Rethinking the Geopolitics of Energy

By Tom GallagherOctober 16, 2015

Running Dry by Toby Craig Jones

TOBY CRAIG JONES’S Running Dry: Essays on Energy, Water, and Environmental Crisis is a very small book — 98 pages plus notes — about a very big topic: the American “political-economic order that puts energy at the center of its existence, growth, and security.” How big a topic? Well, Jones sees the current situation as an “order without parallel in human history” in which we have become “geological actors on a scale previously the province of cosmic, solar, and volcanic forces.” And with little room to waste words, he doesn’t mince them either — cutting through the fog of current “terrorism” discussion to declare that “America’s wars in the Middle East have been directly linked to the terms and ways of thinking about energy,” fixed in place since the 1973 oil embargo. 

Jones, who teaches at Rutgers University, starts with a story of his home state governor (and current Republican presidential candidate) Chris Christie vetoing a law that would have prohibited New Jersey from accepting other states’ fracking wastewater. Fracking, more properly known as hydraulic fracturing, is the process of injecting water, with sand and various chemicals added, at high pressure into rock or shale in order to free up oil or gas embedded within. The water may be contaminated by the added chemicals, or radiation, or even salt absorbed underground. This is no minor problem. The Associated Press has tallied 21,651 individual incidents in leading oil- and gas-producing states from 2009 to 2014 that have produced “more than 175 million gallons of wastewater spilled from 2009 to 2014 in incidents involving ruptured pipes, overflowing storage tanks and other mishaps or even deliberate dumping.” The press agency also notes the limitations of their study — their numbers are incomplete because several important states “could not provide comprehensive spill data” and “many releases go unreported.” 

How did such a state of affairs develop? It derives, as Jones sees it, from the fact that “we have privileged the need for cheap carbon-based energy over more important natural resources, such as water,” as “the past four decades have seen consumers as well as corporate and political interests prioritize access to carbon-based energy often at the expense of protecting the environment and political liberties.” 

The state that would have been most affected by the ban Christie vetoed is Pennsylvania, whose fracking wastewater, Jones tells us, has increased “by perhaps as much as 570 percent” from 2004 to 2013, so that by 2014 the state was averaging one wastewater spill a week. None of those spills has thus far matched the nearly 3,000,000 gallons of oil and gas industry wastewater that escaped from a broken pipeline into a creek system outside Williston, North Dakota, in January 2015. (Williston was the subject of The Overnighters the 2014 Oscar-nominated documentary depicting that boomtown’s uneasy relationship between its longtime residents and the down-on-their-luck energy industry hopefuls who have flocked there.) But with up to 4,000,000 gallons of water used in the fracking of a single well and there being, according to Jones, over 1,000,000 fracking wells across the country, another spill of that size is probably only a matter of time — unless we’re prepared to make some changes. Not every place deals with the problem in the same way, though. The other state besides Pennsylvania whose fracking industry Jones focuses on is Colorado, where, as in “much of the American West,” he writes, “more space is available,” and therefore “produced water [the industry term for the fracking byproduct] is injected back into the ground.” The long run impact of that? Well, someone will have to get back to you on that. I am, of course, being facetious, in that the energy industry’s lack of transparency is one of this book’s principal concerns. 

What’s actually in that “produced water” you may ask? In most cases we don’t know because the industry has been allowed to treat this as a trade secret. The Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, “steered through by Vice President Dick Cheney, a former chairman and CEO of Halliburton, an oil services company,” Jones notes, “reexempted the energy industry from a handful of critical environmental safeguards in regard to water, including the Safe Water Drinking Act.” As far back as 1988, the Environmental Protection Agency had determined, in the words of one of Jones’s sources, that all “material resulting from the oil and gas drilling process is considered nonhazardous, regardless of its content or toxicity.” As two journalists from the Boulder Weekly explained the thinking, “more than 10 barrels of waste are created for every barrel of oil,” so having “to properly deal with this waste […] would be so cost prohibitive as to be a threat to our economy, and, therefore, our security.” 

And lest you think that some inherent decency or sense of true national interest will somehow keep the energy industry from endangering the nation, Jones offers the cautionary reminder of “the tobacco industry, which peddled the myth of its own innocence […] for decades,” while the truth was that the industry was “well aware of the carcinogenic and habit-causing effects of nicotine based on its own laboratory work.” 

Since this book’s publication, the author’s fears were unfortunately vindicated by an InsideClimate News report on its eight-month investigation of the Exxon Corporation. The website, which has already won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on oil spills, reveals that the corporation, one of the world’s largest oil companies, was told in 1977 by its own scientists that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” Yet a decade later the company, currently known as ExxonMobil, began a campaign to:  

[P]ut its muscle behind efforts to manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day. 

The problem, Jones reminds us, is global: A top Venezuela oil official once declared that “Oil will bring us ruin […] It is the Devil’s excrement”; a Saudi Arabian counterpart is said to have remarked, “All in all, I wish we had found water.” And here in the US we surely reached some kind of low point when the Sierra Club, arguably the nation’s foremost environmental organization, accepted $25 million in contributions over several years from the CEO of one of America’s largest domestic energy corporations, as part of a Beyond Coal campaign promoting natural gas as a bridge fuel to a non-carbon-based energy future. 

Still there is hope. For one thing, with more recent information showing the methane gas leakage from gas wells to be a substantial component of atmospheric greenhouse gases, a new Sierra Club executive director has turned the organization’s back on energy industry contributions, declaring that, “It’s time to stop thinking of natural gas as a ‘kinder, gentler’ energy source.” And above all, we have the example of the years of activism by New York residents that resulted in that state’s December 2014 ban on fracking. As Jones concludes, although there are undoubtedly years of legal challenges to come, “New York’s example shows that while antidemocratic Big Energy is powerful, it does not always win.”


Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco.

LARB Contributor

Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex. He is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


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