Thursday, November 01, 2012

That Fricking Fracking

Here is a list that might be of interest to you, especially if you are somewhat older and nostalgic. This is courtesy of a website named that claims to produce almost 11 million page views of lists covering multiple topics, serving almost 3 million readers. Here is what they consider a ranked listing of the top ten comedy teams of all times. See if you agree.

10) Amos and Andy
9) Frick and Frack
8) Smothers Brothers
7) Cheech and Chong
6) Abbott and Costello
5) Laurel and Hardy
4) Monty Python
3) The Three Stooges
2) Martin and Lewis
1) The Marx Brothers

There is no indication as to how these lists were compiled, however, there is one act omitted that I believe should be included––The Ritz Brothers. Besides, who remembers Frick and Frack? As a reminder, Frick and Frack were the stage names for two Swiss comedic ice skaters of extraordinary talent who joined the Ice Follies and became international celebrities for some three decades, from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. However, I believe their fame and popularity were over shadowed by the stardom status of the Ritz Brothers who entertained the public on the stage, in nightclubs and in film for over 40 years.

Still, the phrase Frick and Frack maintains some semblance of recognition in current language usage. In fact, the list above actually helps define the expression. It suggests two individuals who are so closely identified with each other that if you say one name, the other immediately pops into your mind. Think “Laurel and…” or “Abbott and…”

The Two Sided Coin

But there is a two-sided coin involved here; one side retains an association with the traditional depiction described above. The other however is significantly more extreme and is best described in the Urban Dictionary (a reference source devoted to slang expressions). Somehow, through no fault of Frick and Frack, both words, are used as a substitute for another word starting with the letter “F” that forms the core for almost every comedians’ monologue. Common urban usage would sound something like this: “Shut the fricking door,” or “What the frack!” Which leads us to the above headline, “That Fricking Fracking.”

The original headline that came to mind was a take off of the Woody Allen movie tiled “Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask,” substituting the word fracking for the word sex. But under the definition chronicled in the Urban Dictionary, I was concerned that readers would get their hopes up thinking this article was another version of the highly popular (strictly educational treatise) Fifty Shades of Grey.

Hydraulic Fracturing

In its current sense however, the word “fracking” has nothing to do with Mr. Frack or the word not to be mentioned in public company. It refers to what some consider to be the Holy Grail solution to our energy problem, a complex, yet contentious process termed “Hydraulic Fracturing,” commonly shortened to just “fracking.” This technique is used by oil and gas drillers to expedite the extraction of carbon fuels, and has become the rallying cry of the oil and gas industry, as well as for those convinced that it will finally enable us to achieve our decades long effort to become energy independent. The history of hydraulic fracturing goes back to 1947. Drilling down, past the water table, through the bedrock to the layer of shale where oil and gas are trapped, the energy from the injection of a highly pressurized fracking fluid (98% water) creates new channels in the rock, which can increase the extraction rates and ultimate recovery of hydrocarbons

In the early1980’s, instead of just drilling down once the drill head hits the shale, the drillers then started drilling horizontally anywhere from a quarter of a mile along the shale to a mile or more. This makes a single well site much more productive. Fracturing all along this drilling area means significantly more of the released gas or oil can be extracted from this single well. This process enabled oil and gas companies to make the extraction of shale gas not only more economical, but even more profitable.

The energy potential for shale gas is undeniable. Because of the United States' massive reserves of shale gas, advocates say American energy independence is a real possibility if the industry is given support. Shale gas is among the fastest growing energy sources in the country: in 2000, shale gas represented 1 percent of natural gas supplies in the country. Today, that number is 30 percent and rising. While there are great risks to the fracking process, many argue there are also a number of potential benefits.

The Risk/Benefit Conundrum

Here are some of the benefits as described in an article in the Atlantic Monthly: “The boom in natural gas extracted from shale rock through new technology [especially horizontal drilling] holds out great transformative promise for the future: for consumers in lowering energy costs, for workers in creating domestic jobs, for the environment as a substitute for coal [thus much friendlier environmentally], for balance of trade as we may export more than we import and for energy security as we become less dependent on foreign oil and gas, and reduce the influence of nations like Iran, Russia and Venezuela.” WOW! Where do we sign up?

Unquestionably, the benefits of shale oil are numerous, and they have been publicized and promoted voluminously. However, the next paragraph in the Atlantic article cools things down a bit by stating, “But today shale gas production faces important environmental and safety issues which must be addressed through both voluntary corporate action and appropriate regulation, with business leaders playing a key role in both spheres.” These environmental and safety issues, especially the individual details are less well known. Here are a number of specific concerns as expressed in a recent article in Scientific America:

“Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth [each well uses from 2 to 9 million gallons of water], using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground. No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil.”

The article continues, “Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking water. There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.”

ProPublica is a non-profit corporation that describes itself as an independent non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. In 2010 it became the first online news source to win a Pulitzer Prize. This past June, a ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that “structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.” Oh yes! Several earthquakes have been attributed to fracking.

Moderation. What’s That?

It seems that the fracking process could contribute massive benefits but equally sizeable environmental problems. How can the significant strains between these two issues be resolved?

In my opinion, one of the very best editorial writers of the day is David Brooks of The New York Times. As a Republican, he is one of a dying, almost extinct breed––a self-described “moderate.” In fact, he explained his philosophy in his recent editorial titled “What Moderation Means.” (I strongly urge you to read the entire article because it is a masterpiece.) One segment of it applies to the conundrum we face between the opposing challenges related to the dangers and benefits of fracking.

Mr. Brooks writes, “The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced. She understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them to keep her country along its historic trajectory.”

At the request of Congress, the EPA is conducting a study to better understand any potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and ground water. The scope of the research includes the full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing, from acquisition of the water, through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing, to the post-fracturing stage, including the management of flowback and produced water and its ultimate treatment and disposal. A first progress report is planned for late 2012. A final draft report is expected to be released for public comment and peer review in 2014.

Hopefully, the advocates of fracking, and the opposing defenders of the environment will work together, in moderation, with the EPA to find a balanced common cause.


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