Freelance journalist Phelim McAleer has a new film called FrackNation that has been getting positive notice on the right, though it is flying under the mainstream radar to a certain extent. It does not appear to have had a theatrical release, and aside from an airing on the satellite channel AXS TV in January it hasn’t been before the general public in any substantial way.
The main channel of distribution seems to be conservative groups. This past weekend the local Tea Party (which is still alive and well despite recent pronouncements of its death) sponsored a screening. Pen and paper in hand, I attended and made some notes as it played. (I believe that all the quotes below are verbatim, but since I was scribbling in a darkened room with no chance to rewind, some may be a word or two off. Even if that happened, though, the context and intent have been preserved.)
Through many encounters with pro-fracking individuals I have learned to spot one particular argument that causes my brain’s real-time bullshit detection software1 to pop up a huge red alert: the claim that fracking has been going on for a long time. It’s not the only discrediting claim pro-frackers make, but it is definitely one of the most common. And it is such a piece of rhetorical flim-flam that anyone who uses it is either not knowledgeable on the subject or is trying to put something past the audience.
What is generally thought of as fracking is the deep and horizontal drilling that has only been in widespread use for the last decade or so. That technology did not exist until the late 90’s, where it was first used in Texas’ Barnett Shale. After several years of development it made its way east, initially to Pennsylvania. FrackNation focuses primarily there, and it was not until 2004 that Range Resources drilled the first Marcellus Shale well. These new wells are fundamentally different from shallower, vertical wells because the industrial activity they require is much more intensive.
Here are just two examples. Horizontal wells require enormous quantities of water, and after mixing the water with toxic chemicals the flowback must be disposed of. The competition for water, and the hazards posed by getting the waste to some final, reliable resting place is a substantial difference from vertical fracking.
Second, horizontal fracking is much more damaging to the air than vertical fracking. Chemical release on site combines with diesel fumes from the fleets of trucks required to transport materials to create ozone. (There are other effects from this as well: Noise pollution created by the constant traffic and the associated degradation of roads and other infrastructure - which, it should go without saying, the industry does not compensate communities for.)
A speaker who says we’ve been fracking for decades has just gone a long way towards discrediting himself on the subject. So when, early on in FrackNation, McAleer says fracking has been around since 1947 and is “not new technology,” he tips his hand as to just how straight he aims to be with his audience. The rhetorical slipperiness of the “we’ve been fracking since the 40’s” line is characteristic of much of the film.
He clearly spent a lot of time in farm country while putting it together, because he has no shortage of hay to build his straw men from. He mentions the Halliburton Loophole and says critics allege it “removed all regulation from fracking,” but I have not heard a single reputable opponent of fracking say any such thing. The Halliburton Loophole exempts drillers from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Instead of addressing the reasons critics object to the Halliburton Loophole, McAleer characterizes opposition in an extreme way that doesn’t square with reality.
He also spends a good chunk of time discussing the seismic hazards of fracking, a relatively remote risk that is not a major point of emphasis for those opposed to fracking. He lets pass unchallenged the charge that people are saying “every well is going to pollute all the time,” which is absurd. But instead of, say, claiming that the percentage of well violations is small while forthrightly acknowledging it still adds up to a lot of incidents (some appalling), McAleer moves along without comment.
Where he isn’t wholly fabricating arguments from nonexistent critics, he is selectively focusing his camera. In the same way that he zooms in on one link of the industrial chain for his “we’ve been fracking for a long time” claim, he uses Dimock, Pennsylvania’s water as the sole measure of fracking’s impact. In the wake of an EPA report that declared the water it tested in Dimock safe to drink, McAleer spends a great deal of time trying to get on-the-record comments from one particularly upset couple in the area. Since these appear to be ordinary citizens not part of some grand conspiracy to defraud the public, there isn’t much of a Truth To Power angle here. McAleer’s crusading style doesn’t really work well when used against relatively anonymous people who feel like their quality of life was severely damaged and just want to get on with things.
Focusing on Dimock keeps McAleer from looking elsewhere in Pennsylvania where there appear to have been problems, or in Pavillion, Wyoming, where the same EPA whose work he extols in Dimock found that fracking had indeed polluted the water there, or on the longer term issues of shale permeability raised by fracking (those injection wells need to retain their integrity for a long, long time before they can be considered successful).
McAleer keeps the blinders on when looking at methane. He starts with a few uncontroversial premises: Methane occurs naturally underground; it often occurs naturally in drinking water at safe levels; there are plentiful pre-fracking examples of it occurring in high enough concentrations to turn water flammable. But from there he makes some fantastic leaps. He implies that anyone who has methane in their water had it there all along or would have had it migrate there independently of fracking. There is no acknowledgement that there is often a remarkable tendency for methane that has been resting underground for sixty million years to migrate to water supplies right around the start of nearby fracking operations. Further, the impact of methane that is released into the air is completely ignored.
There is a similar narrow focus on those selling their mineral rights. In a segment heavy with human interest there is talk of how the oil and gas industry is working “together with farmers” to help small landowners continue owning land that has been in their families for generations. Not all farmers think this is an encouraging development, but FrackNation has no time for them. Moreover, when it comes down to competition for resources, the industry has already shown it is willing to put its own interests ahead of farmers. This too mysteriously stays off camera.
Perhaps this would be beyond the scope of a movie like FrackNation, but the distress of homeowners not just in Pennsylvania but across the nation is intimately connected with the vast fraud that began to unravel on Wall Street several years ago. In any event, desperate farmers selling the resources under their land in exchange for environmental risk and a (perhaps temporary) reprieve is pretty much a textbook definition of disaster capitalism. Chesapeake Energy is not exactly a nonprofit land trust, after all.
Finally, there’s the just plain weird stuff. Comparing the chemicals used in fracking to the chemicals in broccoli or coffee, for one - as though hydrochloric acid is something we all just ingest every day as a matter of course. There’s some good old fashioned red baiting (paging Senator Cruz!) when one interviewee darkly suggests activists are “funded, I would expect, by the Russians.” My favorite WTF is when McAleer says wind power is terrible because turbines kill birds, a talking point last seen being hauled away from the curb at Dr. Will’s house.
I suppose there is one more thing I should mention. McAleer uses the central conceit of Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” in FrackNation: An Everyman’s fruitless quest to meet with a powerful but indifferent/hostile figure. McAleer’s Roger Smith is Josh Fox, the producer of Gasland. He pokes holes in Fox’s movie, makes several guerrilla attempts to question him, and generally plays his effort for laughs with broad strokes. He takes up a good part of the film with this, and seems to consider Fox the author of much of the opposition to fracking. All I can say is this - the activists I know are aware of him, but don’t consider him an authority. I’ve never heard the kind of undiluted praise for him that I have for, say, Anthony Ingraffea.
So even the main narrative thrust of FrackNation is a failure. His antagonism towards Fox is clearly driving him more than any kind of dispassionate investigation of a major public issue. In the end it’s just two guys with big egos engaging in a pissing contest. McAleer seems to regard Fox as a low, dishonest man, and his film a cheap piece of propaganda. He appears to have wanted to answer Fox by creating an equivalent film from the opposite side of the debate. In that regard, at least, he succeeded.
I will admit to having had a snobbish view towards local TV news for most of my adult life. I think it is at least somewhat justified; local TV news frequently has a disreputable whiff. Whether it’s the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, sweeps week stunts (this item is in almost all American households AND IT COULD KILL YOUR CHILDREN), large doses of pabulum delivered as News You Can Use, and so on - there is a lot to look down on.
(I won’t even go into the disturbing tendency of weather forecasters to insist to viewers that the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists are charlatans.)
That perception seems to be fairly common. Maybe it’s a demographics issue; this study (PDF) from Pew shows (p. 37) daily newspaper readers with higher aggregate educational levels than local TV news viewers. It also shows (p. 38) newspaper readers having higher incomes. So to put it crudely, newspaper readers are smarter and richer than TV news viewers.
Without even seeing such statistics I definitely internalized a sense of newspapers’ superiority over the years. That bias is silly though; TV, like newspaper, is a medium. It’s what you do with it that matters. The New York Times is printed on newsprint, and so is The Onion.
The degree to which my assumptions about print and TV are faulty has been brought home over the last year or so as I’ve become more involved fracking-related activism. For instance, Youngstown NBC affiliate WFMJ has done a very thorough job covering the issue. When a company illegally dumped toxic fracking waste in a waterway, reporter Michelle Nicks filled her report with detail: Not just the event itself, but the response (such as it was) from regulators, from state political leaders and national ones as well.
Even more impressively, CBS affiliate WKBN filed public records requests and discovered the company in question has received dozens of citations, violations and injection well suspensions stretching back to the eighties. WKBN is doing exactly the kind of investigative journalism we normally associate with newspapers - not just reporting the news but really digging into it in order to give viewers a better understanding.
In Cleveland, NBC affiliate WKYC has set up an entire section of its web site for fracking and done a great deal of reporting on it. Multiple reporters there, including Monica Robins, Dick Russ and Lynna Lai, have reported on the issue from a variety of angles. While you could say that flaming water from a tap is the kind of arresting visual that conforms to the worst stereotypes of local TV news, there’s nothing especially dramatic about a cracked foundation or a politician’s legislative proposal. If it was all about sensation they wouldn’t have run most of those reports.
Newspapers have a spotty record on this issue. Some reporters cover it well. In northeast Ohio, Bob Downing of the Akron Beacon Journal has been on it for a while now (recent reports here, here and here). In other fracking-intensive regions I’ve found reporters like Bruce Finley at the Denver Post doing similarly admirable work (here, here and here for example).
But the largest newspaper in our area - the Cleveland Plain Dealer - has been considerably less thorough. There is less coverage overall, and the stories tend to center around fracking initiatives or headlining industry propaganda. While they occasionally look at the political fight over the issue, they rarely look at the effect it is having on local communities. (Perhaps the publishers don’t feel the concerns of blue collar-skewing populations in rural or semi-rural areas are of interest to their more (sub)urban and upscale readership.)
This is especially striking because the paper has repeatedly touched on an issue that seems ready made for a little Truth To Power type initiative. Jimmy Haslam, the new owner of the Cleveland Browns (and brother of the Tennessee governor, incidentally), owns a trucking company that stands to handsomely profit from fracking. Shortly after buying the Browns he stepped down as CEO of the company. Or didn’t. (“I’m still going to be CEO of Pilot Flying J.”) That detail was never ironed out exactly.
He’s definitely back in the saddle now though - which raises the same question his heading the company originally raised: Should the owner of such a high profile and beloved franchise be profiting by visiting environmental hazard on a significant portion of his fan base? There are lots of Browns fans in Youngstown. Maybe they wouldn’t be too crazy about knowing the team’s owner is a key part of the industrial chain that just befouled their community.
The PD is not going there, though. For whatever reason the community impact of fracking has been of zero interest. Again, this lack of coverage is not characteristic of all newspapers; some are doing a really good job. My point is that on this urgent, substantive issue, newspapers have been a mixed bag - as have local TV stations. (In Cleveland, WKYC is head and shoulders above its on-air competition at the moment.) In general the reporting matrix doesn’t break along expected lines. Sometimes papers provide better coverage. But in some cases the supposedly low-rent local TV stations have left their ostensibly more respectable print counterparts in the dust.
On last Sunday’s “Up With Chris Hayes” there was a discussion about political calculations for Republicans. The question was whether to work with Democrats or go with straight obstructionism. At one point Hayes said:
Bob Bennett was a fairly conservative senator from Utah, right, of long standing, he was not some super lefty heterodox guy, right? And his huge heterodoxy was that he had cosponsored a health care bill with Ron Wyden. It was not the health care bill that actually got passed. It was called the Wyden-Bennett, and in fact, a lot of Republicans later said, well, we really like Wyden-Bennett, right? But what happened to Bob Bennett just for cosponsoring this health care bill? He went back to Utah and got booted out in that state’s Republican convention after serving, what, two or three terms, OK.
Something really big is missing from Hayes’ observation: TARP. Granted, he was talking about Republican political strategy and not giving an overview of Bennett’s career. The exact details of the unhappiness of Utah’s GOP base is not central to his point, and their unhappiness over Bennett’s partnering with Wyden serves Hayes’ point adequately. Hayes could probably say (with good reason) that it would have sidetracked the discussion to go into details about Bennett’s defeat when it was merely being used to give a brief illustration of a larger point. Fair enough.
Still, I notice when a national-level analyst fails to mention TARP when the opportunity arises. TARP is unique in our recent history: A moment when activists on both the left and the right united in furious opposition to something happening in Washington. Over the last generation or so, the issues that have drawn the most passionate responses - protests in the run up to the Iraq war, opposition to immigration reform, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement (the latter two in part a response to the corruption represented by TARP), etc - all of them were predominantly driven by either the left or the right. With one exception.
Everyone hated TARP. It was not left versus right, but outsider versus establishment. Democrats and Republicans in the capitol supported it. DC-based reporters and analysts assured audiences that it was distasteful but necessary. (This was typically accompanied with a false choice of doing nothing or letting civilization collapse.) All the players inside the Beltway were heavily invested in it, but outside the hothouse it was loathed and reviled. It was unpopular across the political spectrum. On what other issue has that been true?
TARP was unpopular in part because it was terrible policy (see below) but also because it was symbolic. It stood as the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of a much vaster body of sketchy deals. Few knew the details, in part because much of it was done behind the scenes, but in part because of obfuscation. Those who weren’t experts in high finance (i.e. almost everyone) were left with a sense that something wasn’t right, but we couldn’t keep our eye on the queen of hearts.
This 2011 exchange (PDF) between Congressman Sean Duffy and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke is a great illustration - a classic of the “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance” genre:
Mr. DUFFY. …Let me move on to a different question. We had talked about the QE2 with Dr. Paul. When you buy assets, where does that money come from?
Mr. BERNANKE. We create reserves in the banking system which are just held with the Fed. It does not go out into the public.
Mr. DUFFY. Does it come from tax dollars, though, to buy those assets?
Mr. BERNANKE. It does not.
Mr. DUFFY. Are you basically printing money to buy those assets?
Mr. BERNANKE. We are not printing money, we are creating reserves in the banking system.
Mr. DUFFY. In your testimony - I only have 20 seconds left - you talked about a potential additional stimulus….
What jumps out at me is not that, as some have noted, Bernanke repudiates our central political myth that government can only spend money it raises through taxes. (Government, unlike households, can print more money when it wants to.) Nor is it that Bernanke’s “we are not printing money” line directly contradicts his recent position on the matter.
Instead, note the ease with which Bernanke shoos Duffy away from an inconvenient line of discussion. Duffy could have shot back, “‘creating reserves’ being 21st century bankerspeak for printing money, right?” He could have stayed on that and gotten Bernanke to admit that adding zeroes to balance sheets is just a high tech way of printing money, then excoriated Bernanke for his weaselly parsing of language. But Duffy, like most of his fellow citizens, doesn’t understand finance well enough to pounce on Bernanke’s evasive euphemism. Instead he just says, well I’m almost out of time so on to other topics.1
Yet even without the follow up, the exchange leaves the impression, just like TARP did, that something was hinky about it, that we didn’t know all the details but that it didn’t pass the smell test. That vague distrust of high level banking officials is one of TARP’s legacies - as is the codifying of impunity for financial elites. TARP formalized government support of big banks, which meant the people running them had to remain in place, which meant they could not be held liable for any kind of criminality. Too big to fail for institutions has led to too big to jail for executives. The moral hazard recriminations from TARP have been absolutely catastrophic. Defenders of TARP rarely try to account for that cost (or for the institutional value of a government guarantee).
The extraordinary actions taken by officials are also part of the public’s concept of TARP. This includes so-called Structured Investment Vehicles like the odious Maiden Lane II (with its 100 cents on the dollar payout to AIG counterparties), for example.2 It encompasses regulatory forbearance, banks being allowed to print money (oops - create reserves), and the now-certain government promise of solvency. As are the promises made at the time that have come to nothing, the regulatory paralysis, and general descent into banana republic-style institutions. All of that is TARP in the popular imagination, and for good reason: it’s all of a piece.
There have been quite a few attempts to reframe it as good policy, none of them rigorous or convincing. The most notable on my reading list came from Steve Benen; here is one example. The key in this formulation is to look at TARP in isolation, and to only account for the dollars sent out and repaid. And also ignoring that the dollars sent out were considerably more robust than the ones repaid. Those talking points got batted down pretty quickly though, and for the most part no one is trying to sell TARP as good policy anymore. (The exception is the unconquerable wankery of Matt Yglesias, who writes with the smooth assurance of one who never considers an idea he does not find congenial.)
So being linked to TARP has been toxic for politicians of all stripes, and for good reason. In the first election cycle after it, Republicans paid a particularly heavy price (it haunted them in 2012 as well). When TARP wasn’t mentioned as the main cause of primary losses it was still described as the catalyst. And while Bennett told Hayes that health care reform had as much to do with his loss as TARP, look at the interview he gave NPR immediately after his loss. He mentions TARP first, last and multiple times in between. Yes he mentions other factors as well, but he clearly characterizes TARP as the albatross around his neck.
TARP was an enormously consequential program, it was terrible policy, and it became verbal shorthand among the non-wonkish general public for a whole raft of opaque and tricky bailout schemes for the criminals who looted the economy. That sort of thing tends to linger in the memory. Political and media elites of all ideological stripes would prefer not to talk about it because it is such an obvious indictment of their established institutions, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to look away.
I tend to have a heightened awareness for curious omissions of TARP. I don’t think individual examples can have motives assigned, and in Hayes’ case it just seemed like a tangential point that didn’t get touched on. I might have felt better if I thought there was some nefarious intent though. At least then there would be an implicit acknowledgement that something big was being ignored. Instead we have a situation where the powers that be would rather not talk about it. The best way to not talk about it is to not think about it. The best way to not think about it is to forget it ever happened.
1. Like many of his Republican colleagues, he has confused cantankerous badgering with tenacious pursuit (and semi-random, blunderbuss criticism with knowledgeably drilling down on a particular point).
2. This report (PDF) from the TARP inspector is worth looking at, too. If nothing else try to read the paragraph beginning “Despite this initial Government assistance” - it gives a nice illustration of the “TARP as tip of the iceberg” dynamic.
Nook & Cranny took the top spot on my best music of 2012 post, so it’s safe to say I’m a fan. They’ve got a new album coming out soon, and here’s a live take of one of the tracks - The Bird With the Broken Wing.
Pretty sweet, eh?