Meet the Gas Geezers

This weekend, as 10,000 energetic, bright young people are converging on Washington, DC, for PowerShift 2011, a geezer* is waging an all-out assault on their future.

Eighty-two-year-old Texas fossil-fuel-pushing megabillionaire T. Boone Pickens has, incredibly, essentially written a bill called the NAT GAS Act (“New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions,” H.R. 1380), to switch fleet vehicles such as buses and interstate trucks to “natural” gas.

Pickens has been working the Hill, White House, airwaves, and editorial boardrooms for some time. He’s got buddies like MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan gushing over him and Joe Nocera writing oily op-ed odes to nat gas in the New York Times. And Pickens has somehow managed to sell President Obama and an astonishing number of Congress members on the myth that nat-gas is a homegrown wonder fuel “bridge” from dirty foreign oil to a clean energy future.

Pickens wrote in the Huffington Post on April 16 about his “Pickens Plan”: “We have to create American jobs, not OPEC jobs, and not jobs which can be ‘off-shored’ . . . . The Pickens Plan will enhance the economy, improve the environment and resolve the national security threat caused by our dependence on foreign oil, much of it from OPEC and many other nations who don’t have our best interests at heart. I’m for any fuel, as long as it’s American . . . including wind and solar, nuclear, natural gas, and coal.”

Pickens is not the only billionaire pushing this crude on the unsuspecting public. Advertising, sports, media, and bison-burger mogul Ted Turner, 72, who like Pickens is often called an environmentalist by incurious journalists, is driving the nat-gas bulldozer as well.

Picking apart the hype

But “natural” gas is not clean, it’s actually quite filthy when extracted via high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a relatively new Halliburton-developed process now ravaging many states, most recently the Marcellus shale states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, and threatening New York.

A new non-industry-funded, peer-reviewed study released last week by Cornell University scientist Robert Howarth, coauthored by Anthony Ingraffea and Renee Santoro, shows that the entire process of Marcellus fracking from exploration to delivery is as bad as or worse than coal in its greenhouse gas emissions. (It’s no surprise the industry is attacking the study with all its might.)

And fracking is not going to supply us with domestic fuel to replace that scary OPEC (read: Mideast) oil. First of all, much of our oil now comes from our neighbors Canada and Mexico; Saudi Arabia is the third biggest supplier, followed by Venezuela and Nigeria.

Second, you can bet that much of the frack-gas will be shipped overseas, where industry can get a higher price. Corporations’ mission is to make money, not to help their country or do the right thing — despite their multimillion-dollar PR and lobbying campaigns’ often successful efforts to hoodwink us. So that’s just their honchos’ idea of good business practice.

Third, there’s already a glut of gas here now. By pushing vehicle conversion, Pickens creates a “need” for more drilling.

Which brings us to what I think is the real goal of oil baron and former wildcatter Pickens. He’s bought up huge tracts of land that sit on aquifers; in fact he owns more water than just about anyone. He isn’t hiding this; it’s part of his business plan.

When fracking pollutes your water supply, he’ll sell you bottled water.

And his buddy Turner, the second-biggest landowner in the United States and biggest landholder in Patagonia, gains big-time from fracking, too. He has huge ranches in New Mexico. The biggest, nearly 600,000 acres, is being mined for nat-gas, which contributes to his bank vaults. And a 2007 land purchase in Nebraska gives Turner access to the one of the gretat aquifers of the world, the Ogalalla, which underlies eight states. Its primarily fossil water, left from the last glaciation, is being rapidly depleted, but that might not stop a water privatization company from receiving permission to draw from it.
Neither man needs the money, but accumulating wealth appears to be addictive. Pickens and Turner claim their motives to be concern for the environment and patriotism.

That’s a joke. Fracking has turned vast swaths of Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Louisiana, and other states into industrial wastelands. Arkansas had to suspend fracking last month when it was suspected of setting off a series of small earthquakes.

Now the drillers are falling over themselves to poison the fresh water, air, and food supply of Michigan and the Marcellus shale states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia . . . and they’re desperate to get at New York, which so far has been holding them off. (A fragile moratorium is soon to expire, and it is not clear where new governor Andrew Cuomo stands.)

The beautiful hills, farms, streams, and woods of those states are being replaced by drill pads, rigs, truck depots, compressor stations, and pipelines.
And once the gas runs out — and it will, because it’s finite — the frackers will vanish, leaving wasteland behind. Tourism, agriculture, wineries, orchards, hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation will have bit the dust in favor of fossil-fuel extraction, noise pollution, light pollution, ruined roads and infrastructures, failed farms, and collapsed communities. Economists Jannette Barth in New York State and Deborah Rogers in Texas have both concluded that after a possible initial boom, fracked communities generally fare worse than communities without fracking.

Although some big players will do incredibly well in this speculative industry, most domestic and foreign (of whom there are many) investors will be losing billions as large and small companies go belly up. The Oil Drum conducted a detailed evaluation of investment in shale-gas fracking last autumn and concluded, “Shale gas plays in the United States are commercial failures and shareholders in public exploration and production (E&P) companies are the losers. . . . U.S. shale plays have been over-sold and are unlikely to deliver the results that investors now expect. In fact, shareholders have already lost most of their investment.”

Another claim the gas geezers make is that they’ll be creating hundreds of thousands of jobs for U.S. workers. Anyone who believes this has not been paying attention as U.S. corporations spent the past few decades shipping manufacturing jobs overseas. There are few factory jobs left.

Yet the energetic, environmentally conscious young people at PowerShift will have nothing BUT hazardous industry jobs available if the gas geezers get their way. And those jobs will last only as long as the finite gas does.
On the other hand, jobs in energy conservation, infrastructure rebuilding, and solar, wind, hydro, biogas (methane recycling), and other renewable energy production methods will last as long as the sun shines, breezes blow, waters flow, and animals and people keep making waste and passing gas (methane).
Maybe the gasbag geezers would serve a more patriotic and environmentally responsible duty if they would just recycle their own wind. Germany can do it, why can’t we?

Congress is buying into this . . . why?

It’s not just the NAT GAS bill. Many other energy plants and facilities and related industries are jumping on the nat-gas bandwagon.

It’s an all-out corporate campaign, and the multimillion-dollar PR juggernaut is swaying minds and votes faster than alarmed scientists, medical professionals, and activists can alert legislators and the public.

“I think the House can pass it in 30 days,” Nocera quotes Pickens as saying about his bill.

How has Pickens managed to get 178 (at last count; up from 129 a few days ago) cosponsors, including many members of the Progressive Caucus and Sustainable Energy and Environmental Committee? (Don’t they remember who funded the anti-Kerry “swiftboat” campaign in the 2004 presidential race?)

What’s especially puzzling is that there is a vast body of information readily available about the perils of fracking to fresh water and other things necessary for healthy people, communities, and countries. Congress members should see Pickens’s pitch for what it is: pure spin.

By now they should have watched the Academy Award-nominated documentary film Gasland by Josh Fox and heard testimony from Sandra Steingraber, Conrad “Dan” Volz, and other scientists calling for a slowdown if not an outright ban on fracking. And they must have read Ian Urbina’s three-part series in the New York Times that shares never-reported studies by the Environmental Protection Agency revealing lax regulations and numerous cases of water contamination, as well as a confidential study by the drilling industry that concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in waterways. Or Urbina’s latest piece in the Times, “Millions of Gallons of Hazardous Chemicals Injected into Wells.”

Perhaps the legislators just don’t have time to watch a 107-minute film about a subject that affects the whole country? Or read front-page New York Times coverage. Perhaps they don’t have environmental or health advisers on their staff to debunk the lousy science being foisted on them by the gasbags and explain the unacceptable tradeoffs of fracking? Perhaps they just believe the propaganda. Perhaps, uh . . . ?

Surely Pickens isn’t handing out campaign contribution checks or promising them lifetime water supplies. Surely not that.

So, then, what’s going on in Congress?

Those Congress members have to answer to the next generation of voters. Because it’s certain that if Pickens and his corporate cronies get their way, the young people at PowerShift don’t stand a chance. They’ll be fracked. And they will remember who fracked their future.

Let’s hope the PowerShift youth, unlike their elders, have the smarts and vision to shift the balance of power from the megacorporations to the people. And to shift the power supply from the fossil fuels of greedy geezers to the environmentally sound fuels of the future.

*Note: I am using the word “geezer” here as a pejorative, although I have nothing against elders, have loved and still love quite a few of them, and am well on the way to becoming one myself. I hope to get there, and to remain such for a long time.

MAURA STEPHENS is an independent journalist and cofounder of the Coalition to Protect New York.

More info

Steve Horn, PR Watch: Fracking Insiders Score Big; Americans Not Told True Costs of Massive Drilling

Ian Urbina, New York Times: three-part series on lax regulations on water used in fracking, March 2011

Spectra Energy Watch: Shale Gas or Shell Game Part I, Part II, on Deborah Rogers’s research

Barth report: Unanswered Questions About The Economic Impact of Gas Drilling In the Marcellus Shale: Don’t Jump to Conclusions