drilling rigs

Celebrity protest: Gasland or La La Land?

Though there are many concerns among groups in the US regarding hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the opinions of some groups are quite polarized and more glaring than others. This article suggests consideration for perspectives not often heard in the ads and news items—those of local landowners and others most affected by the decisions to keep or curtail gas drilling operations. The most publicized are the perspectives of celebrities and others who have the wealth to support media advertising and film production.

Fracking kills. And it doesn’t just kill us, it kills the land, nature and eventually the whole world.
—Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono, anti-fracking advocate
Yoko Ono, anti-fracking advocate

Despite fracking over 130,000 wells since 2005 in the US alone (Ridlington, Norman & Richardson, 2016), we are obviously still around and our planet Earth does not seem to be in immediate danger of Armageddon, as Yoko Ono proclaims.

When the anti-fracking documentary Gasland (Fox, 2010) premiered, its audiences’ enthusiastic response led to many awards including the greatest: an Academy Award nomination. Its director and narrator, Josh Fox, was propelled to a pedestal as an international environmental hero. According to Bloomberg News’ Dave Shiflett (2010), “[Fox] may go down in history as the Paul Revere of fracking.” Among other accolades is a street in Aujac, France named in his honor.

Gasland Versus FrackNation

But not everyone concurs. Albeit with less fanfare, Phelim McAleer released the pro-fracking documentary, FrackNation,  in 2013 to challenge Gasland’s stance that fracking is a destructive operation—dangerous for our planet and harmful to its inhabitants (McAleer, McElhinney & Segieda, 2013).

The website of FrackNation clearly states its premise (“FrackNation: A feature documentary”, 2018):

In FrackNation journalist Phelim McAleer faces threats, cops and bogus lawsuits questioning green extremists for the truth about fracking. McAleer uncovers fracking facts suppressed by environmental activists, and he talks with rural Americans whose livelihoods are at risk if fracking is banned. Emotions run high but the truth runs deep.

McAleer made FrackNation after he had confronted Fox at a Chicago event. During the event, McAleer publicly pointed out that water had been lit on fire in America long before any fracking occurred, and asked Fox why he hadn’t mentioned that information in Gasland. He responded that the information “wasn’t relevant.”

In their wish to make FrackNation an independent investigation, the company decided they would accept no funds from oil and gas organizations and/or their executives. “FrackNation is a film by the people, for the people.” Between Feb 6, 2012 and Apr 6, 2012, 3,305 backers donated $212,265 on Kickstarter to fund the movie (McAleer & McElhinney, 2012).

It appears that Fox refused to let fracking advocates have the last word, as he retaliated by producing a sequel, Gasland 2. Things might have come to a head at the premier of Gasland 2 when fracking advocates showed up to protest what they deemed to be irresponsible misinformation depicted in the movie. However, Fox and his celebrity anti-fracking counterpart, Yoko Ono, suppressed the advocates in their attempt to make their voices heard. According to McAleer (2012), “Any farmer who had the temerity to question Yoko Ono or Josh Fox wasn’t allowed in.”

A Celebrity Road Trip

Along with her son Sean Lennon, and actors Susan Sarandon and Josh Fox, Yoko Ono boarded a bus for a road trip through rural Pennsylvania to witness first hand the environmental damage caused by fracking.  The purpose of this excursion was to persuade Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking in the State of New York. However, according to a local farmer named Respondent 9 in a study of the fracking issue in the area (Wildermuth, 2014, p. 28),

Through these people like Yoko Ono who have masses of people who will listen to them, and a lack of a real education on any one issue, those kind of people can really have a significant outcome  .  .  .  and they’ve proven it here by shutting down natural gas drilling, simply through fear and inaccuracies.

Tom Shepstone, another exasperated resident, said of the celebrity visit (Associated Press, 2013a),

They don’t have to pay mortgages here, they don’t have to get jobs here, they don’t have to pay taxes here, they don’t have to support their families here. They just come up here to pick on this area and use it as part of their trendy cause.

Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono
Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono

Ironically, the celebrity group traveled on a Mercedes Setra luxury tour bus, which was followed by a $195,000 Mercedes v12 BiTurbo car to be used for Yoko Ono’s separate trip home. The bus gets 7-9 miles per gallon, and the car, 11-17 mpg. Assuming no detours, the two vehicles drove a total of 326 miles round-trip from New York City to Pennsylvania. You can do the math as to the “emissions spewing out of their tailpipes” (Bunzey, 2013).

Any reported scenes of environmental calamities resulting from fracking would have to be imagined since there simply were none. It is understandable, though, that Ono was distressed about possible fracking operations in her backyard. The bucolic New York farm that she and the late John Lennon purchased was potentially vulnerable to the presence of unsightly drilling rigs. Hence, the passionate campaign by NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) to ban fracking in New York. This farm may be a retreat where Ono can relax and gaze upon fertile meadows stretching to the horizon, not unlike the “strawberry fields forever” of which her late husband sang so beautifully.

A Voice for Live-and-Workers

Yet, the thing about strawberry fields is they don’t just happen.  Workers have to plow the land, plant seeds, pray for ideal weather, tend the crops, then harvest them. Ono, a woman of substantial wealth, does not need to rely solely on the farm for her income. Unfortunately, this is not the case for some local farmers and laborers who absolutely depend on the land and the blue-collar jobs it provides for their livelihood. They are the working class of people who labor relentlessly to make ends meet. Theirs are voices rarely heard.

However, their voices are there. You just have to dig into the depths of Google to listen to what they have to say. Results from an online search for “fracking” first revealed the biased information that serves anti-frackers’ purposes. It was not until the 20th page of this particular search that I happened upon the voices of “live-and-workers,” a term for farmers and blue-collar laborers used in a Middlebury College thesis: Voices not heard, natural gas development, public discourse and power in Wayne County, Pennsylvania (Wildermuth, 2014).

middlebury collegeIts author, Grace Wildermuth, originally from Western Pennsylvania, chose to return to her origins to tell the stories of the live-and-workers, a significant population ignored by elites such as Josh Fox, celebrities, and other “pastoral retreaters,” (Wildermuth’s term for the perspectives of wealthy people like Ono who buy scenic rural property for their pleasure). The fracking conversation is controlled by the pastoral retreaters who have the monetary resources to finance political campaigns and rallies, to manipulate the media, and to hire professionals to maximize social media outreach.

The level of wealth it takes to use such tactics is out of reach for live-and-workers who are too busy working to pay their mortgages. They can hardly get a word in, and it doesn’t help that oil and gas companies have not been successful in publicizing their side of the fracking argument. In the media wars, a gas company’s TV ads are nowhere near as effective as the use of social media by anti-frackers.

Thus, the Middlebury study performed a public service in giving the live-and-workers a voice, however quiet it is on the 20th page of an online search. Understandably, some live-and-workers were reluctant to talk to Wildermuth because she represented a college with “a reputation as a hot bed for environmental activists” (Wildermuth, 2014, p.7). Over time, however, she gained their trust.

Excerpts from Voices Not Heard

Pastoral Retreaters Brush Aside Live-and-Workers

Pastoral retreaters may hold a romantic, yet unrealistic, notion of idyllic country living. Live-and-workers confided about how pastoral retreaters have imposed themselves with no regard to the locals.

Dairy cows used to be in all of these fields. And I’m not even sure where the nearest dairy cow is as far as the black and white Holstein. I mean you just don’t see them dotting the fields like you used to when we were kids. But you see a lot of New Yorkers. [Laughs]

Wildermuth (2014, p. 7) quotes from Buttel and Flinn (1977, p.19),

Historically, the notion of a genteel rural life—thought to be clearly superior to agriculture and the country bumpkin—has been most prevalent among the society’s upper middle class. This group has defined country living as the highest expression of cultured society. Living in the country, without being of it, allowed the charms of Nature to gratify and illume but not disturb one’s cosmopolitan sense.

One respondent pointed out,

It’s like eighty, ninety even percent of the acreage up there all willing to be under lease. When we did a study of a petition by these guys and somebody went and looked at where they all came from and who they were and how much land they had, they had a total of 179 acres (Respondent 8).

In a county with an area of 751 square miles, or 480,640 acres, that land mass is just three hundredths of a percent of the total land. Live and workers often point to the lack of acreage of pastoral retreaters as a way to question the weight of their voices. One interviewee interpreted the wishes of some vacationers (Wildermuth, 2014, p. 27).

We want to keep you in poverty up here with no development so we can come up and treat it like our state park (Respondent 17).

Producers and Users

Understandable resentment bubbled over when live-and-workers talked about pastoral retreaters, those who expect energy to be available to them at all times but don’t acknowledge where it comes from.

One farmer described people like Josh Fox and Yoko Ono like this (Wildermuth, 2014, p. 34).

They have no bearing in real life. They are users in life. . . . There are givers and takers in the world. They are takers. They are not the people who produce the food. They are not the people that really take care of this land.

Another farmer put it this way (Wildermuth, 2014, p. 35);

They are users of all this power. We are producing it for them. And yet, they are still complaining. They are complaining about the power line going through. They are complaining about the gas lines going through. . . . But they want to use it (Respondent 6).

You have all the wealth of the United States, or sort of the epicenter in New York City. . . . they can’t get away from living off the resources of the ‘hinterlands’ here. We are still here. We still produce coal, we produce bluestone, we produce everything else, we produce water, we take the garbage from New York City and they bring it here.  . . . You know renewable energy is coming around, windmills, they are all in Northeast Pennsylvania. The power lines go past us to New York City.  . . . You could look at it as the working poor still provide the basis, uphold the needs of all the area. And what has been just distasteful to me is they can’t forego the need to utilize all of these resources (energy, electricity, natural gas) yet they move out here . .  . and come in on a weekend and they can’t tolerate it. And I’d compare it to steak eaters who can’t stand the site of the butcher shop. Just get out of the butcher shop (Respondent 35).

There’re people working hard to provide the goods and services that our society needs.  .  .  .  It’s people that are divorced from the rural way of life. They are divorced from the systems that produce food, fuel and fiber for society and it’s almost like two tribes that don’t really understand each other but you need to respect one another and nobody is showing any respect for what is still going on in the rural landscape (Respondent 19).

The live-and-workers point out that not only do these urban centers not appreciate the goods and services that the rural landscape provides, but they have now begun to dictate in what condition those goods must come to them in, and what can and can not be done in the areas that produce those resources.

From another respondent (Wildermuth, 2014, p. 40).

A lot of our landowners are generational landowners. . . . and they have worked their entire lives to be a landowner, and then you have someone coming here who rents a hotel room for a weekend and decides that they are going to tell you what to do with your land. That’s hard on landowner rights, and I’m a big believer in landowner rights (Respondent 15).

Ramifications for US Troops

It is a fact that the US military is composed of live-and-workers who are well aware of the contempt the pastoral retreaters have of them. No doubt they remember John Kerry’s comment (Associated Press, 2006),

You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and do your homework, and make an effort to be smart, uh, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.

Show a live-and-worker a fracking operation and they will show you a symbol of energy independence from turmoil in the Middle East. The Middlebury study describes this perspective (Wildermuth, 2014, p.  59),

Live and workers point out that those who protest natural gas development often aren’t from populations that supply our country its military. One respondent asked (Respondent 59),

I wonder how they’d feel if all their kids were sent over to Iraq, or over to Afghanistan now, in that war. I bet you they’d have a different conception of it. Because every time you put a well in, the way I look at it, that’s five or six kids coming back from harmful places.

An Astounding Lack of Knowledge or a Purposeful Denial

Rep. Nancy Pelosi
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (AP Photos/Susan Walsh)

It must amuse, or maybe anger, the live-and-workers when so-called environmentalists and politicians unintentionally show an astounding lack of knowledge or possibly a purposeful denial on subjects they claim to represent in their fight. It appears that Rep. Pelosi (D-CA) was not aware that natural gas is a fossil fuel (“‘Meet the Press’ transcript for August 24, 2008”, 2008),

I’m, I’m, I’m investing in something I believe in. I believe in natural gas as a clean, cheap alternative to fossil fuels. … These investments in wind, in solar and biofuels and focus on natural gas, these are the real alternatives.  . . .

We’re not trying to give incentives to drill, we’re giving incentives to invest in renewables and natural gas that will take us where we need to go.

Surely she has been enlightened by now. One would hope so as she is heavily dependent on fossil fuel for transportation between California and Washington DC.

Laughable, yet laudable, efforts have been taken to transform Chicago O’Hare International Airport into a ‘green airport’ (Lydersen, 2012). A struggle it is to read this article with a straight face. For any airport to make significant and worthwhile reductions in its carbon footprint, it would simply have to shut down and send jets elsewhere.

Know-It-All Celebrities

And it must be frustrating to the live-and-workers when the glitterati, 1%, celebrities, and elitists lecture them on renewable and clean energy in a holier-than-thou manner when the elitists themselves are the heaviest users of fossil fuels. As for their personal commitments to solar and wind power, it could never be close to 100%. Consider statements by renowned Chef Mario Batali, who lent strong support to the anti-fracking movement. A spokeswoman for Batali stated that a percentage of green power is used to offset non-renewable energy consumption at his restaurants. This impossibly vague statement belies the fact that Chef Batali’s multiple restaurants around the world use natural gas for cooking. You might say that natural gas helped to power Chef Batali’s success.

An Associated Press article in the Daily Freeman (Associated Press, 2013c) quotes other celebrity claims:

From Robert Redford:

Fracking is a bad deal for local communities. It’s been linked to drinking water contamination all across the country. It threatens the clean air we breathe.

From Alec Baldwin:

. . . some economic benefit, deliver a pittance in actual compensation, desecrate their environment and then split and leave them the bill.

Alec Baldwin and Robert Redford would do well to listen to prosperous landowners who have greatly benefited from fracking (Associated Press, 2013b),

In contrast with Baldwin’s claim, local landowners have received billions of dollars in royalties, and the typical royalty of 18.75 percent is higher than what many novelists, actors, or musicians are paid.

From Josh Fox:

We have the capability of running everything in this country — including our fleet of 240 million cars — off of electricity from wind and from solar and from hydropower. [Society should be changing over] to renewable energy and doing it vigorously and quickly. And we could be doing that in New York.

Josh Fox must live on a different dimension where dollar signs simply do not exist if he truly believes the City of New York can rely solely on renewable energy.

From the Middlebury study (Wilmuth, 2014. p. 49):

I did a tour in Susquehanna County, it was early on in the development. . . . and there was a van-full of reporters. . . . They don’t understand farmers. They don’t understand rural people. . . . The one farm we pulled up to, the guy was pulling a bulk tank out of the barn and it looked like he was done milking cows and the reporter asked our tour guide if the gas drilling forced him to go out of farming. And he says ‘yeah, I guess so’. So they’re writing all that down and he says,

Well, let me finish my answer. He’s 75 years old, never taken a day off in his life. He now finally has an opportunity to retire. And his family now wants to raise beef cattle, raise hay, change the operation a little bit. . . . He’s not selling his farm; he’s keeping his farm. And it’s going to change over to his kids’ (Respondent 16).

The study recorded this heartbreaking cry from a live-and-worker who lost the window of economic potential because Ono and Fox were successful in banning fracking in the area.

My heart wants to keep the property, keep everything here. (Through tears) Financially, I’m not sure that we can do it. I’m sorry I don’t mean to break down like this.  .  .  . I have worked so hard to preserve this and I don’t know that I can keep it. I really thought the gas lease was our answer, and that’s been taken away from us. And every year I pay the taxes and I just don’t know where it’s coming from. I keep taking from my retirement, I keep taking money from places that I don’t have. . . . It’s difficult (Respondent 11).

Yes, Fracking Is Risky

Of course, there is risk of water contamination as a result of fracking. Realistically, there is little, if anything, that is risk-free. We can never completely remove risk, but we take all kinds of measures to reduce it. We put on seat belts, drive carefully, train pilots and doctors, and wear helmets. Yet, cars still wreck, airplanes crash from time to time, concussions continue to occur, and mistakes happen. Despite extreme risk, astronauts still hop aboard rockets to launch themselves into space (which takes an astronomical amount of fuel). History from the dawn of man until today is a story of risks taken to discover, explore, and invent. Fracking is merely an innovation developed by engineers willing to take risks to find ways to produce more oil and natural gas. And it has rewarded farmers.

Pennsylvania dairy farmer Shawn Georgetti said he was struggling before signing a gas lease. Now he’s been able to buy better and more fuel-efficient equipment and says the drilling hasn’t caused any problems. He says,”It’s a lot more fun to farm” (Associated Press, 2013a).

From the Middlebury study (Wildermuth, 2014. p. 40 ),

When you talk about leasing your land for gas . . . you have to admit that there are some risks. There are risks in everything we do. . . . But we take measures to mitigate those risks. . . . That’s exactly what the farmers did and the landowners did that signed leases: they looked into it, they did some homework . . . and they came up with a lease that they thought protected everything and did what they could do to mitigate the risks (Respondent 9).

I kind of see it as a way of hopefully being able to keep the farm and still live a life, have family time, and actually enjoy it a little bit (Respondent 13).

An article in the Daily Freeman (Associated Press, 2013c) quotes Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, “With proper regulation and enforcement, gas provides a very substantial health benefit in reducing air pollution,” compared with coal-fired power plants.

Conclusion

Only in La La land is there a perfect form of energy. Since the sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow, natural gas is and will continue to be a reliable source of energy whether we like it or not. Maybe someday a miraculous source of energy will be discovered, and it will be cheap, clean, and widely available. While we wait for that day to arrive, we can content ourselves with music: Sean Lennon’s “Don’t Frack My Mother” for the anti-frackers, and Randy Travis’ A Few Ol’ Country Boys” for the live-and-workers, without whom our country would quickly collapse.

REFERENCES

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