Marcellus Shale (When It Isn't) Play

12/22/2011 11:24 am ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

Ours is a culture replete with euphemisms, and I imagine they've evolved as a coping strategy. I realize it's human to shy from what makes us uncomfortable, but if "taking the dirt nap" makes it easier to speak of our mortality, what's the harm? Yet there's no denying their darker side. Euphemisms are ubiquitous and it can be difficult distinguishing their help from their hindrance.

Consider the word "play," four letters with more applications than you might at first appreciate. There's the three-act variety, of course, and that essential building block of every football game without which there could be no game. There's the umpire's directive to play ball, and that which is done with a musical instrument to produce sweet sounds. Most people would probably agree however that its predominant usage describes that joyous activity among children and pets.

But the play that's risen to prominence with me lately is the one applied to shale, natural gas-containing shale, as in shale PLAY, and more specifically, the Marcellus Shale PLAY. That's true for two reasons. The first is partly an admission of my insensitive side, because shale plays are located throughout the country and I haven't gotten as wound up about them before.

But the Marcellus Shale formation is, as they say, in my backyard. But I'm not ready to concede NIMBY in its usual sense, because the present industry darling for obtaining gas from shale -- high volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as it's known in the vernacular -- isn't a darling whose present form and deployment I can cozy up with anywhere.

And I'll defend myself further by pointing out something in need of pointing out more often; NIMBY is an acronym suffering bipolar disorder. Its negative connotation of self-centeredness -- a favored trump card here in Sullivan County -- is received to near exclusion of its honorable twin -- taking responsibility for where you live. After all, if you don't, who should, and how can you justify caring about much else? But in truth, the "in your face" factor would be reduced if my head could remain buried in the shale about where and how shale gas is acquired. "I'm not asking for my record to be expunged your honor, only a fair hearing."

The other reason for play's heightened prominence with me gets us back to where I began, because fracking the Marcellus Shale, or any other shale, is anything but play, and I resent industry's -- and government's -- euphemistic use of the word. An operation that embraces the injection (and inefficient recovery) of known carcinogens and other dangerous compounds into the ground shouldn't be referred to as play, nor should the broader gas development operation, with its potential for contaminating drinking water and making people sick.

Words matter. But there may be a way around my objection, at least in theory. Industry and government could strive for greater fidelity in their use of the word. That could work, but some things looking good on paper lack legs in the real world. Consider it though, if only briefly: You're looking at a New York State website; it contains a table of shale formations throughout the United States titled, "U.S. Shale Plays (1)"; you look down at footnote (1) and see a warning not unlike that of the Surgeon General's on a pack of smokes:

Caution: Use of the word "PLAY" is restricted to playing community members against one another to promote private profit from local fracking operations underwritten by the public assuming much of the risk. These operations have not been determined to provide state or local budgetary relief when adverse public impacts have been adequately accounted for. The State of New York and industry shall not be liable for any damages you might incur from that kind of PLAY.

There. Something I can stand next to, or at least admire for its clarity of message.

"Keep dreaming," you say. Perhaps. "Any more bright ideas?" Well, yes.

I don't think it's asking too much from Governor Cuomo to provide the same measure of protection -- to all state residents -- from damages arising from fracking, that he's reserved for himself and state agencies -- from those arising from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's website? Then why hasn't he?

In no event shall the State of New York, its agencies or authorities, employees, officers or agents be liable for any direct, indirect, punitive, incidental, special, or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever including, without limitation, damages for loss of use, data, or profits, arising out of or in any way connected with the use or performance of this web site, or for any information, software, products, services, or graphics obtained through this web site, or otherwise arising out of the use of this web site, whether based on contract, tort, strict liability, or otherwise, even if the State of New York, its agencies or authorities, employees, officers or agents have been advised of the possibility of damages.

So if we can't rely on industry and agencies to be authentic in their use of the word, or provide us with adequate protection from being fracked, it's fair to ask, what can we rely on them for? Fair as it is, a better question asks what we can do to assist them in finding their way.

To that end I'm suggesting replacing them -- not the governor or agencies, just the four letters, PLAY -- with a more honest rendering of what fracking operations mean in an area of shale. And I'm proposing "TMEZ," pronounced "tee mezz," short for Toxic Materials Exposure Zone. I realize acronyms too can sometimes carry the baggage of multiple meanings, but I don't see that as a high concern here, euphemistically or otherwise.

"The Barnett Shale TMEZ has been responsible for more prosperity than..." "The Fayetteville TMEZ has created more jobs than..." "The Marcellus Shale TMEZ can bring economic prosperity to Sullivan County!" And it seems to me TMEZ, in this recommended usage, facilitates an appropriate dissonance with the notion of promoting long-term prosperity through the creation of Toxic Materials Exposure Zones.

Now I can guess what some of you might be thinking. All I can say is at times I feel at odds even among friends, when I'm compelled to remind them it's been a while since we relied on horseback for transportation. But I do have two prerequisites before taking seriously any proposal for tapping into additional sources of fossil fuels.

First, it needs to be part of a serious energy plan to get us from where we are to where we need to be, reducing atmospheric carbon and other pollutants and addressing wasteful consumption . (I'm sorry, Mr. Pickens, but your vision of natural gas providing part of that bridge is more than a hard sell, unless you can show us where to purchase vehicles that run on the stuff, where we can go to put it in those vehicles, and convince us that the cost of building the heretofore non-existent infrastructure for distributing it isn't a colossal distraction from promoting promising initiatives already here -- like plug-in electric hybrids).

My second one requires that it pays for itself when costs are adequately accounted for -- my preference being to avoid squishy slogans like "it's safe." Requiring that it does keeps the liability of unintended consequences where it belongs, assuring a level of safety "it's safe" never could. In God we may trust; all others need to pay cash.