Sunday, October 23, 2011


Seamus McGraw, author of a book about fracking, has an op-ed in today's New York Times about the beginning of the fracking process on land in rural Pennsylvania that's been in his family for forty years, originally as a weekend getaway, later as a farm. I bring this to your attention because of how McGraw concludes the piece: with words that embody the way so many Americans today view power relations in this country.

There will never be enough regulators to police all the trucks and tanks and rigs that will cover the Marcellus from New York State to the Kentucky state line in the next few decades. In the end, the responsibility for monitoring this, for holding the industry to its promises and responsible for its failures, will fall where it has always fallen -- on the shoulders of the people on the ground, the people whose lives will be most directly affected.

Standing there in what used to be our pasture on that light summer night, watching as the machinery of progress blasted the rock a mile beneath my feet, I realized that was what scared me the most. Not that this was inevitable, but that its impact depended so much on me, on whether I had the character to come out from behind the convenient shield of "are you for it or against it" ideology and find the strength, the will and the means to do what I can to make sure this is done in the best way possible.

I still don’t really know the answer.

That's right: in McGraw's view, the responsible for regulation of massive, big-ticket energy exploration rests with the individual.

Obviously, there's quite a bit of truth in his assertion that government isn't up to the tesk of regulating this industry -- but what offends me is that McGraw seems to accept this as not only inevitable but morally right. He, as one guy, is supposed to have the "character" to stand up to huge corporate interests who can use or abuse scientific (and legal and fiscal and regulatory) knowledge as they see fit, relying on batteries of experts -- and if he doesn't prevent fracking from destroying his land, he thinks it's his own damn fault. Government is let off the hook; the notion of group action is never discussed, nor is there any mention of the use of advocacy groups, or appeals to the public, if the process doesn't work.

This is how the system has too many of us thinking. I'm reminded of the way we're routinely told that the Wall Street meltdown happened because "we" -- all of us -- were too greedy. No one with vast amounts of money, according to this view, had a special responsibility to prevent disaster, even though those could make disaster happen all by themselves, whereas we couldn't (certainly not without their help). If government regulators didn't see trouble coming and save us from the full impact, well, we deserved it.

The powers that be are only too happy to have us continue thinking like this; we'll never hold them accountable as long as we do.