The award-winning author of The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone offers a lively, thought-provoking overview of climate change from the perspectives of people who are dealing with it on the ground.
Series: Environmental Studies Endowment (NEH)
Climate change has become one of the most polarizing issues of our time. Extremists on the left regularly issue hyperbolic jeremiads about the impending destruction of the environment, while extremists on the right counter with crass, tortured denials. But out in the vast middle are ordinary people dealing with stronger storms and more intense droughts than they’ve ever known. This middle ground is the focus of Betting the Farm on a Drought, a lively, thought-provoking book that lays out the whole story of climate change—the science, the math, and most importantly, the human stories of people fighting both the climate and their own deeply held beliefs to find creative solutions to a host of environmental challenges.
Seamus McGraw takes us on a trip along America’s culturally fractured back roads and listens to farmers and ranchers and fishermen, many of them people who are not ideologically, politically, or in some cases even religiously inclined to believe in man-made global climate change. He shows us how they are already being affected and the risks they are already taking on a personal level to deal with extreme weather and its very real consequences for their livelihoods. McGraw also speaks to scientists and policymakers who are trying to harness that most renewable of American resources, a sense of hope and self-reliance that remains strong in the face of daunting challenges. By bringing these voices together, Betting the Farm on a Drought ultimately becomes a model for how we all might have a pragmatic, reasoned conversation about our changing climate.
Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title List
2. Comfortable in Our Ignorance
3. Kindergarten in a Fallout Shelter
4. Preaching to the Choir
5. Running from a Grizzly in Your Slippers
6. The Other White Meat
7. Flying by Wire
8. Notes from the Ivory Clock Tower
9. "I Never Met a Liberal Before"
10. The Year the Creeks Stopped Freezing
11. "It's What I Do"
12. Penguins Tumbling Off an Ice Sheet
It had been weeks since I had been there, and now, as my young son, Liam, and I rounded the corner of Ellsworth Hill Road near the edge of my family farm in my rattletrap old Chevy Blazer, it loomed into view, a massive cloud of dust and sand and diesel exhaust billowing up into the sky and all but blotting out the moon. Backlit by what must have been a hundred high-powered lights atop the seventy-foot-tall, hundred-yard-square Mayan pyramid the drillers had carved into our hillside, it looked as if some sort of bizarre ritual—a sacrifice, perhaps—was playing out in front of us.
Maybe it was.
Two years earlier, Liam had been with me when we walked that ground with the surveyors for Chesapeake Appalachia, pacing out what they thought would be the perfect place to site the first of what they anticipated would be six mile-and-a-half-deep natural gas wells that would then snake out a mile and a half to suck out as much gas as they could from the Marcellus Shale beneath our little corner of northeastern Pennsylvania. The lead surveyor, a tall man with a deep-fried Texas accent, had tried his best to persuade my son to drive in the first stake, but when he offered the six-year-old boy the four-pound mallet, Liam hightailed it behind a blackberry bramble. A look of confusion and maybe a little bit of fear etched its way across my son's brow.
I glanced in the rearview mirror as I pulled into the long dirt driveway. I could see that look cross his face again. And then I glanced at my own reflection. The look was carved onto my brow, too.
Staring at this massive, churning industrial operation in what used to be my family's pasture, the place where as a boy I chased Angus cross cows on horseback pretending to be a cowboy, I listened to the otherworldly roar of the diesel engine that powered it all, the earth literally pulsing beneath me. I was surprised by my own feelings.
I'd thought I was prepared for it. I had seen this operation before—the military precision of the small army of roughnecks and technicians as they revved up the intimidating array of high-tech equipment, including the forty-foot-long battleship of a machine that would blast a toxic cocktail of water and sand containing up to a dozen chemicals, some of them kept secret even from the landowner, deep into the earth at more than 9,400 pounds of pressure per square inch to pry open tiny fissures in the rock and release the natural gas trapped inside it.
But now that it was happening here, on my land, I could understand my own son's wordless confusion. I could appreciate in a visceral way, maybe for the first time, why the word to describe this process—fracking—stirs such fear. I could even feel the stirring of that fear myself.
Truth be told, that sense of unease had been gnawing at me for a while, ever since we had first signed the contract to allow the drillers onto our land. And while it was still unformed, it had taken on a kind of urgency the summer before, when I started out on the road to promote my last book, The End of Country, which detailed the difficult issues my family and my neighbors faced as we grappled with the question of whether to risk all we had and allow the drillers to bore their way into our lives.
In town after town, at college after college, every place I was invited to speak, I saw the deep fractures that this process had exacerbated. It was as polarized and polarizing an issue as any I've ever encountered. But more than that, I came to see it as a kind of metaphor. It was, in miniature, a portrait of all the deep divisions that snake through our political and social discourse. It is no exaggeration to say that when talking to the vast majority of people I had met on the road—and there were a couple of thousand of them—if I could tell where they stood on the issue of fracking, I could tell with an alarming degree of accuracy where they stood on a half dozen or so other contentious issues, from abortion and gun rights to the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots in this country. Nowhere was that rift more jagged than on the question of the risks and possible responses to the changing climate, an issue that may be the most consequential of our time.
It is, of course, perfectly understandable that people tend to cluster in almost tribal groups when faced with issues that are so multifaceted and so complex, so full of nuance and uncertainty, every element of them fraught with both promise and peril. Hell, even scientists who spend their entire professional lives studying the risks associated with the changing climate admit that they sometimes have a hard time wrapping their minds around the magnitude of it all.
After all, insulated as we are, it's no surprise that most harried Americans find little time to ponder the complex network that links their consumption of everything to the rising sea levels that threaten to erase from the map some South Pacific island nation they've never heard of before. To a nation that for the most part knows polar bears only as furry computer-generated pitchmen who turn up on television between Thanksgiving and New Year's to sell them Coca-Cola, the whole idea of melting ice caps is, to borrow a phrase used by New Jersey governor Chris Christie in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a little "esoteric."
Americans, who are by the millions treading water just trying to keep pace with their mortgages and their rising grocery bills, would rather not think about the issue at all. And if they are prodded to take a position, they'll likely take the one espoused by the coven of talking heads they usually trust, be it Fox News or MSNBC.
Nor is it any surprise that in the chaotic maelstrom that is modern media, only the most strident voices are heard above the din, and so when we manage to find any discussion about this at all, the few words we catch are the most divisive.
The tragedy of it is that across the whole cultural landscape of this country, all of those factors are conspiring to make the fractures deeper and wider. It has become almost clichéd to say that the country is now more divided than it has been at any time since perhaps the Civil War, but the evidence of that, and the consequences of it, becomes clearer with each passing year.
There's a line I often use when I'm speaking: "If the melting ice caps and the rising oceans don't get us, we're all going to drown in the viscera of each other's gored oxen."
It usually elicits a rueful chuckle from the audience. Sometimes you can get a laugh just by stating the obvious.
But there is a part of me—call it naive, if you like—that can't help but believe that somewhere out there in America, all but drowned out by the din, is a native strain of reason that could be cultivated, a peculiarly American kind of common sense and courage that would give us the strength to at least begin an honest discussion about the challenges we face.
I don't know. Maybe that's what I was looking for when I drove to the farm that day with Liam.
Maybe I was looking for it in the contours of the changing land itself. Maybe I was looking for it in my son's expression. Maybe I was looking for it in myself.
It had not been an easy decision to let the drillers onto our land a few years earlier. Not for me. Not for my family. Not for our neighbors, most of them former dairy farmers who had been on this land for generations and who, one by one, had eventually been forced out of business, strangled almost to death by the twin tendrils of bad farm policy and spiraling energy prices. To us, this land was more than the sweet spot on some U.S. Geological Survey map of the gas-rich Devonian shales that underlie most of northern Appalachia. It was home. The sum of who we were. The place where I used to chase cows on horseback.
My family had been there for more than four decades. What started out as a weekend retreat quickly became an obsession, and before long it became a full-time job as my father indulged his dream of becoming a gentleman farmer and my mother chased her dream of becoming a character in one of those frontier romance novels—buckskin bodice rippers, she called them—that she so adored. Mom managed to achieve her dream; Dad, not so much, and eventually, he quit trying.
As for me, when I turned eighteen I shook the dust of that place off my boots, headed away to college for a while, failed at that, and then failed at a series of jobs and marriages until I accidentally stumbled into journalism and never figured out how to drift back out of it. And yet the place was always with me. It defined me. I went back every chance I got. My sister was married there. So was I, the third time. My father died there.
It was there, at my father's deathbed, that I learned fractures can be deepened and widened, but they can also be closed. I learned it in his room with him just two nights before he finally succumbed to the pancreatic cancer that, unbeknownst to either of us, had already been eating away at him just months earlier when he and I had silently worked up a sweat while building a bluestone patio beside the barn for my wedding. I had been at work, three and a half hours away, at a newspaper in New Jersey—my sister and I would work all day and then drive to the farm each evening to maintain a vigil before turning the hospice duties back over to my mother—when my mother called me, frantic and out of breath.
"Your father wants to go down and sit on the porch," she said, her voice cracking. "He's seventy pounds. I can't do it; I can't carry him. I'll kill him. But he's yelling at me."
I tried to calm her down, and told her I was on my way. I made it to the farm in record time. And when I walked into the room, he was, as my mother had warned me, on a tear. I looked at him. Lying there, in that hospice bed, he looked so small and frail, and yet he was full of rage and, I have no doubt, fear. A bit of fear infected me as well.
Things hadn't always been easy between my father and me. Maybe the pieces of us that were different were just too different. Maybe the pieces of us that were similar were just too similar. We were both proud and headstrong, and had certainly both made our share of mistakes, and there were long periods during my younger years when the disappointment we felt toward each other got the best of us. We once went for two years without speaking to each other. But time and age have a way of changing your expectations, and eventually my father and I rediscovered each other and settled into a rhythm. We stopped wishing the other would be something else and came to respect and love each other for who we were, or at least, for who it was that we wanted to be. And for the rest of my father's life, we maintained—no, we nurtured—that relationship, talking, when we talked, about those things we shared and carefully tending the silences when necessary. Or at least we did until the day my mother called.
"I want to go downstairs," my father demanded, his voice surprisingly strong for a man in his condition.
"You can't," I said firmly. "You're too weak. She couldn't carry you," I said, pointing to my mother, who was now sobbing in a corner of the room. "And if I try to carry you down, there's a good chance I'll kill you."
"Goddamn it," my father croaked back. "Take me downstairs!"
"No," I said, just as firmly.
My father reached up with a skeletal hand and grabbed the side railing of the hospice bed and began violently tugging at it. "Listen, you little son of a bitch," he sputtered, "take me downstairs or I'll rip this goddamned thing off and wrap it around your neck!"
"Dad!" I said, with as much forced joy as I could muster. "Where have you been? I've missed you!"
The old man stopped and cocked an eyebrow at me. And then a smile crossed his face. It was the last time I ever saw my father laugh.
That moment, like so many others from the time I first set foot on the land, was frozen forever for me, part of a place that I would always picture in my mind's eye as being the way I remembered it. But I knew it wasn't that way anymore.
As the dairy farms that once surrounded us failed, those who could leave did, selling their acreage, often in small chunks, to people from New York and New Jersey who imported with them a fantasy of country living. Little by little, the whole way of life I had known as a boy was vanishing. It was, as one of my neighbors put it, "the end of country."
And now, the drillers were here.
The way I saw it then, and the way I still see it, there was a sense of inevitability to it all. It wasn't just about the money. Although some of us, like my own family, were offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease our land, with the promise of perhaps millions more when and if the wells came in, others, like my neighbor across the road who signed with a smooth-talking land man who turned up before the full potential of the Marcellus was really understood, got a pittance, just enough to pay their property taxes.
No, it was about something more important. The way we saw it, maybe the gas in the Marcellus could buy us one more chance.
Sure, there were risks. They were real and they were profound. There was the risk that fracking fluid could either spill on the surface or—though most analysts agree it's far less likely—migrate up from deep underground to possibly contaminate groundwater and aquifers. There was the risk that methane, the key component of natural gas, could waft up into drinking-water supplies as a result of carelessness, recklessness, bad cement, or just bad luck. In fact, that had happened, repeatedly—most famously just a few miles away in the little village of Dimock, Pennsylvania, a place that has become in many respects, ground zero for the debate over fracking. There was the threat that the whole thirsty process—it takes millions of gallons of water to break up the shale, and at least 30 percent of it remains underground, lost to the water cycle forever—would tax water supplies. There were risks associated with disposing of the water, not just the water that flowed back from the fracking operation but the even more noxious witch's brew that the earth itself cooks up in the shale, a slightly radioactive, highly saline and heavy-metal-laden water that flows up to the surface for the lifetime of the well, still seeping up decades hence, when not as many people are watching as closely. Some of that water was treated and recycled. Some was treated and released. Some was pumped into deep-injection wells, many of them in Ohio, in a process that on rare occasions had triggered earthquakes like the series of small tremors, up to magnitude 4.0, that rattled Youngstown, Ohio, in 2011 after deep-well injection operations began there, forcing state officials to shut down the facility. There was also the risk to the air: methane leaking from wellheads, and pipelines, and compressor stations, and the steady noxious cloud of diesel fumes produced at virtually every step of the drilling process. For all the grand talk about how much better for the environment natural gas is than oil as a fuel, drillers still rely heavily on good old-fashioned diesel to get it.
Those risks, the industry and its boosters insisted, were mechanical, and were therefore manageable.
But there were other risks that were far less easy to predict, and far more difficult to contain.
When the drillers showed up, so too did the advocates on both sides of the issue—movie stars, activists, industry shills, and self-promoting documentarians. In much the same way that the process of fracking injects astounding amounts of pressure into the deeply buried rock to exploit existing fractures, well-funded pseudo-grassroots organizations blasted their people and resources into these already wounded communities to exploit the social fractures that had long divided them.
Nowhere was that more evident than on Carter Road, a little dirt track that snaked behind a hillside in Dimock, a place where fifteen families had found their water tainted by methane after drilling had begun nearby. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had laid the blame squarely at the driller's feet. The driller was ordered to shut down operations in that area, and for a while the driller, Cabot, had provided water to the affected residents. A lawsuit filed by the families had forced the company to do so. But when that lawsuit was settled, and when the DEP decided to lift its ban on Cabot's operation, the water deliveries stopped.
When they did, the battle lines were drawn. Prodded by activists who argued that the water was contaminated by more than just methane, the federal Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, but when the agency could find no evidence of significant contamination beyond what the DEP had found, it stepped aside. In its wake, the activists on both sides stepped in, lining up neatly and orderly on their respective sides of the fractures in the community.
By late 2011, it was not at all unusual to drive down Carter Road, a place that ordinarily might see no more than an occasional rabbit cross the road, and find it choked with cars and trucks and buses and news vehicles, as a throng of true believers clustered around Gasland auteur Josh Fox and actor Mark Ruffalo in front of a house festooned with "Ban Fracking" signs, or one house over, where pro-fracking filmmaker Phelim McAleer held court in a yard where pro-fracking signs sprouted like dandelions on the lawn.
Lost in the uproar between the two sides, however, was any real discussion of the potential benefits that might balance those risks and increase the incentive to manage them. And those benefits, if they could be realized, would accrue not just to the few landowners lucky enough to squeeze a few bucks out of the drillers. There was the potential of more far-reaching benefits.
The truth was, at precisely the same time that the fractures on Carter Road were deepening, so too was the crisis of climate in much of the nation. The country was poised to experience one of its hottest years on record, a year that would bring with it raging wildfires in the West, a drought that very nearly rivaled the one that sparked the Dust Bowl in the Midwest and Southwest, and ultimately, the murderous fury that was Hurricane Sandy when it slammed into the East Coast the following September.
And yet, while the majority of scientists—97.1 percent of those who had written about the subject, according to a 2013 study by John Cook of the University of Queensland Climate Change Institute1—were convinced that human activity, particularly fossil fuel consumption, was significantly responsible for the rising temperature and the erratic weather conditions that accompanied it, the American people remained deeply divided. So politically fraught was the debate that in 2012, North Carolina's conservative legislature passed a law prohibiting the state from using scientific predictions of sea level rise as a basis for developing coastal policies.
But despite those deep cultural divisions, despite the deep ambivalence of many Americans, despite the all-or-nothing approach of environmental activists on the one hand and pro-drilling activists on the other, despite the partisan-induced paralysis among lawmakers on both the state and federal levels, the United States had, in the four years leading up to those cultural clashes on Carter Road, measurably reduced its carbon output, which by 2012 dropped to the lowest level in nearly twenty years.2
There were a couple of reasons for that. Increased fuel efficiency is one of them, analysts said. So was the sluggish economy. It's a sad truth that if you want to reduce your carbon output, choking your gross domestic product to death will do it, and between 2007, when the economy fell off a cliff, and 2013, we pretty much did just that, creeping along at an anemic growth rate that averaged between 2 and 3 percent, keeping demand for energy more or less flat, according to figures released by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
To be sure, the growth of renewables played a critical role as well. And while they still produce a comparatively small fraction of the energy we consume, wind power increased its share of the market in the United States by 26 percent in 2012 and was expected to increase another 17 percent in 2013, and solar energy nearly doubled, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Overall, the EIA projected that all non-hydropower renewables would increase their market share of our total energy consumption by about 5 percent the following year.
"Just to put that in perspective," Laszlo Varro, head of the International Energy Agency's gas, coal, and power market division, told me when I called him at a disturbingly late hour and found him still in his office in Paris, "the increase in renewable energy in the United States in the past six or seven years is around one and a half times larger than the [total] wind and solar production of Germany," a country widely considered to be a world leader in renewable energy.
But all of those factors pale in comparison to the one key element that has contributed to the decline in U.S. carbon emissions, say Varro and other experts: natural gas, which, when burned, produces 50 percent as much carbon as coal and 30 percent less than oil, and in particular shale gas from deposits like the Marcellus.
"In the past five years there's little doubt that gas . . . was the single most important factor of bringing down carbon dioxide emissions," Varro said.
As drilling on the Marcellus and other shales has expanded exponentially in the past several years, driving down prices, gas has increasingly displaced coal as the fuel of choice for generation of electricity. The amount of energy in the United States generated by coal has decreased by 25 percent, while gas has increased its market share by 50 percent. In fact, Varro said, coal consumption in the American electrical energy sector has decreased by an amount equal to the entire electrical production of a "medium-sized European country, like England."
And yet, he and others acknowledge, as the world's geographic poles thaw, the political poles seem to have become bigger and frostier, with Pennsylvanians and all Americans becoming increasingly divided over the whole idea of fracking for natural gas and its benefits and risks.
That ambivalence among the public indicates how reports of the potential benefits of the natural gas boom have been tempered by deep concerns about the environmental consequences of the process used to extract the gas, and further stoked by what even the industry acknowledges is its history of seeming to be less than transparent with the public.
The ambivalent public attitude also reflects grave concerns about the long-term impact of the amount of fossil fuel required simply to extract and process the natural gas, fuel that in many cases is still far dirtier than the gas itself, and about the release of methane during the process. While methane remains in the atmosphere a much shorter time than carbon dioxide does, it is a far more virulent greenhouse gas while it's up there.
There are also fears that increasing reliance on natural gas will undermine efforts to develop renewable forms of energy. The worry, expressed by many in the environmental community, is, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in 2012, that wholesale extraction of natural gas will "undermine new investments in wind, solar, nuclear and energy efficiency systems—which have zero emissions—and thus keep us addicted to fossil fuels for decades."
Those issues had certainly drawn the battle lines between two highly partisan and highly motivated camps that staked out their positions on Carter Road.
Looking for a little deeper insight, I sought out a guy who I knew could see across the fractures. As the former head of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, John Quigley has a personal understanding of the motivations of people on both sides of the issue, insights that he has sharpened considerably in the years since, while traveling the country to lecture on the natural gas boom.
He often begins his talks by introducing himself with the words "I'm John Quigley and I'm from the state of hyperbole."
As he puts it, the voices that have come to dominate the debate are in danger of becoming as ossified by their ideology as the rock itself.
"On the left you have the moratorium crowd, the Alec Baldwins and the Josh Foxes of the world that want to demonize gas," Quigley told me. "'The evil fossil fuel companies are out to kill us and rake in profits,' and that's just . . . cartoon villainy. . . . And on the business side you have the old-boy network, the rough-and-ready, plucky entrepreneurs . . . who don't want to be told what to do. Scratch any of them and they're right-wingers."
The two sides, he said, are fast becoming so intractable that whatever advantages natural gas could offer in terms of reducing the reliance on dirtier, riskier fuel sources and on American dependence on coal could easily be reversed. With the two sides locked in a stalemate, he said, there is a toxic political atmosphere, and one of the results is that little leadership has thus far emerged on a state or federal level to deal with either the environmental or the economic challenges presented by this development.
The reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that has come from switching electrical power plants from coal to gas, for example, has happened almost entirely as a result of market forces. The problem, said Quigley, is that "this reduction in CO2 is illusory . . . because it's driven by Adam Smith's invisible hand and that's going to go away. It's temporary unless we take the bull by the horns and make something happen.
"There's a reduction in emissions, everybody feels good, but it's not a lock that this is going to last," he told me. There were, he argued, a number of reasons that emissions had declined. Warmer weather, for example, was one reason for it. Increased energy efficiency in everything from air conditioners to SUVs was another. "It's not just gas. Gas is probably one of the most significant things, but it was the combination that resulted in our emissions reductions, and anybody who thinks that they've reached the happy point where Adam Smith is going to lead us away from climate change, it isn't going to happen," Quigley said.
"We need for the first time in the history of this country a conscious energy policy that is more than aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf," he said. The way he sees it, without a conscious national energy policy that takes advantage of natural gas and drives alternative energy on the back of gas, a policy that uses the political muscle of the gas industry to drive it all, we are "swinging and missing."
If the standoff on Carter Road demonstrated anything, it was that there is dire need for less-strident voices in the debate and the kind of consensus that could help build the political will to propel that kind of policy.
Increasingly, there are signs that less-strident voices are beginning to elbow their way into the public discourse. In August 2012, billionaire businessman, philanthropist, and then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with George P. Mitchell, the Texas driller whose company launched the shale gas boom at the end of the last century and who has since passed on, wrote in the Washington Post that "fracking for natural gas can be as good for our environment as it is for our economy and our wallets, but only if done responsibly," while they criticized the industry for attempting to "gloss over" what they described as "legitimate concerns about its impact on water, air and climate."
Bloomberg followed that up with a $6 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization that, according to its vice president of energy, Jim Marston, believes that "there are potentially large benefits to natural gas but only if done right, and in many places, [like] production, storage, transportation, natural gas is not being done right." According to a press release, the Bloomberg grant will be used to study ways to "minimize the environmental impacts of natural gas operations through hydraulic fracturing."
Among other things, some of that money will go toward funding a study to determine how much greenhouse-effect-inducing methane is released into the atmosphere through the entire life cycle of natural gas production and consumption, Marston said.
Bloomberg's foray into the great debate included a call for increased government regulation on state and federal levels over five aspects of the operation: greater disclosure of the chemicals used in the process; tighter standards for well construction and operation; greater regulation of water consumption and disposal; plans to limit the negative impact of development on roads, communities, and the environment; and a greater focus on air pollution issues, with regard not just to fugitive methane but also to the amount of other fossil fuels used in the life cycle of natural gas.
And it comes on the heels of an exceedingly blunt statement at a speech in Houston in 2012 from IEA's executive director, Maria van der Hoeven, in which she argued that while natural gas expansion in the power sector "has caused emissions to fall rapidly," concerns about the risks are real, and the industry in many places around the world has been lax about acknowledging its failures and responding to them. If the industry continues to fail in that regard, she warned, "there is a very real possibility that public opposition to drilling for shale gas will stop the unconventional gas revolution and fracking in its tracks."
There are signs that at least some in the industry are beginning to hear the warnings coming from people like van der Hoeven and Quigley.
"What matters now is engagement," said Andrew Place, corporate director for energy and environmental policy at EQT, one of Pennsylvania's most active natural gas drillers, and a former deputy secretary of energy deployment at the DEP. "You need to get in a room with people . . . in the rational middle that are not throwing mortars at each other in both directions," he said.
To be sure, he said, "we cannot escape the fact that affordable energy is essential to our economy.
"Once you understand that, then you look at . . . all the pros and cons across the board, impacts, benefits, costs, what's the time line for implementing renewables and so on. Then you can have a robust discussion."
But the industry, he said, must also come to terms with the fact that it has to work to reduce its impact, and that, he said, is going to require a recognition that increased governmental oversight is probably inevitable. "You have to embrace regulation," he said.
That is precisely the message that the IEA has been trying to get across, Varro told me. "Overall we are optimistic about the . . . gas potential of the United States," he said. "If the U.S. shale revolution continues, then the U.S. . . . has the capacity to increase gas production at reasonable gas prices."
And even if Adam Smith's invisible hand pulls a card out of its sleeve and gas prices rise moderately, the cost of construction of new coal plants, costs that are certain to increase as a result of tougher standards for those plants, coupled with the regulatory uncertainty, make it probable that gas will continue to supplant coal as a fuel source for power generation. That, he said, means fewer greenhouse emissions, though it will almost certainly seesaw for a few years.
"But what if you have a political backlash, a ban on hydrofracking, let's say? In that case, the U.S. goes back to importing expensive energy from South America and the Middle East. In that case, U.S. gas prices go high again. And the U.S. will again face national security concerns."
The IEA, he said, has determined that the biggest noncommercial gas production will be in three countries: the United States, China, and Australia, which are also rich in coal.
Varro warned that if the public outcry against the excesses of the gas industry were to become strident and pervasive enough, if the still-nascent drive to establish bans on hydrofracking around the globe were successful, as much as 75 percent of that lost natural gas would be replaced not by other gas sources, but by coal.
"In that case, we lose the advantage," he said.
The IEA, he said, takes the position that "banning fracking and rolling back shale gas would be a really bad thing. It's somewhat ironic that environmentalists are not behind this. We also concluded that their concerns are absolutely legitimate. The usual natural gas industry talking point is that there's nothing to worry about, we are the experts, we know best. But we didn't buy it.
"So on one hand we told the environmentalists that if you care about the environment you have to learn to love hydrofracking. And on the other hand, we also told the industry that you have to get your act together."
The question, of course, is whether that can happen.
The vast power of the Marcellus and other shale plays has already been unleashed. So have the activists. And they now seem so intractably at odds that it's hard to believe that any accommodation is possible. But the costs of going on the way we are—those costs are staggering. And they won't be borne only by those of us who are struggling with the issue now.
Liam stumbled out of the Blazer and I followed him as he scrambled up the rocky incline to get a closer look at the furiously managed chaos at the crest of the pyramid. I found myself thinking about the field that used to be there, and about a sunny Sunday afternoon more than forty years ago. And about whether there were any lessons that I could draw about the Marcellus from what had happened on that field all those years before.
Not long after we bought the place, we bought our first horse, a beautiful palomino that my mother, enraptured as she was with all things western, and perhaps in part because she harbored a secret passion for Robert Redford, gave the cloyingly cute name of Sundance.
He was an impressive beast, but nasty. It was understandable. Though he was a gelding, he had been gelded far too late in life for it to have had any calming influence on him; instead, it seemed to have made him bitter and irascible and particularly hostile to the two-legged species that had subjected him to the indignity of it in the first place.
Unlike the other horses we had later, however, Sundance didn't express his resentment the old-fashioned way, by trying to buck you off. No, he was far more subtle. What he would do was run away with you, heading full tilt to the nearest apple tree, and no matter how hard you pulled back on the reins he wouldn't lose a step until he reached his intended destination, where he would then scrape you off his back as violently as possible.
I was all of about twelve years old at the time—a scrawny, transplanted suburban kid who didn't have the first foggiest notion of how to handle a mean-spirited beast like that, and it wouldn't have mattered even if I had. Far better riders than I had tried to best Sundance, and just like me, they ended up in a bloody heap at the bottom of a tree trunk.
But my father, who never sat a horse in his life, was insistent. He demanded that I keep trying to beat Sundance into submission and every Sunday afternoon, right after we got back from church, he'd order me into my room to change my clothes, swapping out my Sunday best for the ragged, bloodstained shirt and jeans I had worn the last time I had tried to ride Sundance. He would then march me out to the field behind the barn where we'd gather up Sundance, saddle him, and brace ourselves for the worst.
It always ended badly. For me. And I came to dread Sunday afternoons like a court date. Beginning late on Saturday night, my legs would start to get wobbly and my stomach would start to churn with a cold, burning terror, but there was no getting around it. My father wanted me on that horse, and I was going to get on that horse. Sundance wanted me off, and I was going to be knocked off, and wind up on my ass, scraped and bleeding, trying as hard as a twelve-year-old could not to cry as I painfully got to my feet and limped back to the house.
This went on for about a year, I suppose, before my father, out of either pity or disgust, finally relented and agreed to sell Sundance. He called up our trader, a guy named Buddy Baldwin, and Buddy agreed to show up the following Sunday with his truck and his wife and partner, a woman who had been graced by fate with the best name imaginable for someone in her line of work: Winnie.
Maybe it was just a boy's budding machismo, maybe it was just rank stupidity, but when Buddy and Winnie pulled their truck into that field and began preparing to collect Sundance, I asked if I could try just one more time to ride him. Winnie gave Buddy a long, meaningful look, Buddy looked at my father, and my father looked at me and nodded.
I had no reason to think that this time would be any different, and as we saddled him up, that old familiar terror started to churn again in my gut. I hopped on his back and took the reins from Buddy. Sundance pranced a bit and then did it again, breaking into a dead run, heading straight for the apple tree as I choked back sobs and yanked as hard as I could on the reins, begging him to stop.
I'll never really know where it came from, but just as Sundance and I rounded the barn, something inside me snapped, and I let out a bloodcurdling yell from somewhere deep inside me that I had never heard from myself before or since. Almost without realizing it, I dug my bony teenage heels into that beast's flanks, and rather than pull back on the reins, I let them go slack and began whipping him as hard and as fast as I could, shouting the whole time, and when he tried to pull up at the apple tree, I wouldn't let him. I just kept him running. We must have covered half a mile at a full-out breakneck gallop, off our property, down across the next farm and the one after that, by the time I turned him and headed back. When we reached the field where Buddy and Winnie and my father were waiting, there was nothing left of Sundance but hooves and foam. At the bottom of the hill, I tugged gently on the reins and he obediently came to a halt. I prodded him forward, pulled back again, and again he stopped.
I had beaten him, just as my father had wanted. Not by resisting his instinct to run, but by using that very instinct against him. And then I rode directly to my father, hopped off the horse, handed the reins to Buddy, and said over my shoulder to my father with all the bravado a thirteen-year-old could muster, "There. Now you sell the son of a bitch."
Could it be, I wondered, as I stood there in what used to be that field, watching my own son process his conflicting emotions over the scene that was playing out before him, that the two most life-changing lessons that this place ever taught me could be applied somehow to the challenge that it, and all of us, are facing right now?
Is it possible that the two sides in this bitterly polarized debate, people who in some ways are separated as much by their similarities as by their differences, could find a way of looking past those fractures the way my father and I had? Could we figure out a way to use the raw power that had been unleashed here, not just the energy in the gas but the crude instincts of the industry, and the driven activism of its opponents, to channel a response to the dual dangers of climate change and fracking and find a way forward?
Standing there on that hill that day with Liam, I realized had already made a decision. I was going to go out and see whether I could find an answer to that question.
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