Yesterday the front page of the New York Times told us about an industrial comeback in the America's heartland. Sounds like good news, right? "Boom in Energy Spurs Industry in the Rust Belt" reads the headline, over a story about a factory in Youngstown, Ohio, that is alive…thanks to fracking:
The turnaround is part of a transformation spreading across the heartland of the nation, driven by a surge in domestic oil and gas production that is changing the economic calculus for old industries and downtrodden cities alike.
Here in Ohio, in an arc stretching south from Youngstown past Canton and into the rural parts of the state where much of the natural gas is being drawn from shale deep underground, entire sectors like manufacturing, hotels, real estate and even law are being reshaped. A series of recent economic indicators, including factory hiring, shows momentum building nationally in the manufacturing sector.
It's not that fracking or oil drilling aren't controversial; the Times' Nelson Schwartz notes that the "environmental consequences of the American energy boom…are being fiercely debated nationwide." But Ohio isn't like other parts of the country where opposition to fracking is intense, "because residents are so desperate for the kind of economic growth that fracking can bring, whatever the risks."
The Times piece is just the latest example of journalism that pits "the environment" against the "economy"–protecting water is one thing, but creating jobs provides something more tangible. And on the latter score, the Times is here to present the strongest case: "A 2013 McKinsey study…estimated that production of shale gas and so-called tight oil from shale could help create up to 1.7 million jobs nationally."
But there are some problems with this picture. For one, as economist Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 9/9/14) points out, it appears that supposed hiring boom in Youngstown is oversold:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that manufacturing employment in Youngstown is still down by more than 12 percent from its pre-recession level…. There is a comparable story with Canton.
While fracking jobs may have helped bring these areas up from the troughs they experienced at the bottom of the downturn, employment in both metropolitan areas is still far below 2007 levels. No one thought either city was booming at that time.
There's also the question of whether the study projecting that fracking will create 1.7 million jobs is anything more than wishful (and/or profitable) thinking. Raúl Ilargi Meijer at the Automatic Earth blog (8/6/13) points out that shale oil wells run dry after a very short period of time, while replacement wells are generally less and less productive, since the most promising sites are drilled first. So, he says,
McKinsey's prediction of 1.7 million additional jobs in the US shale industry by 2020 [is] not just suspect, it's ridiculous with 40 percent depletion rates. Not even going to happen if they drill another 1.7 million wells.
But the most important issue is one that goes entirely unmentioned in the piece: climate change. If you recognize that the planet faces a profound climate crisis, then any kind of new fossil fuel extraction–be it oil or fracked natural gas–presents a fundamental step in the wrong direction. And the evidence is that methane emissions related to fracking could be as bad–or worse–for the atmosphere than burning coal (Mother Jones, 9/8/14).
The Times story is unfortunately typical in discussing fracking without mentioning global warming (FAIR Blog, 5/15/12). Last night, the PBS NewsHour (9/8/14) presented a look at the intense political debate over fracking in Colorado. The segment was long–a rarity in TV news–and presented a fairly nuanced look at the issues in one part of the country. But it never mentioned climate change.
It recalls the question Jim Naureckas asked a couple years ago:
You have to wonder: Do journalists covering energy issues imagine they and their loved ones are going to be living on another planet in the not-too-distant future?