Petro and Presidential Politics

There’s this Garth Brooks song that makes me cry every time, called American Dream. It pretty much describes my life. In addition to its beautiful instrumentation, the lyrics just get me. Every time.

Oil put food on the table. It put my brother and me through college.  It gave me a lot of my current work experience. As such, it means that I am one of the 0.15% of people in the oil industry who have monetarily supported Hillary Clinton for President. Shockingly, there are a couple of us progressive liberals within the fossil fuels industry.

Do I want a world where the polar bears aren’t threatened by receding ice floes and we aren’t worried about the air we breathe? Yes, because I am not a Space Balls villain. However, I am also a practical person who understands a few certain things about the world we live in currently:

  • Cars.
  • Electricity.
  • Heated homes in the winter.
  • Amazon! I mean, Prime shipping, right?
  • Steel. Without natural gas, there is no fundamental building block for all of our… well.. buildings.
  • Cement. Super energy intensive.
  • Agriculture.
  • Paper. Apparently.
  • Gore-Tex; moisture wicking materials; garden hoses; paint; wax; shingles; water bottles (the recyclable and ocean polluting kind); asphalt; iPhone parts; fine, your Android parts, too;  sterile packaging; latex gloves; pretty much anything in a doctor’s office or hospital; planes; trains; automobiles (wait, I already said that); televisions…
Yeah, I don't want to breathe out of a can either.
Yeah, I don’t want to breathe out of a can either.

The list goes on. The fact of the matter is that our dependence on oil and natural gas goes so far beyond the electric grid. We can build wind turbine after wind turbine into a fantastic sea of Star Wars-looking creations. We can outfit every single home and business with solar panels. It still will. not. end our dependence on fossil fuels. To do that, we need a total technological revolution, and a collective, societal decision that we cannot keep up this pattern of our own habitat destruction (and that of every other species on this planet).  And we have not made that societal decision; not when every single Bernie supporter (and every other candidate’s supporters, let’s just be real here) carry a smart phone, own at least one computer, and have a love affair with traveling, even if it’s only across state lines.

(I can’t simplify oil and gas development in a blog post. If you’re interested, check out this page, where I’ve put together a Cliff’s Notes of production. You can also check out Inside Energy, a project of Rocky Mountain public media, where they do a really bang up job reporting on these issues.)

In any case, that’s why I support Hillary. Ok, one of the myriad of reasons. She gets that this whole idea of “end fracking” isn’t a glorious panacea, especially if foreign policy is your thing. Fracking led to an increase in our oil and gas development at a time when every analyst seemed to think we’d played out our hand and were doomed to import all 20 million barrels of oil we consume per day.* The fact that we managed to take this totally radical method from the 1960s, revolutionize it to make it economical and safer than it’d ever been, and then surpass Russia AND Saudi Arabia’s output of oil? That was a policy and technological moonshot.

It changed the global balance of power. Because of fracking, not only did America have the ability to hand Europe greater leverage in bargaining with Russian energy suppliers (Russia being the biggest source of natural gas to our NATO allies), it lowered our own risk against supply disruptions. Our spot at the top of the oil-producers leaders board had impacts on our allies, and enemies, and it continues to have impacts on things like, oh I don’t know, say a little thing that Secretary Clinton started negotiations on called the Iran Nuclear Deal. These are yuuuuugggeee implications. And only a few.

Oil is a bellwether in the markets, though not as strong of one as it once was. With oil’s price collapse and saturation of the markets in late 2014, everyone hailed the good news for the consumer (your Facebook statuses on $1-some-odd gas doesn’t make me feel any better though), at the same time, speaking of my no-longer-existent position, thousands of jobs have been eliminated due to the downturn. This is an entrenched energy source, a market cornerstone, and divesting your university from fossil fuels, or biking to work on warm days, or taking your diesel or natural gas powered bus isn’t going to change that. I mean, in the last four paragraphs, I tried to allude to how complicated this industry is, and how entwined it is in everything we do, from consumer spending, to foreign policy, to our own national security. Bernie Sanders standing on a podium in a debate and saying “I do not support fracking” or stating that “I hope California and the rest of the U.S. bans fracking” tells me that he doesn’t understand this at worst, and is pandering at best.

*beats head on wall*
*beats head on wall*

The worst part of Senator Sanders’ willful refusal to even entertain fracking as an important policy tool in this country is that he’s pulling our policy wonkette, “it’s complicated” is her middle name, highly experienced in the realm of foreign policy and all the leverage that one needs to fully realize and utilize our soft- and hard-power Clinton in the direction of the simplistic. This is a woman who has two dozen policy papers over 50,000 words. Even her March debate answer on the subject still couldn’t quite ignore the underlying complexity of the issue. But still I yelled at my TV, because all of the things she laid out as conditions to fracking in the U.S. are things that either have been addressed in the regulations of either states or national agencies, or that have been hashed out on the state level.

Let’s take a look:

  • “When the release of methane or contamination of water is present”

Ok, so. The EPA has a lot of methane rules. The main one is called Quad O. Here it is: Oil and Gas Air Pollution Standards. Have a ball.

“Have I read it?” you ask.

Hahahahhahahahhahahahhahahhahahahhaha not a chance. I tried, once. Then I filed it under #notmyjob.


Also, a favorite line is that the Clean Air Act doesn’t apply to oil and gas. Not so much. Many states simply elected to implement the CAA on their own. They’re called State Implementation Plans, or SIPs. When Colorado came up with its new air quality standards a few years back, that was part of our SIP. Lots of states have their own air quality rules. You can find them if you dare to wade that far into the weeds.

So while some methane does still manage to get into the air through cracks in pipe joints, or because someone forgot to close the storage tank’s thief hatch again, it’s one of those things that the industry has tamped down, and continues to find solutions to.


Now let’s talk about water. Here is a Yale University study on fracking and water. Here is an EPA study. 

They both basically say that fracking doesn’t contaminate water. Not to say that some water sources don’t get contaminated, but that’s because some operators had some issues with their well casing – or the cement and steel that surrounds the drilled hole and eventually the pipe – and other contamination is due to surface spills.

I mean, I know everyone likes to cite Gasland or whatever, but Mr. Fox tends to take some liberties with those flaming faucets. 

Most states regulate how many casing layers you must have in a fracked well.
Most states regulate how many casing layers you must have in a fracked well.
  • “Unless we can require that anybody who fracks has to tell us exactly what chemicals they are using.”

This point allows her a bit of wiggle room. FracFocus gives you the trade name, supplier, purpose, and ingredients of fracking fluid. It also tells you the Chemical Abstract Service number, as well as ingredient concentrations in the component and in the fluid itself. So in case you’re planning on drinking it, you can show the list to the hospital if you start to feel ill.

  • “When any locality or any state is against it”

Well, New York state banned it, so it does happen, but there are lawsuits still ongoing. However, this requirement is where I personally believe Hillz totally gave in to Bernie’s oversimplification of the issue.

There are property rights issues. There are patchwork regulatory issues. Sometimes state constitutions prohibit local municipal bans for both those reasons (property and state primacy). Lawsuits will make this condition notoriously difficult to uphold.

Fracking is also a difficult subject to learn about, so people are understandably concerned. This is in part because of a host of misinformation, and also because companies are notoriously tight lipped for fear of a PR disaster.  Also, the industry doesn’t really have a fantastic track record with big disasters (lookin’ at you Exxon and BP…). Those of us in communications in the industry did and do our best to combat the historical tendency to shy away from talking about what we do. Obviously, that reinforces the perception that there’s something to hide.

Given all this, I’m pretty confident that fracking will continue under a President Clinton. She knows that the issue is complex, even if she isn’t totally aware of all the ins and outs of the industry. Her three conditions given in the early March debate is one that allows her the wiggle room to allow operators to continue exploring and drilling and fracking, because those conditions have been met already.

We have to do something about climate change, that much is clear and obvious. We also can’t leave the developing world literally powerless while we figure that solution out. We’re walking a fine line between keeping things running, and running towards destruction, and that requires that the leader of the free world know a bit about the complexity of things. Simplicity gets more applause lines, that much is clear, and being the nerd never led anyone to popularity. But we don’t need popularity now, we need Hillary Clinton.


My dear Republican friends, as soon as one of your candidates can find “foreign policy” in the dictionary, I’ll get to you.


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