by Barry Edelson


Corporate Gas vs. Government Gas

Choose your tyranny

Anyone inclined to consider corporations as the incarnation of evil in the modern world will find much to validate their suspicions in the documentary Gasland, which depicts the exponential growth of the natural gas industry in recent years. But there is something more important to be learned from the film than just how badly behaved businessmen can be, or how much better off we would all be if the government would work harder to keep them honest.

From the perspective of the filmmaker, Josh Fox, drilling for natural gas in a vast swath of the country has the potential to become the worst environmental calamity we have ever seen. There are close to half a million [sic] gas wells already in production across the landscape of at least 30 states, with many more on the way. The main concern is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the method used to extract gas from subterranean rock formations. Millions of gallons of water are injected at high pressure to a depth of several thousand feet, along with a cocktail of hundreds of chemicals, many of them acknowledged to be toxic and/or carcinogenic. The rock is fractured, releasing the gas. The chemicals circulate back to the surface, where they are stored in tanks and presumably disposed of, though the film never says exactly how this is supposed to happen.

On face value, the film's conclusions are undeniably compelling, appalling, even frightening. According to Gasland, the results of fracking have been the irreversible contamination of water supplies and the lethal poisoning of pets and livestock, among other environmental depredations. (The process was specifically exempted from the Clean Water Act in 2005 at the behest of the Bush Administration: thank you, Dick Cheney.) In addition, every single well is a potential toxic waste site, with all of those awful chemicals left to fester. The film shows the requisite leaky tanks, dead animals and ignitable tap water as evidence of the indifference of the natural gas companies to the effects of their activities in their headlong pursuit of profits. Viewers' suspicions should be aroused, however, by the film's acceptance of every claim by the victims as gospel, while every counter-argument by gas companies is treated with utter skepticism, if not outright contempt. For example, companies deny any responsibility for the destruction of water supplies, even as they provide tanks of fresh water for the use of rural homeowners who say they never had a problem with their water before fracking was done in the area. We are led to the inescapable conclusions that people are the hapless victims of greedy capitalists, and that no company can be trusted to act in the public interest without the guiding hand of government.

While it is likely that some natural gas drillers are irresponsible and that increased oversight of such an important industry would be wise, Gasland is an excellent example of journalistic prosecution by anecdote. As dishonest as some company owners may be, it is no less dishonest to condemn an entire industry for the practices of a few. It is also more than a little bit selective to gloss over the fact that landowners are only too happy to hand over their formerly pristine properties for gas drilling in exchange for cold cash. The advent of fracking is not just the result of a rapacious industry gone wild. Its appeal is manifold, as it holds out the prospect of diminishing our dependence on foreign energy supplies, reducing our use of oil and coal in favor of the relatively cleaner-burning natural gas, building a new energy sector which employs thousands of Americans, and providing a financial windfall for people during a time of general economic misery. The fact that some drillers cut corners and create hazardous conditions does not make any of these other considerations any less valid. Because it is a highly fragmented industry, with numerous small companies in the field making hundreds of thousands of deals with individual farmers, ranchers and homeowners, there isn't an Exxon or BP to demonize, no obvious culprit to haul before a Congressional hearing. It is a perfect storm of patriotism, environmentalism, decentralization and money.

Anyone inclined to take a dim view of government interference in either our private or business lives will no doubt see this film as yet another attempt to condemn the entire corporate world as an inhuman monolith which ritually sacrifices the greater good on the altar of Mammon. It is hardly a revelation that there are greedy, selfish people in the world, but neither is it news that not every human action is the manifestation of unbridled self-interest. Neither corporations nor governments are inherently good or evil, but human agency makes them so. If you hate corporations as a matter of principle, consider that Apple, Ben and Jerry's and every maker of wind turbines and solar panels are also corporations. If you hate government as a matter of principle, then ask yourself which of the following government services you are willing to live without: food inspections; homeland security; Medicare; air traffic control; the national weather service; public education; emergency management; the armed forces etc. The knee-jerk reaction of many business leaders and conservative voters against government action of any kind, and the complementary hostility of many liberal activists and voters against capitalism in any form, are debilitating to public discourse. It is simply implausible to propose that half the country thinks that either business or government is so awful that it ought to be wiped off the face of the earth. These may be the stated views of many in the political sphere and the blogosphere, but the vast majority of Americans would no doubt agree with this basic proposition: that companies and individuals ought to be free to conduct their business with as little government oversight as possible, but that government should regulate society to the degree necessary to prevent flagrant abuse of individuals, the law or the environment.

The rhetoric of politics is generally a zero sum game, even when the reality on the ground is more complicated. Whenever a piece of legislation is being considered, or a case is pending before the courts, proponents and opponents tend to paint a picture of heaven on earth if their side prevails, but utter disaster if the other side wins. Every suggestion to raise wages, improve working conditions or limit environmental damage is portrayed by the business community and its boosters as the beginning of the end of economic life in this country: business good, government bad. Every idea that would empower business and loosen regulation is attacked by progressives as the end of civilization as we know it: business bad, government good. While we know these assertions to be gross simplifications, many of us are so finely attuned to the arguments made by one side or another that we are inclined to believe "our" side regardless of the facts.

History has offered us no end of examples of the effects of too much unfettered capitalism on the one hand, and government that is too heavy handed on the other. We know what unregulated business looks like, because our forebears suffered its consequences: children enslaved in factories, men dying by the thousands in mines, women locked in sweatshops. Is there anyone (other than Ron Paul) who truly believes we should have absolutely no government regulation of business at all? By the same token, we also know exactly what uncontrolled government looks like, because, regrettably, there are still many contemporary examples: rulers ensconced for life, secret police, censorship, citizens treated brutally as the property of the state. Fortunately, despite what you may have heard, we don't live in either of these kinds of societies: neither our corporations nor our government can do whatever they wish with impunity. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama is Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, no matter the insistence of some on either end of the spectrum. (You may have noticed that the dictator Bush vacated the Oval Office at the Constitutionally appointed time, as the tyrant Obama most surely will when his time is up).

Corporations can indeed be greedy and their behavior reprehensible at times, but we do have elected legislators who are only too eager to appear to be taking the side of ordinary citizens, and courts that routinely entertain lawsuits of even extraordinary flimsiness. Our system was designed to enable justice to trump power, and it does happen, notwithstanding the greed and vanity of the people in charge and the daunting cost in blood, sweat and money. True, the pendulum does swing in the direction of one extreme or the other, and both corporations and governments need to be held accountable. But this is because flawed human beings create and operate the organizations upon which life is predicated, not because of any quality inherent in the organizations themselves. When business leaders insist that the pursuit of wealth is the only reliable path to fulfillment, and if governments maintain that only they can guarantee happiness, they are both reflecting a human predilection to believe in our own greatness. Moreover, private and public entities are both directed by ambitious individuals who tend to believe their own press releases, with their fairy tales of the perfect world they could create if only the naysayers would just go away.

Skepticism demands that we take no sides until we know everything we can possibly know about an issue, whether it is drilling for natural gas or anything else. There are things that business does better than government, and vice versa. The free market is no more perfect than the legislature. Moreover, the two are so inextricably intertwined at this point in our development that to dismantle one is to fatally undermine the foundation of the other. As H.L. Mencken is quoted as saying: for every complex problem there's a simple solution, and it's wrong. Beware the press release.

December 24, 2010


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