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The Metaphors of Fracking

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Less like a pot of gold, more like a waste dump.

"Gilded tombs do worms enfold."
-- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

The United States, as it turns out, has a lot of unburned natural gas. It's trapped as tiny bubbles in our shale bedrock. Through the technique called fracking, we can blow apart our nation's geological basement -- using water, sand, chemicals, and high pressure -- and get those bubbles to flow up mile-long holes to the surface.

Is that a good idea? Public health concerns would argue no. The bedrock is radioactive and fracturing it releases all manner of toxic materials. Plus the chemicals used to frack are themselves toxic. Plus our drinking water aquifers lie above the rocks we are shattering. (See my previous columns, "Cancer in the Ransom Note" and "Safe Hydrofracking Is the New Jumbo Shrimp.")

Climate concerns would also argue no.

But fracking is a technology surrounded by metaphors that blind us to the data.

Natural gas is called a bridge. And, claim its proponents, it will carry us to many good places. It's a bridge to a low-carbon future. It's a bridge to renewables. It's a bridge to energy independence.

And what's that gleaming on the opposite bank? Why, gold. The race to build a nationwide infrastructure for fracking is called a modern-day gold rush. And the methane-powered world that lies before us is called the golden age. Most recently, the proposed policies for regulating its extraction and combustion have been deemed "the golden rules for a golden age of gas."

While racing across the metaphorical bridge toward the metaphorical gold, we risk overlooking some non-metaphorical data. Like the fact that unburned methane, when it leaks, is, over a 20-year time frame, 100 times more potent a heat-trapping gas than the carbon dioxide that is produced when coal and oil are burned. Like the fact that methane obtained via fracking leaks at rates at least 30 percent higher than that obtained through conventional drilling. And, in some cases, up to twice as much.

Those leakage rates mean that natural gas obtained via fracking is either marginally worse than coal for the climate or marginally better. Either way, natural gas cannot solve the energy-carbon-climate problem: If fracking is used to span the transition to renewables, the world will be on a pathway that leads to a 3.5 degree centigrade uptick in warming. Which exceeds the 2 degree uptick that is considered the upper limit of safety.

Interesting, the International Energy Agency itself -- which released both Are We Entering a Golden Age of Gas? and its sequel (spoiler alert: the title gives away the answer) Golden Rules for the Golden Age of Gas -- acknowledges this problem. But that admission was scarcely noticed under all the glitter.

One who did notice was energy analyst Stephan Singer of the World Wildlife Fund. Pointing out that the word golden connotes championships and gold standards, Singer called the two reports "a communications disaster" and correctly asserted that a golden age for gas really means "a dark age for the climate."

Here's an alternative metaphorical structure that I'd like to propose, from my life as a cancer patient: Having ignored early warning signs, we face a climate situation that's like a diagnosis of advanced cancer. We have three possible treatment options. The first (status quo: coal, tar sands, petroleum) has no chance of saving our life.

The second (a golden age of gas overseen by golden rules on the other side of a bridge) leads to the same inexorable endpoint, albeit perhaps fractionally more slowly.

The third option (decarbonization and renewable energy) offers the only real chance of getting us to a remission and averting disaster. But treatment must start immediately and, even with the best outcome, we will never again be the same robustly healthy person we once were. But at least there's hope.

Given those options, would we really spend time arguing with the doctor to explain in more detail the differences between the first and the second options? Would we say, "Let's start with the second choice, see how it goes, and then switch over, someday, somehow, to the third"?

Or, if medical metaphors don't inspire new ways of thinking, maybe we could just take a new look at the blunt assessment of climatologist Ken Caldeira, who, when asked about the possibilities of natural gas and fracking, said that treating the planet's air as a landfill has consequences -- which is fact and metaphor both: "If we are serious about solving this problem, we cannot be further entrenching a fossil fuel industry that depends on using the atmosphere as a waste dump... The goal is not to do something that is fractionally less bad than what we are doing now; the goal is to deploy energy systems that can actually solve the problem."

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us. http://steingraber.com | www.livingdownstream.com

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