Social snobbery masquerading as environmentalism.
We know you know
For a million reasons
We must say no no no
No no no no no.
—‘Fracking Gasholes’ by XOEarth
Williamsport is a town of 29,000 in Pennsylvania’s upper Susquehanna Valley. When I decided to stop there in the spring of 2012 on the way to upstate New York, I figured it for a place lost in time—a sleepy burg still guided by small-town values (Williamsport hosts the Little League World Series every summer) but with the sad and deserted appearance you’d expect in an area where the main industry, steelmaking, receded from sight in the 1970s.
That is why I was surprised to find a new mall on its outskirts, as well as construction sites for banks and office buildings. Instead of a boarded-up downtown, there were new restaurants opening. The hotel was also bustling—and expensive. I had had trouble finding parking in a lot jammed with pickup trucks and SUVs. In the hotel elevator were two men in green jumpsuits, both carrying tool bags of a kind I recognized from crews working on offshore oil rigs in the North Sea. They were natural-gas drillers coming back for some sleep after a long night working in the gas field.
They were frackers.
Williamsport sits on the edge of the Marcellus Shale area, the second-largest natural-gas find in the world. It stretches across most of Pennsylvania and into New York, West Virginia, Ohio, and Maryland. Most of it was inaccessible until a decade ago, when a combination of new extraction technologies—including hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling—opened up the shale to energy development.
Since 2002, fracking has generated in Pennsylvania more than 24,000 drilling jobs and some 200,000 other support jobs in trucking, construction, and infrastructure, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. Wages in the gas field average $62,000 a year—$20,000 higher than the state average.
To Pennsylvania, fracking has brought in $4 billion in investment, including a steady flow of income to local landowners and local governments leasing mineral rights to their land. According to National Resources Economics, Inc., full development of the Marcellus Shale could bring another 211,000 jobs to this one state alone, not to mention other states on the formation, including New York.
But there will be no such jobs in the state of New York. In December, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a complete ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing. The cost of that move was already foreshadowed three years ago when I drove across the border from Pennsylvania into New York. The busy modern highway coming out of Williamsport, U.S. Route 15, shrinks down into a meandering, largely empty two-lane road. On the way to Ithaca, I passed through miles of a deserted rural landscape dotted with collapsing barns and tumble-down houses reminiscent of Appalachia.
The one thing that broke the dismal monotony were the signs, many painted by hand, that had sprouted up along the road and in the fields, all saying the same thing: Ron Paul for President. The state was then in its fifth year of a moratorium on fracking, and that moratorium had turned upstate New York’s rural residents into libertarians. Bitter ones, at that. They didn’t particularly care about Ron Paul’s views on Israel or the Federal Reserve. All they wanted was a chance to collect the lucrative fees a gas company would pay them to drill on their land; they would have voted for anyone who would help them make their land generate an income again for themselves and their families.
This sort of gain is precisely what the left’s war on fracking (which has scored its most significant victory so far with Cuomo’s permanent ban) aims to prevent. It is nothing less than a policy of selective immiseration.
Fracking—a technique that uses a mixture of chemicals, sand, and water to break apart deep formations of oil- and gas-rich shale rock and draw it to the surface—is the most important American industrial enterprise of the 21st century. It joins the automobile industry, aircraft and aerospace, the computer and the digital revolution, as one of America’s great successes in technological innovation, productivity, and entrepreneurial flair. Like other industrial revolutions, including the first in 18th-century Britain, the fracking revolution is bringing about enormous changes in how we live—and sharply altering the nation’s income-distribution curve.
The fracking revolution has also brought America’s oil and gas industry back to life. In 2000, fracking accounted for less than 3 percent of all oil and natural-gas production in the United States, which was then importing more than 60 percent of its oil. Today, fracking accounts for more than 40 percent, and that percentage is going steadily upward, as the U.S. replaces one country after another on the list of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers. Our oil imports from OPEC countries have shrunk by half.
Indeed, the production gushing from America’s shale oil and gas deposits—from Eagle Ford in Texas to the Marcellus Formation in Pennsylvania and the Bakken oil field in North Dakota—doesn’t just promise the long-elusive goal of energy independence. It points to an energy dominance and economic power that the United States hasn’t seen for 100 years, since the heyday of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.
The difference is that instead of that power being lodged in a single megacorporation or the Seven Sisters of the 1950s (Mobil, Shell Esso, etc.), the fracking revolution is being created by hundreds of smaller, more agile independents who are transforming the technology as fast as they are pumping the oil and natural gas out of the ground.
They are also pumping out jobs by the tens of thousands. It is no longer the case that good-paying blue-collar employment in America is on the verge of extinction. Fracking employs thousands of people in physically demanding jobs that require no college degree and pay, in many cases, six figures.
In North Dakota, where fracking has turned the Bakken Shale formation into the most productive oil patch in the country, an entry-level job hauling water and helping to move rigs and machinery averages $67,000 a year. A well specialist with a couple of years experience will be looking at a $100,000 salary, while a directional driller—the highest job a fracking employee can hold without a B.A.—earns close to $200,000.
Overall, the fracking boom has driven up North Dakota’s per capita income to $57,367 in 2012—the highest in the nation save for Washington D.C. The per capita figure has jumped 31 percent since 2008, the year after the fracking boom got under way, compared with 10 percent for frackless South Dakota.
The other beneficiaries are private landowners, many of them farmers. They have been able to lease out the mineral rights to their land for large sums; and if a well opens up, it quickly becomes a gusher of cash. In North Dakota, that has produced a series of so-called High Plains millionaires; for other landowners, leasing fees have become a lifeline for their farm or property.
Private-property rights, often of middle-income people, are the real drivers behind the fracking revolution, with county and state governments leasing rights on their lands not far behind. It’s one reason so many state capitals have been amenable to the fracking revolution: They’ve been prime beneficiaries.
Under the Obama administration, the number of oil- and gas-drilling leases on federal lands has fallen, and oil production on federal lands is at levels lower than in 2007. Nevertheless, America’s oil production jumped by 1 million barrels a day last year thanks to fracking—even as we’re bringing up more natural gas than at any time in our history.
In less than a decade, the boom has already changed the energy map, with the rise of states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Dakota joining Texas, Oklahoma, and Alaska as major energy producers, and with many others poised to join the club, from Illinois and Wisconsin to Alabama and California.
Indeed, the fracking revolution is the one sector of the Obama economy that’s been steadily booming, creating more than 625,000 jobs in the shale-gas sector alone—a number estimated to grow to 870,000 in 2015. Its benefits also flow in trickle-down savings by lowering the cost of energy, particularly natural gas. Mercator Energy, a Colorado-based energy broker, has calculated it’s saving American families more than $32.5 billion in lower natural-gas bills for home heating and electricity.
It has also had a positive impact on U.S. manufacturing, especially petrochemical and plastics firms that have cashed in on lower natural-gas and oil prices and the increasingly abundant supply. From 2010 to 2012, energy-intensive manufacturers added 196,000 jobs as Rust Belt cities such as Lansing, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana, have been revived by cheaper, more abundant energy.
Wallace Tyner, an economist at Purdue University, estimates that between 2008 and 2035 the fracking revolution (oil and gas combined) will add an average of $473 billion per year to the U.S. economy. That’s roughly 3 percent of today’s GDP.
The most striking change, however, has been at the gas pump. Falling U.S. demand for imported oil (a drop of 40 percent since 2005) has lowered global prices overall, and has been a huge factor in oil’s 25 percent price plunge in 2014. Filling up the family car at $2.80 a gallon versus $3.80 a gallon is a great benefit to Americans, especially in low-income households. A strong case can be made that the shale revolution’s impact on natural-gas prices has been the equivalent of a poverty-relief program, since the nation’s poor on average spend four times more of their incomes on home energy than do the more affluent. On average, the drop in natural-gas prices has given low-income families an effective tax rebate of some $10 billion a year.
This is one of the most notable aspects of the fracking revolution. Unlike the computer and digital revolution, for example, which created an industry dominated by Ph.D.’s and college-trained engineers, this is an economic bonanza of particular meaning to those in the middle- and low-income brackets, with the potential to benefit many more.
Yet today’s liberal left is, virtually without exception, implacably opposed to fracking, from the national to the state to the local level. In the forefront have been environmental lobbying interests. In localities such as Ithaca, New York—the hub of the anti-fracking movement in New York State—liberal elites have banded together to prevent an economic transformation that would pad the wallets of their neighbors and upset the socioeconomic status quo.
Of all the national environmental groups, the Sierra Club probably has the mildest official position: that further fracking in the United States must stop until its overall impact on the environment has been studied more carefully. More typical is Greenpeace’s April 2012 joint statement on fracking (co-signed by the Water and Environment Alliance and Friends of the Earth Europe) that makes a fracking well seem not entirely different from a nuclear-waste dump.
That document asserts that “fracking is a high-risk activity that impacts human health and the wider environment.” It warns that natural-gas development through fracking “could cause contamination of surface and groundwater (including drinking water)” and pollutes both soil and air while it “disrupts the landscape and impacts upon rural and conservation areas.” Greenpeace also claims that fracking and its related activities produce smog, particulates, and toxic methane gas; cause workers to expose themselves to toxic chemicals used in the fracking process; increase “risks of earthquakes”; and lock local communities such as Lycoming County into a “boom and bust economy” that will run out when the oil and gas run out. Greenpeace and its allies insist that these places look to “tourism and agriculture instead.”
The document creates a dire picture, yet nearly every one of these claims is false. Since fracking operates thousands of feet below the aquifer, the risk to drinking water is nil; and there are no proven cases of water supplies becoming contaminated from fracking, despite the thousands of fracking wells drilled both in the United States and Canada. Yet the charge is repeated ad nauseam in anti-fracking ads, films, and pamphlets.
So is the charge that fracking exposes people, including workers, to dangerous chemicals. More than 99 percent of the fluid used to fracture rock in the operation is nothing more than water and sand mixed together. In fact, most of the statistical risks associated with fracking in terms of contact with dangerous chemicals (benzene is a favorite example, radioactive isotopes another, methane yet another) are no higher, and sometimes lower, than those associated with any other industrial job or outdoor activity, including driving a big-rig truck.
The charge that fracking can leak methane into drinking water stems from a Duke University study that examined a mere 68 water wells in a region of Pennsylvania and New York in which 20,000 water wells are drilled each year—and those who conducted the study never bothered to ask whether any methane concentrations existed before the fracking began (which turned out to be the case).
That fracking might cause earthquakes is another oft-repeated alarmist charge with no facts or evidence behind it. In certain conditions, deep underground injections of water and sand used in fracking can lead to detectable seismic activities, but so can favored green projects such as geothermal-energy exploration or sequestering carbon dioxide underground. None of these adds up to seismic rumblings any human being will notice, let alone an Irving Allen movie-style catastrophe. And given the fact that for years there have been thousands of fracking wells around the country that operate without any detectable seismic activity, the argument seems clearly driven more by the need to generate emotion than the imperative to weigh actual evidence.
But perhaps the oddest claim from groups such as Greenpeace is that increasing the use of natural gas will not reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The evidence is overwhelmingly the opposite. As natural gas continues to squeeze out coal as a cheap supply of energy, especially for power plants, the greenhouse-gas-emission index will inevitably head downward. In fact, since the shale boom, those emissions in the United States have been cut by almost 20 percent, a number that one would expect to make any environmental activist smile.
All of which suggests that the war on fracking is waged in defiance of facts. And that, in turn, suggests a particular agenda is at work in the anti-fracking camp. A hint of it appears in Greenpeace’s claim that local communities would be better off sticking to “sustainable agriculture and tourism,” meaning organic farming and microbreweries that cater to the tastes of affluent and sophisticated out-of-towners. The war on fracking is a war on economic growth, which the shale revolution has managed to sustain in the middle of the Obama recession, and a war on the upward mobility any industrial revolution like fracking triggers.
It is part of what the Manhattan Institute’s Fred Siegel has called the “liberal revolt against the masses,” and a good place to see it in action is in New York State.
In 2006, then-gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer made a campaign swing through the so-called Southern Tier of upstate New York. The Manhattanite expressed shock at a landscape that was “devastated,” as he put it, and was steadily being abandoned for lack of jobs and economic opportunity. “This is not the New York we dream of,” he said.
Much the same had been true of large portions of rural Pennsylvania. Fracking reversed the downward course there. But the moratorium Spitzer’s successor, Andrew Cuomo, placed on fracking in 2008 before locking it in permanently late last year has frozen those portions of the state in their relative poverty.
Local farmers have been furious over the de facto ban. They are frustrated that the valuable source of income that fracking would generate has been denied them—and that Albany and its liberal enablers are content to crush them under the twin burden of some of the highest property taxes in the country and a regulatory regime that, in Fred Siegel’s words, “makes it hard to eke out a living from small dairy herds.”
Locals are furious, too, that the ban is denying blue-collar jobs that could help young people find work in a fracking site and could transform local standards of living. In 2012, the state’s health department determined that hydro-fracking could be done safely in the state and concluded that “significant adverse impacts on human health are not expected from routine HVHF (hydro-fracking) operations.” This was not what state officials wanted to hear, and the report was buried. When someone leaked it to the New York Times, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s spokesperson quickly disavowed it. Meanwhile, Cuomo’s acting health commissioner, Howard Zucker, served as front man for his boss’s permanent ban.
Ithaca is the center of New York’s anti-fracking hardliners. Their leader is Helen Slottje, who organized the Community Environmental Defense Fund to use local zoning regulations to keep fracking out of the surrounding county. She admits that many local people down the hill from Ithaca resent their efforts and think that she and her environmentalist militia are little more than thieves stealing money from their pockets.
But Slottje dismisses their worries, just as she angrily dismisses the charge that she’s a classic example of someone who opposes salutary change because she doesn’t want it in her own back yard. “If a serial killer knocks on your door,” she says, “it’s not NIMBYism to fight back.” She doesn’t bother to wonder whether her comparison of frackers to serial killers might be slightly exaggerated. She simply adds, “We’re not NIMBY, we’re NIABY. Not In Anyone’s Back Yard.”
She is joined in her activism by the Duncan Hines heiress Adelaide Gomer, whose anti-fracking Park Foundation is based in Ithaca and bankrolls much of the activism. “Hydro-fracking will turn our area into an industrial site,” she has proclaimed. After citing the usual charges about poisoning the aquifer, she also adds, “It will ruin the ambience, the beauty of the region.” The beauty of falling-down barns, rusted cars and farm equipment, and abandoned farmhouses may be lost on the locals, but it’s united the rich and influential in New York City. They want to keep things that way—and keep the “creepy advances of environment-trashing frackers” out of the state.
Gomer was able to mobilize demonstrations around the state to maintain the ban despite lobbying in Albany to overturn it, while celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Robert de Niro, Yoko Ono, Debra Winger, Carrie Fisher, David Byrne, Jimmy Fallon, Martha Stewart, Lady Gaga, and the Beastie Boys signed an Artists Against Fracking petition. Like other Manhattanites, they have no reason to worry much about low land prices in the Southern Tier—but they do worry about development that would benefit the locals while possibly spoiling the view.
By cloaking their social snobbery in the clothes of the environmentalist movement, New York’s well-heeled have managed to forestall the kind of wealth transfer that fracking has brought to Pennsylvania. Indeed, some like Slottje are hoping to spread the same anti-fracking gospel back across the state line and stop Pennsylvania’s economic boom dead in its tracks.
A similar class divide is a feature of the debate in California. The Golden State has always been a mainstay of American energy production, going back to the 1920s and even as late as the 1960s, when the state ranked second in oil production after Texas. Not coincidentally, that was also the heyday of California’s economic boom and the vast expansion of its state resources, including its university system—the same system that now provides the dubious environmental-impact studies and willing young demonstrators and foot soldiers for the war on fracking.
California is now fourth in oil production in the United States. Its large shale-oil reserves may top 15 billion barrels. The Monterey Shale field runs for 200 miles from Bakersfield to central California and is largely untapped. Opening up the Monterey field could mean as much as $25 billion in revenues for strapped state coffers, according to a study by University of Wyoming’s Tim Considine and Edward Manderson. California’s natural-gas reserves may be four times those in North Dakota’s Bakken range.
There are also studies suggesting that the economic ripple effect of fracking in California could spread $30 billion to $80 billion of additional wealth across the state for every 1 billion barrels of oil production. (California currently produces around 200 million barrels a year.)
Yet the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, and its political establishment have chosen not to listen to the industry or the analysts or the advocates for the unemployed who point to California’s dismal jobless rate, which, at 7.2 percent, is higher than those of Texas (4.9 percent) and North Dakota (2.7 percent). Instead, green activists and Hollywood, not to mention Silicon Valley, are clearly in command.
In April 2013, after considerable political controversy and debate, a federal judge blocked fracking throughout the state. Plaintiffs in the case were the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, the organization made famous for protecting the spotted owl in New Mexico and the Upper Northwest. “We’re very excited,” said the Sierra Club’s spokeswoman when the ruling came down. “I’m sure the Champagne is flowing in San Francisco,” she added, since many of the anti-fracking campaign’s wealthy contributors are Silicon Valley millionaires.
The same is true of Hollywood royalty such as David Geffen and Robert Redford, and younger stars like Matt Damon. Damon was the top-billed name in Hollywood’s first anti-fracking movie, 2012’s Promised Land. The movie’s own standing as a fearless piece of populist muckraking was compromised when it turned out that part of Promised Land’s financing had come from OPEC member and natural-gas exporter Qatar. Promised Land’s fictional depiction of fracking’s evil is ballasted by the documentaries Gaslands and Gaslands Two, which repeat many of the same myths and misrepresentations about fracking while introducing several more (such as the claim that the evil genius behind fracking is Dick Cheney).
Yet for all their clout, the Hollywood left and environmental activists have been steadily losing ground in Washington, even under Barack Obama. While the Obama EPA has been happy to impose draconian rules on coal carbon emissions for power plants, it has been curiously reluctant to push federal regulation of fracking. It has left the job to the states instead—an almost unique example of the administration’s respect for states rights. Ron Binz, Obama’s nominee to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2013, dismissed natural gas and fracking as “dead-end technology,” touted a federal push to halt the switch from coal to natural gas for power generation, and insisted on conversion to wind and solar power instead.
But Binz changed his tune when he showed up at his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Energy Committee, declaring natural gas “a very great fuel” and “the near-perfect fuel for the next couple of decades”—and swearing off any effort by FERC to use its regulatory powers to hamper the free flow of gas from pipelines to trading markets, let alone from the fracking wellhead. (Binz won committee approval by one vote.)
Binz is not alone. To the fury of environmentalist groups, the president himself has touted the success of fracking in producing jobs and growth. “America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades,” he announced in his 2014 State of the Union Address. “One of the reasons why is natural gas. If extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”
The Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune had a swift riposte: “Make no mistake,” he said. “Natural gas is a bridge to nowhere”—or at least nowhere green elites want to go.
And so with the Obama administration content to be a noncombatant, the war on fracking has had to wage its fight at the state and local levels, in some states where fracking has already achieved a beachhead and shown its benefits to people’s and state’s bottom lines.
States such as Texas, Wyoming, and Louisiana may seem like lost causes for the anti-fracking left (although citizens’ groups in the liberal university town of Denton, Texas, have recently mobilized to stop local frackers). But Pennsylvania has become an emerging battleground. In 2014, its attorney general filed criminal charges against ExxonMobil for an alleged waste-water spill by its subsidiary XTO Energy, back in 2010—the first criminal charges for activities related to fracking in the Marcellus Shale. This, in spite of the fact that XTO wasn’t responsible for the spill of 57,000 gallons of waste water (which is about three swimming pools’ worth) into a tributary of the Susquehanna; it was the work of a contractor. But XTO had already paid a $100,000 penalty and agreed to pay $20 million to clean it up. ExxonMobil has the deep pockets to fight back, but smaller companies and contractors won’t if suing fracking operations becomes the new legal sport in Pennsylvania.
Anti-frackers also thought they had a shot at stopping the industry in Colorado. The state is one of the wellsprings of environmental activism, after all, with plenty of willing foot soldiers from campuses such as the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Denver. But Colorado also sits on one of the biggest shale fields in North America and is one of the top natural-gas states. In 2013, oil and gas contributed $30 billion to Colorado’s economy, in addition to thousands of jobs.
A serious effort to launch an anti-fracking initiative, which would have banned drilling within 2,000 feet of homes and hospitals and given local community councils effective veto power over fracking efforts, ran aground early in 2014. Colorado Democrats realized it could endanger the reelections of Governor John Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall. Fracking is popular with Colorado voters, especially working-class voters. They convinced the multimillionaire congressman Jared Polis to set aside his petition drive for the bill just as Hickenlooper and Udall suddenly turned squishy on the fracking issue, to the fury of local environmentalists. (Udall lost; Hickenlooper was reelected.)
For a while, anti-frackers seemed to have more luck in Illinois, which was an important oil producer until its vertical wells dried up in the 1940s. Downstate counties such as Wayne and White have been in economic decline for decades. Fracking the rich, underlying New Albany Shale could revive their fortunes.
Starting in 2011, drillers began leasing more than 500,000 acres of land, with Woolsey Energy investing more than $100 million in setting up wells that could earn as much as 1.3 million dollars per well for landowners. In Clay County, every working well would produce $172,000 in mineral taxes for the state.
That’s when anti-fracking activists began to get nervous. Groups such as Frack Free Illinois, Global Warming Solutions Group of Central Illinois, and Progressive Democrats of Greater Springfield put pressure on the state legislature and its then-governor, Pat Quinn, to intervene. In June 2013, Governor Quinn signed legislation allowing the state’s department of natural resources to write stringent new rules on regulating fracking—rules that opponents hoped and supporters expected would signal the death of fracking in Illinois.
The proposed new rules required 28 separate certifications before a well could open, including a “cumulative impact statement” that would be wide open to public objections. Indeed, every permit was to be subject to extensive public hearings that would let any “adversely affected person” file an objection—and of course allow activist groups to flood the room.
And yet, when the final rules were unveiled in August 2014, activists were shocked to discover that some of them were far less stringent than—and even undercut—the rules Quinn had recommended. Industry groups were equally frustrated by rules they didn’t like, and they fought back. So the department of natural resources went back to the drawing board to start again. But in November, Quinn lost his reelection bid. Fracking hadn’t been a major issue in the campaign except in downstate counties, but the key political stakeholder in the anti-fracking campaign had been voted out of office. The environmentalist movement’s final hope was to block publication of the new rules; if no one knew what the rules were, they couldn’t drill. No luck. At the end of November, an Illinois judge gave the order that the rules were to be published. However stringent those rules may be, the road to fracking in Illinois is open at last.
For activist groups, this was a major defeat and one that will repeat itself if regulators are even minimally honest. When regulatory agencies actually investigate the dire charges made against the industry, most of the charges evaporate under scrutiny. Remaining health and safety matters, such as waste disposal, turn out to be manageable with simple oversight. In the end, this means that the fight to ban fracking outright is steadily turning into a losing battle.
And when politicians and courts decide to quit the field, what’s left for the left? More protests, even civil disobedience. “We will resist this with our bodies, our hearts, and our minds,” one southern Illinois organic farmer told the website Green Progress. “We will block this, we will chain ourselves to trucks.” Or, as some choice lyrics from “Fracking Gasholes” by XOEarth put it: “2,000 big trucks per well/Dusty growling beasts from hell,/For all the critturs that love to live,/Block the roads, or bid farewell.”
While the activists are lying in the road, fracking and its technologies are constantly evolving. Far from rejecting the environmentalists’ demands for more safety and for meeting community standards, companies are constantly adjusting to make their work as clean as possible. Many now employ reusable water for the hydro-fracking process, for example, while cutting back their use of toxic chemicals. Technologies for water-free fracking are already here and will become increasingly widespread in areas where water resources are scarce. That will be another body blow to fracking’s opponents, who like to claim it wastes water needed for human consumption or agriculture.
And we haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities of natural gas. While fracking has yielded record levels of oil production in the United States, those reserves-in-rock are limited. American natural-gas reserves are not. According to a recent Colorado School of Mines study, they amount to 2.3 quadrillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas in the United States, enough to fuel our energy needs for decades—and the constant technological innovations of the industry will make extracting those reserves increasingly cost-efficient.
Already, in 2013, we saw a 41 percent increase in natural-gas production over 2005 levels, more than 40 billion cubic feet a day. As the economy shifts to rely more on natural gas than on coal and petroleum, the positive change won’t be limited to greenhouse-gas emissions. Natural gas will become a ubiquitous fuel source as it gets converted to alternative transportation fuels that have higher octane levels, and lower emissions, than gasoline does.
Beyond that, there are methane hydrates—deep deposits of crystalline natural gas, embedded in large parts of the Arctic permafrost and ocean bottoms. Even when shale oil and gas have eventually run out, technologies to extract methane hydrates will be able to supply almost limitless energy—according to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than all previous discovered oil and gas put together, even while wind and solar are still trying to figure out how to generate power efficiently.
Progressives who believe themselves to be on the side of science and the little guy at the same time are in fact defying both. This is a battle between the partisans of a discredited ideology from the past and those who see the fast-advancing future. As Peter Huber and Mark Mills point out in their book, The Bottomless Well, energy is the fuel of growth and of life itself. The environmentalists’ target is greater than the future prosperity of America’s least fortunate—it’s their survival.
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The Liberal War on American Energy Independence
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The bloom is off the rose.
It’s no secret that Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates loathe Iran. What’s far more surprising is that Iran seems to be wearing out its welcome even in the Arab countries with which it is most closely allied. That, at least, is the message of both a recent study of Syrian textbooks and a recent wave of violent protests in Iraq.
In Syria, Shiite Iran has been the mainstay of the Assad regime (which belongs to the Alawite sect of Shiism) ever since civil war erupted in 2011, pitting the regime against Sunni rebels. It has brought more than 80,000 troops to Syria to fight for the regime, mostly either from Shiite militias it already sponsored in Lebanon and Iraq or from new Shiite militias created especially for this purpose out of Afghan and Pakistani refugees in Iran. It has also given the Assad regime astronomical sums of money to keep it afloat.
Scholars estimate its combined military and economic aid to Syria over the course of the war at anywhere from $30 billion to $105 billion. Without this Iranian help, the regime likely wouldn’t have survived until Russia finally intervened in 2015, providing the crucial air power that enabled Assad to regain most of the territory he had lost.
Given all this, one would expect the regime to be grateful to its Iranian benefactors. Instead, as the textbook study shows, Assad is teaching Syrian schoolchildren a healthy dose of suspicion toward Iran.
The study, by researchers from the IMPACT-se research institute, examined official Syrian textbooks for first through twelfth graders used in areas controlled by Assad in 2017-18. Unsurprisingly, these books present Russia as a close ally. Students are even required to study the Russian language.
The portrayal of Iran, in contrast, is “lukewarm at best,” the report said. In part, this is because the “curriculum as a whole revolves around secular pan-Arabism” and Syria’s position as an integral part of the “Arab homeland,” to which non-Arab Iran emphatically doesn’t belong. And in part, it’s because Iran has historically been the Arab world’s rival.
Even though the textbooks praise the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Islamic Republic’s subsequent antagonism to Israel and the West, which Syria shares, they have little good to say about the country formerly known as Persia in all the millennia until then.
For instance, the books say, the Arab world suffered “cultural domination” by the Persian Empire during the Abbasid caliphate, and at times, Arab lands were even under “Persian occupation.” Nor is this occupation a thing of the past: Even today, the books list Iran’s Khuzestan province as one of “the usurped areas of the Arab homeland.” In fact, it’s dubbed one of “the most important usurped regions.
And what about Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese militia which played a key role in some of Assad’s most important victories, at the price of having over a third of its fighters killed or wounded? It doesn’t even merit a mention in the textbooks, the report said.
Now consider Shi’ite-majority Iraq, which also owes its very existence, in part, to Iranian support: After the Islamic State took over large swaths of the country a few years ago, Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militias proved crucial to regaining this territory. The air power provided by the U.S.-led coalition also obviously played a key role, but on the ground, the Iranian-backed militias were among Iraq’s most effective troops. And aside from this massive military aid, Iran is one of Iraq’s biggest trading partners and an important supplier of electricity.
Yet the protests that have recently swept southern Iraq—the country’s Shi’ite heartland—haven’t focused solely on the Iraqi government’s corruption and dysfunction; they have also repeatedly targeted Iranian-affiliated organizations. The Jerusalem Post reported last week that protesters torched a base belonging to the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. They also raided the Najaf airport, and “locals claimed they ransacked planes belonging to Iran.”
In addition, they targeted offices belonging to the Dawa party, the Badr party, and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, “all of which are closely connected to Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” the report continued. “According to Iraq expert Haydar Al-Khoei, the protesters chanted ‘the Iranian Dawa party, the Safavids,’ a reference to the Persian Empire and an attempt to portray modern-day Iranian-backed parties in Iraq as a form of Iranian takeover of the country.”
Neither Syrian suspicion nor Iraqi hostility should actually be terribly surprising. Both countries understand that Iran didn’t provide such massive military aid out of the goodness of its heart. Rather, its goal is to turn both Syria and Iraq into Iranian satrapies, much as Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon already is. And neither Syrians nor Iraqis are enthusiastic over that prospect. (Russia obviously isn’t helping the Assad regime out of altruism either, but it seems to be seeking more limited quid pro quos, like oil concessions and naval bases, rather than total domination of the country.)
Needless to say, this doesn’t mean either Syria or Iraq will be showing Iran the door anytime soon; both are still too dependent on it. But it does mean Iran’s goal of Mideast domination may face more obstacles than were apparent a few years ago, making the goal of an Iranian rollback even more feasible.
Achieving rollback, however, will require continued efforts to make Iran’s military adventurism financially unsupportable. The Trump Administration’s planned new sanctions on Iran are an important step in the right direction. But the European Union is going in the opposite direction. It’s actually considering throwing Tehran a financial lifeline by letting Iran’s central bank open accounts with European central banks.
Washington must make it clear to Europe that any such effort will have severe ramifications for European access to America’s financial system. With Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians themselves now voicing growing discontent over Iran’s meddling in other countries, this is no time for the West to go wobbly.
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The essence of deterrence.
Newt Gingrich called Donald Trump’s servile performance alongside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki this week the “most serious mistake” of his presidency. Gingrich only had to wait a few hours for the president to top himself.
After he spent an hour emboldening Russia’s autocratic president by insisting that “both sides” are to blame for Moscow’s attack on private American interests in 2016, Trump sat down with Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson for an interview in which he questioned the value of America’s mutual defense commitments abroad. “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked, citing specifically the Balkan nation that ascended to NATO membership last year. Rather than offer a coherent defense of the post-World War II consensus, articulate how the Atlantic alliance advances U.S. interests, or expand on the threat Russia poses to its member states on the periphery, Trump seemed to accept Carlson’s premise.
“I’ve asked the same question,” the president replied. He called Montenegro a “tiny country” populated by “aggressive people” who, like America apparently, might just deserve a punch in the nose from Moscow. “They may get aggressive, and congratulations you’re in World War III,” Trump said. This is a remarkably dangerous sentiment for any American official to express, much less the president of the United States.
Putin has spent the last decade communicating his willingness to use military force to change borders and to halt NATO’s eastward expansion. His invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, followed by the functional or formal annexation of territory in those countries, represent the greatest threat to the American-led postwar order in Europe in the last half-century. Putin regularly tests the Western alliance’s willingness to defend itself. He has executed crippling cyber attacks on American allies. He has engineered border incidents and kidnapped soldiers to use as propaganda tools. Even “aggressive” Montenegro has been the target of Putin’s belligerence. To prevent Podgorica’s ascension into NATO, Russian military officers executed a failed operation in 2016 designed to topple Montenegro’s democratically elected government, assassinate its prime minister, and install an anti-Western regime.
So why would Putin go to all that trouble over a “tiny country?” Not only is Montenegro of strategic value insofar as it had the last non-NATO deepwater port on the Western Mediterranean, but NATO membership takes a country off the board for Russia. Both Ukraine and Georgia were on track to ascend to NATO membership, but weak-kneed Western European leaders blocked those efforts in an attempt to curry favor with Russia. The stall was just long enough for Moscow to interfere in their politics and, eventually, destabilize them militarily. Neither nation will ascend to NATO now, lest the alliance take ownership of Russia’s aggression toward them. Moscow has effectively blocked those sovereign nation’s aspirations to orient themselves westward. It tried to do as much to Montenegro, but it failed.
Moscow is a declining power, and that is precisely what makes it so dangerous. Russia is aware that time is not on its side. It cannot afford conventional conflict with the West, but it has proven willing to test its boundaries. Donald Trump’s willingness to send ambiguous signals about America’s firm defense commitments risks encouraging Moscow to take even more provocative actions. And that could bring about a terrible crisis.
Putin’s objective is to tear the alliance apart, but he cannot do so through direct confrontation; that is a conflict he would lose. The only way he can achieve his goal is to render the alliance moot, and the quickest way to do that would be to engineer a crisis on NATO’s periphery that forces one of its smaller members to call for help. If Estonia asked the West to go to war with Russia in its defense, would we? That’s an open question. If Tallinn invoked NATO’s mutual defense provisions as America did in 2001 and no one came to its aid, the Atlantic alliance would essentially cease to exist, and the postwar order in Europe would go with it.
Communication is the essence of deterrence. An adversary who doesn’t know what you are prepared to defend and what you’re willing to sacrifice will test you. If those boundaries are unclear, that adversary runs the risk of crossing a line that provokes a disproportionate response. Once that cycle of cascading and reciprocal reprisals begins, it becomes difficult to stop.
That is the essential value of NATO. It is a vehicle for deterrence. Its borders are clear, its interests are well defined, and the consequences for violating either are dire. Not only has the Atlantic alliance helped keep the peace among its formerly conflict-prone members, it has raised the cost of overt Russian interference in Western affairs to a prohibitive point. NATO remains a bulwark against Russian antagonism, and its mutual defense guarantees ensure that Americans who volunteer to defend U.S. interests at home and abroad will never be asked to sacrifice their lives in Europe again. An American president should be expected to know that.
In May of 1939, the French socialist newspaper L’Œuvre articulated the essential logic of appeasement when it asserted that the Nazi’s territorial demands on the Polish Republic’s port on the Baltic Sea were not worth contesting. Its arguments were cowardice cloaked in false bravado and cheap nationalism, but it nevertheless put those who were inclined to confront Hitler on the defensive. A slight variation on the title of that article soon became the anti-war slogan adopted by pacifist and isolationist movements on both sides of the Atlantic: “Why die for Danzig?” The Second World War began four months later all the same. Tens of millions would die because the spine required to confront and contain the Nazi menace was in short supply.
So why die for Montenegro? The goal of American strategy in Europe is that, through proactivity and deterrence, no one will. When we fail to communicate to aggressors that their actions will result in consequences that they cannot endure, we run the risk of inviting another terrible conflict. It is one of history’s great ironies that those who claim to be war’s greatest opponents have such a lamentably consistent track record of bringing it about.
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Podcast: The anti-Atlanticist president.
Trump in Helsinki brown-nosing Putin. Trump on with Tucker Carlson threatening the viability of NATO. The possibility of an American ambassador being somehow presented to Russia for questioning. These all happened after our last podcast. We try to make sense of it without crying. Give a listen.
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Corporate silly season.
At some point in recent decades—I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment—corporate America turned itself into an organ of liberal nannyism and virtue signaling. No longer a commercial bulwark against liberal statism, many firms now happily enforce the orthodoxies of cultural liberalism in the workplace. Which means that, for most of us, the “American experience” feels like one seamless garment of dreary, conformist liberalism wrapped around the public square and the private economy.
The transformation reached its apotheosis this month with the announcement that WeWork is turning itself into a “meat-free organization.” That means the shared-office-space purveyor won’t serve meat at cafeterias and office events. Nor will the firm pay for meat-based dishes on expense accounts.
“New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact,” co-founder and “chief culture officer” Miguel McKelvey said in a memo, “even more than switching to a hybrid car.” That whooshing sound you hear is McKelvey’s superhero cape fluttering in the wind.
How the company will enforce the new rules is a mystery. The meat-free rule will likely prove to be a nightmare for frontline human-resources workers as well as the executives who have to wine and dine clients at company expense. Less of a mystery is the motivation behind the change. Vegetarian dishes are on average cheaper than meat-based ones. Moreover, as Virginia Postrel points out, “the meat ban is an exercise in brand-building. In today’s ‘meaning economy,’ what we buy carries value-laden significance. It defines our identity and marks our tribe.”
Yes, apparently there are consumers and employees for whom the food served at the company cafeteria is an important source of spiritual meaning. Pray for them.
Then there is the brain-power problem the firm could be creating for itself by imposing a lifestyle preferred by just 3 percent of Americans on all 6,000 of its workers. To wit, science tells us that “high meat intake correlates with moderate fertility, high intelligence, good health, and longevity with consequent population stability, whereas low meat/high cereal intake . . . correlates with high fertility, disease, and population booms and busts.” The long-term evolutionary success of our species, per numerous biological studies, had something to do with eating meat.
In 1940, amid a national debate in Britain over balanced wartime diets, Winston Churchill wrote: “Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut-eaters and the like, have died young after a long period of senile decay . . . The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etc., washed down on gala occasions with a little lime juice.” In corporate America in 2018, the faddists and nut eaters and other ninnies are winning the war. For now.
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The president's blind spot.
You could sense a disturbance in the force on Tuesday, as center-left identitarian social-justice activists awoke to the news that former President Barack Obama had set fire to the exclusionary identity politics at the heart of what it means to be “woke.”
“This is hard,” Obama told the audience at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa. For participatory republican democracy to work, the president added, pluralism was a non-negotiable prerequisite. Toxic identity politics that segregate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other demographic signifier is the enemy of that kind of pluralism. “You can’t do this if you just out-of-hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start,” he said. “You can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they’re white or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
Now, Obama was speaking about the context of political life in South Africa, where ethnic whites make up less than 10 percent of the population. South Africa’s complicated history, persistent racial disparities, and the associated violence render the problem Obama was addressing an urgent one, and it is not directly applicable to civic life in the United States. And yet, stripped of its regional context, you could be forgiven for thinking that Obama was taking a swipe at his compatriots.
Washington State’s Evergreen State College exploded last year when biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to a student-led initiative called the “day of absence,” in which white students were asked to voluntarily leave campus. Weinstein called it a form of racial segregation. In turn, he was called a racist by students, whose ensuing protests managed to close down the school for three days. Weinstein and his wife resigned and later cost the school a half-million dollars in a settlement over their treatment.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed, people like Mark Lilla, a Democrat and opponent of identity politics, come under attack from progressive activists who take issue, not with their ideas, but with their race and gender. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” read the graffiti that Bruni recalled seeing deface an advertisement for a campus talk Lilla was prepared to deliver in 2017.
It only seems to become difficult for liberals to find evidence of the left’s efforts to silence those with perceived majoritarian traits when they are called to account for this separatism. It is not hard to substantiate the accusation that liberals have made a habit of demanding that straights, whites, males, or any combination thereof, stifle themselves in favor of women and minorities. The impulse to define individuals by their accidents of birth is by definition exclusionary, and it is one that any pluralist society cannot abide. Obama’s admonishment was as welcome as it was universally applicable. It’s a shame that his commitment to it is entirely cosmetic.
Hours had not passed before Obama was again paying homage to the diktats of liberal identity politics. “Women in particular, by the way, I want you to get more involved,” the former president told an audience in Johannesburg. “Because men have been getting on my nerves lately.” He added that men have been “violent,” “bullying,” and “just not handling our business.” Again, the context of these remarks was supposedly limited to affairs in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are hard to divorce from the abuses uncovered by a handful of men almost exclusively occupying positions of power and status in the United States uncovered as a result of the #MeToo movement.
This contradictory behavior is standard fare for America’s 44th president. He has at times eloquently attacked the “crude” identity politics that pits Americans against one another, but these flashes of brilliance were few and far between. Barack Obama was a politician catering to a constituency, and that constituency took to divisive identitarianism like fish in water.
It was Barack Obama who pledged to “punish” the “enemies” of America’s Latino population, and it was his vice president who insisted that Mitt Romney, of all people, wanted to reinstate black slavery. When the president only called on women at a 2014 press conference, his White House made sure to call around to reporters after the fact to make sure they noticed. It was the Obama administration who spent years promoting the pernicious idea that American employers systematically discriminated against women even though his own Bureau of Labor Statistics insisted that the 77 cents myth was almost entirely the product of individual choices. It was Barack Obama’s attorney general who implied that Republican opposition to Obama (and himself) was a product of their racial animus.
“The Obama family’s tenure in the White House has overlapped a revolution in the way Americans deal with identity,” read an NPR retrospective on the Obama years. “From race to religion, from gender to sexual orientation and beyond, marginalized groups that historically worked and waited for ‘a seat at the table’ increasingly demanded their share of cultural power.” What’s more, demographics that were once the locus of American cultural power “were called on to defend their ideas and ‘check their privilege.’”
Latent hostility toward African Americans even among outwardly non-discriminatory Americans deserves as much blame for this phenomenon as any acts of agitation by Obama and his fellow Democrats. The racial provocateurs and hucksters on the right who leveraged white anxiety to their financial benefits played as much of a role in establishing the sorry state of affairs that typifies our present. But a fair reading of Obama’s time in office must concede that the president liked to condemn the theory of identity politics more than he eschewed it in practice. The aspirations that led a whopping 70 percent to say in 2009 that Obama’s presidency would improve race relations had all but evaporated by 2014, well before Donald Trump descended down the escalator.
Divisive identity politics is now how both political parties approach the electorate. As a tool, it has proven too effective for any competent political operation to abjure. Barack Obama appears to recognize that this is a tragedy, but he is not yet willing to take responsibility for the role he played in our lamentable condition.