The Ecology of a Bubble
I have heard the sound of the Earth screaming. I have felt its heat, its burning. And it will forever be etched into my soul.
The sound was terrifying. It sounded like a thousand children screaming as their bodies were consumed by fire, or at least how I imagine that would sound. In a way that is how it looked too: a ball of flame shooting straight up into the sky. It was mesmerizing and terrifying in the way that only fire can lock you in. On this cloudy night, the flame reflected into the clouds, illuminating the sky as though it was an entire city fighting the darkness of night.
But this was no city.
We saw the reflection of the flames from miles away. Tracked it down winding roads. Tracing its path along an otherwise quiet night. We didn’t know what it was, but it had to be seen. It drew us in.
And we found it: the eerie sight of a quiet suburban home in a rural landscape with a ray of burning fire screaming and tearing its way through the sky, reflecting off the slowly melting plastic siding of the house. The flames were literally burning the veneer off of the unsustainable and unattainable mythos of a quaint life in complicity.
The police were equal parts mesmerized and distracted while attempting to divert the other voyeurs of catastrophe. But we were all lost in the sight. The sound. The feeling. All of us except the representatives of the natural gas drillers who operated this well, who sought to bury this other worldly spectacle without context. They said nothing. There was nothing to see here.
But this was just the beginning.
This was my first experience with hydraulic fracturing, fracking as it is now known. At that point, none of us knew what it was nor what was coming. Before everything was recorded and uploaded in real time, this event had neither name nor precedence. This sight, this hydraulic fracturing natural gas well, blown, burning and screaming, was our new present: a glimpse of the future to come.
A vicious and violent end to the era of cheap energy.
Fracking is not the first economic bubble within the span of the Modernity, but it may be one of the quickest. Fracking, like its contemporaries in tar sands mining and mountain top removal, are trailblazers in terms of ecological devastation. The damage being done here is swift and, at times, endemic. But beyond that these methods of extraction, hailed as the second coming of fossil fueled exuberance, work only as long as the price of crude stays impossibly high.
The problem is that crude oil did jump to impossibly high prices during the 2000s.
At the beginning of the millennium, a barrel of crude hovered in the low- to mid-$30 range. But then the entire Middle East erupts again under the force of Western militaries. By late 2004, the price of crude surpasses an average price of $60 per barrel, ending a nearly two decade long glut in oil prices. Three years later and $100 per barrel became the new norm.
Just as attention was turning slightly back towards looking at Peak Oil, opportunism came knocking.
And in 2005, opportunity came in the form of legislation. Former Halliburton CEO and overall dark lord Dick Cheney was sitting Vice President who oversaw exemptions to the Clean Water Act by way of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. This opened what was called the ‘Halliburton Loophole,’ which meant that the chemical concoction required by natural gas drillers to drill deep oil wells could remain proprietary and exempt from regulation.
How Fracking Works
The response of oil industry mouthpieces has remained steadfast that, much like human-induced climate change, peak energy is not a concern. The reason? Massive swaths of untapped fossil fuels that technology was going to magically open to bolster civilization. The reality is that all of these potential reserves were known of, but they were largely inaccessible.
At least they were inaccessible in a profitable manner.
Fracking is an exceptionally intensive process of energy extraction. Natural gas within shale formations is far from the concentrated pools of crude that conventional oil extractors bore into. It lies far deeper and needs coaxing to be captured. Never having intended on being used to fuel an ecocidal civilization, it was out of reach.
Sadly the history of civilization is driven by sociopaths with infrastructure and technology to feed the needs of growth in any sadistic manner. In 1947, a group of these earth-plundering profiteers decided they could try to work out the disorganized natural gas from rock formations by drilling deeper, setting off an explosion to crack shale formations and flooding the wells with a mixture of chemicals and water until the gas found its way back to their well sites.
Even more sadly, it worked. Halliburton drilled the first commercial wells during the following decade.
From this start, the rest of the millennium is fairly quiet. The larger shale plays were deeper and the technology wasn’t there to really maximize this method of extraction for mass production.
And this brings us back to that pivotal moment in 2005.
For fracking to be effective, it needs to drill deeper, blow wells more aggressively, and operations have to be amplified exponentially. As a venture, it is as economically costly as it is ecologically. Wells that are fracked are pumped with a sandy mixture of water and a cocktail of up to 200 chemicals that flood the natural gas out of complex rock formations and strata back towards the well. The fracturing is the explosions and high pressure flooding that cracks through layers and any other natural boundary far beneath the soil to extract the gas.
Because of the depth of the extraction, wells dig through layers upon layers of strata. They blow through underground water reservoirs and, quite often, the fracking blows into them. If you are unfamiliar with the process, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine what happens if you decide to set off some fireworks underneath a glass of water. That is essentially what is happening here.
Not an assuring picture.
Ecologically speaking, this is an absolute assault on the earth. It is a rupturing of ecosystems in untold means. And it is absolutely sickening.
But we’ll get back to that.
Capitalists have no values other than to make money. The programmers and architects of civilization, particularly in this hyper-technological late era, uphold that single virtue above all else. If fracking didn’t make money, they wouldn’t do it. That is their sole barrier. Laws and regulations, like politicians, can easily be bought.
And when a barrel of gas broke the $60 mark and then shot up past the $100 mark, everything was back on the table. This is how a bubble works. There is no long term planning or thought, it is a blood thirsty and cannibalistic gorge. Nothing else mattered.
Make moves, make them fast and you will make money.
And some people did just that.
Before ramming his natural gas-powered Chevy Tahoe headfirst into an underpass at 78 miles per hour, former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon was the poster child of the natural gas bubble. Prior to bursting into flames literally, he was known for his explosively reckless business savvy. He co-founded Chesapeake Energy Corporation in 1989 to focus on unconventional gas extraction during what was otherwise a pretty lengthy lull from that first experimental well in 1947 and what was to come.
And he got his payout.
By the time the fracking bubble really got underway he was dubbed the “Reckless Billionaire”. That’s a fairly apt title. And for it, he was among the highest paid CEOs of 2008.
The bold extravagance of McClendon’s life should have been proof of how much money was to be had from the supposed “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” that the talking heads of the gas industry, such as McClendon and T. Bone Pickens, boasted that the US could be. Those myths have been greatly deflated, so I won’t focus on them here.
But if any of that was true, this wouldn’t be the story of a bubble.
McClendon made his fortune the same way that the heads of Enron did: elaborate Ponzi schemes. Natural gas rights come from landowners when they’re fortunate enough to have secured them. Chesapeake, like every other natural gas venture (and there are plenty of them), largely didn’t buy land; they bought the mineral rights and wrote overwhelming contracts granting full access to them. Savvy and wide-smiling salespeople, who were willing to parrot the dreams of wealth and prosperity that sold the bounty of drilling locally, procured those contracts. Even energy independence was used as a sales pitch despite interest in exporting liquefied natural gas.
As hard as it can be to sympathize with landowners willing to sign over their mineral rights, the context is one we’re all familiar with: the American Dream. This is the dream of making it and of winning the lottery: the dream of winning the capitalist game. If the person who is willing to write you a check tells you what you want to hear and down plays the risky new technological innovation they are going to be using on your home, then there are grounds for suspending disbelief and indulging. Besides, if you didn’t sign, the horizontal well they drill next door can get under your property anyways, might as well join the winning team, right?
The number of companies out there drilling and securing leases has been unprecedented. Each of the companies maintain levels of fragmentation to add to the smoke and mirrors of the Ponzi scheme. No one is really sure of who is doing what. Without state and federal regulation, little pressure was applied to do otherwise.
And without knowing how badly this would play out, more moving parts meant less focus.
The executives knew what they were doing. This was a smash and grab operation. The quantities and qualities of shale plays were greatly overestimated. The production was massively exaggerated, being based off of the best production numbers from the early days of the most strategically placed well heads in a shale formation. Then landowners were gloriously bathed in what amounted to a fraction of the price tag that lease buyers sold to investors.
On paper, so long as crude prices stayed high, fracking was a numbers game. A numbers game sold to investors so that McClendon and scum like him could fill that third “trophy wine” cellar and buy his sixteenth antique boat. In reality those numbers didn’t add up. As Peak Oil analyst Richard Heinberg points out, fracking is impossibly costly:
Hiring personnel, renting the drilling rig, paying for the lease, hiring trucks — all of this is expensive. By the time you turn on the tap, you probably will have invested $10 to $20 million in your well pad — which, if you’ve been drilling for gas, may produce only $6 to $15 million worth of product over its lifetime at today’s prices.
And it caught up to McClendon too.
His risky business practices didn’t earn him a lot of support within the company he co-founded, leading him to step down as CEO on April 1, 2013. True to form, he started a new natural gas drilling corporation the very next day, just down the street from Chesapeake’s headquarters.
What really did him in was the shady economics he used to falsely prop up the natural gas industry. In June of 2014 crude was still striding high at over $105 per barrel. But the conventional industry shifted back.
The price of crude plummeted.
By January of 2016, a barrel of crude had dropped below $30 per gallon. McClendon’s personal fortune was halved in the process. Accelerating his drive towards self-implosion was his indictment on March 1, 2016 by a Federal Grand Jury on charges of rigging the bidding process for oil and natural gas leases which was a violation of antitrust laws. Having destroyed the land was fine, but crossing other capitalists is a federal offense.
Having hit a wall figuratively, he did what any power-hungry narcissist would do and ran into a wall literally the next day.
Having used his rise to power and prestige as the poster child of the fracking bubble and its potential for exploitation he unwittingly became the martyr for this very brief era. Unfortunately, this isn’t a cautionary tale. At this point it is quickly becoming history, but the daily reality of it is the one we are left in.
And that’s where things get scary.
How Fracking Actually Works
“It just ruined everything.”
At 80 years of age, Shirley Eakins of Avella, Pennsylvania is an unlikely figurehead against fracking. And that’s because she isn’t one. She is a victim of it.
Her story is one that has quickly become common in Pennsylvania, just as it had in North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Arkansas, Colorado and Louisiana. Just as it is becoming common in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. In 2009, Atlas Energy began fracking up the road from the Eakins. And that is when things went sour. They started getting rashes and moles after showering. The water became slimy and no longer usable.
Between 2007 and 2016, 2,800 complaints had been filed over water violations caused by fracking in Pennsylvania alone. Ever the puppets, the Department of Environmental Protection claimed only 279 were linked directly to fracking.
In 2012, a couple living a hundred miles to the north started getting sand coming through their shower head with high levels of iron, manganese and chlorides. Elsewhere videos started showing up on the news and online with people lighting the water from their tap on fire. Livestock and pets started getting sick and dying.
The well sites and derricks set up to frack a well are impressive. Towering above the landscape, the derricks are intensive work sites. Crews work around the clock and the lights never shut off until the well is up and running, usually off at least one permanent diesel fueled generator.
The expenses of setting up a well come down to this. The clearing and preparation of a well site is possibly the smallest part of the operation, even when land is graded to leave open the massive clearing necessary to get a well blown.
And a well may be fracked as many as twenty times before the gas begins to flow.
This is no simple equation.
A single well site may require up to 8 million gallons of water. Additionally upwards of 40,000 gallons of chemicals may be used in the fracking process. That’s 40,000 gallons of a chemical mixture that has been found to span over 1,000 chemical products and 650 individual chemicals. A group of doctors isolated at least 59 of those chemicals, finding that 67% were harmful to humans.
Transporting those chemicals breaks down to upwards of 2,000 tanker truck trips per frack. Where those used chemicals are transported is always a spot of contention. Often the water and chemical mixture is left to air out in open pits at the well sites, but most of it never comes back out. 60–80% of it is never retrieved. Some of it is claimed to be recycled through additional fracking sites, but a lot of it is injected back down into the fractured shale formations through deep well injection sites.
The process of blowing wells is about as precise as you can imagine.
The intended goal is to dig deep into the shale formation, then drill horizontally, setting off a series of explosions to flood the water-chemical concoction into. As terrestrial beings, our knowledge about this depth of the earth is subject to the whims of the same scientists who think setting off explosions down there to flood with toxins is a good idea.
Having been living in Pennsylvania, the first earthquake I experienced stood out fairly prominently. The sound, amplified through the rolling mountains, was enormous. Almost overwhelming anything that was felt. It was such a foreign experience that I was barely able to register what had happened. Not true the second time. Nor the third.
What was as clear as could be was the relationship between blowing wells and earthquakes. But no one was willing to talk about it. At that point, few even really knew what was going on despite the fact that the link between fracking and earthquakes was acknowledged in the UK in 2011.
But this is quantifiable.
Oklahoma, where the fracking boom has picked up steam only more recently, was forced to issue a government statement about the indisputable creation of a new norm of constant quaking. That doesn’t mean they had to be honest about it. In fact, their intentional wording is almost hilariously bad:
…we know that the recent rise in earthquakes cannot be entirely attributed to natural causes. Seismologists have documented the relationship between wastewater disposal and triggered seismic activity.
That’s laughable because the situation is truly dire. Earlier on in the boom, in 2013, there were 109 earthquakes in the state. That number grew exponentially to 585 in 2014 and a staggering 907 in 2015.
The entire fracking industry is standing on shaking grounds.
The Ecology of Fracking
The consequences of this process don’t end at the fracturing.
A well isn’t simply fracked and that is it. The entire structure of the industry is built around the overreaching Halliburton Loophole. Get in, get your funds, drill, and bleed it dry. There is no thought here. The company that created the loophole to push aside oversight (not that it would have done anything) is the same company that is selling the equipment, tools and technology to blow the wells and keep them pumping.
No one in the industry seems to have thought it was worth thinking beyond getting their fortunes set. And why would they? To them, the earth is dead. Anything beyond the sacred Self is sacrilegious unless they’re giving stump speeches on the virtue of “creating jobs” or maximizing the earth that their created God has given us to plunder.
It’s the same story that colonizers, kings and priests have always told to those willing to believe they will get their reward through playing along.
The imprecise blowing of wells leads to a series of unknowns.
There is no long term example or study here on how water is impacted by fracking: just a litany of excuses for how fracking isn’t to blame for declining water quality in proximity to new wells.
True to the nature of a bubble, what we do know is that the hastily created wells and infrastructure weren’t built to last.
Not only is there little to no thought put into the actual process of fracking, there is no long term thought or action on how to operate the wells. The Wall Street Journal found that “industry studies clearly show that five to seven per cent of all new oil and gas wells leak. As wells age, the percentage of leakers can increase to a startling 30 or 50 per cent.” Fracking wells are the worst offenders, the fracturing process itself often leading to cross contaminating wells increasing the likely catastrophic spread of fracking compounds even before leaks may occur.
Virtually every stage of the process is prone to failure.
Methane leaks that have resulted in explosive faucets are due to sealant failures on the well lines or eruptions into wells during the fracking process. Sand coming out of shower heads comes from fracking compounds flooding wells and reservoirs. This is easy to say, but it’s almost impossible to absorb.
The reality behind these numbers is grim and we can only psychologically cope with it by biting the industry perspective and believe that a contaminated or leaking well is an isolated and containable or solvable issue.
But they aren’t.
This is the new norm of life within the shale basins. Even without having property you live on or near being fracked can’t isolate you from the devastation that comes with the process. And we only become aware of its span when it is too late.
Not surprisingly, the earth is far more complex than the industry geologists would like to believe it is. Underground water is far more connected than they would like to believe or than they are willing to acknowledge. Such is the fractured and specialized perspective that a scientific mentality is only capable of understanding. But multiple wells and reservoirs (surface level or underground) are often subject to a litany of wells surrounding them.
If we believe the industry numbers, statistically if twenty wells surround one water source, one will leak. If we use our brains or eyes, we acknowledge that means the entire body of water is at risk.
Reality is a bit more depressing than that.
In Pennsylvania alone, of its 9,794 wells, there had been 5,790 violations. Makes that terrifying industry number of “five to seven percent” seem almost palatable.
At this point, there can be absolutely no question about the industry talking points. There can be no question about the motives behind the Reckless Billionaires.
This is a full on assault on the earth. On all of those who live in these areas: those who breathe the air or drink the water. Any being that walks through the clearings, burning their feet on the residual chemicals that settle in lawns and into streams.
This is far larger than any kind of “not in my backyard” issue.
This isn’t just about showerheads and faucets, those are just the indicators we become aware of. The ecological consequences here are devastating. I saw this as the Allegheny National Forest turned into a parking lot of well sites. I saw the forest being reduced to the scenery between clearings, as roadless areas suddenly were crossed with crude roads. As the core of the forest turned into a roadside, reducing the areas for deep forest dwellers to exist. Eliminating the breeding grounds for birds. Increasing the disturbed soil where fast growing invasive species would suffocate the existing ecology.
This is an amplification of the omnicide that civilization carries: a technologically assisted ability to push further beyond the bounds of ecocide. Even putting the roads aside, the ecological toll of running a single well site is strong enough to risk up to thirty acres per well.
Animals wander or fall into the open wastewater pits, suffocating on its fumes and contents, or withering away from direct exposure if they make it out. A single leaked well into a river in Ohio in 2014 resulted in the death of 70,000 fish and other aquatic life. The water for fracking a well is often pumped directly from creeks, streams and rivers, isolating populations and resulting in die offs. Methane released into streams and rivers suffocates fish. The immediate and constant rise of sound and light pollution in remote areas has proven fatal to the more ecologically sensitive species that sought those spaces out.
While natural gas and the methane released from its drilling may be colorless, odorless and non-toxic, they are also explosive and highly flammable. But for all living beings in proximity to the well-heads, they are exposed to a number of other chemicals: hydrogen sulfide, ethane, propane, butane, pentane, benzene, and other hydrocarbons, among others. For species and places already feeling the pressure of logging and subsequent road construction, all of this just adds to the impact on all wild beings, just as it does humans.
This is the reality for all beings that are stuck with this legacy, this persistent wound.
We are stuck with this mess. They are stuck with this mess.
And then it explodes.
When the Bubble Explodes
When the fracking bubble burst, it carried a toxic stew of exposed lies, outrage, destroyed regions, wrecked lives, and all the maladies of an economic free-for-all.
Like fracking fluid, all of this was inevitably going to come to the surface. The dangers had slowly been more and more apparent. The payoff was quickly revealing itself as an overstatement and after years of having to truck in supplemental water for cooking, cleaning and showering those who were convinced to sign away their mineral rights were getting fed up.
In southwestern PA, the area I considered home, that bubble fully burst into flames on April 29, 2016.
On that day, there was a blowout on Spectre Energy’s 36” Texas Eastern pipeline. The resident of the home where the blast occurred suffered extensive internal and external burning, but watched his home burn as flames eclipsed the tree line. And it drew a crowd. The blast was so strong that my own family members had windows rattling over three miles away. They felt the blast up to eight miles away.
This was hardly the first blowout or victim, far from it. But what was particularly telling about this incident is that while the blast happened at 8:30 AM, Spectre had “declared force majeure at midday.”
Force majeure. Legally speaking, “an act of God.” This means that a company can remove itself from all liability for damages and, often, cleanup, because, well, it couldn’t have been their fault.
And this is where we are left off.
For anyone opposed to fracking and civilization itself, there should be reason to celebrate when a bubble like this bursts. Every single well site or proposed pipeline that doesn’t happen is just that much more of the earth and of wildness that stands a better chance of surviving the collapse of civilization.
In every sense, that is a great thing.
However, it’s also a complicated kind of joy. The problem with an energy bubble isn’t that it will end quickly — that is the only upside. The downside of it is that the profiteers and architects of these schemes move very quickly. All of those jobs that politicians and corporate heads were talking about came through; often bringing a bolster in crime, alcoholism, drug use, and rape with them. And then they’re gone. The micro-economy they created and politicians used, that’s gone too.
Everything else is here to stay.
Frantically assembled, horribly executed, and with zero foresight into the future, what they did remains. And it will continue to erode, decay, leak into the water supply, and explode violently.
This is the new reality that we’ve inherited. One that has come to fruition faster than the fracking boom started.
What happened is that when those high crude prices crashed, they shut down the economic argument for fracking very quickly. The money stopped flowing and all the proposed wells were dropped. That is great news.
As of February 2016, the drilling rig count in the US fell to 571, the lowest count in the last century. During the fracking peak of 2012 there were over 2,000. Over the last year, 35 rigs were shut down in Pennsylvania alone. Cabot Oil and Gas cut its 2016 budget 58% from 2015. A restructuring firm purchased Chesapeake Energy only further fueling rumors of bankruptcy.
North Dakota, home of the Bakken shale play (one of the largest in the US), had its largest production decline in April of 2016 dropping down 70,000 barrels per day. The number of drilling rigs went down to 28 rigs in the state. That is compared to 27 in July of 2005, before the boom, and the all time high of 218 in 2012.
Immediately that translates to pulling proposed rigs off the table, bringing pipeline projects into question and keeping assured long-term damage away from these areas. The light pollution, the deforestation, the increased traffic, the chemicals, spilled intentionally or not, are not going into these areas.
But on the flipside, the brevity of this bubble and seeing how quickly it has accelerated and withdrawn highlights the dangers it leaves behind.
Explosions are nothing new.
In June of 2016, an oil worker was killed and two others injured during an explosion at a well operated by a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. This kind of accident is something that is par for the course. But what stood out more was when a Pennsylvania oil worker died after being engulfed as flames consumed the backhoe he was operating. It’s hard to sympathize with oil workers, but what he struck was something that is far more telling about the nature of how fracking companies work: he hit an unmarked, unregistered “gathering line.”
Gathering lines are lines that take gas from the wellhead to a larger transmission line or processing facility.
And they are unregulated.
The oil worker who hit a line with a backhoe hit an unmarked, unregulated line. An unregulated line that is totally legal, carrying extremely volatile and explosive gases. The corporations, their subsidies, and anyone who could foster up the money to have a drilling rig set up could run their gathering line and bury it without having to mark it.
So long as natural gas is being extracted in these areas, it remains likely that people, animals, or anything will continue to unknowingly strike them. And then they explode.
These lines could be anywhere within the shale regions.
But the explosion threat hardly ends there. What stands out far more are the explosions like the one in New Alexandria, PA: pipeline explosions. In December 2012 the Sissonville gas pipeline exploded in West Virginia producing a massive and intense flame that destroyed three houses and melted a chunk of Interstate 77.
Pipeline explosions, unlike gathering lines, can happen anywhere gases or crude are transferred through, meaning they can happen hundreds of miles away from shale plays. Most of the pipelines that are currently being used were built for smaller amounts of natural gas for years, but are just one more part of the aging infrastructure that the frack boom sought to use against any and all logic. The Sissonville pipeline was a 20” gas pipe that failed, in the words of the NTSB, because of “severe wall thinning caused by external corrosion.”
It is possible to catch a leak before it explodes, but even where high tech methods of detecting leaks are used, they typically fail. When leaks are discovered at all, prior to explosions or blowouts, it’s typically by locals. For the most part, the supposed “high tech” detection hardly happens. Detection software typically only goes off when a line drops over 2% in total production. Any size oil spill is an ecological catastrophe, but when lines are pumping around a half-million barrels per day, 2% of that is a nightmare. For the most part, old pipelines are just repurposed without renovation.
Kinder Morgan’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline is currently set to transport liquefied natural gas from Ohio and Pennsylvania to Louisiana and Texas. This pipeline seeks to repurpose an older pipeline and its use requires reversing the flow. Flow reversal in pipelines was found to be the reason for 20,000 barrel and 5,000 barrel crude spills in North Dakota and Arkansas, respectively, in 2013. The pipeline that Tennessee Gas seeks to repurpose and reflow includes 343 miles that were installed in the 1940s and over 1,000 miles installed before 1970.
And this is what we are left with: a quick bubble that has filled and covered the earth in a pit of toxins, cut roads through isolated areas, destroyed the water reservoir, resulted directly in fish kills, threatens sensitive and threatened species, while leaving the landscape scoured, wounded and crossed with pipelines and gathering lines that are ticking time bombs.
Like all of civilization, it is only once it is too late that we even stop to wonder if it was worth it.
Like all of civilization, it wasn’t worth it.
It isn’t worth it.
This is the new landscape that arises and the fragile ecology of a culture that no longer considers itself a part of the ecology while systemically destroying it in new and ferocious ways.
This isn’t a cautionary situation. This isn’t just the canary in the coalmine of a flaunted new energy revolution.
This is happening. This is going on now and the only reason that it was reigned in, en masse, is that the economics of the situation shifted against it. It is the cutthroat nature of the energy monoliths that permitted the price of crude to drop and sink their supposed alternatives.
That move, we can be assured, is temporary.
A result of this is feeling like an ecological exile of the place that I love: the Monongahela Valley into the Appalachian Mountains. I have lost family because of the fracking. Many of them once took the bait on the sales pitches, but when their neighbor’s houses start blowing up, their moods shifted. When I went to New Alexandria the week after the Spectre pipeline explosion (entry into the area was under strict control by the company that destroyed it), many of the one-time supporters were out for blood.
That should be reassuring. In some ways it is. When civilization starts taking out your water, your home; just attacks your entire life, you should be angry. And they are. Some have started putting the pieces together, but many are just defeated.
What can I do?
What can anyone do against this?
Those questions feel like defeat. I can’t even say them enthusiastically, but I don’t ask them rhetorically. The problem is that this isn’t just an analogy for what civilization does, for what technology has permitted: this is the problem.
And it remains the problem.
I maintain hope, against all logic, that these regions will heal in time.
The Monongahela River valley hosted over 1,000 smokestacks at the turn of the 20th Century that would have felt equally impossible to recover from. It has made some improvements, but so long as these wounds continue to be inflicted it doesn’t stand much of a chance. Having fractured the strata of the earth and then pumped it full of toxins that will surely find their way to the groundwater (where they haven’t already) is a problem that will span generations.
Perhaps even longer than that.
The stay of execution that the downturn in fracking has seen over the last year remains a threat, but perhaps the bigger threat is what may come on the next round. What horrid thing are technocrats and programmers working on now? I see the areas that I love after having been fracked, I have seen water that can no longer be touched, wild beings that have been caught in the consequences of all of this and wonder if it can get worse. But when you look to the history of civilization, you quickly realize that is the kind of question that doesn’t end well.
It is easy to look at this and to give up.
But I can’t. I won’t.
There is no safety in submitting to despair, of giving in to the rampant individualism of civilization and just try to make the most of our own lives. That is the hard part about grounding, about getting a sense of place and belonging: you can’t just turn your back and pretend that it isn’t happening, no matter how grotesque the sight becomes.
The future of our ignored ecology demands that we don’t allow it to remain obscured by pathological distancing through economics, philosophy, theorizing or posturing. The distinctions we make between our way of surviving and the ability for wildness to continue existing are arbitrary, but they are constantly reinforced. As participants in our own demise, as those who want to stop the wounds, giving in to the despair simply isn’t an option.
I mourn for loss. I will mourn as more family and wildness succumb to the cancer that fracking has created.
But that mourning does nothing for them.
This is our problem. It cannot be ignored. We have to be prepared for both our future of living in wounded places and dealing with the remnants of a decayed and decaying infrastructure: even beyond the final stage of civilization collapsing.
It will mean nothing to wait for that moment to speak honestly about what is happening, why it is happening and to act with foresight instead of sulking into despair in hindsight. Hope alone isn’t enough.
This earth, our home, is worth fighting for.
 Richard Heinberg, Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future. Santa Rosa, CA: Post Carbon Institute, 2013. Pg 39.
 Heinberg’s Snake Oil is the shortest and sweetest summation of all of this. I highly recommend it.
 Heinberg, 2013. Pg 44.
 For more on this, see the ‘Over a Barrel’ interview with Richard Heinberg and ‘Fieldwork in the End Times’ interview in Black and Green Review no 3.
 See http://www.newsweek.com/fracking-wells-tainting-drinking-water-texas-and-pennsylvania-study-finds-270735 and Josh Fox’s documentary Gas Lands.
 Heinberg, 2013. Pg 85.