Fracking: What Is It and Do We Want It?

Bill McKibben, in the March 8, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, reviews two books and a documentary whose subject is the recent “explosive” rise of “fracking” as a way towards energy independence for the U.S.  As in many NYRB reviews, there is little review and much essay, typically by well chosen and knowledgeable writers.  McKibben has much to say, of importance both in the political short-run and the life-of-the-planet long run.

[Fracking] is short for “hydraulic fracturing” and in the words of Seamus McGraw, it works like this: having drilled a hole perhaps a mile deep, and then a horizontal branch perhaps half a mile in length, you send down a kind of subterranean pipe bomb, a small package of ball-bearing-like shrapnel and light explosives. The package is detonated, and the shrapnel pierces the bore hole, opening up small perforations in the pipe. They then pump up to 7 million gallons of a substance known as slick water to fracture the shale and release the gas. It blasts through those perforations in the pipe into the shale at such force—more than nine thousand pounds of pressure per square inch—that it shatters the shale for a few yards on either side of the pipe, allowing the gas embedded in it to rise under its own pressure and escape.

The books both contribute much needed people centered stories on what fracking brings.  Better than the two books, however, McKibben says,

… the most remarkable work on the subject has been done by Ian Urbina, a New York Times journalist, and by the rebel filmmaker Josh Fox. Urbina’s stories, which seem likely to win a Pulitzer, demonstrate why we can’t do without serious newspapers. Beginning last spring, he documented the health risks, lax regulation, industry overstatement, and general corruption that have surrounded the boom.Fox, for his part, grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and when a drilling company offered $100,000 for rights to his family land, he took his camera to Dimock, and then out west to communities where fracking had been underway for a few years longer, to investigate. The documentary he produced, Gasland, earned an Emmy and much critical praise.

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