Tuesday, November 30, 2010



Being an environmentalist these days is like being a child sitting amongst multiple Jacks-in-the-Box, hitting them sequentially until she runs out of hands and little hammers. We are trying to address the issues separately as they spring into awareness. When I brought this up to EO Wilson a few years ago, famed entomologist turned ecologist, he threw up his hands, “One issue at a time, please.” Sorry Ed, but Gaia under assault from clever primates who skipped kindergarten morality lessons doesn't respond that way.

Quietly, while we thought we had identified all the environmental enemies, a “prolific monster” (Toronto Globe) has added itself to the small herd of elephants in the room. That monster is high-volume slick water hydrofracking of shale gas, fracking for short. This is a revolutionary process, pioneered by Halliburton, which, using horizontal drilling along potential fissures, blasts the rock with explosives, forcing under enormous pressure millions of gallons of water laced with a proprietary mix of poisonous chemicals which further fracture the rock. The result is to release many bubbles of methane diffused under the surface through the borehole. This means that a lot more methane is now recoverable, and our supplies of this “clean-burning” staple of modern energy life is much enhanced.

So why is this a monster? The answers are many, and reveal that this may be the environmental issue of our time, the biggest elephant in the herd. Orion's carcinogenic chemicals specialist Sandra Steingraber, who has written a blockbuster essay on fracking, sums it up: With every well drilled –and 32,000 wells per year are planned – a couple million gallons of fresh water are transformed into toxic fracking fluid. Some of that fluid will remain underground. Some will come flying back out of the hole, bringing with it other monsters: benzene, brine, radioactivity, and heavy metals that, for the past 400 million years, had been safely locked up a mile below us... No one knows what to do with this lethal flowback – a million or more gallons for every wellhead. Too caustic for reuse as it is, it sloshes around in open pits and sometimes is hauled away in fleets of trucks to be forced under pressure down a disposal well. And it is sometimes clandestinely dumped.

By 2012, 100 billion gallons per year of fesh waterwilll be turned into toxic fracking fluid. The technology to transform it back to drinkable water does not exist. And, even if it did, where would we put all the noxious, radioactive substances we capture from it?

So there it is, in all its irremediable horror. And we thought hogwaste ponds were bad. In the past 10 years, this method of mining methane has gone from 1% of world product to 20%, mostly in the US. The biggest deposit, in the poetic-sounding Marcellus Shale, underlies Appalachia. As bad as moutaintOp removal is, as bad as coal ash dumps are, they pale by comparison to fracking. And it's just getting started.

Why weren't there hearings on this process as it became available? (Like the bioethical questions before the bioengineering revolution started). Where is public and legislative debate on these issues of life-and-death? Do we no longer care what genies and monsters we let loose through our continued perfection of engineering technique in the service of our energy comfort? In fact, just in the last couple of weeks, the EPA has demanded trade secrets on fracking fluid from Halliburton, which has predictably stonewalled. Let us pray that the process does not drag out over years.

The irony is that far more methane than we could ever use is starting to release in the Arctic tundra and shallow seas, vents that are bubbling up, and will continue to do so until an amount roughly equal to the threat of added CO2 is released, thus effectively doubling the odds for catastrophic planetary wraming. (Unless we act rapidly to reverse that warming, which is highly unlikely.) We are risking precious reserves of groundwater, especially in Eastern Appalachia, even as methane releases in the Arctic threaten us as much as the entire CO2 build-up. One of the positive feedback loops feared by climate scientists has started to kick in, and once it accelerates, it will be too late. There are elements of that feedback loop in hydrofracking, since some of the methane will simply be released by the new boreholes. But the dangers to public health are much more immediate for those who live near these operations.

Hydrofracking is similar to the development of tar sands in Alberta, Canada. There has been some debate about that horrendous method of extracting oil, again, by using billions of gallons of precious freshwater, with the added foolishness of cutting down huge stretches of boreal forests, one of our last remaining carbon sinks. But that water is not contaminated, forever unrecoverable (though a cost analysis of restoring it, added to the environmental costs of the mining itself, would render the whole project a negative economically as well as ecologically). And then there's the whole matter of deepwater drilling for oil. With all of these massive disruptions of earth processes, not enough debate, not enough caution. What about the Precautionary Principle?

Way before the reasonable notion of a precautionary principle, First Peoples had injunctions against violating the earth's surface. When I was teaching college humanities I remember being struck by a couplet in Ovid's Metamorphoses, prescient of our tragically jaded era: The rich earth, good giver of of harvest's bounty, was asked for more: they dug into her vitals (Metamorphoses, I.129-31). Ovid goes on to write of gold, root of evil. We have asked for much more, mining and drilling with abandon. Can we now make tough enough laws with sufficient enforcement to restuff Pandora's mineral and gas box?

I ask for law. I ask for duty, stewardship, precaution, a sense of responsibility. But only metanoia is going to save us from ourselves. This complete change in how we see ourselves living within the earth must come from two sources, justice and love. Justice is the prophetic awakening to the overwhelming fact that climate change is the moral issue of our time, an issue of intergenerational ecojustice as James Hansen points out. Loving our brother and sister species in the web, still mostly intact though with huge holes, makes sacrifice a matter of joy, not deprivation. Love of what's left would inspire a disciplined, orderly retreat. My reading of Ovid and of the remnant indigenous peoples is that the primal sense of not violating the earth involves both justice and love. Also a modicum of awe – as in fear of retribution from a wronged divinity. As to who that divinity is, take your pick – the Earth herself or the God of the Abrahamists.

If we do not reach this place quite soon, not one life at a time, but whole polycultural waves, then collapse, both macroeconomic and biospheric, will bring on loveless sacrifice on an unprecedented scale. The earth may thereby be saved, but civilization will not. We need restraint now, or human abundance will overwhelm natural abundance.

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