Genies can’t be put back into bottles, I’m told. They are one of the many things that once done cannot be undone. I had that sense throughout my reading of Alex Prud’homme’s Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know. Prud’homme does an admirable job in attempting a dispassionate, fair treatment of a subject that is divisive by nature. And destructive. Fracking, once done, cannot be undone. Those who are already against fracking will probably come away from this little book with a sense that ex cathedra statements are slightly more difficult to sustain. The further you read, however, the darker the palette becomes. Yes, fracking provides domestic, fairly clean fossil fuels, reducing dependency on foreign oil. It also has long-term results that remain unknown, with indicators pointing to the worrisome side of the dial. Enough negative correlations exist to give us pause for rumination. Is fracturing the shale a mile underground really a good idea? What about when we run out of shale? And the tremendous waste of water.
Environmental concerns are, by definition, ethical issues. What we do to the environment effects others, and when we effect others ethics is involved. Or should be. One of the startling facts about fracking is that it has been around for a long time. Since the 1940s. Growing up in fracking-friendly Pennsylvania I had no idea that oil companies could move in, break up the ground under my feet, and siphon out the gas and oil they found. It is an industry without strong federal regulation. In fact, due to Dick Cheney’s influence, oil companies are not required to declare what chemicals they are releasing into the environment. Trade secrets can be deadly. It feels like awaking to find Deepwater Horizon in your back yard, not having been aware that the technology to do such massive operations even existed. Who granted permission? The mighty rex lucre.
Prud’homme points out that fracking is not about to go away. Too much money is at stake. Once we’ve learned how to build atomic bombs, incendiaries will ever after seem quaint. We can’t unlearn how to frack, even as we can’t undo the process once it’s done. We have, however, abundant sources of renewable, sustainable energy, but not the will to harvest them. Our economic thinking embraces the myth of excelsior—ever upward! Fracking may not be as dirty as coal or as scary as nuclear waste, but it does leave scars forever beneath the surface. Its genie has escaped its bottle and it is far too capitalist an idea to be suppressed once it has tasted opportunity. Prud’homme’s book is rightly subtitled What Everyone Needs to Know. That which you don’t know can indeed cause harm on a scale we can’t even calculate.