Perhaps drilling rigs should be allowed in cities, towns and even into our own metaphorical backyards. It would be good for the environment. Maybe not your personal environment, but more broadly for our environment.
Community planners for decades have urged mixed-use development, in which we combine work, play and shopping in closer physical proximity. Lately, we’ve expanded the idea to food. Some people have always supplemented their pantry with backyard gardens, and now we have the concept more formally called “urban agriculture,” a phrase that embraces in-town farms.
Growing your own victuals feels good and connects you more directly with the weather and changing climate. Soil fertility becomes something personal, and creepy-crawly things a delight or demons, depending upon their role in your personal ecosystem.
Energy, however, remains an abstraction—and many people would like to keep it that way. In Colorado, several cities have adopted limits. Now, Fort Collins has banned fracking, which amounts to a ban on drilling, as few wells are drilled these days without fracking. In fairness to those municipalities, legitimate concerns remain about the technology’s impacts on water and air quality.
Yet the bigger picture is that we all use natural gas. Milk doesn't originate in a carton, nor water in a faucet. With natural gas, it’s even worse. We never actually see, smell or taste the gas, only the heat it produces or, in the case of electricity, the light it provides or the cool air from conditioners. That’s a huge disconnect. Bridging that gap would be useful.
Consider the debate in Carbondale, Colorado. Locals have high regard for a nearby area called Thompson Divide, where they graze their cattle, go mountain biking, and hunt wildlife. I can’t vouch for it personally, but I take them on their word that it’s a special place.
Carbondale, however, wasn’t named after somebody named Bill Carbon. Coal was mined intermittently in the Thompson Divide area for a century, and drillers have poked around there previously and perhaps not delicately so. Now comes the question of whether the federal government will issue extensions for drilling in the basin.
The Aspen Times, reporting on a recent meeting attended by 300 people, said the current quandary was best summarized by a local student. While everyone who uses natural gas must, at some level, support energy extraction, she said, some places should be off-limits. And Thompson Divide is one of them.
OK, fair enough. But then came another local resident who warned of the “wolf at the door” that had already devoured half of his county with drilling. And, reports the Times, he got a resounding “no” when he asked the crowd if it was worth “poisoning the Earth” to extract more natural gas to feed the country’s addiction to fossil fuels.
It turns out that one protector of the last, best places commutes to the West Coast, where he oversees the manufacturing and retailing of a well-known line of outdoor clothing. That requires a 2,000-mile commute: Your very own carbon footprint the size of Poland.
In reading about the Carbondale meeting, I was reminded of the 2006 “South Park” episode called “Smug Alert,” in which the local residents buy “Pious” cars, which makes them feel smug. Then clouds of “smug” originating from Hollywood, San Francisco and South Park threaten to converge over the Rocky Mountains in an apocalypse of self-righteousness.
It’s easy to be smug about drilling for natural gas. Legitimate questions from citizens haven’t fully been answered by industry and state regulators, and it’s not clear that standards and oversight have been strengthened enough to protect the environment. If this is indeed going to be the giant bridge fuel to deliver us into a renewable future, it needs some work.
But how can we say no, no, no to drilling, when our actions say yes, yes, yes to the demand that drives the drilling? Carbondale and Pitkin County don’t want drilling at Thompson Divide? Fair enough. Like Fort Collins, they’re ahead of the curve in energy-efficiency programs. But to say absolutely no to drilling? They’d need to say no to energy use, too. Mandating passive-home construction that tamps down energy use to almost nothing would be one major step.
Right now, we all have grime on our hands from drilling. But for some people, the grime seems to be invisible. Maybe a drilling rig down the street would at least remind us of the part we all play in this dirty business.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.