Environment, education, and experience contribute to perception and bias, which, in turn, create the opportunity, if not the likelihood, for a willingness to accept certain propositions uncritically or reject converse propositions out of hand. When I represented the oil and gas industry in high-stakes lawsuits involving claims of catastrophic contamination, seeking millions of dollars in damages, the accepted reality was that our trial team entered the courtroom with three strikes already against us because of the common perception and bias held by jurors:
1) We were the evil corporation;
2) even worse, we were the evil oil and gas corporation;
3) in a case involving claims of environmental contamination, was there even a question that an evil oil and gas corporation was not responsible?
And the frequent bonus burden was a likelihood of being found liable that was in direct correlation to the cost of gasoline at the pump — as the price of gas went up, so did the odds of being hammered by a jury. In those few cases where I represented the individual landowner suing those “evil oil and gas corporations,” I unabashedly played on those same inherent biases to my client’s advantage.
My point is that a negative bias toward the oil and gas industry is common in our society; and common bias leads to uncritical thinking and illogical, even masochistic, public policy. Does it make any rational sense to so reflexively and harshly judge an industry that is the fundamental reason for our ability to function as the first among all First World economies?
This reality has manifested itself repeatedly over the years, but its current iteration, of course, comes in the form of hydraulic fracturing. On the one hand, our response to the advent of hydraulic fracturing and the shale revolution it has helped unleash should have been unequivocally positive, since it suddenly and surprisingly revealed a source of future domestic energy that could support our economy for many more decades and rescue us from a game of geopolitical chess that has unquestionably distorted our decisions, expenditures, and military commitments abroad. Instead, however, the dominant drumbeat throughout the American elite, media and academia has been to resist that welcome news to the point of outright rejection. To promote that narrative, those opposed to fracing have engaged in guerilla journalism.
One such notable purveyor of anti-fracing propaganda is Josh Fox, the creator and director of the 2010 “documentary” called Gasland. I remember pulling up a chair in my hotel room the night that Gasland premiered on HBO. It had been given a significant buildup as the film that would tell the untold story of the horrors experienced by unsuspecting Americans across the country. And it certainly didn’t disappoint, when it came to production value, shock value, entertainment value — and prompting the viewer to think twice about the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing. People in the film were able to light the water from their kitchen faucet on fire for goodness sakes! Because many American who are not otherwise in the oil and gas industry are endowed with an anti-industry bias, viewers and critics alike were quick to embrace the propositions contained in Gasland.
Fortunately, not everyone accepted the Gasland dogma without question. Curiously, however, one of the heretics turned out to be an investigative journalist from Ireland who had absolutely no connection to the oil and gas industry. Phelim McAleer asked Josh Fox at a conference promoting Gasland a simple question about the well-documented history of naturally occurring methane in the area where the flaming faucet had been filmed. McAleer asked Fox if he knew that the water had been flammable in the area long before the arrival of hydraulic fracturing. After initially dodging the question, Fox finally admitted that he knew that flammable water in the area had been documented as far back as 1936, but he didn’t mention it in the film because he considered it to be “irrelevant.” It was that overt admission of outright distortion of the truth to promote a particular policy position (to ban hydraulic fracturing) that inspired McAleer to make a counter documentary film called FrackNation. If you have never seen it, you need to. In fact, the ideal approach would be to watch Gasland first in order to experience how effective distortion can be; then, watch FrackNation to be reminded how important it is to critically analyze what anyone is telling you about exceedingly important matters of public and economic policy.
After eight years of a national administration hellbent on stopping the fossil-fuel industry in its tracks and promoting the renewable-fuel industry at great cost and with unbounded — and unfounded — hope for its day in the (renewable) sun, it’s almost unfathomable that there is a new administration in Washington that not only has a different perspective, but is already demonstrating in decisive ways that common sense is once again welcome at the table.
As of this writing, only 60 days into this new administration, significant pronouncements have been made that are so counter to the ways of the federal government that chiropractors are likely in for a minor boom in business. For starters, last year, Obama’s EPA sent letters to 15,000 owners and operators, requesting that they provide the numbers and types of equipment at onshore oil and gas production facilities and a more specific facility survey with questions about methane emissions (known as the Information Collection Request). Undoubtedly, this was an information roundup that would have led to more aggressive regulation of operations, probably to the point of making it prohibitively expensive to operate — all in the name of eliminating methane emissions. On March 2, newly appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt withdrew the pending request in its entirety.
By notoriously blocking approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline and throwing up roadblocks to the Dakota Access Pipeline, Obama attempted to use those projects as symbolic statements that the U.S. would start self-inflicting damage to our economy in order to wave a flag of fictional climate rescue. Trump has already issued orders for both pipelines to be approved, built and completed as soon as possible. On Feb. 28, Trump ordered the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to stop and reconsider another notorious battle front between private-property owners and the federal government relating to the definition of what constitutes waters of the United States. Trump has also issued an order that aims to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, which was Obama’s strategy to eliminate coal-fired power plants.
The message is being delivered swiftly, comprehensively and with unmistakable clarity. Can it be possible that the seemingly unstoppable trend of the past 50 years toward energy poverty and self-inflicted economic decline is not only being slowed down and even arrested — but reversed? Sixty days is not long enough to start composing encomia about the presidential election that is turning the American ship of state. The Gaslanders in our country will not likely go gentle into that good night. Protests will not only continue at pipeline sites — they will probably intensify. My constitutional law professor always said that the liberals never truly lose — they just postpone their win until another day. The citizens of FrackNation will have to remain ever vigilant.
About the author: Bill Keffer is a contributing columnist to SHALE Magazine. He teaches at the Texas Tech University School of Law and continues to consult. He served in the Texas Legislature from 2003 to 2007.