by Jimmy

PtSZ went to the printer this past Friday. Here’s what readers are saying:

“Pedaling through some of the country’s loveliest–and hardest-used–countryside, the author provides the rare combination of information and wisdom. This is a real act of witness.” — Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

“Navigating terrain, cresting hills, glimpsing wildlife at one turn and drilling rigs at another, Jimmy Guignard literally and figuratively cycles the reader through the fraught landscape of his family’s life in the ‘sacrifice zone.’ This is an essential and approachable book for understanding the impact of the natural gas industry on a place as well as on a people. Emphasizing the power of rhetoric as a tool for understanding the industry, Guignard offers an honest and searching account of what it means to live consciously, energetically, and passionately in a place wracked by technological change, uncertainty, and corporate power dynamics.” —Eileen E. Schell, coauthor of Rural Literacies (Studies in Writing and Rhetoric) and coeditor of Reclaiming the Rural: Essays on Literacy, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy

“In Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone, Jimmy Guignard leads us on a nuanced journey through the hard truths and complex narrative frames of Marcellus shale production in rural northeastern America. “Contact! Contact!” Henry Thoreau advised us about our relationship to landscapes. Guignard pedals right up close to the solid earth, the actual world, and where he lives it now sadly smells more and more like cheap gas and high corporate profits.”—John Lane, author of Circling Home

Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone reads like a mystery novel, replete with fully fleshed out characters who may or may not be guilty of crimes against humanity, a compelling dramatic time line, a hard-boiled, beer-drinking, bike-riding environmental detective, and richly drawn sense of place.  So engrossing is the story Guignard tells we almost don’t notice how much we’re learning about fracking, environmental rhetoric, and the coming of age—no, the maturing—of a man who cares deeply about the physical world and what we are doing to it.  A lovely mix of scholarship and personal narrative, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in nature writing and the frustrating world of fracking.” —Sheryl St. Germain, author of Navigating Disaster:  Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair and Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman

I’m pretty stoked, to say the least. You can pre-order your copy from your favorite local bookstore anytime. Thanks and more soon!

Advertisements

by Jimmy

Back in town after a long trip out west with Lilace and the kids (which was awesome). I have been trying to catch up on work and other stuff when I saw that Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone has appeared at the TAMU Press website. You can check it out here. You can also pre-order on Amazon or from your local bookseller. My go to place for books: From My Shelf Books & Gifts in Wellsboro, PA.

On the way back, we drove through the “Energy Capitol of the Nation”: Gillette, Wyoming. I’m scribbling a blog post about that. I have another post cooking up about my ASLE presentation and a few in the works from guest bloggers. More soon!

by Jimmy

I haven’t been here in a while, because I was in the throes of finishing my book for Texas A&M University Press called, tentatively, Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale. The manuscript was due July 1, and I’m happy to say I met the deadline.

Because my book is largely about how words and images shape perceptions of the Marcellus, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about books (and other texts) that shaped my own views of living in the frack zone. I won’t have room to include these titles in the book itself, so I thought I’d share them with you. I’ve attempted to break them up into categories (nebulous at best), and each of these books (including some films) shaped my thinking in some way over the past four years. (Note: This list does not include the blogs and academic articles I read.)

Nonfiction

  • Rick Bass, Oil Notes (Bass was a geologist searching for oil before he became an environmentalist and activist. After reading this book, I understood the attraction of drilling for fossil fuels. A bonus: the guy can write.)
  • Robert Bryce, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence”
  • Walter M. Brasch, Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster (Tons of research in this book.)
  • Alexandra Fuller, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant (Absolutely awesome writing. Read this book.)
  • David Gessner, The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill (This book played a tremendous role in my thinking about my book.)
  • Russell Gold, The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World (I’m reading this one. Slowly. Done. Great book.)
  • Daniel Goleman, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy
  • Stephanie C. Hamel, Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage (Raises some interesting tensions about a married couple with differing views on leasing.)
  • Richard Heinberg, Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future
  • James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
  • Lisa Margonelli, Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline
  • Seamus McGraw, The End of Country
  • Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
  • Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
  • Bill Powers, Cold, Hungry, and in the Dark (Focuses on past production rates and markets.)
  • Vikram Rao, Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril
  • Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (Includes a chapter on fracking.)
  • Tom Wilbur, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Wilbur has a good website, too.)
  • Gregory Zuckerman, The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters (Interesting read, though I’d be put in jail if I pulled some of the crap these guys did.)

Fiction

  • Lamar Herrin, Fractures (A bit didactic, though it captures nicely the tensions created among people when gas leasing is involved.)
  • Nick Hayes, The Rime of the Modern Mariner (A modern graphic novel version of Coleridge’s famous poem set in an environmental apocalypse, and beautiful to behold.)
  • Melissa Miller, Inadvertent Disclosure (A fun, formulaic read about a female lawyer who uncovers a small-town conspiracy to capitalize on the gas boom.)
  • Upton Sinclair, Oil! (This was the basis of the film, There Will be Blood. As I read it, I often felt Sinclair was writing about Tioga County in the twenty-first century. Plop an energy boom down in any century and the same shit happens, it seems.)
  • Brian Wood, The Massive (A comic book series involving a black ops-soldier-turned-pacifist-leader of an environmental group called Ninth Wave and set in an apocalyptic future. They are aboard the Kapital searching for their sister ship, The Massive. I’m still early to this series, but I’m digging the issues it raises. The colorist, Dave Stewart, has worked on Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.)

Poetry

  • Mathew Henderson, The Lease (Fantastic.)
  • Ogaga Ifowodo, The Oil Lamp
  • Julia Kasdorf’s poetry on the peopile living above the Marcellus shale. (I don’t think she’s published her natural gas poems yet, but they are fantastic for the way they capture the complexities of living above the Marcellus shale. A privilege for me to read.)
  • Lisa Wujnovich, Fieldwork

Films

  • Gasland (documentary)
  • Gasland II (documentary)
  • Promised Land (feature)
  • Split Estate (documentary)
  • Triple Divide (documentary)

Egghead Books

  • Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives
  • Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives
  • Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method
  • Sharon Crowley, Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism
  • Kevin Michael DeLuca, Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism
  • Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen E. Schell, Rural Literacies
  • David Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism (I read this a long time ago, and this book changed everything for me.)
  • Terry Gifford, Pastoral
  • Don Duggan-Haas, Robert M. Ross, and Warren D. Allmon, The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale (New.)
  • Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy
  • Norman J. Hyne, Nontechnical Guide to Petroleum Geology, Exploration, Drilling, and Production (2nd edition) (Great reference book.)
  • Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary-Language Approach
  • Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer, Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America.
  • Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Another book that changed everything.)
  • Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America
  • Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century
  • Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
  • John D. Ramage, Rhetoric: A User’s Guide
  • Terre Ryan, This Ecstatic Nation: The American Landscape and the Aesthetics of Patriotism (Super.)
  • Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics

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.

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.

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 Jimmy

I need some help. I’m trying to understand the ebb and flow of people’s attitudes toward natural gas development in north-central PA for some research I’m working on. In my way of thinking, we learn things in two ways—through lived experience and what we learn from words. I would argue that the latter makes up most of what we know, and much of what we’ve learned about natural gas development has come from encounters with various media, that is, words. Your assignment is to help me think about this. Let me elaborate.

Kenneth Burke. Dude understood a lot about words.

In grad school, I read Kenneth Burke’s Definition of Man, a definition I’ve chewed on ever since. Burke defines humans as symbol-using animals, animals who use words (symbols) to create much of our understanding of the world and our place in it. He also raises questions about reality:

“What is our ‘reality’ for today (beyond the paper thin line of our own particular lives) but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present?”

Of course, these days Burke would include blogs, list-servs, websites, conversations, etc. I often spend a lot of time at the beginning of my writing courses asking students to think about what Burke means here. Like I said before, words make up a large percentage of our reality. I’m a physical being living in a physical world, yes, but I understand more about my “reality,” who I am and where I live, from what I read.

Let’s think about this in terms of natural gas development. The way I see it, the natural gas industry and the public are arguing about how we should perceive and thus use north-central PA, and the argument is evolving. The industry wants people (locally and nationally) to see this area as a resource. Many locals want people (locally and nationally) to see this area as a place people call home, that is, as more than, or something different from, a resource. (Of course, locals’ desires are complicated. Many locals want what the industry wants. Many want something else. I see locals as categorized loosely into three groups: pro-frack, anti-frack, and sorta-frack.)  This “conversation,” if you will, has involved websites, press releases, lobbyists, TV and print advertisements, letters, contracts, phone messages, billboards and signs, news coverage, blogs, art (see here), protests, books (see here and here), bills, policy statements, scientific research, list-servs, public meetings, etc. That’s a lot of words being thrown around. In all the reading I’ve done, it appears that these groups are using words to shape attitudes in ways that point toward PA-as-resource, PA-as-home, or PA-as-something-else.

Think about the times you eat out, read the paper, watch TV, talk with your friends and family, sit in the dentist’s office, walk down town (wherever that is), ride your bike, tend bar, slam some beers at your favorite watering hole, whatever. Got it? Good. Now, what moments, words, phrases, images jump out at you when you think about natural gas? Got that? Awesome. Now, what would you say those moments, words, phrases, or images incline people to think about natural gas development? Put another way, what stands out to you about a) the way the gas industry has used words to shape people’s attitudes toward Marcellus shale development and b) the way locals have used words to shape people’s attitudes toward the Marcellus shale development? I realize this is a huge question, and it’s one I’ve been thinking and writing about for almost three years. The way I see it, there’s a constant give-and-take between all the concerned parties as we argue for and struggle toward our vision of what this place is becoming. We, industry and locals alike, are working toward a competing, but connected, reality, a reality constructed largely by words, but that has very real physical effects. What will north-central PA look like? What does it look like now? How did we get here?

I’m also wondering, as much as it pains me to say this, whether words can really make a difference. I believe that they can, and I believe that they have been. Witness some of the timid but nonetheless steps in the right direction taken by our politicians in asking the gas industry to pay to play here. But when I see stories about places like Cogan Township in Lycoming County, where the Township Supervisor cut down trees to stop Range Resources from using a road, I can’t help but wonder why the industry has such a hard time working with people at times.

What has stood out to you about the way the industry has characterized and continues to charaterize the development of the Marcellus shale and the way that locals have responded and continue to respond? I look forward to hearing from you.

By Jimmy

As you’ve noticed, the bloggins have been slim lately. It’s not for lack of ideas, but a lack of time, a complaint I hear often from students. But the natural gas industry keeps drillin’ along. Right now, a helicopter clatters above these hills for seismic testing, trucks haul water to the fresh water storage pit on Bullock Road, a drill rig guides a bit down to the gas near Shell Appalachia’s offices, roughnecks frack two pads within a ten-minute bike ride from our house. A breathtaking amount of work is required to get the gas, not to mention all the resources used, resources that go beyond trucks and rigs to shaping policy and dealing with communities who question or oppose the industry. There’s so much going on, I can’t keep up with it all. But that’s the beauty of the industry’s rush to drill—they can dedicate a tremendous amount of resources to keeping their industry skids greased above ground, so they can keep punching holes in the ground. In this post, I want to mention three issues that are worthy of attention right now.

Hauling brine.

First, there’s Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Special Conditions General Permit WMGR064 (click on the pdf), a permit designed to grant municipalities and others permission to use natural gas well brines for “roadway pre-wetting . . ., anti-icing . . ., and de-icing purposes.” I read the proposed permit and it raised a lot of questions for me, including: What studies show that using natural gas brine will not harm our surface or groundwater? Does this mean that Marcellus Shale brine is excluded from use? How will the amount of brine used be tracked? (The permit contains parameters for chemicals and heavy metals in the brine, some of which appear quite high.) Regarding the tracking of brine use, number 15 on the permit can be read to mean that brine is analyzed after it has been spread on the roads. Is that the case? Who will be responsible for any environmental clean-up, should the need arise? (The Mansfield Gazette published my letter containing these questions on Nov. 9. Since my letter was published, I’ve received an email that states the original permit prohibited use of Marcellus brine. Why doesn’t this one?) In an attempt to understand this process, I spoke with professors and municipal employees who know more about gas drilling and water quality than I do, and they thought the use of road brines for dealing with snowy and icy roads is a bad idea. While the chemical make-up of the brine may seem insignificant in the amounts listed, the chemicals and heavy metals it contains accumulate rapidly. This is a similar to the “experiment” of pesticide use that Rachel Carson criticized in Silent Spring. We simply don’t know enough about the long range effects of using brine on our roads (not to mention how much it will snow) to take a chance like this. That’s what I’m going to tell DEP by November 16, the day DEP stops accepting public comments. Contact Scott E. Walters, Chief, General Permits/Beneficial Use Section, Division of Municipal and Residual Waste, Bureau of Waste Management, P. O. Box 8472, Harrisburg, PA 17105-8472, 717-787-7381. (Does anyone have a working email for Mr. Walters?) TDD users may contact the Department through the Pennsylvania Relay service, (800) 654-5984.

Second, Governor Corbett has proposed in HB 1950 that the gas industry pays an impact fee to help compensate for their impacts. Imposing a fee on the industry is a step in the right direction, though I need to look more closely at the numbers before I get excited. More importantly, Corbett’s proposed legislation takes away the zoning rights of local governments. So, does that mean that gas drillers will pay an impact tax and be able to drill wherever they want? That doesn’t sound like a good trade-off to me. I confess I haven’t read much about this legislation yet, though it sounds like the advantage goes to the gas industry. Make your thoughts known so0n–they could vote this week:

PA State Senatehttp://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/member_information/email_list.cfm?body=S

PA House of Representativeshttp://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/member_information/email_list.cfm?body=H

While we’re on the subject of impact fees, I would like to point to a report issued by Citizens for Tax Justice. In it, researchers analyzed the amount of taxes paid by a variety of corporations from 2008 to 2010. While the federal corporate tax rate is 35%, many profitable industries paid few or no taxes during the period studied. Oil, Gas, and Pipeline industries paid an average of 15.7% in federal taxes. The report also states that Chesapeake and Halliburton paid no federal taxes at least one of those years, though they profited in the millions of dollars. Granted, these are not state taxes, but the report suggests that these corporations can surely afford to chip in a bit more to Tioga and the surrounding counties. They get plenty of tax breaks. How about a break for the people who live here?

Third, CNBC and a Dallas-Ft. Worth CBS-affiliate reported that executives at an oil industry conference discussed the efficacy of using the expertise of soldiers trained in military psy ops to help the gas industry and communities coexist and the applicability of the US Army’s Counterinsurgency manual to give industry professionals strategies for dealing with locals. I can understand the impulse on the part of the gas industry here—much successful counterinsurgency depends upon establishing relationships with locals, hearing them out, and communicating. But there are many problems with this approach. One, people who question or oppose the gas industry are not “insurgents,” as the executives’ framing implies. They are citizens with valid concerns. It’s as simple (and as complex) as that. Second, counterinsurgency techniques were designed for public governments (and paid for with our tax money), not private corporations. The Counterinsurgency manual (yes, I’ve read parts of it) defines insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” The people here aren’t trying to change things, the industry is. And I find it more than a little ironic that Corbett’s impact fee includes language abolishing the zoning rights of local governments. Corporations are not governments, and they shouldn’t be treated as such.

"Counterinsurgency . . . is the graduate level of war." From Chapter 1.

My biggest issues with the “insurgency” framing are these: the manual frames the issue in terms of war and it assumes that the counterinsurgency is in the “right” (at least in what I’ve read). In the first paragraph of Chapter 1, the word “war” or a pronoun referring to it appears eight times. Eight times in twelve lines. That’s bothersome to me. No one was causing any problems before the industry came in. The executives are talking about citizens who are voicing their concerns and complaints, citizens who are now linked, purposely or not, with terrorists. As I continued reading Chapter 1, I noticed one assumption throughout is that the counterinsurgency is always right. Maybe in later chapters, the manual addresses the possibility that the counterinsurgency may be mistaken, but I saw no room for self-reflection, which reminded me of Aubrey McClendon’s occupational psychosis. I also don’t see much room for democracy as we define it working well if the industry is allowed to write the ordinances or buy off some of the people who do. People living over the gas have a say, and it’s not always about money. And don’t start in about royalties. Many people I know haven’t seen any.

Phew. I need to work full time just to stay on top of these issues to the degree I would like. That’s a problem many of us outside the industry share. I have more questions and thoughts about these issues and others, but student essays beg for responses, committee work needs to be done, the lawn needs mowing, a book chapter needs to be written, and my son needs help building his birdhouse. As Lilace said to me earlier, it’s hard to create when we are so busy defending. And it’s not easy to understand an issue when more questions are raised than answers given. The situation reminds me of getting lost on my bike—I may be tired, the weather threatening, and the water bottles empty, but I know I need to keep turning the pedals. Eventually, I’ll figure out where I am. Likewise, I have to keep asking questions, and reading, thinking, and writing about the industry.

Words We Drill By

September 18, 2011

by Jimmy

The Man Himself

I recently read an interview with Chesapeake’s CEO Aubrey McClendon where he characterized the people at a protest outside a gas industry conference in Philly as anti-drilling extremists. He said: “Remind me: What value have the protesters outside created? What jobs have they created? You know the answer and so do I. So it’s time that we contrast what we do for a living with what they do for a living. . . . What a glorious vision of the future: It’s cold, it’s dark and we’re all hungry.” Talk about painting with a broad brush. I mark those kinds of comments in my students’ writing all the time.

For the record, I wasn’t at the protest in Philly. I identify with the protesters, though, because I was labeled a “vigilante” by industry lobbyists for training to be a Pine Creek Waterdog. The lobbyists painted with the same broad brush, and amid an outcry, retracted the label. But using the term “vigilante” was motivated in part by the same thing that motivates McClendon’s statement: looking at the world from the perspective of a gas driller.

What fascinates me about McClendon’s comment (other than it sounds a bit hysterical) is the way it shows how important natural gas drilling is for him. The key word is “value.” If you are not creating jobs or working for the gas industry, his comment suggests, then you create nothing of value. It’s a limited definition of value, framed in economic terms, and it suggests that anything else one might do has little or no value. So much for teaching people how to write. So much for raising kids. So much for supporting my community. So much for riding my bike. Damn! I guess I’m not worth much. Thanks, Aubrey. You’ve made my day.

Last I checked we live in a democracy where people are allowed to voice dissenting opinions. (This appears to be changing, but that’s another subject.) Protest itself is valuable—think Civil Rights, Vietnam, women’s voting rights, Wisconsin and Ohio governance, gay marriage, Keystone Pipeline. Protests are driven by values just as much as values drive those who slam the protesters. That’s how we move ahead as a society—by raising issues based on what we value, arguing about them, and reaching a compromise.

Let’s face it, though: no matter what your values are, if you don’t have clean water and air, your values won’t matter. Values are a distinctly human thing. So we could say that everyone is linked by the need to live in a clean environment. I don’t see that as a value as much as a right. But then again, I’m not Aubrey McClendon. My view of the world is shaped by a different kind of work.

That we look at the world in terms of our work is something McClendon and I share. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth remembering that a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. McClendon looks at the world from the perspective of a gas industry CEO; I look at the world from the perspective of a college professor trained in rhetoric. We can’t help it. In fact, I’ve been dying to use the term “occupational psychosis” the entire time I’ve been writing (there, I used it), jargon that in my field basically means our work, whatever it is, shapes the way we see the world. That’s the academic in me. But the problem with looking at the world in terms of one’s work occurs when we let those terms hide other issues or possibilities. At best, our work-tinted views are a partial view of the world itself. His use of language (in this quote and elsewhere) seeks to limit possibilities. By making such statements, he tries to turn very real concerns about the here and now into an obsession with the past (the Dark Ages), rather than an interest in the future (progress). His quote creates a sense that, “OMG, without gas, I’ll be like the cavemen trying to start a fire in Night at the Museum. Save me, Aubrey, save me.”

For many, rhetoric is a bad word, the equivalent of bullshit. But actually all language is rhetoric, the good, the bad, and the Aubrey. My discipline teaches people how words can shape attitudes which, in turn, shape behaviors. For better (think Martin Luther King) or worse (think Hitler). My field teaches people that words are powerful, and words can use us just as much as we use them. My field also teaches people that words can be used for seeing multiple possibilities or solutions to any issue. That’s the cool part, because it opens up a world of choices, negotiation, connection, compromise. Because of my work, I’m suspicious of any language that simplifies complex situations like gas drilling. That’s my own occupational psychosis. The more possibilities I see, the higher the likelihood of making decisions that will help me create the world I want to live in. On some level, McClendon understands this when he questions the value the protestors “outside” have created. (“Outside” is another important word carrying literal and metaphorical meanings–you’re either with ‘em or agin’ ‘em.) By framing “value” in such narrow terms, he creates a difficult atmosphere in which to have a conversation about genuine concerns, and it works in the industry’s favor. He knew he would be quoted, and he knew that his words would divide people (insiders and outsiders) that, in a different context, like raising kids or drinking beer, probably identify with each other. My discipline has trained me to recognize that things change over time, and what might work in, say, the California oil boom of the early twentieth century, might not apply now. McClendon doesn’t want things to change (except in ways that ensure his company and industry has unfettered access to land for drilling), because it works well for him and the industry. Other concerns aren’t worth bothering about.

Signal Hill, California, 1920s

More than anything, I find McClendon’s comment amusing, and I doubt that he fully believes it. He appears to be reacting in part to the growing mistrust of the industry. I think that mistrust is growing because the industry hasn’t done a good job of actually talking with—rather than at—the people who live here. That’s the industry’s fault. People around here are intelligent—they talk to each other, they learn, and they expect (and deserve) respect. Many people want the industry to see this place as more than a resource, and comments like McClendon’s don’t do that because the only value he will acknowledge is economic. In the world his rhetoric creates, the economics of gas constitute the only meaningful value. That probably satisfies many people, but not me. I value many other things besides money. Of course, McClendon has the right to try to create any world he wants, even one driven primarily by economics. But his is not the kind of world I want to live in, so I’m going to join the conversation and offer other possibilities, like the protesters were (and are) doing. The world created by McClendon’s rhetoric is a real world, but it’s only one version. Lilace and I are working to create another version. It’ll be partial, like McClendon’s, but it will align with values that extend beyond economics. Rhetoric enables us to do that.

When I worked construction, I bought a 28 oz. Estwing framing hammer that I loved to use. I’d swing that hammer all day if I could, but it wasn’t always the right tool for the job. Not everything is a nail. Likewise, just because there’s gas under these hills doesn’t mean their only value is as a resource. And there is absolutely no reason why the land cannot be an economic, environmental, public health, and recreational resource at the same time. It takes compromise, creative problem solving, and conversation. McClendon might get a lot further with his work if he’d acknowledge that there’s more to the world than drill, baby, drill. I might have listened to him then.

This is Only (?) a Test

August 18, 2011

by Lilace

If you read the last post, you can tell that we are declining permission for Shell (or anyone) to do seismic testing on our property.  I’m not interested in arguing about what’s the right decision because what’s right for us is not necessarily what’s right for someone else. We know this. What I want to explore is why and how we came to our decision, especially the culture of mistrust that permeates our interactions with the gas industry. And I don’t think we’re alone in this.

The man who came to our door explained that crews would mark a grid, and make small “shot holes” at specified intervals, which they’d fill with a few pounds of explosives. When the explosives are set off, the shock waves would be monitored so they can map what geologic formations are below, thus getting a pretty good idea of where best to drill. The man mentioned that, since we haven’t leased, the information could show that our property has great worth to Shell—and maybe we could get a better lease—or is not of much worth. We only have seven acres; the seismic grid might not even cross our land much.

Since I claimed my husband was the one who’d sign or not, the Shell representative left me with the form. The language Shell uses—its vagueness and tone—is an example of how gas companies attempt to manipulate or even mislead people. To a person giving it a quick read—while a company man stands by with a pen, for instance—the first sentence implies that the testing will happen no matter what, and they’re just giving you a heads up to be nice: “SWEPI LP . . . is conducting a geophysical seismic survey in search of natural gas reserves and as a courtesy, wishes to obtain consent permission to enter your property . . .”

I agree it is the signer’s responsibility to read carefully and ask questions. But beyond the tone, which presumes an authority I would argue it does not warrant, the next paragraph is the real issue. “The length of time that SWEPI LP will be on your property . . . will be kept to as minimum as possible. The survey is very low impact with no or very minimal damage done to your property.”

A quick search on the internet brings up discussions of what these impacts actually entail. The receiver lines are cleared about 4 ft. wide through woodlands. The perpendicular paths where the shot holes are drilled are wider—some people were told 10 to 12 ft. If you have mostly fields, you might consider this minimal impact. If you have woods, probably not.  And why not say what the average length of time on the property is? I believe the man I spoke with said two weeks.

Since my husband and I are not interested in leasing, the answer was easy for us. If we granted permission we would have strangers on our property at random times over a span of a week or more, explosives going off disturbing us and our animals, be giving away information about our private property, and receiving nothing in return.  No, thank you.

But as I researched further, I discovered something really troubling. In Clark County, Wyoming, a landowner (who did not own the gas rights and therefore could not disallow the seismic testing) found out that about 1% of explosives do not go off and would not deteriorate for 2 years. That’s two years that the explosives could be set off accidentally. His next step was even more interesting: “He phoned his insurance company, advised them of the proposed explosives and seismic exploratory operations and asked about his liability coverage. He was promptly advised that should such activity take place on his property, his homeowner’s insurance would either be cancelled or would not be renewed on the next renewal date.”

How many think about how any of these activities affect their current homeowners insurance policies? Not me. The process seems so straightforward when talking with the man on the porch, but possible consequences twist beneath the surface of the words.

If I had leased, or was thinking of allowing seismic testing, I would now ask what explosives they will use, what percentage misfire, how long till they deteriorate, and exactly what SWEPI LP can be held liable for. I would call my insurance agent and find out how it affects my coverage, and if it violates it I’d ask SWEPI LP what they’d do to make sure I had liability coverage. The sentence “please keep in mind that SWEPI LP would be liable for any damages related to the geophysical seismic survey operations” sounds good, but I’d want to know if there was a time period after the survey was conducted that the liability expired (before the explosives deteriorated, for example) and if it covered personal injury, not just property damage.

Pink surveyor markers used in conjunction with seismic testing

Some of our friends who have leased and been notified that crews will be coming by soon, have not left the house together for weeks. The couple has made sure one of them is home at all times so they can try to negotiate where the paths and explosives go. They have gardens, wetlands, and other property features they cherish. They know the game trails and where the deer bed. They are not reassured by the vague language of Shell’s claims that everything will be all right.

Obviously Shell, or any other gas company, has different priorities than my friends. And landowners can have different priorities, which is why some lease and some don’t. And once a lease is signed—even with well thought out addendums and restrictions on surface disruption—the gas company has the upperhand. Many will work well with property owners, but when their interests directly clash it will almost always be the gas company that gets its way.

Public distrust of fracking (the process and the companies) has grown strong enough that even Washington is aware that more science and more transparency is needed or exploration might be impeded (see the NPR story). Clearly the gas companies have the most money, and money equals power—especially the power to control or heavily influence the flow of information. And people are starting to react against how they’ve wielded that power.

I recognize that 3-D seismic testing yields important information and can help wells be placed more efficiently. But the way gas companies stake out the lines of discussion—at our door and on paper—to cut through obstacles and get what they want makes it hard for me to trust anything they do. So my immediate response is to say no, please leave me alone. No matter how rich they say we’d become, or how harmless and helpful a process is touted to be. And that’s unfortunate for all parties.