The dramatic fall in oil prices seems to have caught everyone off guard. Anyone who drives has presumably noticed the lower prices at the pump, and I don’t expect to hear much complaining about it. There’s also a certain schadenfreude in seeing speculators lose their shirts, and - for me, anyway - a somewhat exasperated sense of “what did you expect?” towards places like North Dakota that have bet heavily on the industry.
When you let drillers come in, create wild and uninhabitable boom towns, foul the environment and drag their feet on remediation, put people at a wide variety of risks, chew up the infrastructure, and so on - when you let all that happen during the good times, how do you expect it to be when it all goes south? Oil and gas extraction is not just cyclical, but notoriously prone to wild booms and busts. Whatever the dubious merits of giving the industry a free hand when extraction is profitable, the picture turns positively bleak down the line - and degrades liberal democracy the entire time.
So while it’s nice to see drilling activity start to be affected by the glut, it’s also worth asking if that’s the best way for it to happen. One could take a practical view and say, who cares what’s causing the reduction in fracking as long as it’s happening? Does it really matter if it’s because of global over supply, or unexpectedly rapid well decline rates (that 200 year supply doesn’t look so sure these days, Aubrey), or a string of activist victories, or hell - because astro space zombies uprooted all the drilling rigs and launched them into the sun? Those of us opposed to fracking are starting to see the results we want; don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Still, there have been important wins this year, and it would be a shame for the issue to be treated with less urgency because of geopolitical intrigue. Fracking bans in New York state and multiple towns should be built on, efforts like the citizen audit of ODNR should continue, and so on. A slowdown in new fracking operations doesn’t mean the impact of existing ones are diminished. It doesn’t cause gigantic methane clouds to dissipate. In fact, a time like this could be well used in making elected officials more responsive to public sentiment. An industry hemorrhaging money is one with reduced political clout. Now might be an especially good time to make lawmakers survey the wreckage and tell us how well giving drillers carte blanche has worked out for citizens. We may be entering a very receptive environment for new safeguards and regulations. Lord knows that won’t be the case once the price rout ends.
Batocchio has posted his annual Jon Swift Memorial Roundup. Al Weisel, who passed away in 2009, ran the blog Jon Swift as a conservative parody. Here is a particular favorite of mine. Al was a great and generous supporter of bloggers, and a big believer in its ethos: individuals running small but independent sites as alternatives to more established outlets. The blog world feels a little smaller than it used to. Some bloggers got picked up by mainstream sites, others went dormant as the novelty wore off, and still others largely migrated to social media where they were a better fit. But as Batocchio’s post shows, blogging is alive and well. See for yourself. And rest in peace, Al.
Best wishes to all for a very happy 2015, and thanks much for spending some time at Pruning Shears this year.
Earlier this year I wrote about the challenge activists face in working with structured data. In short, public agencies increasingly make systematized information like well inspection reports available for download as very large database files. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has a page where anyone can download a large (213 MB as of last Friday) file with detailed well history going back as far as 1980. While it’s great to have so much information available, it’s impossible to go through manually - and that’s provided you already know how everything connects together.
I wrote about it at the time because I was helping out with a project that I wasn’t sure would ever see the light of day, but last week it did. Melissa English and Nathan Rutz of Ohio Citizen Action published a citizen audit of the well data, and I’m happy to be listed as a contributor. The body of the audit is available as a PDF here (appendices separate). Its purpose: “The authors of this report recommend that the U.S. EPA suspend the ODNR’s authority to operate the Underground Injection Control program until completing a thorough audit of all of Ohio’s active injection wells and only reinstating that authority if and when the ODNR’s competence and independence from industry influence can be demonstrated.” The audit is only 17 pages long and is very readable (though I write that as someone who’s been engaged on the issue for a while), and it’s meant to be understandable even by those who aren’t especially familiar with the issue.
Part of the reason for it was because the US EPA promised much better oversight of ODNR than it has delivered. It produced audits in 2005 and 2009, with the latter being (as the Ohio Citizen report notes) an 80% copy and paste of the former. The actual work that was done was somewhat cursory, and in any event this was all before fracking really took off in Ohio. In 2009 the EPA said the next audit would occur in 2012 or 2013, and here we are about to close the books on 2014 with nothing. So part of the reason for the project was simple frustration with the EPA not following up on what it said it would do. Can’t be bothered to do an audit? OK, we’ll try one ourselves.
ODNR gets the lion’s share of attention though, as it should. English and Rutz highlight problems in the inspection reports that a layman can understand. In one, the “well’s operational permit requires annulus pressure to be 200 or greater, the annulus pressure is less than 200 PSI 23 times and the well is never cited for a violation.” Wild swings in annulus pressure can indicate mechanical problems. 34 of the 43 wells reviewed “showed instances of injection pressure fluctuations greater than 100 PSI from inspection to inspection at some point,” yet no action was apparently taken. (This was the part of the report I contributed to - helping out with going through a well’s inspection history, flagging items like substantial pressure swings, and so on.)
The report shows how ODNR inspectors have varying standards for testing and reporting, with some recording nearly identical “everything is fine” comments even when the inspection reveals clear problems. Individual inspectors are sometimes vigilant for certain problems but lax for others. In short, there does not appear to be any clear and consistent practice for inspections. While individual ones might read fine, looking at them as whole is kind of a mess.
Finally, there is a section called “ODNR Disdain or disrespect for public inquiries and requests.” One of the items mentioned is this:
In August 2014, a Monroe County citizen asked the ODNR why notice of a new injection well permit had not been published in a county newspaper, as the law required. Jennifer Gringas of the ODNR replied that public notice doesn’t necessarily have to be published in a newspaper of the county where the injection well will be, just a newspaper published nearby.
This is consistent with what we have seen locally. A couple years ago I wrote about how ODNR made its public notice of new permits in a virtually unknown, online-only site called the Portage County Legal News. ODNR seems to either (charitably) not put much effort into identifying the major newspaper in a community or (uncharitably) look for an obscure publication that technically meets requirements in order to slip it in under the radar. The report also mentions the information session it held on the permits, which included armed guards and a canine unit but little actual information. (I wrote about that as well.)
In all, the Ohio Citizen Action report makes a strong case that the US EPA is not providing adequate oversight of ODNR, ODNR’s inspection process is subpar, and the agency is not responsive to the citizens it is supposed to serve. Bringing these deficiencies to the public’s attention is a valuable service. If we’re lucky, maybe bad PR will get regulatory agencies to act as they are supposed to. Simply expecting them to do that on their own is apparently not enough.
If you dig these songs please consider buying them; most can be had for less than a buck. Links will be live for one week. If you hold the copyright on one and would like it removed, please let me know and I’ll comply. You heartless, small-minded, ungenerous b******.
Some lyrics may be NSFW. Listen at your own risk.
Here are my favorite songs this year from my RSS feeds. I use Sharp Reader as my aggregator. See the “Free MP3 sites” part of my blogroll for my current feed list.
This is roughly the top 1% of music I listened to this year, so even if you hate the songs you have to admit that’s a pretty discriminating list. If you fall in love with my taste in music drop me a line and I’ll get you the rest of the songs I considered but didn’t have room for.
I usually reserve an Honorable Mention spot for a longer song. Most years there’s at least one 7+ minute song that I like quite a bit, but since I try to get lots of different artists on the list I don’t want a single tune to crowd out several other candidates. When a longer song really blows me away I’ll make room, but overall I prefer to keep my selections under five minutes or so.
(Fits on a single 80 minute CD.)
21. “Milly’s Garden” - Steve Gunn (Buy)
I wish I could say why I like it. There’s no one part that jumps out, it just works really well together. All I can say is, here is an extremely good song that I think you will enjoy listening to over and over.
18. “Doin Fine” - Snow Tha Product (Buy)
This is kind of a cheat. Good Nights and Bad Mornings 2 (The Hangover) (recommended) was released in 2013, but I didn’t start listening to it until January. It’s a phenomenal album, so when this song was released as a single this year I had my excuse to sing its praises. Check it out.
17. “Crazy” - Nights (Buy)
If you’re only going to release one song in a year, as Nights did in 2014, this is a pretty good way to make the most of it: Ethereal vocals floating over buzzsaw guitars and a relentless beat.
14. “I Don’t Know You Anymore” - Bob Mould (Buy)
Off of Beauty and Ruin (recommended) which, along with Silver Age, comprise a pretty good case that Mould is making the best music of his career these days.
11. “Psyche” - Slander (Buy)
It’s fitting that in the year Chrissie Hynde made a fine return to form, a new vocalist echoed her husky, lower register sex goddess style. Also: bassist Nick Maynard is this band’s secret weapon.
08. “Time of Delight” - Donna Lynn Caskey (Buy)
Many country music fans love to moan about how country has become artificial, how back in the day we had honest to God artists like Patsy and Hank, how everything now is overproduced and focus tested, how none of it has heart or soul anymore, and so on and so forth.
Those people are full of shit, and here is why.
There is plenty of real country music out there, in the form of albums like Nameless Heart (highly recommended). In addition to beautifully articulated love songs like this and “Good for What Ails Me,” it covers plenty of real territory such as coming to grips with the death of a soldier and spouse (“They Go On”), staring the reality of illness in a country that considers health care a privilege (“Who Will Care”), and generally meets just about any definition of real you’d care to use.
If the ones lamenting the fallen state of country music were sincere, they’d be talking up the likes of Caskey. Unless, that is, they are simply unaware that such vibrant music is out there begging to be discovered. In which case, too bad dummy - you get the country music you deserve.
Guy knows how to suck an audience in. Tell me more!
02. “Things I Never Said” - DreaGreen (Stream)
Off of FINALLY VENTING (recommended). Green’s beats are catchy and her lyrics compelling. She wrestles with anger and forgiveness, certainty and doubt, and thickets of emotions from circumstances that probably aren’t terribly uncommon - but aren’t often heard in contemporary music.
Late last year a group called the Tenth Amendment Center proposed model legislation designed to give states new methods to oppose the National Security Agency (NSA). It included a proposal to cut off the water supply at the NSA’s Utah data center, and at the time I wrote about both the encouraging and troubling aspects of it. The short version is this: It’s nice to see groups looking for innovative ways to undercut the surveillance state, but seeing them come from groups that also believe in, say, nullification is unsettling.
An issue like government spying doesn’t cut along traditional conservative/liberal lines, though. It’s more of an insiders versus outsiders issue. In Washington both parties seem comfortable with the status quo, or at least not sufficiently disturbed by it to challenge it. Somehow even those who like to make the right noises about it, like Rand Paul, end up finding ways to oppose even the mildest reforms. Proposals to change intelligence agencies always come up short of getting enough support to take action.
Based on that history, it’s an exercise in futility to look to the capitol for reform - which means looking for unconventional coalitions elsewhere. The problem in this case is that an outsider coalition is not equal. Civil libertarians on the left are typically characterized in the media as extremists, those on the right as patriots. Cliven Bundy brandishes weapons at federal agents and is defending the Constitution; protesters in Ferguson press their case for civil rights and are regarded as radicals.
That dynamic is currently at play in Utah: the model legislation is now a bill from Republican lawmakers. The Washington Post gave a respectful presentation of it, and quoted the sponsors warmly:
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marc Roberts (R), would prohibit any municipality from providing “material support or assistance in any form to any federal data collection and surveillance agency.”
Roberts on Wednesday said the NSA came to Utah pledging to act according to the Constitution. “We all know and are aware that has been violated,” he told the committee, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
And here are some stirring quotes from the Tribune article:
“I just don’t want to subsidize what they’re doing on the back of our citizens,” said Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville.
Joe Levi, the vice chair of the Davis County Republican Party and a Web administrator and senior editor of the website pocketnow.com, said jokes about how the NSA has already read the bill point to the problem with the spy agency.
“This is not a bill just about a data center,” Levi said. “This is a bill about civil rights.”
Neither article goes into the questionable provenance of the bill. It’s just taken at face value that these lawmakers arrived at their opinions independently and that their concern for the Constitution is all that informs them. Tracing it back to the Tenth Amendment Center (to say nothing of the unsavory history of nullification) would seem to be an important bit of context. But nope: they say civil rights and that’s good enough.
This puts civil libertarians on the left in a jam. On its face the bill is great. It’s a creative way to push back against an aggrandized and unaccountable intelligence apparatus. The NSA does what it wants when it wants and never sees any adverse consequences. Seeing anyone, anywhere successfully opposing it would be really encouraging. And maybe only the far right has the good will from political and media elites to try something like that. Maybe there’s an “only Nixon could go to China” quality to it.
It’s damned unnerving, though, to think through where a successful effort along these lines could end up. This is purely a product of the right. It’s not like the ACLU is being invited to offer support of it, or to lobby Democrats for its passage. If this is what ends up being the way forward, the left will be at best junior partners to these efforts, at worst cheerleaders. Meanwhile, the Tenth Amendment Center gains prestige and begins to emerge as an ALEC of nullification, offering draft legislation to legislators for new and exciting adventures in states’ rights.
As a liberal, I consider all of that and think: Here’s to Roberts and company’s success. But not too much of it.
The big news from the European Space Agency (ESA) over the last day or two hasn’t been of the Philae lander (current prognosis: dicey) but of ESA scientist Matt Taylor’s choice of shirt on the landing day. Wearing a rockabilly “girls and guns” print designed by his friend Elly Prizeman, an uproar ensued and Taylor quickly apologized.
Among the complaints were that the shirt contributes to a science culture that is hostile to women and discourages them from pursuing careers in STEM fields, that it displayed pornographic poses and that it was inappropriate work attire. As to the last point: in most cases, yes. I imagine most of us could never get away with wearing a Hawaiian shirt to work outside of some dress-themed day. Some workplaces are really relaxed about that though, and walking around in flip flops is perfectly fine. The ESA is apparently one of those places.
As to why he chose to wear that particular shirt on that day of all days - when he had to know he’d be getting interviewed for a large audience - it seems he was doing it as a shout out to his friend. That’s how Prizeman took it: “I never expected him to wear my gift to him for such a big event and was surprised and deeply moved that he did.” He may not have considered how it would have been taken by the audience that didn’t have that context (which consisted of basically everyone but Prizeman). He seems to devote most of his brain activity to science, so that possibility might never have even occurred to him.
In addition, here’s something that US audiences missed:
There’s another issue I want to address, which I think resonates more in the UK than it does to American audiences. Because there is a class aspect to this too. Americans looking and listening to Matt Taylor hear a white dude with a British accent. Brits hear someone who’s from a social background that doesn’t normally get to speak for British science.
There may also be a certain prickliness in the UK about a storm of criticism from the US towards a British scientist - a sense of hey, leave our people alone. (And something else we’re all still figuring out in the social media age is how to treat someone plucked from obscurity who suddenly becomes an object of intense interest. The position seems to be freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from being criticized - when one agrees with the criticism. When one disagrees, it’s a bullying and harassing mob.)
The charge that the shirt created a hostile work environment is the most interesting one to me, though. Whether or not a picture creates a hostile environment seems incredibly subjective. Some people can walk right by something like Taylor’s shirt and not find it the least upsetting. Plenty of women have spoken out to that effect already (here and here for two examples), while others are greatly bothered by it. Dr Space Junk put her discomfort with it in the context of a larger sexism in society:
The underlying view of the world doesn’t change until individual people start to act based on a different view. The aggregation of a thousand personal everyday choices, like what shirt you wear on the television, add up to either support or subvert the status quo.
But the idea that being uncomfortable with something is a reason to restrict it has some pretty troubling applications. Lots of people are uncomfortable seeing two guys holding hands as they walk down the street. I suspect most liberals would respond: This is the world as it exists now, get over your discomfort. If you say there’s a world of difference between opposing antigay sentiment and propping up a patriarchal status quo, it then turns into a political position. Those who don’t share that view on patriarchy (at least in this instance) can then claim hypocrisy. You say get over it for this, but not that.
I’ve seen a number of people whose opinions I’ve come to respect make the hostile work environment claim on this issue, so I’m not dismissive of it. But I still tend to side more with the position that says if you don’t like it (and it isn’t harming you), look past it.
I’m very much interested in feedback on this and will do my best to respond, though it might take a few hours.