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.

Conversion Therapy – Letter to the Akron Beacon Journal

Pop quiz. What do the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics
Pan American Health Organization (the North and South American branch of the World Health Organization), National Association of Social Workers, and former United States Surgeon General David Satcher all have in common? Answer: all have public policies or have made public statements rejecting gay conversion therapy. As Satcher stated in a 2001 report: “there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed”. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the therapy can be harmful to young people who are forced to undergo this “treatment”.

Parents may have broad discretion with how they treat their children, but that discretion doesn’t extend to unproven and potentially harmful forms of therapy. It also doesn’t extend to forcibly imposing their religious beliefs on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Gay youth account for 40% of homeless teens, and 30% of completed suicide attempts. I have to wonder whether these numbers are at all influenced by parents that fail to accept their children for who they are, even when such acceptance goes against their beliefs. While Gov. Christie and I agree on very little, the bill he signed prohibiting conversions therapy in New Jersey does not represent an attack on parents or the family but protection of the rights of children.

Calling All Philosophers: Conceptual Help Needed

Take the following scenario…

1. C has a rights claim against P.

2. C’s rights claim against P generates an obligation O on the part of P.

3. P’s obligation O is general in that P may fulfill O, through and number of actions A: [A1, A2, A3,…, An].

4. Assume some individual S, interferes with P’s fulfilling O, by interfering with some or all of An.

Question: How should we characterize S’s interference?

Possible Answers:

  1. S’s interference violates P’s right to fulfill O.
  2. S’s interference with P is not a violation of any right of P, but is a violation of C’s right to having O fulfilled.
  3. S’s interference with P is problematic if and only if S interferes with all instances of A [i.e., A1… An]
  4. S’s interference with P is problematic if and only if there 1) an An is not morally problematic, and 2) S has no other morally compelling reason for interfering with An.

This situation is relevant to conceptualizing the parent-child relationship. For example, assume that a child has a right to an education, and a parent has an obligation to see that the child receives an education. The parent may fulfill that obligation by enrolling the child in a private school, public school, hire a private tutor, or homeschool. Now suppose another party prevents the parent from choosing some of these options (say the state doesn’t allow private for-profit schools, or doesn’t allow parents to homeschool). How do we characterize the interference?

I suspect that if I want to maintain that there are no parental “rights” then I would have to argue that we must use a combination of (2) and (4). The reason for this concern stems from a criticism by Michael Austin in his book Conceptions of Parenthood: Ethics and the Family.

According to Austin if there are no parental rights, then that would mean there is not even a presumptive right on the part of others not to interfere with the way parents fulfill their obligations to children. Austin argues that conceiving parents as only having permission to fulfill O according to some A is not stringent enough. We should view others as have a prima facie obligation, and thus parents as having a prima facie right to fulfill their obligations.

Pettit on Political Philosophers

But to say that no one individual philosopher can expect to do much alone is not to say that political philosophy as such does not achieve anything significant. The prospect of political conversation coming entirely adrift from the reflection of political philosophers is a bleak and chilling scenario. For it is mainly by virtue of the work of such theorists that the terms of political conversation are systematically interrogated and interrelated, and occasionally renewed or replaced. A conversation without any corner for sustained reflection of this kind would quickly run to ground in a babel of dogmatic assertion and counter-assertion. If political philosophers did not exist, we would have to invent them.
-Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government

Are MOOCs Good for Students? | Boston Review

This article perfectly articulates my feelings regarding MOOC (Massive, Open, Online, Courses). Focussing on efficiency and the transfer of information misses the larger purpose of higher education and the role of the teacher/scholar:

Such a vision not only reduces education to rote learning, it also reduces the educator to the role of a mere technician, a position that can be performed by someone with minimal skills and no real understanding of his students or subject matter. If doing research, developing ideas, and integrating them into one’s teaching are eliminated, what reason would there be for bright people to want to go into higher education? What models will students have for pursuing serious study in a particular field if they no longer have access to real scholars in those fields?

Are MOOCs Good for Students? | Boston Review

Classic Movies

I recently had the unfortunate experience of having to discuss an article by Judith Jarvis Thompson in my ethics class that made reference to Henry Fonda. When I asked my class of 37 students if they knew who Henry Fonda was, three raised their hand. Out of curiousity I then asked about Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, etc., getting nearly the same number of responses. So as a cultural/public service to my students, I have compiled a short list of what I take to be ‘classic’ movies from the late 1920s–1960s (omitting for the most part the sub-genres of classic sci-fi and horror).

This list was pretty much made off the top of my head. Let me know if there are any glaring omissions.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
It Happened One Night
A Night at the Opera
Duck Soup
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Meet John Doe
You Can’t Take it With You

It’s a Wonderful Life
Foreign Correspondent
The Uninvited
The Bishop’s Wife
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(Any of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies)
Maltese Falcon
Arsenic and Old Lace
Miracle on 34th Street
His Girl Friday
Philadelphia Story
Shadow of a Doubt
The Grapes of Wrath

Rear Window
North by Northwest
Strangers on a Train
High Noon
To Catch a Thief
Anatomy of a Murder
Singin’ in the Rain
Forbidden Planet
Seven Samurai
Mister Roberts
12 Angry Men

Cape Fear
The Birds
The Sound of Music
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
To Kill a Mockingbird
Planet of the Apes
The Magnificent Seven
Spencer’s Mountain
Yours, Mine and Ours
Advise & Consent
Dr. Strangelove
2001: A Space Odyssey