How the decline in CO2 emissions is like NAFTA
The quality of reporting on fracking in large outlets has been of varying quality. Day-to-day coverage of the latest developments is usually pretty good, but bigger picture trend pieces have a tendency to be positively fawning towards the industry. A couple of recent articles in the New York Times have been particularly bad, and one of them also foreshadowed an additional development.
The first was a credulous look at how great fracking is for the communities it occurs in. We are told how fat fracking checks are "swelling the bank accounts of some working-class families" in "amounts the recipients say are a bit disorienting." Even better: "More is probably on the way, potentially much more." So these struggling families have suddenly had their financial anxieties erased, their future incomes assured. I'm sure the ombudsman would say that the hazards of fracking were beyond the scope of the article, but wow does it read like a love letter.1
The Paper of Record followed that with another blow job the next month, this one the heartwarming tale of "a rare victory for the littlest of the little guys in global trade." It turns out there's a bean in India that is absolutely essential to fracking, and the Halliburtons of the world are just showing up and handing out big bags of money: "Tractor sales are soaring, land prices are increasing and weddings have grown even more colorful." (Note the True Love theme.)
The piece includes the obligatory party pooper caveat: fracking "may also have spoiled some rural water supplies and caused environmental damage in parts of the United States" - yes, it may have (via) - but don't let that dampen your spirits: "Farmers, traders and processors around Jodhpur admitted fulfilling some long-held dreams with the profits they made last year. Some took trips to Europe; some bought gold; others got married." Isn't that touching? Fracking is allowing them to fulfill long-held dreams like getting married!
The subtext of both pieces is identical: Hardscrabble life in wretched backwater transformed by heavy industrialization. The second story also has this: fracking "has led to a surge in natural gas production, a decline in oil imports and a gradual transition away from coal-fired power plants." A couple of weeks later NPR elaborated on that theme, which was then followed a few weeks ago by the news that carbon dioxide levels had dropped to a twenty year low.
This in turn produced a round of thoughtful chin stroking from commentators who claimed to have been on the fence about fracking but, now that it turned out to be such a boon to humanity, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. Sure it may cause some pollution in a few places, but it's wonderful in others, and in case we need a tiebreaker just look at how it reduces greenhouse gases.
Whenever a narrative laid out that conveniently my antenna goes up. Why the rush to declare fracking as the primary cause? Isn't some skepticism warranted when it lines up so nicely with what those in charge want to do? Has anyone looked into CO2 levels of other countries? Has there been a comparable drop in emissions elsewhere, and if so are those countries also plunging ahead with fracking? Is it possible that a global depression is more responsible for the reduction?
I'm not saying the connection between fracking and reduced emissions is specious. It could well be true to the degree trumpeted - but this is just an initial report. There might be significant other factors as well. Couldn't we ask for some additional studies2 in a reasonable time frame before declaring another wave of fossil fuel extraction as the savior of Mother Earth?
We should also be wary about that framing because it plays to the human tendency towards complacency and inertia. Our default position is to WANT to believe that everything is working just fine. We don't want to know where our products come from; we'd rather just get them and go. After all, if everything isn't fine - if there's some morally or ethically odious aspect to it - then it pricks our conscience. We might then be reasonably expected to do something, and maybe consider the possibility that those who are calling the shots don't really have our best interests at heart. Neither of those is a comforting prospect. Better to not have to think about it.
It has echoes of the debate over NAFTA. The Beltway media and political establishment were overwhelmingly in favor of it, and it simply went without saying that all sensible observers agreed. There was no meaningful dissent in Washington, no discussion of whether labor or environmental safeguards should be included, nothing. It was just an unalloyed good. Free trade means more jobs and lower prices.
Even if such rosy promises were true (they weren't), they were only true in aggregate. Large scale changes like NAFTA or wholehearted commitment to fracking create particular winners and losers. The question then becomes: what are we prepared to do about it? With NAFTA, affected communities were left to the tender mercies of the unregulated market, and since those communities were not in the nation's capitol they were largely invisible to the national press.3
Are we prepared to do that again? Is everyone so stimulated by the early attribution of fracking to the CO2 drop that we rush into it and leave everyone to their fates? If so, we should at least be honest and not insult anyone's intelligence. Just say that you can't make a fracking omelet without breaking a few eggs and be done with it. Don't pretend there are no consequences or that there won't be communities turned upside down by it.
If, however, we are really going to try to protect those communities, we will need to successfully make demands on interests that are used to getting their way; we will need those who profit handsomely from fracking to fully fund protection, cleanup and restitution programs. We will also need a more deliberate pace and a willingness to digest the unpleasant details of what fracking involves.
Discussions like that have not even begun, though. The industry will chafe under any spending that will not ultimately enrich its executives (and maybe its shareholders), so don't expect any willing assistance from there. Don't expect it from any of the cheerleaders in the media, either. Environmental safeguards are not the norm now, and even the most minimal ones will not be put in place without a big fight. It won't just happen on its own. Those with a conscience take note.
1. Interesting side note: The article mentions "Jennifer Garrison, a lawyer from Marietta and former three-term Democratic state representative" negotiating deals with the industry on behalf of the sellers. This is an example of the Democratic party's "get worse slower" approach. In this strategy, Republicans propose to allow everything to go to hell in a handbasket and the Democrats, instead of insisting on a superior alternate policy, offer to make the trip there a little more pleasant.
This also gives a nice picture of the unified political support of fracking, similar to the generally unified MSM support of it.
3. A related phenomenon is the "look here" editorial bias, where the closer a thing is to an outlet the more acutely it is felt. This is what makes the mere prospect of a few thousand layoffs for the (Washington DC-centric) military-industrial complex command far more attention than the actual layoff of over half a million public sector workers nationwide in the last two years. Keep an eye out this fall for lots of touching human interest stories on the plight of defense contractors bravely trying to navigate these newly turbulent waters.