16 April 2011

Memo to Joe Nocera (and the People Who Hired Him): Try Harder!

Some of you may have noticed that The New York Times has added a new columnist to its editorial page. His name is Joe Nocera and, as a long time correspondent for business periodicals, he seems now to be the official mouthpiece for corporate insanity at The Times.

To date Nocera has published not one but two columns trumpeting the virtues of hydraulic-fracturing as a way of extracting natural gas. I have posted here several times about the stupidity of that process. Nocera seems not to have read my posts. I suppose that is excusable. But he also seems not to have bothered reading this series of articles that his own newspaper published last month on the lunacy of "fracking." And he seems to have missed the stories running in The Times today on (1) the actual practice of (as opposed to the imagined oh-so-nice-and-clean industry propaganda about) drilling for natural gas and (2) the campaign from the right to subvert state-level environmental regulations.

What is wrong with this sort of oversight? Well, there is the obvious problem is that it makes Nocera look exactly like a shill for industry. But there are a couple of other reasons. The first is that Nocera simply is dismissive of those who raise well-founded objections to natural gas drilling. His standard retort is that skeptics are somehow "biased" or self-interested. The second is that his own position depends and depends crucially on the good-will of industry and the competence of regulators. Unfortunately, there is no basis for either of those presumptions.

In his first column Nocera announced that his thinking on the "fracking" issue specifically and on natural gas drilling more generally owed a large debt to his friend T. Boone Pickens. Talk about a credibility deflating admission.* Of course, good ole T Boone is unconcerned with the money. Ask him and he'll say as much. And as for the safety of natural gas extraction here is Nocera: " In Texas and Oklahoma, it has been used for decades, with nobody complaining much about environmental degradation." You know, those two southwestern states who've built a well-deserved reputation for environmental stewardship!

This is reasoned argument? Yet Nocera has the temerity to attack the credibility of the Cornell University scientist who - as The Times reported - published research findings suggesting that just maybe natural gas is no panacea. Here is a simple asymmetry to ponder. The Cornell scientist might just possibly have come to his policy conclusions on the basis of his research; spokesmen for the extractive industries in Texas came to their policy views on the basis of the profits they have made or stand to make. We are supposed to think of the common good, the national welfare and so forth; they are allowed to speak for their economic self interest. Of course, many property owners in Pennsylvania and "upstate" New York are concerned about their property values. They might also be concerned about the water pollution and other environmental degradation that follows on gas drilling ('fracking' or otherwise). They may also be worried that the Northeast will turn into Texas or Oklahoma (and I mean that in the best of all possible ways!). Nocera never countenances either possibility.

Instead, Nocera promises us nirvana: "The truth is, every problem associated with drilling for natural gas is solvable. The technology exists to prevent most methane from escaping, for instance. Strong state regulation will help ensure environmentally safe wells. And so on." All we have to do is set aside all the reporting, all the research. Or perhaps, like Nocera, we simply need to place our faith in a world in which vigorous regulators and virtuous energy companies will take great care and avoid the incompetence and venality we've come to expect from them. Any takers? How about all those city dwellers in NYC who get their water from reservoirs upstate?

If you cannot muster the faith, Nocera will invite you on the guilt trip. The one that meanders through the corpses of American military personnel dying for oil in the middle east. There is a leap! Basically, Nocera's "argument" amounts to non-sequitors, ad hominem attacks, cozy-ing up to gas industry billionaires, leaps of faith in industry and regulators, and a plea to believe him (as opposed to reporters and researchers) that natural gas exploration is clean and safe. All this in the first few weeks of his residency on the op-ed columns. What a joke. The Times cannot be that desperate for columnists.
* Memo to Joe: Simply admitting that you are working as a mouthpiece for the rich and financially involved does not excuse sloppy thinking or make otherwise incredible statements believable.

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Blogger eugev44 said...


Thank you for this post. It was infuriating to read Nocera both in his original column and the follow-up retort which began, if I'm not mistaken, with "Oh puh-leez!", the sort of childish condescending tone that makes his addition to the Times that much more of a joke.

17 April, 2011 17:53  
Blogger Cyranos DeMet said...

I live in Oklahoma, and the greatest degree of eco damage I've personally witnessed are the roads beaten into the landscape to access the wells... yes, fracking has been used here for a long time with no ill effects. However, here is not there, and the subsurface terrain will not be the same... I support due care and caution, I support independent oversight of the operations, but no, I can't say as I'm likely to go feral opposed to the practice based on fear rather than fact, I have no idea what kind of stock is owned by the "scientists" who claim to know so much based on so little experience.

The energy has to come from somewhere, you'll gain much more of my support presenting a viable plan to power the nation on the alternatives, like say supporting major money for the space station to facilitate the orbiting platforms needed to grow the really high gain solar cell crystals in mass, or plans to line the coastline with the French style generator barges and bouys, or a plan to rework and enlarge the hydro structures already in service.

If that is a bit to technical for your taste simply a campaign to revamp the coding laws to facilitate micro generation systems home by home would be of help, many good things are blocked simply by old and obsolete laws. Make it the responsibility of the electric companies to install the safty disconecct and isolation switch gear rather than demanding any homeowner wishing to co-generate provide them would be a good start.

18 April, 2011 01:51  

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