• Otter Views: A New Marshall Plan

    Our clocks sprang forward into daylight savings time at 2 o’clock Sunday morning. Then, just hours later, we had an offshore earthquake.
    While only the nuttiest conspiracy theorist would link these two events, the timing created a certain loopy synergy for me. Because Monday felt an hour longer, I made a rare drive up the coast to Santa Cruz. And because I was driving that far, I heard an entire public radio discussion about fracking.
    When one panelist said earthquakes are among fracking’s suspected side effects, my inner conspiracy theorist perked up. Somewhere in California, frackers must have initiated a seismic sequence that triggered Sunday’s offshore quake! J’accuse!
    Even before daylight savings time changed over, fracking was gaining traction as a contentious issue here in the Monterey Shale. Those who feel fracking will bring jobs, prosperity and cheaper energy to the area are all for it. Those opposed warn that it will pollute air, aquifers and farmland and despoil open space. Fracking-related earthquakes are also a concern.
    What had been largely a national and regional debate went international last week when Russian troops seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The particulars and the ages-long back story are too complex to unravel here, but an interesting fracking angle has emerged. It goes something like this.
    Other European nations have not opposed the Crimean land grab because they depend on Russia for most of their petrol and natural gas. They know from bitter experience that the Kremlin can, with a single curt nod, send European energy prices soaring or cut off heating oil supplies in winter. Europe can do little but complain and acquiesce.
    Its petro-power has already enabled Russia, without fear of reprisal, to invade and repatriate two former Soviet regions in Georgia. In those border provinces, political turmoil gave Russian-speaking residents a pretext to seek Moscow’s protection. Moscow moved swiftly to provide it. The war was over in a week.
    It’s a template powerful empires, including our own, have followed since ancient times. Once Crimean Russians put out an SOS about the “murderous fascists” running rampant in Kiev, Russia dispatched 16,000 troops to protect its former crown jewel. A referendum next week should make the Crimean usurpation “official.” Moscow will likely follow a similar scenario to reacquire heavily pro-Russian Eastern Ukraine.
    As Russia reabsorbs former pieces of the greater Soviet Union, its energy export monopoly moots opposition among the very nations that could be next. If the only pretext needed for a friendly takeover by the Kremlin is political turmoil threatening Russian speakers, then hey! Just distribute a few Russian passports, foment a riot, and send in the unmarked troops. If anybody objects, shut off the oil pipelines.
    So, what has any of this got to do with the Monterey Shale? Lately, fracking advocates have put in play the idea that U.S. natural gas exports generated by fracking could slow Russia’s imperial momentum by giving Europe an energy alternative. Or, as the public radio host put it, “drill baby drill to save Ukraine.”
    Given that the first U.S. natural gas export terminal won’t be operational until at least 2015, Ukraine may be beyond help at that point. But there could still be hope for Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and other former Soviet satellites now dependent on Russian petrol.
    It’s a new Marshall Plan! As events in Georgia, Syria and now Crimea have proven, the U.S. and its European allies are far too war-weary and recession-battered to send armed forces into yet another combat theater. But thanks to the miracle technology of fracking, we can now send abroad copious surpluses of natural gas! Take that, Putin!
    Because energy producers sell for highest dollar on the world market, none of this makes much economic or logistical sense. But “drill baby drill to save Ukraine” is simplistic enough to garner wide appeal on talk radio, cable news channels, and other jingoistic echo chambers. Soon policymakers at state and federal levels will face mounting pressure to approve fracking projects on land and offshore, including in the Monterey Shale.
    It’s clear now that U.S. energy producers have profited handsomely by fracturing the earth’s crust beneath hundreds of thousands of well sites to free trapped pockets of oil and gas. That was foreseen a decade ago when then-Vice President Dick Cheney met secretly with energy executives to assure them they would not have to disclose fracking methods or chemical agents. It was also agreed that fracking would be exempted from environmental scrutiny at the federal level, and Congress dutifully complied.
    Those proscriptions gave the industry a 10-year, regulation-free pass to fly under the radar. By the time the public started hearing about earthquakes, methane emissions, poisoned aquifers and household tap water that could be lit on fire, fracking had wrapped itself in the stars and stripes to become the nation’s energy savior.
    And now we’re going to save Europe! So hang on, Ukraine and Bulgaria, and all you Slovakias and Slovenias! We’re staying right here, but our gas is on the way!

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 14, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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