“What good is all our education” if we continue fracking?

September 23, 2015 | 0 comments

Jenny Lisak is the first guest contributor for our blog series on the Penn State Reads book, The Boom by Russell Gold. Lisak is a Pennsylvanian mother and farmer. Having seen the impacts of what she calls “the extreme extraction method known as fracking” to her farm and community, she co-founded the Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water and Air to “help raise awareness on the many dangers of hydraulic fracturing and to help protect our most valuable resources.”  You can also read our first post, “Russell Gold’s The Boom as a Sustainability Learning Opportunity.”

“In a world that’s quickly heating up and drying up, you can’t go home again — even if you never leave.” Clive Thompson

The science tells us we must cease using fossil fuels. Some scientists go further and say that the two degree Celsius climate cap is not possible to meet without ‘negative emissions’ or carbon capturing. Feedback loops are hastening the loss of ice sheet mass far faster than anticipated. Life is ever more absurd.

Does it matter what the demand for dirty energy is when we are fast approaching the point of no return? According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, natural gas burning contributes carbon, albeit only a little more than half that of coal, with the latter emitting 205.7 pounds of carbon per MBTU and natural gas 117 per MBTU. Propane (another component of natural gas) emits 163 pounds of CO2 per MBTU. And then there is methane, the main component of natural gas, which in the first 100 years has 34 times the global warming potential of carbon, and is 86 times stronger as a heat-trapping gas than CO2 over 20 years. It’s a choice between evils. Do you want one bullet to the head or two?

Natural gas production contributes to greenhouse gases in more ways than carbon and methane. The natural gas industry is the largest industrial source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). NOx gases have 300 times more global warming potential than CO2. Natural gas contributes NOx gases through the use of compressed natural gas as fuel and through nitrogen fertilizer production and use. The land-use footprint is significant; the destruction of healthy fields and forests for gas production releases carbon, and the scars left behind can no longer sequester carbon. There have been 31,000 gas leaks in Pennsylvania from the aging network of distribution lines, costing 11 billion dollars to fix. In addition there will be an eternity of maintaining gas wells. Abandoned wells have been referred to as “super-emitters of methane” and there may be as many as 900,000 of them in Pennsylvania alone. It’s long past time to turn off the gas.

Of course, if the industry’s contribution to the climate crisis isn’t enough of a reason to discontinue this practice, the other problems associated with fracking should be. There’s the toxic chemicals injected through our aquifers, the toxic and radioactive waste, the explosive nature of gas, and many, many other known and unknown risks.

Our homes are the places where we should feel safe, where we recharge, find solace and respite. There is a visceral connection to the homes where we grow up or raise our children, but for those of us in Dr. Terry Engelder’s (Professor of Geosciences, Penn State) “sacrifice zones,”* that security has been robbed from us. We have lost what we most valued; the peace of mind is gone. We no longer feel safe at home, we feel threatened and terrorized. No matter how vehemently opposed we are to having an explosive, deafening loud, toxic, malodorous, heavy industry next door wafting carcinogenic VOCs and particulates, it just doesn’t seem to matter. What the hell if it’s all you worked for all your life and a multitude of studies are telling you that living near gas infrastructure carries serious dangers to you and your loved ones? The disconnection is disturbing, it’s inhumane. Where is the compassion and the empathy?

The indifference is the same as the denial and lack of ownership for the climate crisis. Our fundamental security of ‘home’ is gone, whether it’s the one where we tuck our babies in for the night or our whole lovely blue-green earth. There is a great sense of loss, of being deprived, a great sadness, a theft, anxiety, and disbelief. Hope hangs by a very thin thread as corporate greed refuses to acknowledge culpability and our ‘powers that be’ think mainly in terms of growth and commerce.

Naively, I have collected the stories I’ve been reading that illustrate the travails of those who are unfortunate enough to be in the way of gas production. The same naiveté that I possessed when I saw the flags for a Marcellus well next door to my home on a neighbor’s property and thought it was a simple mistake. Surely they didn’t realize that many families live so close, that they all rely on spring or well water. They just didn’t know about the kestrels that have nested at the barn for the past 27 years and would be unlikely to return with industrial activity only a few yards away. They were just unaware of the annual migration of spotted salamanders that slither so far to mate in the same vernal pool every spring, now likely to be crushed by the heavy traffic. But no, there was no mistake. The permit described an escape plan for workers to run upwind in the event of a unintended release, but what care for my children who lived directly downwind, where were we to run?  What care that our neighborhood’s nearest pond was going to be a radioactive toxic waste filled one that would be off gassing to the neighborhood children.

I thought that collecting the stories that we were hearing from folks who always had good water before drilling started or have been well but were now suffering from mysterious maladies or don’t want to have their properties destroyed and taken by eminent domain might be what it would take to stop this ridiculousness. This list of those harmed is just a very partial list but it’s a long one – yet it does not seem to matter. Nothing has stopped the natural gas industry as it sweeps through our state and many others. It doesn’t seem to matter how destructive it is to the climate, doesn’t matter how much methane is leaking, doesn’t matter whose community is ripped apart, or if the jobs are dangerous and unhealthy. It doesn’t matter how many leaks or spills there are or how many earthquakes. It doesn’t matter how radioactive the waste is, whose dreams are destroyed, or how many people are evacuated every day because of the danger of a gas explosion. It doesn’t even seem to matter that there are solutions—that wind and solar, geothermal and current turbines don’t explode or leak or spill or emit or poison

That very fragile hope is that we can not only show the door to the fossil fuels era but change our thinking in the process. What good is all our education, if we still make the same kinds of mistakes and can show no compassion?  What good is our technology and science if we ignore their best predictions and most dire warnings? We have a chance—common in history, but frequently ignored—to change things before they’ve reached their worst. We must act on that chance now. We must, and perhaps only can, stop it now. It will take more than the tireless few who speak out daily. It means everyone adding their voices to the rising call for the end of fossil fuels.

If you are teaching, discussing, or reading The Boom, consider Jenny’s perspective in light of Chapter 10: Celestia. How does her perspective influence your reading of Dr. Terry Engelder’s discussion of the “sacrifice zone?”

Lisak and Gold both write about their homes. Lisak has fought to keep fracking away from her family farm. Gold’s parents allowed fracking on their land. What kinds of follow-up questions would you like to ask them? How could people reach such different conclusions about allowing fracking on their land?

*Jenny Lisak serves on the Sierra Club Moshannon group’s executive committee with Peter Buckland who works at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute.

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