Since about July of 2011, I have been involved both as a writer, a public intellectual, and as an activist in the anti-hydraulic fracturing (fracking) movement in North East Central Pennsylvania. I have written on this issue from a battery of different angles—from its consequences for the environment (particularly water sources), human and nonhuman health, community infrastructure (both physical and social), and with respect to the promise of jobs in the midst of economic recession. I came to fracking not merely from a history of Left-oriented political activism, but by way of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s claims that the development of the Marcellus Shale deposits will (a) relieve Pennsylvanians from the worst effects of the recession, (b) restore severe cuts to funding for state institutions (particularly public schools, social services, and state universities) and (c) that corporations like Chesapeake, Cabot, Range Resources, Chief, XTO, and their affiliated companies like Halliburton would make Pennsylvania a leader in the nation’s quest for “energy security”—hence that such corporations acted in the interest not merely of profits, but of national security and the public good.
Making Pennsylvania attractive to corporations through the guarantee of minimal regulation, access to non-unionized workers, the use of eminent domain, forced pooling, mineral extraction rights, and a pro-fossil fuel state policy agenda very quickly became translated into the sacrificing patriotic duty of the good American—a rhetoric that resonates deeply in rural counties and municipalities like mine, Columbia County, PA, where I live twenty-five minutes downstream from a frack operation, and in between its pad and a proposed water withdrawal station on Route 11—on the Susquehanna River. Indeed, those who dared to challenge this rhetoric were quickly cast as un-American, anti-capitalist, anti-progress Luddite enemies of the state—an image easily promoted through industry propaganda to further justify the state’s legislative usurpation of the prerogatives and responsibilities of townships and municipalities to regulate fracking—or what the industry calls a “shale play.”
Despite the obvious risks, however, a growing movement of activists—fracktivists—demanding not a moratorium but a ban, has begun to take hold in Pennsylvania galvanized by a first-hand experience and an informed understanding that fracking threatens not only the environment in its aesthetic and recreational dimensions, but the very water, air and soil necessary to life, that it threatens a way of life—especially for rural and semi-rural Americans. Many of these folks would not identify as environmentalists, and they are likely to see the world in the very “sacrifice for country” terms offered to them by the natural gas corporations. Insofar, however, as the evidence against fracking and many of its associated industries mounts with respect to concerns for the safety of the process, the pollutants involved, the damage to community infrastructure, and the long-term health effects, even some of the staunchest of patriots have begun to find themselves at town hall meetings sitting across from Big Energy executives—but not on their sides. To be clear with respect to the dangers posed by slick-water hydraulic fracturing, they include at least the following 15 items:
- The toxicity of the chemicals involved in the fracking process itself, and the veritable certainty that these will leak along fissures in well-casings into ground water.
- The necessity of deep injection wells for the permanent disposal of wastewater.
- The earthquakes the United States Geologic Society associates with deep injection wells, and the potential fissures to well casings caused by a repeating pattern of seismic activity.
- The environmental destruction, pollution and noise hazards caused by compressor stations, transmission lines, and water withdrawal facilities near public schools, hospitals, and other community assets.
- The nearly complete absence of regulation in “Class One” rural areas with respect to the construction and monitoring of transmission lines in and out of compressor stations.
- The destructive consequences for the sensitive ecologies and endangered species of state park and forestlands.
- The potential extinction of whole species of microorganism—some of which likely remain uncatalogued or even undiscovered—and who make their home in shale deposits.
- The erosion of roads and bridges due to increased heavy truck traffic.
- The emission of diesel and other carcinogens from trucks idling for long periods at frack sites, water withdrawal stations, and compressor stations.
- The risk of carcinogen exposure to human and nonhuman health from the frack site wastewater deposit pools and from compressor stations.
- The community division destined to erupt between those who lease and those who refuse to lease, some of whom now claim they’ll have to be shot before the state can take their land under the guise of recognizing the lease of mineral rights to energy corporations.
- The erosion of private property rights by those who would decline a gas lease and who are then subject to compulsory condemnation, forced pooling, and the appeal to eminent domain by the state in the interest of allowing the gas corporations to not only frack on such properties, but construct roads, waste pits, and transmission lines in and out of a fracking operation.
- The effective neutering of municipalities and township boards to govern the infrastructure of their communities under Pennsylvania House Bill 1950 and Senate Bill 1100.
- The use of fracking wastewater as road de-icer in winter despite its carcinogenic properties.
- The potentially hazardous effects for neighboring towns, municipalities, and even states of items 1-14.
However, this article is not about—at least directly—any of these fifteen items—all of which are well-established. My claim is that fracking epitomizes a specific kind of crisis for American democracy, namely, the corporatization of state and federal government through, among other tactics, the appropriation of the patriotic discourse of the “good American.” The consequences of this appropriation include not only a fundamental and potentially irrecoverable corruption of the very language and imagery of the public good, but substantial risk to the conditions upon which the realization of this good depends—water.
Unlike other crises—the collapse of the banks, or the wreckage of the housing markets, for example—fracking endangers the conditions of life itself—not only in terms of toxins and other irrecoverable pollutants, but in virtue of (a) the permanent removal of water from rivers, ponds, and lakes, and (b) the concentration of pollutants in the water remaining. Fracking effectively converts a necessary condition of life into a marketable and unrecyclable commodity, and it’s no real wonder that this demands a propaganda that can either conceal this fact or make sacrifice to it seem worthy and honorable—even a patriotic duty. The cynical appropriation of catch-phrases like “national security” and “standard of living” reveals an industry whose key decision-makers know the dangers of their production processes, and thus know that their “justificatory” rhetoric must include a strategy for neutralizing those who would organize to resist it. What better strategy than the appropriation of the “good American” against which—especially in the current political climate—those who resist can be cast as “Leftists,” environmental whackos,” “Communists,” or “un-American”? Anti-patriots against whom the police, the National Guard and the Army can be deployed? Traitors to country who can, if necessary, be killed for the sake of “national security”?
Or at least arrested and detained. Indeed, President Obama’s signing into law the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011 (H.R. 347), a bill that makes protests at events covered by the Secret Service illegal—even if unknown to the protesters—government will have one more tool for identifying the Good American—he or she who does not engage their first amendment rights at all. According to a February 28th article in the Economic Policy Journal, “Under the act, the government is also given the power to bring charges against Americans engaged in political protest anywhere in the country.” Further,
In the text of the act, the law is allowed to be used against anyone who knowingly enters or remains in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so, but those grounds are considered any area where someone — rather it’s President Obama, Senator Santorum or Governor Romney — will be temporarily visiting, whether or not the public is even made aware. Entering such a facility is thus outlawed, as is disrupting the orderly conduct of “official functions,” engaging in disorderly conduct “within such proximity to” the event or acting violent to anyone, anywhere near the premises. Under that verbiage, that means a peaceful protest outside a candidate’s concession speech would be a federal offense.
Though perhaps at first blush not obviously tethered to the corporatization of government, such a bill effectively criminalizes protest—including that engaged by anti-fracking activists—since there is no way of knowing whether a Secret Service detail might not be present at an event sponsored by the Big Energy corporations.
Consider, for example, a recent event at Kutztown University, Kutztown PA, where Lt. Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Cawley defended the claim that state universities should be willing to “work with the gas companies” who may want to drill on college campuses in the state. Among the members of the audience were anti-fracking protesters. One of the protestors, Sean Kitchen [Raging Chicken Press Social Media Organizer] stood with his back to the Lt. Governor Cawley and his panel during their entire presentation. Kitchen’s response to Cawley’s support for fracking on State University campuses, appeared the next day in the Reading Eagle: “[w]hat you’re saying is that you endorse poisoning college students across the state?” Under H.R. 347, Kitchen’s critical comment could become a criminally prosecutable offense, whether or not Mr. Kitchen is aware of the presence of any Secret Service agents. My point, however, is not merely that such laws are repressive and inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression, but that in combination with an increasingly dominant national rhetoric that identifies the good of corporations with the health of the country, protesters like Mr. Kitchen are not only likely to be criminalized but, in fact, worse—cast as outside American citizenship.
Such a democracy, I suggest, is not merely in crisis; indeed, to the extent that the very narrative of citizenship has been co-opted to ends having naught but coincidentally to do with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and everything to do with profits and share-holder portfolios, “democracy” has become just another advertising slogan: we are free to wave our flags while bulldozers take down our trees and tear up our land to make room for access roads, frack pads, compressor stations, and transmission lines. In fact, if you’re lucky enough to live in a class one region of Pennsylvania—fewer than ten houses per a square mile—you’re free to imagine yourself in a kind of Wild West. No regulations govern the construction of gas transmission lines where you live at all. And according to the new national patriotic narrative, only he or she who fails to have the nation’s interests at heart or who simply does not understand the immense benefits to the economy would deign to complain that this is not “freedom,” much less stand and accuse the gas industry of poisoning American citizens for profit.
Such a citizen is not Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of the nation’s largest energy corporation, Chesapeake Energy, who deploys the rhetoric of the Good American at least indirectly by appealing to economic and energy security. As reported by Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone,“To hear him [McClendon] tell it, the cleaner-than-coal fuel he produces will revive our faltering economy, free us from the tyranny of foreign oil and save the planet from global warming.” McClendon’s appeal to love of country, however, conceals a very dark underside, one surely about “country” and “love,” but not about democratic decision-making, much less the good of his fellow citizens. Goodell continues:
[W]hat McClendon leaves out is the real nature of the business he’s in. Fracking, it turns out, is about producing cheap energy the same way the mortgage crisis was about helping realize the dreams of middle-class homeowners. For Chesapeake, the primary profit in fracking comes not from selling the gas itself, but from buying and flipping the land that contains the gas. The company is now the largest leaseholder in the United States, owning the drilling rights to some 15 million acres – an area more than twice the size of Maryland. McClendon has financed this land grab with junk bonds and complex partnerships and future production deals, creating a highly leveraged, deeply indebted company that has more in common with Enron than ExxonMobil. As McClendon put it in a conference call with Wall Street analysts a few years ago, “I can assure you that buying leases for x and selling them for 5x or 10x is a lot more profitable than trying to produce gas at $5 or $6 per million cubic feet.”
It turns out, in other words, that even the patriotic rhetoric of “cheap and abundant” natural gas is simply a cover story for the acquisition and marketing of land—country to be sure—but demoted from national idea to transferable real estate. To identify the good of this corporation with the health of the country is to identify the health of the country not with the freedom of its citizens, not with the stability or strength of its democratic institutions, but with its market value—fifteen million acres in McClendon’s case. The state, moreover, has not only become an enthusiastic player in what Arthur Berman, respected energy consultant, calls a Ponzi Scheme, it is now engaged in the erection of laws—including laws that criminalize protest—aimed at protecting what now must be called America, INC.
This, I suggest, is death-by-profiteering for the country and for its citizens—literally—and no industry more pointedly epitomizes it than Big Energy. Corporate appropriations of patriotic rhetoric are, of course, by themselves nothing new. It’s also nothing new that the “good American” is expected to lay down her/his life for the sake of country or national interest. Such is the oath of the soldier. It’s not even new that such soldiers have been co-opted to fight and die in wars for the sake of preserving and advancing corporate interests wrapped—also literally—in the flag. Such is the case in Iraq. What is new, however, is that because the process for extracting natural gas in the Marcellus or Utica Shale Formations involves massive quantities of an essential resource—water—whose contamination requires its permanent exclusion from any use other than fracking, “sacrifice” can only be measured in terms of what lack of access to clean water means for those who are dependent on that access, namely, human beings, farm animals, wildlife, crops, forests, etc—in other words, living things. It is at least a crisis for democracy that, as good Americans, we are being asked to sacrifice not merely clean water but water per se. That the rhetoric of this sacrifice should be cast in the language of “energy security” by entities that stand to make billions of dollars from not only it but from the enormous swaths of land required to pursue it, is more than a crisis; it is, I think, either the democracy’s death sentence or, if we’re lucky, its clarion call to foment revolution.
I had originally conceived this notion of “laying down” for one’s country as a variety of rape dressed up as a date. I argued in a piece titled “Fracking is a Variety of Environmental Rape Abetted by the Law: Governor Corbett’s Pennsylvania, Inc.” that
[i]f 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.
I have now, however, moved a bit away from that depiction—not because it’s offensive, or inappropriate, or not in important ways accurate—I think it is accurate—but because—if even possible—I think that what we’re facing is worse: to cast as un-American—and to codify this as law—those who’d resist the assault on access to clean water not only discourages the exercise of a basic right to freedom of expression, but makes effectively traitorous the public recognition of facts. Such repression is not merely a prelude to rape, but effectively to genocide. One is not required for the sake of being a good American merely to lay down for one’s country, but to die for an instantiation of “country” owned and operated by corporations. The “good American” consents not merely to being fracked, but to those specific kinds of death which accrue either to the consumption of contaminated water or—for those even less fortunate—to lack of access even to that.
These are strong words. Yet as the evidence against the claim that fracking can be done safely mounts, so is the thin veil stripped away from the state’s pretense to govern constitutionally, indeed, to govern at all. As a fellow fractivist put it to me: If XTO (a fracking corporation) had shown up with its drills rigs, bulldozers, and chemical tankers on state forest lands (let alone private property) to frack for natural gas under any other circumstances but through the sanction of the state, we’d regard it as an act of war. And such, I suggest, is a feature of its genocidal character—the state will survive, even if as a front for corporate interests—but the communities that compose it are endangered in their very existence. Communities can, of course, die without their people being vanquished. But insofar as the state and its agencies know beyond the pale of doubt that fracking can produce death as a consequence, the only rational conclusion to draw is that the state is willing to sanction death for the sake of the profitability of the corporations whose operations it refuses even to regulate—let alone ban for the sake of the public good. As my fellow anti-fracking activist Dean Marshall might put it, such collusion amounts to death by profits.
But I am calling it genocide by profiteering: what other appropriate description is there to give to this? The state is not merely willing to allow a corporate enterprise to irretrievably pollute a necessary resource—water—but appoints agents who actively profit from the revenues that accrue to this form of environmental rape. The state not merely colludes with corporate agents to ends destructive for the environment and corrosive to its own municipalities, it does so with full knowledge of the short and long-term effects of the methods utilized to achieve those profits—and then actively lies to conceal this fact. Such was clear in the Kutztown exchange between Mr. Kitchen, Pennsylvania Lt. Governor Cawley, and Dan Meuser, the state’s revenue secretary. “Cawley said he feels colleges should be able to work with energy companies if they think it can help them financially,” and, appealing specifically to a patriotic sounding reference to rights, he added that colleges “ought to be able to have the right to do so if that’s what they wish to do.” Meuser then argued that “fracking has been going on for 20 years, takes place 7,000 feet below ground and is subject to significant quality standards.” The trouble is that each of these claims is demonstrably false. Slickwater hydraulic fracturing is a relatively new technology requiring the generation of miniature earthquakes to release the gas from the shale, the number of feet below the ground that the fracturing occurs is irrelevant since some of the main threat of contamination occurs through fissured and cracked cement casings en route to surface, and Governor Corbett has in fact cut funding for inspections of fracking operations to a number that makes impossible any realistic oversight.
One response, of course, to my argument is that there are lots of dangerous fossil fuel extraction processes, and that some danger just is the price we have to be willing to pay for energy. This premise, however, is faulty—we only have to pay this price if we insist on our current levels of consumption, refuse to develop alternatives, and forego conservation. But the state and corporations like Chesapeake are not the only players in this genocidal drama, and, I suggest, would not be able to legitimate their own dictatorial program without the cover of other complicitous institutions, particularly the university. As fracking corporations “partner” with universities to conduct the basic science (at tax-payer’s expense), develop extraction methods, and provide expertise and basic labor (in the form of graduate students), so does the state promote the university as a democratic institution acting in the public trust. But as the recent case of Penn State’s participation in an industry-sponsored and now roundly refuted study of the economic benefits of natural gas production shows, “public trust” is itself part of an advertising campaign designed to protect the image of the institution, all the while its commitment to unfettered inquiry and critical investigation whither.
A particularly striking example of the use of patriotic rhetoric to promote industry objectives as if these were consistent with the university mission comes in the person of Penn State Professor of Geoscience, Terry Engelder, “father of Marcellus Shale” who, in a This American Life interview, describes the state-university-corporation alliance this way:
Engelder doesn’t just talk up the Marcellus Shale. “I have to make a bit of a sales pitch for Penn State,” he says. He repeatedly points out the quote, “symbiosis between the gas industry and Penn State,” and asked them to invest in research at Penn State, quote, “The type of research that’s necessary to answer some of these questions that are going to be so critical to the future of Marcellus development,” the type of research that he, himself, will be doing… Engelder has started a research project. 10 oil and gas companies are paying about $40,000 each so students can map the Appalachian Basin, showing companies where best to drill. Engelder also has a multimillion dollar project to help engineers figure out, among other things, how much pressure they need to frack wells. Penn State depends hugely on industry money, and not just on the oil and gas industry, on pharmaceutical companies, and on weapons manufacturers, and on the government. All major research universities do, not just Penn State. But Penn State’s got one of the oldest and best gas and petroleum engineering schools in the country. Without industry money, the school might not survive. Flip through this year’s awards banquet program for the Energy and Mineral Engineering students, and it’s an industry roster. They’re getting money from Chesapeake Energy, Consol Energy, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil. Some of these students will go on to work for these companies, and make lots of money, and give it back to Penn State, which is great for the university. But if you take a close look at how some of these donations work, you can see how entwined the university is, not just with the gas industry, but also with state government, and how all three of them are united on the topic of drilling.
The “symbiosis” to which Engelder refers is precisely the unholy alliance of the state, the corporation, and the university. In my February article in Raging Chicken Press, “The Unholy Alliance of Big Energy, Big University, Big State: My Exchange with Terry Engelder”, I put the point this way:
This is not the story of a university; it’s the story of a university beholden to an industry that has come to dictate key aspects of the university’s mission. Penn State has effectively forfeited its responsibility to act as an independent agent for the public good, and uses the professorial status of one of its celebrity own—Terry Engelder—to legitimate it…Professor Engelder is beholden not to Penn State (other than to legitimate his status), but to those corporations who fund his research into the Marcellus Shale, who fund his graduate student’s future careers, who donate enormous sums to his university—and to his place in history. Engelder’s own claim was that “the discovery [of natural gas] could be worth $1 trillion.” To be clear: I am not claiming that Professor Engelder profits monetarily through his association with the Natural Gas Industry. He may; he may not. I don’t know. What I am claiming is that Engelder epitomizes the forfeiture of academic integrity consequent on the corporatization of the university—and that in the end this impugns Penn State as a public trust. This could not be better represented than in Engelder’s own words concerning the abuse of the state’s eminent domain, takings, and mineral rights laws to appropriate private property through forced pooling: “I suspect that if the commission were to word their recommendations for pooling in a clever enough way, this would provide political cover for the governor himself…Engelder knows that his appeal as a university academic offers the best possible propaganda to the industry and, as a bonus, offers cover to a state government—the Corbett administration—that’s as deeply compromised by fracking dollars as are its appointments to key agencies and positions hail from Big Energy.
Key to my argument here, however, is the rhetoric Engelder deploys to legitimate this alliance. As reported by IthacaAdvantage.com, Engelder explicitly appeals to the true patriot’s willingness to sacrifice for the nation’s “energy security”:
“This [fracking] is a new technology. The gas industry is learning as they go along and we need to give them a chance to get it right.” He then quoted John F. Kennedy, telling those of us in the audience to “ask what we can do for our country” and thanking us for our patriotism for living in the heart of what he called ‘the sacrifice zone.”
The appeal to John F. Kennedy is especially striking given that the language of what one can do for her/his country was directed not at the forfeiture of our rights, but rather at instantiating democratic principle in the form of service. To suggest that allowing the appropriation and potential contamination of one’s land and water counts as such a service or that the offer of a chance “to get it right” is somehow owed to the fracking corporations betrays, I think, precisely the perversity of this unholy alliance.
But this is not so for Engelder who describes his own position as professor, industry consultant and advisor to state agencies in this way:
“They’re all part of the same continuum,” Engelder said of his roles as teacher, researcher and private consultant. He likened it to his role as a professor itself, with its three separate responsibilities of teaching, research and service. “It’s kind of hard to tell whether it’s teaching, research or service…”
He then justifies this “continuum” by arguing that
“[w]e all enjoy our lifestyle that we have. 100 trillion cubic feet is responsible for all this,” he said. “My assumption is that modern man will want to move about the way we do today,” he said, adding that he believes our taste for a variety of tropical produce and our enjoyment of light after dark, indoor heat and air conditioning mean that our demand for fossil fuels will not change much. Engelder said he believes Pennsylvanians must sacrifice to maintain their lifestyle. “My heart goes out to landowners whose mineral rights have been severed,” he said. “It’s that type of sacrifice that we’re talking about. It’s a necessary sacrifice.” Engelder hopes that “operators will come to recognize this sacrifice.” If they do, he said, they will be more careful and sensitive.
Though perhaps less overt than the explicit appeal to patriotic duty, Engelder’s claim that allowing fracking operations is the “sacrifice” we must be wiling to make in order to maintain our “lifestyle” is tantamount to the same thing—at least for Engelder—as he makes clear in his own comparison of himself to other American heroes like Jonas Salk. Engelder recognizes the violation of property rights suffered by landowners and farmers, but regards the sacrifice as “necessary,” in other words, essential to the American way of life. “If we want to talk about sacrifice, then we look to Dimock,” he said, referring to the best-known Pennsylvania site for drilling accidents.
To characterize the irreparable losses of Dimock citizens as “sacrifice,” as if the their deliberate and collective will were to give up their water, opens the door to genocide. Here’s why: The citizens of Dimock were not asked whether they wanted to make this sacrifice. It was, in fact, forced on them. And it’s irrelevant whether the gas industry—Cabot in this case—intended to contaminate their wells. It didn’t. What’s clear is that Cabot knew this was possible, and continued to frack regardless. And this is the story of every fracking operation, every compressor station, every transmission line, and every water withdrawal station: unlike even the pollution produced by coal, hydraulic fracturing destroys water in massive and irreplaceable quantities. To cast this kind of violence in the language of patriotic sacrifice—to draft laws to reinforce it—is at once to recognize it as violence—as sacrifice—and to conceal it behind the good American—she or he who lays down her land to a Ponzi scheme, his water to a deep injection well, and her life to an America owned by folks like Aubrey McClendon. “We’re the biggest frackers in the world,” [McClendon] declares proudly over a $400 bottle of French Bordeaux at a restaurant he co-owns in his hometown of Oklahoma City. “We frack all the time. What’s the big deal?”
Death. Death in virtue of the “big deal.” Death as the inescapable product of profiteering. This, I think, is the crisis of American democracy.
Wendy Lynne Lee | Professor of Philosophy, Bloomsburg University