A Defeat for Frackers?

Few things moderate my politics more than bad faith arguments and policy positions that ignore the messy reality of economic conditions, political viability, and democracy. Perhaps no single outlet does more to keep me a center-left moderate than the Jacobin.

A recent piece entitled “A Defeat for Frackers” is a great example of this. My eyes rolled so many times while reading this that I gave myself a headache. The author, Liza Featherstone, was born in DC, raised in Boston, schooled at Michigan and Columbia, and residing today in Brooklyn has spent most of her career covering leftist students activism. Nothing says “I understand the common American” like that background. This piece is positioned as an exploration of how six women on a hunger strike stopped the evil, bipartisan plans of natural gas frackers. It wants you to see this as a victory for the little guy. I read it differently, seeing only the comfortable smugness of bourgeoise white privilege “winning” illogical battles against the energy industry that do nothing to further their environmental cause but do in effect shift the environmental and social costs to other communities.

As we stand talking amid the Midtown skyscrapers and honking traffic, the water and plants that sustain life on earth feel far away. But like Joan Flynn, Illiana Walsingham-Johnson, twenty-one, a rising senior at NYU, has lived in a place where the intertwined fate of humans and their natural environment is easier to see. Walsingham-Johnson is from Florida; many in her family lost their homes to Hurricane Michael. An environmental studies major, she has been active in student efforts to get NYU to decarbonize its investments. But she’s recently been taking more radical steps. She just got arrested with Sunrise, the climate movement organization, in front of Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. “A lot of us are realizing, if we don’t do something we’re going to die painfully,” she says.

Decarbonizing investments? Demanding politicians not taking money from fossil fuel companies? I hate to break it to you, but this isn’t going to lower demand for energy and that is the causal driver in the extraction, production, and transmission of fossil fuels. You want to stop fracking, natural gas usage, and climate change? Living in NYC (or any other major city) is a pretty piss poor way to do it.

NYC is powered by natural gas. Seriously, about half of New York City’s electricity is generated by burning natural gas (see the NYT article linked below). This is what replaced the coal-fired electric of the past. And this is not nothing. Natural gas is over 50% cleaner than coal and has been the largest driver in decreasing our carbon emissions in the United States over the last several decades. Nuclear power, which generates another third of NYC’s power, is in danger of being decommissioned (and comes with a whole host of other problems), and hydro, wind, and solar options are nowhere near capable of bridging that divide. Featherstone applauds the efforts of grassroots organizers in getting New York State to ban fracking but laments the “loophole” that pipelines can still be built through the state. It is not a loophole. It is a literal necessity for keeping the lights on in New York. But such practicalities matter little to the Jacobin.

This being the Jacobin, there is a gratuitous shot at Barack Obama for being too cozy with big business (they’ve been running hit pieces on Joe Biden pretty regularly– like the Trump enablers on the right, they hate non-socialist Democrats even more than they dislike far-right politicians).

Ziesche worked on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, in western Pennsylvania, in 2012 “because I still had faith in Barack Obama.” But she recalls him later sitting on a stage with Leonardo DiCaprio after the screening of a climate change documentary. Obama said, “people have feelings about fracking.” Ziesche was incensed. “This is based on science! This is based on meeting people who are impacted. How dare you minimize our opposition to this into something that is just about ‘feelings’ because you want to keep taking money from the oil and gas industry?”

“That’s why people are in the streets,” she says, describing the sense that our leaders are just pretending to address this problem, while actually working overtime to protect “the rich white dudes at the top.”

Sigh. I’ll stop minimizing your “opposition” when you stop calling anyone who doesn’t agree with you a shill for oil and gas. Deal? I especially like white leftists who accuse the black President of the United States of “working overtime to protect the rich white dudes at the top.” Great stuff.

There is no doubt an environmental cost to fracking, burning natural gas (or oil and coal). Corporate greed is not what keeps the gas flowing. Consumer demand is.

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Nothing says “We are serious about stopping climate change” like sitting on what appears to be a tarp made of fossil fuels in front of a steady stream of cars burning oil to transport people and goods on their oil-based asphalt roads in a state that consumes the sixth-most amount of natural gas. How about instead of a hunger strike to temporarily halt the construction of one pipeline you get to work on devising a way to convince New Yorkers curb their massive energy consumption?

The position the author and the activists stake out here is both childish and insulting to me. It boils the world down to a simple binary where energy producers and politicians (and voters) who support them are only motivated by greed while environmental activists are altruistic do-gooders. This simply isn’t true. I do not know enough about this particular pipeline to speculate on its necessity, but I am familiar with many other cases where people in coastal regions don’t want their site lines and wildlife disturbed but also still want their power. Think for a second about what this means. They simply want to shift the environmental and aesthetic cost to other less powerful and privileged places. No fracking in New York, dammit! But we will gladly burn that fracked gas from Pennsylvania. You can’t put a wind farm out on our coastlines! We’ll happily import that energy from Canada or New England.

By 2030, Mr. Cuomo wants half of the electricity consumed in the state to come from renewable sources produced here or imported from places like Canada and New England.

I know many of my liberal friends do not want to hear this, but the attitudes of urban (and especially coastal urban) elites really do not play well in the midwest. For good reason. Smug preening about how much more enlightened you are because you passed an anti-fracking bill while simultaneously consuming way more natural gas than many of the places that are fracking the gas you use is a bad look. Talking about reducing our carbon footprint by attacking the fossil fuel industry (which is a minor player in your economy but a major employer elsewhere) or pushing to make gas and driving culture more expensive is easy when it will cost you little in terms of jobs or way of life. So too is championing eating less meat (until you realize that so much of the produce you consume uses lots of fossil fuels to grow in the quantities we need and to transport them to your corner bodega) or decreasing air travel (as though your cities are not the main drivers of that to begin with). Much like conservative elites who tell us to send our children to trade schools (to them I say, you first!), liberal elites should take the bold step of leading from the front. Start with policies that harm your businesses, jobs, and convenience before you push for “common sense” policies that cost others dearly while providing the lions share of the benefits to you. Boughie, educated white women sitting on a plastic tarp while “hunger striking” to prevent a gas pipeline from disturbing dormant pollution because it will impact them and their communities isn’t as compelling a story to the rest of us as you think. We’ve been dealing with the environmental impacts of extracting energy to power modernity for a long time. Welcome to the party.

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