All Fracked Up

My summer has been more fracked up than yours.

Oh, yes, it has.

And of course I mean that in the “hydrofracking for natural gas” usage and not in nudge-nudge “Battlestar Galactica” way. The highlight has been my summer roadtrip, taken annually when my young son gets out of school and usually reserved for family visits and backyard camping. Once again, the pilgrimage proved that, like all long-distance driving efforts, John Steinbeck was speaking Truth when he noted that “… we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Even so, this particular drive took over early, in part because it involved a calculus of loading my seven-year-old into the trusty Honda Element and sweeping down from my coastal perch in Maine. The idea was to pause briefly near Boston, then head inland to quick-visit family across Upstate New York, Eastern Ohio and Deep West Virginia. The Normandy invasion was relatively off-the-cuff compared to the moving parts for this jaunt.

And, in part, the trip took over because it moved the most important environmental issue of our day out of the intellect and into the gut. This despite the fact that I knew a bunch about hydrofracking going into the trip — I watched the “Gasland” movie twice, once for the education and once to savor the horrible shocks of recognition as the film played out of much of my personal landscape.

There he was in my old Western Colorado stomping grounds, lighting folk’s tapwater on fire. There he was in upstate New York near where my sister lives, visiting with families worried about toxins in their water. On and on it went — but my real focus came later when The New York Times ran a long series of investigative stories that casually noted radioactive wastewater had been dumped into the Finger Lake next to family property.

What the frack? Radioactive water?

OK, stepping back a bit, here’s the skinny on this thing: The fracking frackers pump a mix of water, sand and chemicals into these shale formations typically more than a mile underground. That mix is under pressure, and smashes up the shale, freeing the natural gas trapped there. That gas is pumped back up to the surface, as is that aforementioned fracking liquid — except now it’s like fancy vodka: infused.

But instead of lemon or cherry or bacon, this stuff comes up infused not only with the chemical additives but now with heavy metals and even radioactive material as well. The industry says this stuff is relatively harmless and that lighting tapwater on fire is little more than a parlor trick. Still, it does focus one, doesn’t it?

It’s not all that new. Actually, some sort of fracking has been going on for years. But new technology and the energy costs associated with our nation-building activities in the Middle East have accelerated the pace: A state with a few hundred wells five years ago might have thousands today.

Here’s how it became such a huge deal. First, there’s something like 100 years worth of energy in the various shale formations, and fracking is being conducted on some level in more than half the states. But the big areas are the Rocky Mountain West, Texas and the Appalachian Basin. The Marcellus Shale is named after Marcellus, New York, which is about eight miles from my sister’s home, and extends roughly from there through West Virginia to the south, and from eastern Ohio to parts of Maryland.

Such water-related activities in the United States are largely regulated by The Energy Policy Act of 2005. Remember how pissed off your environmental zealot buddies were when Vice President Cheney developed all those regulations behind closed doors with the oil companies? Well, it turns out they exempted hydrofracking from federal standards in something called (and I’m not making this up) the Halliburton Loophole. As for what’s in those millions and millions of gallons being pumped into the ground … well, those are “trade secrets” and the companies don’t even have to disclose their secret sauce.

It’s all very depressing. Wasn’t natural gas supposed to be part of the clean-energy solution? It’s the kind of disappointment usually reserved for finding out that Diet Coke also helps make you fat. (You read about that, right? You have to keep up.)

Among those thinking the fracked natural gas environmental halo is well tarnished is a team of researchers from Cornell University, including Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology. In one of the first peer-reviewed papers on the subject, he paints a sad picture.

“The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil,” Howarth said. “We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”

Worse than (gulp!) coal?

It gets worse, no matter what those shrink-wrapped natural-gas-fueled METRO buses would have us believe.

It turns out that many federal energy regulations are based on end-use measurements. Thus, “clean burning natural gas” might be less polluting than oil in your home furnace, but not necessarily when you look at the entire carbon footprint from ground-to-stove. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency is getting serious about air pollution limits in fracking areas. That’s because the process releases a lot of ozone — parts of the Rocky Mountain West this summer have more ozone problems than Los Angeles.

But don’t worry. The EPA is on the case and expects to have a very important study ready in 2014! Meanwhile, more than 50 local jurisdictions have moved to regulate the practice on their own, a move that would worry drillers more if they were not confident that state and federal laws will erase those regulations.

Want just a tiny a bit more?

My friend Stuart Smith, an attorney turned environmental blogger who knows way more about radiation than nearly anyone alive (and doesn’t get his cell phone near his skull, by the way), writes that “… currently there is no way to effectively remove radioactive contaminants like radium from fracking wastewater, so in time those toxins will make their way into drinking water supplies. Here’s to a radioactive twist in every tall cool glass.”

That’s where my summer road trip comes in.

For a few summer days, at backyard parties and family-friendly roadside attractions and fueling stops and restaurants, I asked and asked about fracking. I’m blessed with a reporter’s habit of engaging innocent bystanders in my story and an aging white guy’s absolute lack of menace. So people tend to chat with me. And, of course, this is America, so you can demographic most of us by the matrix of clothing and/or bumperstickers. It’s not scientific, but as accurate as we’ll get sans massive grant funding.

“Hey, I’ve noticed all these fracking signs … ” I’d say by introduction.

And there were sometimes dozen or even hundreds of anti-fracking signs, including many of those annoying campaign-style signs that sprout in the medians around Election Day. They had the usual 1,233 puns off the word “frack” that you’d expect, but they were not supported by my series of conversations.

Granted, some people did not know what the frack I was talking about, but those who did seemed alarmingly dismissive of the environmental impacts.

But they sure were impressed with the jobs.

Near my brother’s home in Eastern Ohio we drove past some gleaming construction — a new steel mill creating the pipes that will be needed in the fracking fields. He tells me it’s 2,000 new jobs.

What? Thousands of jobs at a new steel mill? In the U.S. of A.?

During a passing conversation, I asked a local about water contamination. He told me “Wal-Mart’s got plenty of water, we need jobs.”

Days later, my son and I are enjoying the hot tub at McCoy’s Best Western Resort north of Charleston, West Virginia. I ask one of our fellow guests, a young guy, what brings him to this wild, wonderful land. He’s a bit evasive, frankly, and I realized that he was one of the guys from a room two doors down from ours. The one with the muddy work boots outside the door.

I’d walked by that room and noted that it had the usual two beds, but also a roll-away. He notes that he and his buddies are down from Detroit, their boss sending them out for 12-6 work — that’s jargon for six days a week, 12 hours a day. I asked where they worked, and they told me the name of the town. That’s always a clue.

Later, they told my brother-in-law the name of the actual plant. It’s a natural gas pumping operation. Workers are often cautioned not to say where they’re working — one complaint is that the companies save the really good jobs for out-of-area workers who hog the local resort hot tubs.

It’s here that you realize how very, very tepid the usual East Coast media arguments can sound. If you’re concerned that political correctness has become a plague upon the land, then you can rest assured that some hardy souls have built up surprising immunity. This is the land of tree-hugging faggots, sand-niggers and where Saddam Hussein was most likely involved in the 9-11 attacks … and don’t you think it’s interesting that we elect somebody with a Muslim daddy right after that? If your daddy was a Baptist, you’d naturally side a bit with the Baptists, right?

What? You think this shit just happens?

So, you’re going to argue about possible pollution a mile underground to people who watch the tops of mountains being ripped off and who have already seen their streams and towns sacrificed to the Cheap Energy Gods? Around here, they know that about half the nation’s electricity comes from burning coal, and they know precious few of the treehuggers are from around these parts, except for a few of them who are going through their college phase.

Those signs that adorn all those lawns to the north are not seen in this part of West Virginia, fading slowly away like some flower with a limited growing range.

My kid sister, who has worked in a law office for years, announces she’s leaving to join a guy who secures permissions for the new gas pipelines. Good money and her boy graduates high school this year; a baseball scholarship seems likely, but he’ll need money for college anyway. Her husband, the world’s most robust heart-transplant survivor, notes that there’s enough natural gas in these mountains for 100 years, and combined with the coal, can finally make us not dependent on the Middle East.

It’s a good point, and as somebody who has worked in politics on and off for a decade, I’m thinking that, in some areas, great talking points like that are worth big money.

Spend some time driving through these mountains, singing John Denver songs with your kid, and you see that, across much of what many elites dismiss as fly-over America, natural gas is literally reshaping the economy, landscape and political divisions. On the long march home, I recall a tempest when a New York Times columnist dared suggest that the real reason fracking was Big News is that the extraction process finally threatened civilization. So long at it was Out West or Texas, it was background noise. But now it was an East Coast issue. Hey, we make our pizza with that water. What the frack?

My guess is that the natural gas revolution is going to reshape political landscape in ways that make strip mining and the Tea Party movement seem tame. The voters I talked to, from GOP-voting blue-collar workers to the progressive politically active gay couple who run a local B&B, are united: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.

And soon enough, all those pressure cooker issues are sure to shape politics,

Back at another sister’s place in the Finger Lakes, and a bit weary of the discussion, I decided to get at least some balance. The best bed-and-breakfast in the area is owned by a gay couple (OK, cliché perhaps, but it also reminds me of “Northern Exposure,” so it’s even more cool) with fairly lefty political views.

“We have to do it right,” they say, nearly together and finishing each other’s thoughts the way long-term couples can sometimes. “But we have to have the drilling, we need the jobs and the energy independence.”

At this point, I’m starting to write stuff like that down. Somebody is buying talking points somewhere.

See, here’s the thing: Fracking is not like other standard environmental issues because people actually give a damn. Global Warming might be a “bigger” issue, but that check comes due in decades — it’s an environmental issue the way Social Security going broke 20 years from now is an economic issue. Important, sure, but what’s up with that NFL lockout?

And it will become increasingly difficult to figure it’s just somewhere else. In Maine, less than 1% of our electricity is generated from coal, while 44.3% of our electricity is generated by burning natural gas, according to the Institute for Energy Research. So, as one green group notes on it’s website, “… we can feel happy that we are not directly responsible for the removal of mountaintops in Appalachia, but we are complicit in fracking, every time we turn on the lights or read a blog like this one on our computer.”

The sleeping bags and road snacks are finally cleared from the car, and if I can find the source of that vague dairy-product smell, then we’ll be finally home. My favorite totem from the trip has gone missing, a cardboard sign of the style favored by the roadside homeless that said: Don’t Frack With Us!

But no worries. I’m sure there will be more popping up really soon.