keystone XL Pipeline. But the timing of the reports–appearing not long after I posted this–echo Sinclair’s story in Oil! much more loudly than I’d like it to.

The Yellow-Jackets’ Nest

October 19, 2012

By Jimmy

Doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface.

When I lived in Mississippi, I found a yellow-jackets’ nest between two pines in our backyard. I showed it to my Dad, who warned me and my brother to stay away from the nest until he could take care of it. That night, I watched from the driveway as he walked over to the nest with the gas can and poured gas down the hole. (Not cool, I know, but this was almost forty years ago.) He walked back, put the gas can up, and we went inside to get ready for bed.

The next day, my brother and I followed Daddy back out to the nest. This trip, he had a shovel, his entrenching tool from the Guard, if I remember correctly, and he dug up the nest. Appearing as a small hole about two inches in diameter, the entrance gave way to a chamber about eighteen inches in diameter when he sunk his shovel in and lifted. Dead yellow-jackets fell to the ground, mixing with the soil. We looked closely at the combs layered in the nest, where we saw varying stages of larval development. Pretty amazing. But what struck me most about the nest was the way a small hole concealed a big one.

We’ve had three yellow-jacket nests in our yard this year, which I reluctantly destroyed, and which took me back to that episode in Mississippi. Digging out one of the nests around our house got me to thinking about another problem with the gas industry phrase, “less than five acres”: what’s on the surface doesn’t reflect what’s underground.

If a yellow-jackets’ nest’s entrance is only two inches across where it enters the ground, yet eighteen inches across underground, then we’re talking about a 900% increase—a pretty big underground disturbance. And that’s just in diameter. I’m not talking about volume. (I haven’t tried to figure that out yet.) When we look at drilling sites, we see something similar occurring. We have a five-acre pad, from which as many as eight wells can be drilled several thousand feet vertically, then turned and drilled horizontally over 5000’. When the drill bit stops spinning, we’re talking about a well that could be two miles across as the crow flies. That’s a hell of a lot bigger disturbance than “less than five acres” implies.

Don’t get too close.

And there’s more. The gas industry wants to maximize profits, so they are going to site wells in such a way that the ends of the horizontal wellbores overlap. Imagine a pad A. Two bores are drilled from pad A. At the end, the bores will be pretty far apart, the same way our fingers, attached at the palm, can be spread apart into a V. That spread leaves a lot of untapped gas. Now they site pad B about two miles from pad A and drill toward it, ending B’s horizontal bore somewhere between A’s two horizontal bores. To get an idea of the overlap I’m talking about, form that V again with your right index and middle fingers. Now, extend your left index finger from the opposite direction and slide it into the open end of the V until your fingernails line up. Ta-da. More gas to access. (Mind your Freudian readings. This is a family blog.) Now imagine those bores slightly overlapping all over the Marcellus Shale. That’s a tad more disturbance than “five acres.” We just can’t see it. As one of my colleagues said, “They don’t have to sweep the mess under the rug. It’s already under the rug.”

Then there’s the volume of rock disturbed by the fracking itself, which occurs in the horizontal part of the wellbore. A geology colleague told me that, roughly speaking, one could assume about fifty feet of fracturing out from the wellbore in all directions. We’re talking a horizontal cylinder of disturbance 5000’ long and 100’ in diameter. Multiply that by six or eight wellbores, and we’re talking a lot of fractured rock. And that’s just for one well. Makes yellow-jackets look almost lazy.

It’s true that all this fracturing happens thousands of feet underground. The theory is that it won’t be a big deal. It’s also true that what’s underground is connected to the surface (Marcia Bjornerud shows this beautifully), and that’s where we live. In a transparent world, the industry would provide us with a map (rough is fine) that details the extent of their disturbances underground and admit that they are causing a big disturbance. Would there have been more of an uproar about development, much earlier, if we had a better sense of the underground footprint of the industry? That’s the map I want to see, anyway.

People can argue: “But we do know how far they reach. You just gave us the lengths of the bores.” That’s true, and we can get an idea from the number of wells drilled, the number projected to be drilled, and other information we’ve received. It’s also true that we can’t actually look at the extent of the fracturing underground except as representations, as a map. But we care about what we can see. Humans are shallow. Wells, however, are not. The damage may never be as clear as the grass killed around the entrance to a yellow-jackets’ nest filled with gasoline. But there’s damage nonetheless, and lots of it. Some of it won’t affect us, some of it will. Who, where, and how much is anybody’s guess.

The way this information is presented to us strikes me as a problem of imagination. We need imagination for what we can’t see. We already have a talent for “externalizing” costs, that is, figuring out ways to make other people (we can’t see) or the environment (usually, somewhere else) pay some of the costs of our impacts. If we can’t imagine the scope of the damage easily, then we will have a hard time imagining the costs, both monetary and otherwise. Imagination doesn’t grow out of nothing, but reflects our world as much as it shapes it by enabling us to see new or different possibilities. If we had real information, we wouldn’t need to work so hard to imagine what might occur. That’s why we don’t see maps limning the bores drilled from the pads, and do hear about disturbances of only five acres. It hampers our ability to imagine the scope of the disturbance. It doesn’t mean that we can’t, just not as easily. That favors the industry.

We have a similar problem with cars. If I were in charge, and after I had outlawed weak, fizzy, yellow beer (PBR exempted), I’d lobby for all vehicle exhaust pipes to be moved into the driver’s line of sight. Exhaust pipes should come right out of the middle of the hood, not out from under the back bumper. We should be able to see where the C02 spews from every time we press a gas pedal. (And, yes, I see exhaust of the cars in front of me, but that’s not my exhaust.) My point here is not that we don’t see or understand how we create pollution or don’t feel responsible. It’s just that we do a good job of keeping distance between ourselves and our impacts, and the industry plays into this by choosing which drilling impacts they show us, and how. Lilace recounts one industry worker’s view here. Based on what he knows, he is imagining a future for this place, one that he won’t stick around for. Perhaps Penn State’s Terry Engelder comes closest to providing us with the most honest view of the potential impacts. Claiming that Pennsylvanians are “sacrificing” for the rest of the country suggests a bigger disturbance than “only five acres.” We’re talking serious density, serious disturbance.

The way we see nature is the way we use nature, whether poisoning yellow-jackets, driving our cars, or drilling for gas. We need better maps. And better, braver imaginations.

Five Acres, My Ass

September 19, 2012

by Jimmy

I was pedaling toward this area. Beautiful, ain’t it?

Back in Aught Nine, I attended a lot of public meetings about the technology of fracking and the development of the gas industry in this region. Most of these meetings painted a rosy picture of the industry, and given that most of these meetings were sponsored by the industry in some way, this is not surprising. (A notable exception was the informational meeting I attended in Waverly, NY. That meeting provided a more balanced picture.) One phrase that came up over and over referred to the size of the well pads: “less than five acres.” The phrase was used in ways that always made it sound like five acres was small, the implication being “you’ll barely know we are here.” I wondered at the time: How many wells are we talking about here? Are they including roads in that figure? Other support infrastructure? I doubted it, and here’s why.

I ride my bike all over this area. I’ve ridden most of the roads in a thirty mile radius around Whitneyville multiple times, and I often pedal fifty or more miles away. I’ve “mapped” a lot of gas activity this way, and I’ve noticed a cumulative effect of these “five acre” pads. They may only be five acres, about four football fields, but there’s a lot of them. And that doesn’t include all the other stuff that goes along with them, like the pipeline.

So, I got an idea. On a solo ride from my house to Tioga State Forest near Asaph, I cataloged the number of gas industry disturbances I could see, ranging from pipelines to well pads to industry support. Here’s what I came up with in a 35 mile ride, 10 miles of which I rode twice (out and back). The route I followed look like a scraggly lollipop if you trace it on a map.

  1. Entrance to pipeline construction west of Scouten Hill Rd.
  2. Pipeline construction under Scouten Hill Rd.
  3. Well pad east of Scouten Hill Rd after crossing Hills Creek Lake Rd.
  4. Well pad and compressor station west of Scouten Hill Rd. after crossing Hills Creek Lake Rd.
  5. Pipeline construction east of Hills Creek Rd.
  6. Pipeline construction under Reese Hill Rd.
  7. Former water truck parking area south of Reese Hill Rd.
  8. Pipeline construction under Ikes Rd.
  9. Well pad south of Ikes Rd.
  10. Gas compressor station north of Muck Rd.
  11. Frack sand facility at railroad station on Muck Rd.
  12. Gas industry building north of Muck Rd. (off Highway 287).

At this point, I’m ten miles into the ride, and I’m about to climb Baldwin Run Rd. into the Asaph section of Tioga State Forest. For the next fifteen miles, the industry disappears, except for the well pad entrance south of Baldwin Run Rd. (Or Bennet Rd. Different maps give me different names.) Then I start home, passing the sites in reverse. I recall seeing the orange-and-gray boxes sprouting wires signifying seismic testing out that way in the past, though I’m not positive it was in the forest proper. It may have been only on the Rail Trail. But I’ve seen those boxes—another kind of mapping—everywhere.

The reality of those industrial sites puts “only five acres” into a new perspective for me. But this is one way the industry played down their impacts at the outset of their development. I could have steered my bike in any direction from my house and counted a similar number. The cumulative number adds up. Quickly. Since 2007, over forty-four hundred Marcellus wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania. That’s roughly 22,000 acres, or 83,600 football fields, cut into the forests and fields. Who knows what the number would look like if we included the pipeline and all the other stuff that keeps the industry up and running.

Of course, some will say: so what? Twenty-two thousand acres is around three percent of Tioga County’s 727,680 acres. It’s around fourteen percent of Tioga State Forest’s 160,000 acres. That’s a dot on the map. So, one could argue that the industry hasn’t had all that big of an impact. But it depends on how we define impacts, of course, and that we include other factors, like traffic and water use. But lately, I wonder most about the impact that it has on the maps in our minds.

Case in point. Two years ago, I reconnoitered some trails near Asaph for my mountain bike class. I saw what I needed to see and decided to ride some extra miles, descending the Green Monster to Left Straight Run Trail, descending Straight Run Road, and then climbing back up Asaph Road to my car. It was Friday, the woods were quiet, except for the occasional jungle call of pileated woodpeckers, and I soaked up that vibe. But as I descended the Green Monster to Left Straight, a beautiful trail with multiple creek crossings, I noticed pink surveyor ribbon tied to branches or blackberries every twenty or thirty feet. The further I descended, the more I saw, even after I hit Left Straight. I kept looking at each one, trying to read its portents like a psychic reads tea leaves. I worried that the trail, one of my favorites, was about to become part of a pipeline. I cursed the thought that public land my taxes pay for might be in the early stages of privatization for profit. (I loathe that practice.) My bike bounced underneath me as I focused on the dingbats of pink ribbon against the rolling page of browns and greens. I thought about the future of the trail instead of what future the trail might hold for me, a mountain biker not paying attention. At the first creek crossing, I hit a rock and crashed heavily on my right side. My shin thwacked a submerged rock, pain drilling sharply though the shock of cold October water flooding my lycra. I staggered to my feet, grunting and cursing, limped out of the water, wondering if I could make it back to the car. (Of course, I checked my bike, the universal sign that the mountain biker is not gonna die.) Eventually, I pedaled slowly down the trail, walking all creek crossings, cranked back to the car, and drove home. (When my daughter saw my leg, blood streaked down my shin into my sock, a creek mapped in red, she said: “I don’t like that” and marched into the house.)

Damn stuff.

I still have no idea what those ribbons meant, but that’s beside the point. The ribbons took me to a place I didn’t want to go on an otherwise blissful Friday alone in the woods on my bike with the woodpeckers, blackberries, and ferns. What this tells me is that I can’t escape the industry, that almost everything I experience holds the potential to be shaped by the industry in some way. It’s a lesson I’ve known for some time—industry is always with us—but I’ve never had the lesson articulated so well before. As one of my friends once said about me, I’m big but I’m slow.

And since I can see signs of gas development everywhere and project it where it isn’t, I wonder if my soul gets calloused to the industry the same way my butt gets calloused to a bike saddle in spring when I start logging big miles. What I mean is, as I get calloused to the industry or the saddle, what are the effects of my new tolerance? Regarding the bike, that tolerance is good for my legs and lungs and mind. Regarding the industry, I’m not so sure.

More on mapping gas soon.

by Jimmy

Funny how summer works. I figured I would blog more, but I blogged less. OK, none. Too much beer, too much travelling, too much cycling, too few trucks, I reckon. I kept reading, too, and a couple of books got me to thinking about press coverage of the gas industry and how the industry uses science.

David Gessner. Dude can drink beer and write. My hero.

The two books: David Gessner’s The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. David’s book (I can call him David because we’ve drunk beer together) tells the story of him searching for the heart of the BP spill in the Gulf. He leaves his wife and child and drives down there with no plan except to dive underneath the surface of national news stories and check the deeps for the untold ones. He pulls it off well, and we get a perspective on the Gulf Spill that sounds in some ways eerily similar to what’s been happening in Tioga and the surrounding counties. This is not to say that we are experiencing what the people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are experiencing, but there are connections to be drawn between the influx of industry here and BP’s mitigation shenanigans down there. One thing that grabbed me in The Tarball Chronicles was the way the national press reporting simply did not reflect the reality of the spill. Though David doesn’t spend a ton of words on this, he provides enough to show how the press leaves out stories that might oil feathers. Good stuff. (One day I hope to write a book that mentions beer as many times as his do. For now, I’ll settle for blog posts. . . .)

I read David’s book while I was reading Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes and Conway (I haven’t drunk beer with them, though I’d like to—I’d buy) tell the story of how accepted science on tobacco smoke, supersonic transport, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, global warming, and Rachel Carson has been challenged—and corrupted—by a few hardcore free-market, Cold War-era academics. The authors are historians of science who, given their subject, need to provide plenty of evidence to support their claims. Not surprisingly, Merchants of Doubt is a painstakingly researched book, well-written, and well worth the read (though it’ll probably piss you off).

Oreskes and Conway show us how the Cold War academics distort peer-reviewed and accepted scientific research by exploiting the gaps in the science, even when the scientists performing the research on, say, secondhand smoke, were (and are) in agreement on the dangers. (As Oreskes and Conway show, Big Tobacco knew of the dangers, too, but that didn’t stop them from enlisting the Cold War academics to blow smoke.) Their work traces how these same academics use similar tactics for arguing against regulations on the environmental issues listed above by creating doubt in public where scientists have none. It’s been pretty effective, given that around fifty percent of the American population doesn’t believe in human-caused global warming, though scientists have had the research fairly settled for about, oh, forty years. (Given the current state of the climate, the percentage of believers might be rising like the oceans.)

Read this book.

A word about gaps: Gaps refer to the gray areas of science, that is, the places where scientists may still have questions, like about how dolphins evolved from shrew-like creatures who, as David recounts, “one day take the plunge,” even though the larger process of evolution is considered a fact. When dealing with cigarettes, the Cold War academics decided to focus on things in the environment other than cigarette smoke that may cause cancer. While this may be a legitimate gray area, it does not mean that cigarettes do not cause cancer. That science is settled. People who use science unethically exploit these gaps, and depend upon the audience’s lack of scientific fluency to lead to a lack of action.

These books got me to thinking about the news coverage and the science surrounding natural gas development here in Tioga County. On the news end, this: I don’t think the national news does a good job explaining what’s happening here. Coverage from Ian Urbina at the New York Times and Abrahm Lustgarten at Propublica is pretty good. I do wonder, however, if their work is enough when Daddy asks me during one of our phone conversations if natural gas extraction is really clean. Looks like he’ll find out firsthand when the industry moves to NC. He doesn’t read the Times or Propublica, though he reads the Charlotte Observer (NC’s flagship paper) and watches the mainstream news regularly. Then there’s the lack of coverage of the Stop the Frack Attack Rally Lilace and I attended in DC on July 28. The NRDC said 5000 people showed up, and we heard people like Bill McKibben, Josh Fox, and Calvin Tillman, the mayor of DISH, Texas, speak. (Personally, we thought Doug Shields from Pittsburgh was most effective at energizing people. He played a role in banning fracking in Pittsburgh.) A couple of days prior, The Washington Post mentioned the protest was scheduled, but, after, not a word. In fact, I haven’t been able to find any coverage of the Stop the Frack Rally by the mainstream media.

On the science question, Oreskes and Conway made me wonder whether the gas industry is reversing the Cold War academics’ strategy by assuring us that the science on fracking is thorough and clear, that is, there are no gaps or gray areas. Recall this phrase? “There’s never been one case—documented case—of groundwater contamination in the history of the thousands and thousands of hydraulic fracturing [wells].” This, from Senator James Inhofe, and quoted on the Energy in Depth website. There have been scientific articles questioning that blanket statement, but it depends on how narrowly or broadly you define fracking. Given the attention placed by the industry on the economics of gas development and that fact that many people need a job or lease money, rigorous unbiased science gets pushed to the wayside. As far as I can tell, given the scope of the drilling, there aren’t a tremendous number of scientific articles about the process, period. The industry appears to be relying on two studies, from the Ground Water Protection Council (1984) and the EPA (2004), to show that fracking is safe. Though I can’t find it online, the GWPC study dealt with fracking in coal deposits and the EPA study did not look at the fracturing process itself. That’s not an overwhelming body of evidence. And, fortunately for the gas industry, you can’t have a documented case of pollution from fracking if no one is doing the documenting. But the industry wants us to think that the science is conclusive and shows that they are justified in drilling full speed ahead.

If anything, these books help me think about the need for the study of rhetoric, something I’ve questioned the worth of lately, even though teaching rhetoric is my job. Rhetoric is the study and strategic use of words and images to incline people to think in certain ways, to take certain actions, to adopt particular attitudes.  Rhetoric is neither moral nor immoral; it’s the choices we make every time we interact with someone, whether family, friend, boss, or stranger. What makes rhetoric moral is the way we use it, what ends we try to achieve when we make our choices. The way, say, we define fracking. Science can be used rhetorically as well. (Science has a rhetoric of its own, but we don’t have space for that here.) What makes scientific research and rhetoric moral is the way it involves peer review by experts, tests and re-tests, accurate predictions, and so on. This is a long process that involves much work on the part of scientists, and, eventually, they will settle on something as a fact, as reality, like the earth revolving around the sun. Or evolution. Or climate change. The peer review serves to eliminate the biases that scientists may build into their research programs. It’s harder to see just what you want to see when people are looking over your shoulder.

In my view, the gas industry assumes a credibility for their science that isn’t there, because there hasn’t been time to establish an unbiased or objective body of research. This is not to say that I think there is no science behind the industry’s work; in fact, taken by itself, I think the technology is pretty amazing. But the problem with technology is that it’s often divorced from its larger context—in this case, clean air and water and the preservation of communities. David points out in The Tarball Chronicles that BP was mostly concerned with appearances rather than cleaning up their mess. The gas industry here acts much the same, given that they tout economic interests over environmental ones.

by Lilace

May marks the opening of the Mansfield Growers Market, which will run every Friday through September. We’re in zone 5b so fresh produce of any kind is a reason to rejoice at the end of a winter that lasts basically half the year. Though this winter—especially March—was unnervingly warm, the crowds showed up for the first market as eager as in past years. April had brought enough frosts and freezes that the asparagus got temporarily zapped, and we had none for opening day. But spinach, turnips, lettuce, ramps, and rhubarb were the fresh goodies awaiting folks, along with the local lamb, chicken, pork, beef, rabbit, milk, cheese, maple syrup, baked goods, and crafts that are always in season.

Blue, white, and green tents sprang up on the lawn of St. James Episcopal Church like mushrooms after rain, and bright colored yarns, handmade aprons, hanging flower baskets, and banners decorated the block. Friends greeted friends, University students mingled with professors (some of them farmers in their “spare” time), and it didn’t matter if you knew the person standing next to you at the booth, you spoke to them. This was why we started the market in 2009, not just for good food but to grow community. And it’s worked magic.

In fact, you’d never guess we were in an industrial sacrifice zone.

Well, maybe you would if you were talking to Diane about what to plant in your garden and the local musician took a break. Then you’d become aware of the traffic just off your right shoulder, the grunts of brakes trying to stop huge residual waste and dump trucks because the light a block away at Main Street turned red. And if you tried to cross the street without walking that block to the light, well, I wouldn’t recommend that. Park behind the church, maybe in the bank’s lot. They don’t mind.

You would remember quickly, however, when you were driving back to your home, or friend’s house, or campground. The well pads and freshwater pits leveling hills and ruining topsoil (there goes the farmland) are hard to miss, though they are surrounded by beautiful country.

There is a refrain in the national song and dance about natural gas that it will lead to energy independence. All this while it’s being exported to the highest bidder, which is the way all business works. Why should this be any different? And the big player here in Tioga County is Shell Oil. I mean, they’re a Dutch Company, though they call this branch of their operations “Shell Appalachia.” Not that being from elsewhere makes them bad. I for one thank God that we in Tioga aren’t in the hands of Chesapeake Energy, an American Company.

But this sense that the natural gas play (how I love language!) is not just good for the country but our salvation leads to the attitude that some places need to suck it up and take one for the team. Stop whining. In fact, Penn State geosciences professor Terry Engelder, who gave the first estimate in 2008 of how much gas could be recovered from the Marcellus Shale, calls for Pennsylvanians to make a “necessary sacrifice” so Americans can continue living a lifestyle made possible only by huge amounts of fossil fuels.

So when a gas well blows up in Canton, a town about twenty-five miles away from Mansfield, or people nearby get fresh water delivered to them since their water well has been contaminated, it’s not news. It’s necessary sacrifice occurring in a national sacrifice zone. Says Amy Mall of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

Pennsylvania has become a national sacrifice zone for natural gas development. It has seen more than its share of drinking water contamination, houses exploding, and destroyed landscapes and communities.

Last fall I took my seven-year-old son out for pizza before we saw a movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I remember the conversation I overheard in the restaurant.

Nearby an older man looked up from his dinner with a big smile when a young fella—maybe late twenties, early thirties—came over to say hello. The young man had on an industry shirt—I don’t remember which company. By their conversation it was clear they’d known each other a long time. I imagine the older man might have watched the young guy grow up. Then the older man asked him about work and how could he find out when they’d be drilling on his parcel? When would the royalty checks start coming? The young guy described the web site and how to find out the information. Then they got to talking about how many wells they’d drilled this year, which is nothing, the young guy said, compared to how many are planned for this area.

Every time I hear a version of this the number or ratio is a little different, but it’s always horrifying. What was startling to me is that neither of these men, who’d clearly lived here longer than I had, who had roots here, these men were not horrified in the least.

The older man shook his head a little and said something like, “That’s hard to imagine.”

“Yeah,” the younger guy agreed, “in five or ten years we won’t recognize this place. But I’ll have made my money and moved away by then.”

And they laughed.

Even the older guy laughed who was at a very different stage in his life, one where he probably wasn’t moving anywhere, was probably looking for the money to help with retirement or to hold onto the farm. The young guy likely had a wife, maybe kids, and this was his big break. But as I stared hard at the red and white plastic tablecloth I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily he was ready to sacrifice this place. In his mind, it was already gone. And apparently all the people with it.

It hit me then. When people say “sacrifice zones” they are thinking of space on a map, the way explorers from Europe viewed the new world. This is the frontier of natural gas. But like the new world, this frontier is inhabited. And even though, unlike with the Native Americans, our homes, our faces, look like those of the explorers, we are invisible. That younger man had merely changed his allegiance, aligning himself with the powerful in a bid for security and identity.

I don’t tell this story to point fingers at these two men, who I bet wouldn’t hesitate to help me get my car out of a ditch. They illustrate a larger problem. It’s not a problem language can fix, but there is a way in which choosing and rejecting terms is both empowering and makes the invisible visible. So I submit to you that this is not a national sacrifice zone. We are a national sacrifice community.

Yet on the local level, the view shifts. When I look around the market green on Fridays, I see people enjoying where they live and taking pride in what our small town and the surrounding area has to offer. On days like this I am hyper aware of the many ways our quality of life is exceptional—good local food of a wide variety, public schools with reasonable class sizes, multiple state parks within a half hour that do not charge admission, a University with humanities programs that provide community concerts, lectures, readings, and art exhibits. Oh, and a bike shop, yoga studio, and brewery that match any you’ll find in metropolitan areas.

I just want to say, loud and clear, to everyone out there in the nation who maybe has heard of the debate over fracking or the natural gas rush going on elsewhere—this is the kind of place being sacrificed for more years of an unsustainable dream and the myth of energy independence. See us. Speak up. Because if it can happen to Pennsylvanians, like it’s been happening to folks in Wyoming and Texas before us, then it can happen to your community next.

by Jimmy

In my previous post, I explored the problem with short-term thinking and the need to think like a rock. I suspect part of the reason we have trouble doing this is the seductive power of power.

My Dad was a truck driver. Over his lifetime, Daddy estimates that he drove around four million miles. His Daddy owned a trucking company. With Papa’s drivers, my Dad began driving from North Carolina to California when he was about fifteen. This was before interstates, and Daddy needed blocks taped to pedals to reach them. (When I said drive, I meant drive.) My brother and I followed in Daddy’s tire tracks, so to speak, when we were around four or five years old and began taking trips with Daddy and other drivers, a practice that continued through college. I still remember the trip I took with Daddy to Florida in my cousin’s red conventional International. (My cousin owned a trucking company, too.) We hauled empty Coke cans to a Coke plant down there, then hauled chip potatoes back to New Jersey. I ate a bag of potato chips made from the potatoes we hauled. But what I remember most was my turn behind the wheel.

The truck I drove looked something like this.

Southbound, Daddy drove I-95 deep into Florida. It was around 2:00 a.m. Reflecting the truck’s lights, the white lines receded into the distance, creating the sensation of driving on a treadmill. Few other cars or trucks broke the monotony. Over the roar of the diesel, Daddy asked: “You want to drive this thing?”

“Yeah.”

“OK. I’ll set the cruise control, stand up, and you can slide in front of me and grab the wheel. See that rivet in the middle of the hood? Keep that on the white line and you’ll know you’re good. And check your mirrors. If the trailer’s outside the lines, you’ll know you’re not in the lane.” He stood up. Because the engine was mounted in front of the cab, we had room to walk around between the driver’s and passenger’s seats and the bunk beds in back, a small, travelling hotel room. I could stand up without bumping my head. I shuffled over to the driver’s seat and, careful not to bump his arm, slid into it and grabbed the wheel. Eyed the rivet and white line. Checked the mirrors. He turned off the cruise control, and I pressed the accelerator. The Cummins roared and the turbo whined as I steered that 65’ truck south. Just like that, I was driving 40,000 pounds of aluminum, steel, and fiberglass down the interstate. After I settled in, I marveled at the power. I felt huge, transformed from a skinny nineteen-year-old into a badass cowboy like Clint Eastwood, riding my horse across the prairie with an itchy trigger foot. I suddenly understood one reason Daddy loved driving so much.

We drove north the next day loaded with potatoes. The truck was heavy now—roughly 80,000 pounds. Steady traffic accompanied us. We switched seats again, and I drove for about two hours, taking great pleasure at flipping on the Jake brake (BLAAAAAPPPPPPP) and pushing cars doing 55 m.p.h. out of the left lane. Slowpokes blocking traffic. (Asinine, I know.) At one point, I checked the driver’s side rear view mirror and noticed a sheriff’s car half in the lane, half in the median. I pulled into the right lane pronto and watched as he raced by, lights flashing. The police car following pulled up beside me, the cop leaned over to the passenger window, shook his finger at me, and then took off in pursuit. Chastised (I had been speeding) and a bit rattled (no CDL), I stayed in the right lane until we pulled off for a piss break. That was the only time I’ve driven a truck other than around my cousin’s shop when I worked there, but that delicious sense of power stays with me to this day.

Fast forward a few years. I worked for a general contractor out of Charlotte as a job superintendent. I didn’t know a damn thing, but I learned fast and listened. One of my jobs was raising a spillway outside York, South Carolina. One day I showed up at the job site, only to find out our grading contractor was short a dozer operator and needed someone to clear trees from the borrow area (the place where we got the dirt to raise the spillway). The sub’s boss, Eddie, had known my Dad for years, and he and I had become drinking buddies. We were talking about the problem, when he asked, “You ever run a dozer?”

“No.”

“Well, it ain’t hard. I’ll show you.” We walked over to the International TD-15, he gave me instructions (you let off a pedal to accelerate a dozer), and I clattered off across the dam to push down trees. A TD-15 is a big dozer. The blade is about three feet high and around ten feet wide. Once I clackclackclacked across the dam, I turned toward the trees, most of which were between forty and eighty feet tall. In the next couple of hours, I pushed down and cleared away twenty or so trees, cutting the roots on one side with the corner of the blade, backing down between trees in order to push them out toward the newly cleared area (didn’t want a tangle of downed trees), driving straight up onto the tree as far as I could (dared!) until it leaned precipitously, backed off, lowered the blade and drove forward, catching the root ball with the blade and popping the tree out of the ground. Trees that had been growing for thirty, forty, fifty years, bam, felled in minutes. I relished the work, the roar of the diesel (much louder than Daddy’s truck), the clatter of the tracks, the controlling of something much more powerful than me. Although I’ve always preferred bicycles to diesels, I understand the pull machines have on a person. They made me feel powerful in a world bigger than me.

TD-15 dozer. I could make a mess with one of these.

I was in no way a skilled operator. I tried to put a swale on grade with a TD-8 once (a baby dozer), but all I got was laughed at. Eddie, on the other hand, could work magic with a bulldozer. Daddy was the same way in a truck. They were both skilled with their machines the way Lilace is skilled with writing. Their skills are a gift, they made the most of it, and many people benefited.

I suspect there are people as gifted operating tractors, trucks, dozers, track hoes, and drill rigs around here, and I admire them for that. There’s something seductive about the kind of power we see on display in Tioga County, and no matter how much I question the process, I think I understand part of the drive as well. My Dad said once in jest, “Hell, in my twenties, I would have driven a truck for free.” He felt that power in his bones.

We’re weak sauce without our fossil fuels. Compared to many other living things, we’re downright fragile. Soft-bellied. Slow. Fossil fuel power belies that, makes us feel like gods. It’s an illusion, but so seductive.

I wonder if we’ll ever see the power in saying no.