Thursday, October 14, 2010

NY Choices: Rosy Picture, or Catastrophic Vision?

[Submitted, but they never ran it.  I couldn't get it down to 600 words.]

The debate over New York producing its own shale gas seems to be polarizing into only two possible views — a Rosy Picture, or a Catastrophic Vision. The (Syracuse) Post-Standard’s editorialists Oct. 11 showed they have been swayed by the anti-drillers, and they can’t seem to see any sensible, workable middle ground.

“Go Slowly,” the headline read. But, to me, this is just opposition masquerading as caution.

Here's why: New York already looks headed for a stalemate on shale gas. Right now, it can’t go any slower — unless the state decides to permanently ban its landowners from arranging to develop this part of their land. Alone among states bearing significant fossil fuels, New York has temporarily frozen all full-frack shale wells since July 2008. Since that time, state experts have given the environmental impacts of this new technology extensive study, hearing much public commentary, before re-drafting the drilling regs. They say New York is going to have the toughest rules in the nation. Originally, they thought they’d be done by Spring 2009, but they’re now a year and a half late, and still not finished.

To me, it already seems pretty slow.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has seen the drilling of thousands of wells in Marcellus shale — about 1,800 as of the time of this writing. The resulting economic hubbub down there has been undeniable. Pennsylvania has also admittedly experienced two or three dozen cases of mishap — some fairly ordinary, some spectacular, some tragic, and all unfortunate. Keep in mind that what you hear about Dimock, PA, has long since exploded beyond the original issue (methane migration into water wells), or the uncontested need to make affected residents whole again. Instead, every nuance and angle in that case has been put to work in service of the much larger causes of confrontation and persuasion, including legal persuasion.

Now the Post-Standard van has arrived at the rear end of New York’s gridlock over hydrofracking, and it kibitzes, “Go Slowly.”  Among other things, this editorialist appears to have seen some allegations blaming drilling for “stillbirths, low fertility and no milk production in livestock.” To me, it looks like yet another person has wandered through one of the thousands of web pages out there crafted by somebody whose primary motivation is to freak out the next guy. Very little of this sort of activist literature is solid enough to hold up under scientific scrutiny, or even just a journalistic, fact-checking process.

To be sure, both sides are going to argumentative extremes to win this debate — often deploying intentionally dishonest misinformation — and both sides are also staging every “truth” and every “fact” before a backdrop of persuasive imagery — the Rosy Pictures, or Catastrophic Visions.

Rosy Pictures painted by industry are glossy hype, rooted in advertising industry techniques that pluck the heartstrings of America. The stuff I’ve seen lately looks a lot like political campaign advertising — with a certain warmly lit, flannel-shirted folksy charm.

If you’re skeptical, you should be.

Taking a look at the arguments of drilling opponents, we see images filtered by a Catastrophic Vision. We sense an unimpeachable aura that’s a mixture of heartfelt concern, outright fear, and cynical disbelief. We read claims that rural areas will be rendered “unlivable,” and water supplies will be “ruined,” and government is “powerless” to make it stop or make it right, and landowners will “lose everything.”

But, again, I’m skeptical. That's really the difference between my skepticism and the skepticism of drilling opponents: My skepticism cuts both ways.

I have identified myself as an environmentalist since the first Earth Day in 1970, and since the first energy crisis of 1972. I am pro-conservation and pro-renewables, and I believe we should use all fossil fuels sparingly. The easiest way to make that happen is to make the non-renewable stuff way more expensive now. Really, it should have been done years ago. But, here, let’s finally trigger some evolutionary changes, now that the shale gas is rising:

• Arm our regulators with tougher rules and more sophisticated technological expertise.

Force drillers to minimize their impacts, and to mitigate for them. 

Have a little faith in landowners, as they organize to protect themselves, and to demand the highest possible payback from this once-only harvest. (Here’s a really clever sign held up by a protesting landowner: “Pay Me, Not OPEC!”)

Tax the gas, already.

Actually, in the Northeast, especially PA, all these changes are already underway. It all helps to create a situation where we will, in fact, “Go Slowly.”

But something tells me that’s not what the Post-Standard was driving at. “Go Slowly” usually turns out to be a code phrase for a perpetually rolling moratorium, and for giving opponents plenty of time to stir up an obstructive ruckus, while another new panel gets assigned to study and re-study the issue, indefinitely.

I say it’s not all strictly necessary. Really — we can do this thing.

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