March 18, 2013
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.
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.
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.
November 25, 2012
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.
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.