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Posted - 08/26/2014
Fracking in California by Mark Hertsgaard with Lisa Morehouse
fracking.jpgAward winning journalist and 2014 Invoking the Pause Grant Partner Mark Herstgaard reports on the highly controversial drilling method known as fracking and its environmental impacts in the state of California and our future.

Fracking is the new front line in the fight against climate change, and with the help of Invoking the Pause my journalistic colleagues and I recently provided important new ammunition.  Focusing on the debate over fracking in California, we produced deeply reported, eyewitness accounts that appeared in print and online in The Nation and on public radio in the Bay Area first on KALW’s “CrossCurrents” program and soon nationwide on the NPR program, "Latino USA."  I collaborated with Lisa Morehouse, a freelance radio producer in San Francisco, melding our skills as journalists and learning from one another’s respective areas of expertise—she as a stellar sound hound, me as a veteran print guy.  You can find links to our stories here: first, The Nation story then the two radio stories: and here:

The biggest contribution these stories make to the climate debate, I think, is to make it clear that, scientifically speaking, fracking is incompatible with preventing catastrophic amounts of global warming and therefore any politician who claims to be a climate change crusader—most notably, California governor Jerry Brown and US president Barack Obama—must reject fracking.  Here’s why:  The latest climate science, as analyzed by such eminently mainstream institutions as the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says that humanity must leave two-thirds of the earth's proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground, unburned, if we are to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  (Two degrees C is regarded as the threshold between “dangerous" amounts of global warming, which will be plenty bad enough, and “extremely dangerous” amounts of global warming, which could spell the end of our civilization.)  This scientific imperative in effect rules out fracking--the practice of injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to force previously inaccessible oil and gas to the surface.  That’s because the whole point of fracking is to obtain oil and gas supplies that traditional forms of drilling have not been able to reach.  In other words, fracking is all about accessing the two-thirds of oil and gas reserves that still remain underground after more than a century of conventional drilling activity.  Since science now tells us that humanity cannot afford to burn these two-thirds of reserves and still preserve a livable planet, logic says that fracking is incompatible with responsible climate policy.

As far as I can tell, the journalism Lisa Morehouse and I produced with Invoking the Pause’s support is the first instance where this argument—that the two-thirds imperative rules out fracking (as well as much else)—has been made.  Until now, most of the argument against fracking has been based on concerns about the local pollution effects of fracking:  the way groundwater, air, soil and human health in the vicinity of fracked wells has been compromised.  To be sure, these remain vital concerns, and my Nation article and the first of Lisa and my radio pieces discuss these concerns in depth.  But the climate argument against fracking is no less important, especially as Britain, Germany and other European countries consider whether to pursue fracking and as world leaders gather later this year at the United Nations for discussions aimed at producing a strong international climate treaty at the Paris conference in 2015.  My hope is that fracking’s incompatibility with avoiding catastrophic climate change will now spread to other parts of the news media, to the activist community and thereby to the general public discussion about the climate crisis.  One boost in this direction recently came from President Obama, who in a June interview with Showtime television and the New York Times affirmed the two-thirds imperative (as Lisa and I report in our stories and as I expand upon in this article in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.

Finally, one caution in this regard.  One thing I learned—or, I should say, re-learned—while preparing these stories on fracking is that the climate literacy of American journalists and news executives remains distressingly low.  How else to explain the media silence about President Obama’s agreement that, yes, humanity will have to leave two-thirds of earth’s fossil fuels in the ground in order to preserve a livable planet?  That is one of the most stunning statements ever uttered by a US president, one that implies a veritable revolution in global energy policies and practices, and yet it went completely unnoticed by the rest of the media until I pointed it out (first in Businessweek and The Nation, later on PRI’s “The World” and MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes”).  This lack of coverage is best explained not by any sort of media conspiracy but by the appallingly low level of understanding of climate and energy issues that still, in 2014, pervades American newsrooms.  Journalists always pay attention to what the president of the United States says, but they only report and comment upon the presidential statements they deem newsworthy.  My hunch is that the U.S. media ignored Obama’s comments because they simply didn’t understand its staggering implications, which include an end not only to fracking but also to all new oil and gas exploration (why explore for fuel we can’t afford to burn?), not to mention the $21 billion in subsidies American taxpayers give to oil and gas companies every year (again, why subsidize what we can’t afford to burn?) and countless other aspects of the current political economy of oil.

In short, much work remains to be done.  Let’s get to it.

MARK HERTSGAARD, called “one of America’s finest reporters” by Barbara Ehrenreich, is the author of five previous books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future. He is a Fellow of the New America Foundation, the environment correspondent for The Nation, and a co-founder of the group, Climate Parents. HOT, Hertsgaard’s latest book, is both a father’s cry against climate change and a deeply reported blueprint for how all of us―as parents, communities, companies and countries―can navigate this unavoidable new era. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Wen Stephensen called HOT a “significant contribution” that “raises the emotional stakes while keeping a clear head… [Hertsgaard] presents a strong case that there is still time to make an enormous difference.  A single father, he lives in San Francisco with his daughter, Chiara, who never fails to make him smile.