Tennis, Anyone?

I’ve been reading a lot about fracking lately – the hydraulic fracturing technology that is being used to extract natural gas from deep in the earth’s crust. Right now, it feels like watching a tennis match. The two sides are quickly squaring off to be just as hardened as the “pro-choice / pro-life” battle lines. Until recently, this issue has been relatively ignored by the media. But now that the two sides are lobbing grenades at each other, the articles are flying.

Industry talking points include dismissive monikers like “the greens” and use sophisticated logic to imply that environmentalists stand between our country and future economic greatness. To hear them tell it, responding to claims of fracking pollution with study and caution will relegate our country to second-class status on the world stage. “If you’re opposed to drilling, you’re in favor of foreign oil” has been uttered by regular citizens at contentious public hearings.

On the environmental side, frustration bordering on hysteria is building about the inconceivable risks to New York City’s drinking water if fracking continues on unregulated and with little or no oversight. 200,000 wells are projected for drilling in New York and Pennsylvania; 50,000 in New York City’s drinking water watershed alone.

Indeed, the many environmental impacts of drilling activities are only just now beginning to be independently studied. The few studies that have been done raise serious questions that cry out for further study and better regulation and oversight:

    Links between flammable drinking water and fracking found in a Duke University Study.

    This one takes a look at the greenhouse gas footprint of drilling. The study is limited only to methane releases during capture of natural gas, which is significant enough for the authors to compare fracking unfavorably to coal. Maybe one day we’ll see a study that includes the emissions impacts from the thousands of diesel trucks that are also involved.

Perusing the comments posted online to articles in the Wall Street Journal, PBS, Huffington Post, and the New York Times, I am struck by how rigidly opinionated many of them are. I am also saddened by how deeply ignorant many people still are about the physics of this beautiful blue-green planet we live on. Our continued addiction to fossil fuels (I’m just as guilty), we are blind to the simple fact that these substances were deposited over millennia into the earth’s crust for a simple reason: life on earth is safer with such toxic materials sequestered away. The intelligent thing would be to leave them there and not drill, frack, pump, or mine them any more.

Lest I reveal my own bias too obviously (too late, right?!), here’s a question to consider: What if everyone is right? As long as no one insists on being 100% right, we just might get somewhere.

The idea is to follow the Taoist wisdom illustrated so beautifully in the yin-yang diagram. The right answer here is neither black nor white. Nor is it grey, for that matter. Instead, it is BOTH black and white. The Taoists speak of a third way, which is different from a middle way. We can arrive at the third way only through intelligent, open-minded discussion that is devoid of jargon and spin. The third way is the way of imagination and possibility. Humans are really good at imagining solutions – but only if we let up on the hostility and finger pointing.

In that spirit, consider these compelling aspects of the stances from each side:

  • It’s important for America to pursue energy independence, to wean ourselves off massive imports of foreign oil.
  • It’s not practical for us to give up modern life and go live in a cave.
  • Scientific study is a valid and important way to understand the potential risks from fracking.
  • The only way to clean an aquifer is not to pollute it to begin with.
  • Energy efficiency is the most affordable and safe “renewable energy” available. Negawatts are free and non-polluting. (A Negawatt is a watt of energy not consumed.)
  • Making our homes, cars, and industries more efficient is generating millions of new jobs.
  • Industry is primarily, if not exclusively, profit-motivated. This makes it necessary for some entity to prevent short-sighted decisions from harming the public welfare. Historically, this oversight has been provided by the government. It’s why children are no longer permitted to work as coal miners.
  • Automobiles are inherently dangerous, yet there are dozens of safety features that have been added in over the years. It is not unreasonable to ask the gas industry to design additional safety features into their equipment and procedures.
  • Business is not evil. Good businesses provide jobs, wealth, and meaning to their employees and the community.
  • Caring about the environment is not “soft” or stupid. Since we depend on the health of the natural world for our own survival, it is actually pretty smart to care.
  • Natural gas itself is a relatively clean-burning, versatile fuel that plays a vital role in our transition to a clean economy – one that does not rely on burning fuels but instead looks to efficiency and renewable energy.

In closing, I recommend everyone take a look at the Precautionary Principle, a well-respected science-based system. It shifts the burden of proof from the victim to the industry, since industrial concerns know their technologies and are in the best position to find safer alternatives to risky activities.

It is my fervent desire to see energy efficiency come into this debate. It would put a whole new spin on this tennis match.

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