La mercantilización de la democracia
The Corporatization of American Democracy, Genocidal Profiteering, and Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing: The Extortion of “The Good American”
Of all the potential crises that threaten to undermine the grand experiment called “American Democracy,” that which poses the greatest and most existential danger to its very conditions is the rise of the “shale play,” that is, the rise of horizontal, slickwater, hydraulic fracturing for shale-bound natural gas. Sponsored by some of the biggest and most morally compromised industries flying the American flag—Exxon, Shell-Mobil, Chesapeake, Halliburton, BP, Chevron—the threat posed to clean water, breathable air, private property, public lands, and community integrity is well-established.
It’s thus no surprise that such corporations—and despite their demonstrable paucity of interest in prioritizing American economic needs—appeal to the patriotic predisposition and sentiment of “the good American” to effectively extort consent.
I live and work in Pennsylvania.
Making my state 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 patriotic rhetoric of self-sacrifice by any American who wishes to be perceived as a good citizen, the advocate of freedom, the stalwart patriot—the good American.
This rhetoric resonates deeply in rural counties and municipalities like mine. Columbia County, PA, where I live twenty-five minutes downstream from a (now apparently abandoned, but forever toxic) frack operation, and another 20 minutes from a fracking-water withdrawal station on Route 11 directly adjacent to the Susquehanna River.
Over the last several years, this process of extraction which requires the generation of a miniature earthquake to release natural gas from shale deposits deep under the ground has begun to attract considerable public attention, both for its offer of well-paying jobs, and because of the dangers of its specific extraction processes, and its many ancillary enterprises, for example, the use of enormous quantities of sand requiring cross- country transport, its use of highly toxic combustible chemical solutions, its permanent removal and contamination of billions of gallons of water, its methane contribution to greenhouse gases, and its need for thousands of compressor stations, not to mention leaky transmission lines.
The controvery escalates daily, and sometimes violently. But it’s hardly surprising when the stakes not only for the democracy, but for life, are so high. Hence it’s also not surprising that the fracking corporations would appeal to that rhetoric most likely to be effective in the effort to quell the resistance to the destruction of the necessary conditions of life—that of the good American who is willing to sacrifice life and limb for his or her country.
The language of “energy independence,” “energy security,” “free enterprise,” “the entrepreneurial spirit” were quickly appropriated by corporations like Chesapeake who promise “Cheap, Abundant, and American” in their advertising and who insist that they can be trusted because, after all, they’re American too. Those who dared to challenge this appeal to patriotism 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 “shale play.” Films like the American Petroleum Institute’s “Truthland” (http://www.truthlandmovie.com/), and aggressive advertising websites pretending to offer expert testimony and advice like Energy in Depth (http://www.energyindepth.org/) are saturated in patriotic images and slogans which make clear that fracking is the American way—and that anyone who questions the authority of either state governments who subsidize the industry or the industry itself is ripe for target as, for example, a “socialist,” or “Communist.”
As reported in Common Dreams March, 2012 (https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/03/11-2), anti-fracking activists are increasingly the targets of FBI surveillance (even as reports of “eco-terrorism” are on the decrease), and the use of state and local police to insure industry prerogatives is becoming commonplace (http://truth-out.org/news/item/10005-police-raid-anti-fracking-encampment-in-pennsylvania).
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.
It’s richly ironic that many of these folks would not identify as environmentalists. In fact, notions like “sacrifice for country” are for them powerfully persuasive in light of their rural, military, and working class experience. Nonetheless, as the evidence of the real risks of fracking mounts regarding the safety of the process, the pollutants involved, the damage to community infrastructure, the long-term health effects, and the destruction of hunting lands/fishing waterways, 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 these risks include at least the following 16 items:
1. The toxicity of the chemicals involved in the fracking process itself, and the veritable certainty that these will migrate eventually along fissures in well-casings into ground water.
2. The necessity of deep injection wells for the permanent disposal of wastewater that is no longer usable by human beings.
3. The actual earthquakes the USGS associates with deep injection wells, and the potential dangerous fissures to well casings caused by a repeating pattern of seismic activity.
4. The already patent environmental destruction, pollution and noise hazards caused by compressor stations, transmission lines, and water withdrawal facilities near public schools, hospitals, and other community assets.
5. 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.
6. The destructive consequences for the sensitive ecologies and endangered species of state park and forestlands.
7. 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.
8. The actual erosion of roads and bridges due to increased heavy truck traffic.
9. The actual emission of diesel and other carcinogens from trucks idling for long periods at frack sites, water withdrawal stations, and compressor stations.
10. The risk of carcinogen exposure to human and nonhuman health from the frack site wastewater deposit pools and from compressor stations.
11. Community conflict 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.
12. 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–all 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.
13.The effective neutering of municipalities and township boards to govern the infrastructure of their communities under Pennsylvania’s Act 13 which delegates the power to determine the construction of a fracking operation within a municipality to the Sate Attorney general’s Office.
14. The actual use of fracking wastewater as road de-icer in winter despite its carcinogenic properties.
15. The harmful effects of Act 13’s gag order which prevents physicians from releasing vital information to patients exposed to frack fluids in the event of illness. This information includes the composition and amount of chemicals like Benzine, Deisel, naphthalene, toluene and xylene
16. The potentially hazardous effects for neighboring towns, municipalities, and even states of items 1-15.
My aims here, however, are not about—at least directly—any of these sixteen items—all of which are well established and publicly available.
My claim is that fracking is a concrete, visually compelling epitome of the much bigger crisis of American democracy, namely, the corporatization of state and federal government through, among other tactics, appropriation of the patriotic and thereby manipulative and disarming 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 this good depends—clean water and breathable air. Unlike other current dimensions of the crisis—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 what water remains.
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 campaign 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 contemporary political climate—those who resist can be cast as “Leftists,” environmental whackos,” “tree-huggers,” “Communists,” or “un-American”? As anti-patriots against whom the police, the National Guard and the Army can be deployed? Traitors to country who can, if necessary, lose their lives for the sake of “national security”? Or at least be arrested and detained, (see, for example, http://www.evesun.com/news/stories/2012-05-25/14919/Afton-anti-fracking-activist-arrested-in-Albany/).
On March 9, 2012 President Obama signed into law a bill (H.R. 347) that makes protests at political events at which Secret Service agents are deployed to protect anyone one present illegal—even if the presence of the agents is unknown to the protesters. The bill effectively makes even non-violent protest subject to police harassment since the protesters have no way of knowing whether they are in violation of the law. Not only, then, does government have a new means by which to repress dissent, it will have one more tool for identifying the Good American—he or she who does not engage their first amendment rights at all:
“The US House of Representatives voted 388-to-3 in favor of H.R. 347 late Monday [2.6.12], a bill which is being dubbed the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011…Under the act, the government is also given the power to bring charges against Americans engaged in political protest anywhere in the country…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…” (http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2012/02/houses-passes-new-bill-that-would-make.html).
The critic might, of course, object arguing that protests in isolated settings like remote forests or deserts are still an option, but this, of course, defeats the purpose of bringing public awareness to the issues connected to fracking. Though perhaps at first blush not obviously tethered to the corporatization of government, such a bill (1) 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 at a politically sensitive event attended by CEO’s of Big Energy corporations, and (2) makes dissent against government sanctioned corporate policy that much more unlikely—protecting corporations under the guise of protecting the public.
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 whom, Sean Kitchen (who stood with his back to the Lt. Governor and his panel), made the claim that “[w]hat you’re saying is that you endorse poisoning college students across the state?” In combination with an increasingly dominant national rhetoric that identifies the good of corporations with the economic health of the country, protesters like Mr. Kitchen are not only likely to be criminalized but, in fact, worse—cast as outside American citizenship. Laws that effectively criminalize protest send a clear message: the place of a citizen is acquiescence. To protest government sanctioned corporate enterprise is to take up a position against the government. The good American does not behave this way.
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 itself 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-dissenter 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 The 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” (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-big-fracking-bubble-the-scam-behind-the-gas-boom-20120301#ixzz1nydj2Wn2). 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.”” (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-big-fracking-bubble-the-scam-behind-the-gas-boom-20120301#ixzz1nyh45m9W).
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—land that used to be rural America. This rhetoric demotes the national interest, the common good, 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 not only from 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.:”
“[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.” (http://www.ragingchickenpress.org/2011/12/15/fracking-is-a-variety-of-environmental-rape-abetted-by-the-law-governor-corbetts-pennsylvania-inc/).
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. While fracking corporations deny the mounting evidence for the connection between, for example, fracking and cancer, compressor station emissions and asthma, they insist, for example that the physician nondisclosure section of Pennsylvania’s Act 13 which prevents doctors from revealing the composition and amount of chemicals present in frack fluids making their patients sick is rightly protected by proprietary rights statutes. Moreover, as of this writing there are no studies that track possible health effects to fracking operations, compressor stations, compressor station explosions, open waste pits, land-fills that take frack “cake,” or other varieties of exposure. Hence, it’s no surprise that fracking-promoters insist that no ill health effects will follow from fracking (http://www.energyindepth.org/public-health-and-hydraulic-fracturing-get-the-facts/), and some even insist that fracking will improve water quality (http://shaleshockmedia.org/2012/04/03/energy-in-depths-tom-shepstone-hydrofracking-improves-water-quality/).
The good American consents to the forfeiture of her/his life for the sake of insuring the profits of the extraction corporations.
These are strong words.
Yet as the evidence against the claim that fracking can be done safely mounts, it becomes clearer and clearer that what interests like Chesapeake, Cabot, XTO, and Inergy are in fact engaged in is a kind of genocidal profiteering. The evidence aleady shows a 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 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.
Genocide, remember, includes harm and hardship even to any part of a people, thus to any community or municipality. And that it be perpetrated on the mercenary grounds of profit generation for a few speaks volumes about the merely utilitarian disregard for human rights when they are stripped away from the public good without the informed consent of the targeted individuals and communities. 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 of a community and way of life 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.
Industry public relations officials claim that regulation by states makes any federal legislation unnecessary, but that ignores the fact that states like Pennsylania have declined to regulate—indeed, even to impose a severance tax. In May 2012 President Obama issued a policy edict prohibiting fracking on federal land and Native American reservations. This was an easy call for the president. Only 20 percent of gas production from fracturing comes from federal lands. If fracking is a danger to environment and health on public and Native American lands, why does it pose no danger to the rest of the lands we inhabit? In point of fact, this is both easy political leverage for the president and hypocrisy. Barack Obama has since made natural gas production a cornerstone of his re-election campaign platform (http://www.barackobama.com/energy-info/).
Pennsylania’s current governor, Tom Corbett, and by default the federal government has not only been willing to allow a corporate enterprise to irretrievably pollute a necessary resource—water. More than that, it appoints agents who actively profit from the revenues that accrue to this form of environmental rape (See, for example, Dory Hippauf’s excellent nine part series, Connecting the Dots, http://commonsense2.com/2011/12/naturalgasdrilling/connecting-the-dots-the-marcellus-natural-gas-play-players-part-1/). The state, moreover, 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 on the environment and communities due to 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” (http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=368476). 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 fact that it occurs whatever number of feet below the ground is irrelevant since a primary threat of contamination occurs through fissured and cracked cement casings en route to surface. 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 complicit 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 undemocratic institution no longer acting as a public trust. But as the recent case of Penn State’s participation in an industry-sponsored and disputed 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 a public research university, while its commitment to unfettered inquiry and critical investigation whither (http://blogs.philadelphiaweekly.com/phillynow/2011/11/15/watchdog-study-refutes-natural-gas-economic-outlook/). As the watchdog group, Food and Water Watch document:
“Reports out of Penn State and the Public Policy Institute of New York project tens of thousands of jobs will be created as a result of natural gas development; the MSC calls for hundreds of thousands. Two reports released today by the watchdog group Food and Water Watch show that those projections are optimistic at best, and based on flawed numbers. They refute the last point the natural gas industry used to defend its practice of drilling wells and releasing underground methane gas using sand, water, and chemicals, in rural and wild areas.” (http://blogs.philadelphiaweekly.com/phillynow/2011/11/15/watchdog-study-refutes-natural-gas-economic-outlook/).
Moreover, the lion’s share of the profits likely to accrue to fracking are already destined for foreign markets: “the major players in shale gas are multinational oil and gas companies with plans to export U.S. shale gas outside of the U.S., likely to Asia” (http://blogs.philadelphiaweekly.com/phillynow/2011/11/15/watchdog-study-refutes-natural-gas-economic-outlook/).
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 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.” (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/440/game-changer).
The “symbiosis” to which Engelder refers is precisely another unholy alliance. In a piece titled “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.” (http://www.ragingchickenpress.org/2012/02/15/the-unholy-alliance-of-big-energy-big-university-big-state-my-exchange-with-terry-engelder/)
Key to my argument here, however, is the rhetoric Engelder deploys to legitimate this alliance.As reported by Ithaca Advantage, he 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.” (http://ithacaadvantage.com/?p=1233).
The appeal to John F. Kennedy is especially striking, given that the language he used about 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…”(http://srs444.blogspot.com/2010/05/engelder-speaks-on-necessary-sacrifice.html).
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.(http://srs444.blogspot.com/2010/05/engelder-speaks-on-necessary-sacrifice.html).
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 a comparison of himself to other American heroes like Jonas Salk (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/440/game-changer). 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” (http://srs444.blogspot.com/2010/05/engelder-speaks-on-necessary-sacrifice.html).
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.
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—recast 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?” (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-big-fracking-bubble-the-scam-behind-the-gas-boom-20120301#ixzz1nz0flXAL).
Death. Death in virtue of the “big deal.” Death as the inescapable product of profiteering.
This, I think, epitomizes the crisis of American democracy.