Perhaps the most alarming fact about hydraulic fracturing—fracking—is that it’s still going on at all despite the enormity of the evidence against it. Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon must think there’s a special god just for frackers, one who not only turns a blind eye to the poisoning of life-essentials like water, but who rewards CEOs like himself with salaries that convince us there’s a special place in heaven for the masters of calculative reason without the burdens of conscience. As it must surely seem to McClendon, the prayers of corporate persons like Cabot, Chesapeake, Williams Production Appalachia, Range Resources, and Chief are being answered right here on earth, right now in the milk-and-honey land of coal and petroleum and natural gas.
And what hopeful prayers they are. What was a mistress hard-tamed by ordinary vertical drilling is, as the inimitable and perverse Frances Bacon might put it, made pliant by the horizontal fracturing of her ligaments and bones. What secreted geological and zoological history Mother Earth had refused to give up to dated technology, she can now be made to expel via the chemical abortafacients imploding inside her belly. What’s otherwise the gory expulsion of carcinogens and un-reclaimable lubricants, friction-reducers, surfactants, and biocides are magically transformed into the manna of the fracking god: money—money and all it can buy or bribe or terrorize into submission. The earth is fracked, and there is little wonder the industry would prefer to use another word; fraced sounds less like rape.
Disturbing images to be sure. But what makes such images apt is that they capture not merely the fracking process itself, but the unholy alliance being formed between the fracking industry and the state. A state that permits the irretrievable pillage of its waterways, the effective seizure of its citizens’ private properties, and the destruction of its roads, bridges, and communities for the sake of its profiteering partnership with an industry already mired in corruption. Even more disquieting is a state that crafts legislation forcing the forfeiture of the decision-making authority of its townships and municipalities to an agency of the government—the Attorney General’s Office. We might be tempted to call this fascist, but in Pennsylvania’s case the fascist is also the perverse: by trying to disguise such preemption in the corporate-propaganda of jobs, energy security, and free market capitalism, our current administration is rightly described not merely as fascist, but as a profiteering predator. Indeed, if the fracking god was going to reward a governor for terrorizing his citizens into believing that the state’s coffers were in such dire straights that only the deep pockets of the industry that financed his campaign could save them from economic ruin—and that a good patriot wouldn’t hesitate to open her heart (or lift her skirts) to the good folks at Cabot, Chesapeake, et. al., who are all for America, apple pie and freedom—it’s Tom Corbett, CEO of Pennsylvania, Inc.
And this brings us back to rape—and hype. For however much “friends of natural gas” like Corbett and his Big Energy Industry appointments (say, Alan C. Walker) dress themselves up as job-bearing, America-n-freedom-loving sheep, they are wolves whose actions prove beyond doubt that when bribery falters, force is sure to follow, or that when old-fashioned patriotic guilt-mongering doesn’t do the trick, a shiny-new law wrapped up in the flag will.
Enter House Bill (HB) 1950 and its twin Senate Bill (SB) 1100. These bills would establish an impact fee on producing gas wells. In exchange, municipalities forfeit zoning powers granted to them under the Pennsylvania Municipality Planning Code (MPC). Any local government that has an ordinance that is as permissive or more so than the state’s standardized zoning ordinance gets revenue from the impact fee; more producing wells, bigger fee (note that fracked but non-producing wells net precisely nothing other than whatever potential environmental damage they leave behind). Any local government whose ordinances are less permissive doesn’t see a dime even if its municipality is home to multiple wells, compressor stations, transmission lines, or processing plants . The bill, in other words, effectively exempts the natural gas and oil industry from municipality-imposed zoning ordinances, and while we might hope that the state’s standardized zoning code would offer protection from at least the most egregious of industry abuses, “lax” doesn’t remotely describe Pennsylvania’s current oversight of the industry. In fact, we might rightly see HB 1950 and SB 1100 as a bribe to look the other way.
If you think all the action is going on at Dimock where the state has liberated Cabot from having to truck in water to replace what its well blowout contaminated forever, think again. Just for starters, from the December 10th, 2011 edition of the Philly Daily News:
A veteran welder, now an organizer for a national pipeline union, happened upon the line and tried to blow the whistle on what he considered substandard work. But there was no one to call. Pennsylvania’s regulators don’t handle those pipelines, and acknowledge they don’t even know where they are. And when he reported what he saw to a federal oversight agency, an inspector told him there was nothing he could do, either. Because the line was in a rural area, no safety rules applied.
Sound like a state invested in the public good? Hold on. A municipality’s date with the frackers only gets better. According to Protecting Our Waters, a water conservation group, these bills “would…strip local municipalities right to stop drilling in flood plains or to stop massive water withdraws from residential neighborhoods.” HB 1950/SB 1100 can, in effect, eradicate entire neighborhoods, and replace them with industrial zones by transferring to the state decisions about where gas wells can be located—including decisions about the distance from essential community assets such as schools, churches, forests, wetlands, and waterways. Why should Range Resources have to go to all the trouble to sue South Fayette Township over an ordinance that requires a $5000.00 permit to frack a well and respect buffer zones around schools and hospitals when HB 1950/SB 1100 can simply preempt the township? According to Range Resources, the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act already bars townships from this sort of intrusion on their frack-plans—but if that’s not a guarantee, the new law will clear it right up in favor of the corporation.
How about a little noise with your church? Maybe a little truck “fraffic” with your quiet-time? Or at your kid’s school crossing? “Local ordinances would not be allowed to restrict the hours of gas drilling operations at all. No restrictions on light, noise, or height could be imposed…no restrictions on the vehicular access of routes for the heavy trucks could be implemented.” And just to add insult to injury, the state plans to permit the use of frack fluids as Winter de-icer; perhaps school buses can just follow the frack trucks. The upshot: if this legislation passes, municipalities in Pennsylvania will effectively exist at the pleasure of the natural gas corporations. Whether you’re a private property owner (thanks to forced pooling and public takings) or a municipality, the romantic notion that you have a say about fracking is nothing more than a pretext to get you to lease your land or sell out your fellow township board members voluntarily. Easier for the frackers that way. But no matter. Go ahead. Resist.
Imagine a dialogue between Ms. Municipality and Mr. Fracker:
Ms. Municipality: Mr. Fracker, I really appreciate your offering us an impact fee and all, but, well, if there’s a big fracking accident—like that blow-out from the faulty casings in Dimock—that money is going to get itself spent real quick. And besides that, my folks just aren’t real comfortable with the prospect of all those trucks on our two lane roads, compressor stations next the elementary school, rising cancer rates, the prospect of radioactive waste, and that flaring all night. I mean at first, it was kind of pretty—but honestly, the allure has worn off. So, thanks for the offer, but no thanks.
Mr. Fracker: Ms. Municipality, I understand your concerns, but frankly you’re just in my way. The law assures me I don’t have to give a fracking-fuck. I thought if I took you on this nice date with the impact fee flowers and all, you’d make it easy. But here you are calling it fracking. I prefer fracing. But whatever. Here’s your choice: You can survive or you can die. I can’t help it if the first choice feels like prostitution, and the second’s unthinkable. This is Pennsylvania, Inc., and there’s money to be made.
The only real difference between the fracking of a well and that of a municipality is that the latter comes dressed like sheep on a date, offering little niceties with pretty names like “impact fees.” But, fracking-god forbid, the municipality turns down a suitor from, say, Cabot. As the overwhelming evidence makes clear, “no” means nothing but “frack me, and frack me hard.” Indeed, should the municipality protest with antiquated notions of “rightness” and “wrongness,” should its citizens appeal to starry-eyed ideas like “health,” “community integrity,” or “property rights,” well, thanks to SB 1100 and HB 1950 (not to mention a long history of coal and oil friendly law), such moral simpletons can now be made every bit as compliant as the chunk of Marcellus Shale formation blowing its gas out along faulty transmission lines into their aquifers and streams (thanks to fractivist Dean Marshall for reminding me the value of plain references to “right” and “wrong”). Folks who refuse to sign leases “had in coming.” They “asked for it” by buying frackable land. They could have made some cash by allowing a little frack-action, a little drilling-down—you know they really wanted it—but the industry-wolves are getting tired of dating. Thank the fracking god the law’s come to the rescue.
The moral of my story: If you think the horror of fracking ends at the drill site, you just don’t know what environmental rape really is. And if you think that to deploy language reserved to the violence of sexual assault doesn’t describe what’s coming to our municipalities, our communities, our properties and homes, you’re not paying attention. A government beholden only to those whose aims are the manufacture of profits is one for whom the public good becomes naught but the cynical propaganda of the enterprises it calls bedfellow. Fracking becomes the patriot’s concession to national security. “Clean and Abundant” promises to make us safe and sound all the while it fracks us over. The name of this government is corporate fascism, and as it’s willing to deploy any weapon to consolidate its prerogative, it should come as no surprise that the consequences of fracking for the environment, for human and nonhuman animal health, and for the communities in which we live are of as little concern to it as they are to the frackers themselves. Such is the nature of calculative reason without conscience. For it rape is but a tool to the ends of profiteering.
Wendy Lynne Lee | Professor of Philosophy, Bloomsburg University