Fracking Common Sense

The following is an article by myself and several members of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at YSU on the issue of fracking, jobs, and the purpose of a university.

Fracking common sense

By Deborah Mower, Mark Vopat, Alan Tomhave and Michael Jerryson
Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In their Thursday, September 4, 2013 article, “Get the Frack over It,” the Jambar Editorial Board provided their official position on fracking and the purpose of higher education. For the editorial board, the ultimate argument on whether YSU should train students for shale work is jobs: [The new minor at YSU in gas technologies] “exists to provide education in a field that is demanding jobs in a rising industry in the area. And after all, isn’t that what a university should owe its students?” We would like to provide a response that raises awareness of what fracking is as well as the role of higher education at YSU and nationwide.

The History and Context of Fracking

As most people already know, fracking–a term for hydraulic fracturing–is the highly-pressured injection of liquids into natural rock and earth sediments called shale in order to dislodge reservoirs of gas. The first commercial fracking of a gas well was done in 1949. The industry developed over decades and wells were drilled vertically until 1991, when the first horizontal well was done in the Bend Arch-Fort Worth Basin of northern Texas and southwestern Oklahoma.

But in 2005, a key change occurred: the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created an exception to the U.S. protection of our drinking water (Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974). According to the amendment, oil and gas companies could inject fluids into the ground for the purposes of hydraulic fracturing without having to abide by the standards and limitations placed on protecting drinking water. This alteration of the Safe Water Drinking Act (which had been in place since its creation for 31 years) went virtually unnoticed by the public.
It was only when large deposits of gas were found throughout the United States that there was a massive increase in drilling. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there was a 17% increase in gas-producing wells from 2006 (440,000) to 2011 (514,000) (EIA). While there are estimates that the numbers exceed one million wells in the United States, there is no comprehensive account on all the new wells drilled within the last two years (although there are efforts from organizations like FracFocus to locate specific wells in areas) or on the distribution of fracked versus traditionally drilled wells.

Like oil companies, gas companies are providing many jobs. In the past year, there have been projections of over 1.7 million new jobs from the gas industry (Christian Science Monitor, 10/23/2012). Certainly, any industry that positions itself as one of primary suppliers of energy will yield jobs. Hal Sirkin of the Boston Consulting Group argues that the decline in energy costs from the shale boom is giving the United States a competitive edge in the global job market (WSJ, August 29, 2013). There is no dispute about this: the discovery of gas in the United States has economic benefits that include jobs. The same can be said for the manufacturing of cigarettes, alcohol, drones, high-range missiles, and nuclear warheads. There are always ethics connected to what we do–and for whom. Take for instance the use of chemical weapons in civil wars: although it is a disturbing thought, mass-producing sarin for use in the civil war in Syria would yield jobs too. Clearly, no one would support a major or a minor for developing more potent sarin (or research on more effective means of its distribution) simply because it would produce jobs–even if the industry demanded it or requested skilled interns. Thinking about jobs alone is not enough; one also must think about what is done with the product as well as the purpose of the jobs. What is lost in the flurry of excitement about jobs are the ramifications of fracking, the ethics of its business, and the impact the business has and will have on the YSU community.

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea—Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, Weiss Presidential Teaching Fellow at Cornell University, concluded a study in 2011. In this study, Dr. Ingraffea and colleagues found the “greenhouse gas footprint of fracking as being greater than that of any other fossil fuel including coal” (Cornell University, 1/7/2013). Although the corporate model professes that gas is “natural” and “clean,” those arguments are only relevant to its use as fuel, and not to how it is procured or how the wastes generated in drilling are disposed. The disposal of wastes in injection wells below bedrock as a byproduct of fracking is anything but “natural” and “clean.” The U.S. Congress found in a 2011 probe that, “oil and gas companies injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states from 2005 to 2009” (NYT, 4/17/2011).

Even when we try to put fracking waste water “out of sight” and “out of mind,” it doesn’t neatly stay where we put it. Geologists have noted that most current gas wells have a 5-8% chance of failure in the first five years, with increased chances of failure the longer they are used. Failure holds catastrophic ramifications: the poisoning of drinking water, destruction of eco-systems, and the release of methane into the atmosphere that dramatically increases global warming. The toxic chemicals in failed fracking wells seep to the surface and kill grass, shrubs, and trees, resulting in dead, brown patches of land known as “die off” as well as escape into groundwater and underground aquifers. In addition, recent research has now confirmed that injection wells for the disposal of waste water from fracking of the Ohio Marcellus Shale are responsible for the earthquakes in Youngstown in 2011 and 2012. Charles Chol of NBC News writes, “Wastewater from the controversial practice of fracking appears to be linked to all the earthquakes in a town in Ohio that had no known past quakes, research now reveals” (September 4, 2013). An article published in The Journal of Geophysical Research by Won-Young Kim, a researcher at Columbia University, details the increased pressure within the wellbores near small fault lines and fissures in the bedrock, and tracks the frequency and intensity of earthquakes to pressure levels in the wells. Indeed, receiving a job and earning cash for drilling is wonderful, but are jobs worth the risk of exposing the YSU community (i.e., friends, classmates, and teachers) and the surrounding area (i.e. neighbors and family members) to toxic and cancer-causing chemicals as well as earthquakes? Part of the responsible performance of any job is knowing how to weigh short versus long-term interests, and self-interests in employment versus professional interests as a steward for community health and safety.

YSU and Education

Across the country, there has been a push to increase funding for STEM majors which are seen as more lucrative to job-placement. The assumption is that these majors provide a value that the others do not, which has been well critiqued. Sociologist Elizabeth Berman writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Sure, everyone knows the petroleum engineers are raking it in. But even after Ph.D.’s, many STEM folks are stuck in postdoc hell, and midcareer, the median salary of a biology major is more than $13,000 a year less than her counterpart in political science.” (November 1, 2012). More importantly, what is an unfortunate mentality in this movement is the mistaken belief that higher education is about “getting jobs.”

Very early in the history of higher education, there was a distinction between vocational schools–which later became technical schools–and a liberal arts education. Technical schools prepared you by teaching specific skills required by a job or an industry. The other competing model was the liberal arts. This model was designed to educate people in a well-rounded manner in order to enrich their knowledge, their experience, and most importantly, their opportunities. The famous intellectual W.E.B. Dubois wanted black colleges to use the liberal arts approach because he saw that the liberal arts trained people to be leaders: individuals who could analyze a current situation, creatively generate potential courses of action, critically evaluate and weigh evidence, and make responsible decisions as a steward for those they lead. For great educators like Dubois, economics would not change the situation for blacks but education could.

Today in the era of rapid globalization, many things are changing. Among them is a more global competition for jobs. If anything, the U.S. is falling behind on the “STEM” education, with countries like China and India graduating millions of students every year. Currently, the collaboration between U.S. and Asian colleges and universities is due to what the U.S. offers on the side of liberal arts. Gerard Postiglione writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “A key test of China’s international higher-education aspirations is its incorporation—or adaptation—of Western liberal-arts traditions, an educational goal seen in other Asian countries” (August 29, 2013). In addition, technologies are increasing at an incredible pace. Students who train in technical areas may find that their careers are obsolete in five years. What has distinguished education in the United States over the last century was its focus on general education. It was through the academic blending of the arts and sciences that ingenuity and innovation became the tour de force of the U.S. workforce. Steve Job’s enrollment in classes like Calligraphy inspired his ideas for fonts which gave Apple a creative edge and intuitive appeal to consumers (Tim Appelo, Hollywood Reporter, October 14, 2011). As we begin to lose sight of the value of general education in the increasingly myopic emphasis on job training, we will lose our edge.

But beyond these discussions of higher-education and jobs there is a deeper question of ethics, both personal and institutional. Is it YSU’s mission to develop students for corporate trajectories- -in effect, becoming a factory for the corporate world? Or should YSU be teaching students to become critical thinkers and leaders who can rejuvenate industries and transform them? The subject of fracking is an important one, and YSU has an excellent chance to stand at the front of innovation. Instead of merely responding to industry need and ignoring the problems of fracking that have plagued the industry for decades,the university and its students could create an epicenter focused on redressing their problems.

Does YSU “owe its students” training to work in a burgeoning industry such as fracking? Perhaps lost in this question is the nature of education itself. YSU certainly owes its students a liberal arts education that will make them better critical thinkers, more thoughtful and responsible professionals, and more effective contributors to whichever field they choose to enter. But does YSU “owe its students” training to work in the fracking industry? YSU owes its students the opportunity to become leaders–which it can do if STEM were to create innovative programs to train students and develop research on how to mitigate the environmental, health, and economic effects of fracking, many of which will compound over time. Such a program could combine the resources and expertise of disciplines as diverse as political science, economics, geology, geography, and health and human services. YSU owes its students a whole lot more than mere training to work in the fracking industry. It’s common sense: YSU owes students an education.

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