If you want to make a point, the communication coaches all seem to agree, you ought to tell a story rather than present a lecture. I have to agree with that. And I suggest you might put an even finer point on it, and begin your story with a picture.
I have been driving back and forth to northeastern Pennsylvania this summer, seeing the occasional clearings for drilling sites in the area of the natural gas-rich Marcellus shale deposit, and then the signs of opposition that crop up — not in Pennsylvania — but in New Jersey, where people seem to link the fracking with the proposed Penn East pipeline that would transport the Marcellus gas to the northeast corridor.
The roads in Hopewell and the vicinity are lined with signs against the pipeline and the hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — that will create the need for the pipeline.
Mercer County executive Brian Hughes recently banned surveyors for the project from working on county-owned land. Hopewell Township followed suit. And the Hopewell Township Board of Health unanimously passed a resolution against the pipeline project.
My position on fracking has been negative, based principally on a single image from the documentary “Gasland,” by filmmaker and environmental activist Josh Fox. The documentary, which won a Sundance Film Festival award, shows water flowing from a kitchen faucet. As the water flows, a hand reaches in with a cigaret lighter, flicks the igniter, and turns the water into a streaming flame.
I’m not the only one who took notice of the flaming faucet. An article in the Economist on July 14, 2012, talked about Europe’s reluctance to embrace shale gas as an energy resource. “Why does fracking provoke so much opposition?” the magazine asked. “Some call it the ‘GasLand’ effect, after a 2010 film by Josh Fox about America’s shale-gas industry in which an old man puts a match to his water tap (a popular party trick in shale-gas areas) and then reels back from the dramatic gas explosion.”
So you want to know what fracking is all about? There it is, a graphic representation of what happens when you drill into that Marcellus shale, fracture it into bits and pieces with highly pressured fluids, and then capture the gas that escapes from the cracks and crevices of the shale.
Who needs it, I figured. Every bit of gas pumped out of the shale would just remove some incentive to pursue an alternative and far more sustainable form of energy.
Wind power is one, and we see a procession of wind mills already in operation in northeastern Pennsylvania between Carbondale and Forest City.
Solar is another, and I don’t just imagine solar panels on rooftops or fields of solar panels on plots of open space. I envision roofs that double as solar panels. And car roofs that are solar producers — I’m stuck in traffic, honey, but at least the car will be charged by the time I get home. And, yes, batteries themselves pose considerable environmental and recycling challenges, but we have to move in this direction sooner or later, even if we don’t have all the solutions when we begin the process. In the meantime we won’t be making any water faucets burst into flames.
So that’s the picture. Now the story.
The other day I was up in northeastern Pennsylvania, visiting with some people who have much deeper roots in the community than I. The group included an antique store owner, a 2008 Obama volunteer, an opera buff and arts reviewer, and a retired oil company executive who is not afraid to be critical of his own industry. None of them was a climate change denier and all of them lived in the area in large part because of the charm of the mostly undeveloped surroundings.
Yet, when the subject of fracking came up, they were all in favor of it. To my question of “who needs it?” they had an answer. They felt that fracking represented at least a chance for the year-round residents to raise their standard of living and possibly even a future opportunity for young people who otherwise would have to leave the area to find work.
The arts reviewer, Peter Wynne felt so strongly about the issue, and how it has been misrepresented in the media, that he has volunteered his time to serve as the publicist for the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, a group of some 1,300 property owners who hold more than 100,000 acres of land in Susquehanna County and northern Wayne County of Pennsylvania (www.nwpoa.info).
As Wynne pointed out in a 2010 op ed column, the “Gasland” documentary is indeed a good story, highlighted by that great picture, and told by an accomplished storyteller. “If you watch Josh Fox in his movie you’ll likely be convinced he was born among the green hills of Wayne County, Pa., and grew up in a little house on a dirt road in the middle of the woods,” Wynne wrote.
But when Fox appears in the film wearing jeans and a baseball cap and finger-picking a five-string banjo, Wynne writes, he “is playing a role . . . Besides being a film director, he’s an experienced actor. He’s also a playwright with at least 16 stage plays to his credit. In fact, it’s in the program notes for one of those plays — in 2002 at the La MaMa ETC theater in New York City — that he mentions his acting experience. In those notes, he also volunteers that he ‘was born and raised above 96th street and grew up almost entirely in Manhattan,’ adding that he’s ‘a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Theater Arts.’
“The Josh Fox of the film is basically a fictional character. His father does own a modest house on the unpaved John Davis Road in Milanville, and Josh no doubt spent some time there as a child, when he wasn’t growing up ‘almost entirely in Manhattan.’ As with everything else in the movie, Fox picks only the facts that help him win his case and fills the gaps with fiction.
“Fox clearly understands that audiences will view him and his crusade against gas exploration with far greater sympathy if he represents himself as someone born and bred in the countryside he says he’s defending, and not just some Upper West Sider whose parents were well enough off to have a rustic retreat for weekends and summer vacations.”
Wynne produces lots of government reports and journalistic fact checking to rebut many of the points in Fox’s film. But what about that picture of the flaming faucet? The phenomenon of methane gas being mixed in with well water, says Wynne, is a fact of life that predates the fracking going on.
Wynne leads me to a 2010 story in the Hancock Herald (from a town just over the line in New York) that told the story of a longtime well driller in northeastern Pennsylvania, Francis Tully.
Tully told the reporter that “the phenomenon of ‘seepage’ is relatively common in Susquehanna and Wayne counties and drillers often found natural gas while drilling for water. The Internet features several videos of people ‘flaring’ matches at water faucets in Susquehanna County, which is cited as evidence that gas drilling is damaging private water wells. However, drillers 50 years ago often found that they could flare matches at the faucets.”
More recently, in January, 2007, a video of a flaming faucet in Susquehanna County was posted on YouTube. But, Wynne points out, that was still months before any gas wells had been drilled in the vicinity.
So much for the picture and the story on fracking. But I won’t think much more about the subject for a while. At the moment I am looking forward to the first Republican presidential debate on Thursday, August 6. I bet the politicians even now are being coached on how to paint some pictures and share some stories.