The Father of Fracking Leaves Us a Process and a Warning

Texas billionaire George Mitchell died this past week.  The second generation Greek immigrant and former wildcatter and oil speculator had become the “Father of Fracking” by inventing the process by which we today inject millions of gallons of water and chemicals into shale thousands of feet beneath the surface and unearth massive quantities of cheap oil and gas.

But before I get to Mr. Mitchell and his legacy, let me first touch upon a few media-related matters I’ve found myself bemused by of late, all of which I find oddly interconnected, and all of which, I think you’ll soon see, remain in direct opposition to the principles I’ve since learned George Mitchell let govern his life — especially his later years.

First, I’m sure you remember the story a few weeks back about Bay Area news station KTVU that released the names of the supposed pilots of the ill-fated Asiana Airlines jet that crash-landed on a San Francisco airport runway just a few days prior, killing two girls.  The names, however — which I’m sure you know by now — were nothing more than lame mash-ups of syllables into Asian-sounding punny phrases that resembled real-life Eastern names, like Sum Ting Wong and Wi Tu Lo.  The station, as a result, suffered a well-deserved black eye from which, frankly, it may never fully recover.

And why did officials at KTVU choose to release those bogus names?  Because of all the things a news bureau has to concern itself with, they apparently became fixated on, if not obsessed with, one part of their mission at the expense of all the others.  The station became far more concerned about being first than being right.

But that wasn’t the only experience I had this week in which an organization had become so consumed in its pursuit of one thing that it put almost everything else at risk.  

Consider my local NPR affiliate, WBEZ, the board of directors of which this week (if you are to believe reports) forced the resignation of its long-time and (to many listeners) storied station manager Torey Malatia.  Forget the fact that as an executive and program director Malatia had almost single-handedly shepherded the development of such game-changing smash hits for WBEZ (and, by extension, NPR) as This American Life, Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me and Sound Opinions.  Ratings at WBEZ were not what some on the board felt they should be, and as a result Malatia found himself this week on the outside looking in. 

Ratings?  Really?  In public radio?  Does that mean ionic high-end eateries like Peter Luger’s Steak House or Alinea should send out mystery diners to such low end feeding troughs as T.G.I. Fridays and Appleby’s to see what’s going on, simply because thousands more hungry mouths line up at those places than their own?  Talk about the proverbial forest for the trees.

Or how about this one?  How about ESPN’s signature show, SportsCenter

You know, I still try to watch SportsCenter after having fallen in love with its subtle wit and sports geek charm some 20 years or so ago, and did so once again this week.  But once again, as has been the case for some time now, I had to turn the channel after only a few minutes because once again I found myself being absolutely inundated with the kind of puerile content, head banging music, machine gun editing and quasi-hipster language the leadership at ESPN has determined it must have to entice the average junior-high age, frat boy wanna-be. 

Even more so than the other two, ESPN has taken one of the most beloved media brands on the planet, along with one of the most loyal audiences, and threatened to flush both right down the drain in its blind, blatant and often wildly transparent pursuit of one thing and one thing only:  young male eyeballs.

Which leads me back to Mr. Mitchell and his brainchild.  (This is, after all, a column on manufacturing.)

Reading Mitchell’s obit in the New York Times on Tuesday I was stunned by his stated contention that if fracking needs to be done at all, it needs to be done wisely, safely and in a way that is entirely sustainable. In fact, until I read his obit I didn’t know to what extent sustainability became something of a mantra for the father of fracking, a guy for whom social responsibility seemed to become a principle that guided his twilight years.

Why then has fracking evolved into such a two-headed monster, capable on one had of doing so many great things for the U.S. economy and the industrial sector, and capable on the other of ravenous consumption and, quite possibly, lethal levels of environmental destruction?

Because, apparently very much like the yahoos running KTVU, WBEZ and ESPN, the people calling the shots in the world of fracking seem to be utterly obsessedwith only half the equation.  Those people want good, cheap oil and gas – and as the cynical old saying goes, they don’t give a good damn what they have to pay to get it.

I’ve gone into this before and how I contend fracking could and should be a godsend, but only if we use it wisely.  And I’m not sure that contaminating millions of gallons of potable surface and ground water, much of it in the West, where water is becoming more precious by the season, is a particularly wise use of the technology.  Nor is continuing to feed our addiction to burning fossil fuels or releasing an ever-growing stream of carbon waste into the atmosphere.

Instead, I believe in my heart of hearts that we need to embrace not only Mr. Mitchell’s invention, we need to embrace his principles.  I think that — in addition, of course, of continuing to develop alternative entergy sources — we should lanch a national effort to research, develop and implement a cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable way of forcing all those unlocked oil and gas reserves from all that shale.  Because I believe that if we do so, we will suddenly will find ourselves awash in growth, prosperity and new business opportunities. 

We will create new and plentiful jobs, from research and development  straight through to the exploring, excavating, refining, transporting, warehousing, wholesaling and retailing part of the process.

We will have cleaner water, because we’ll not only use less of it, we’ll be smarter and more prudent with the water we do use.

And, of course, we will have cheaper, more readily available fuel that, as the fracking hawks contend, will make this country stronger, more energy independent and less vulnerable to offshore reserves and interests. 

My friends, George Mitchell has left us two gifts, either of which we can do with what we want. 

We can pursue fracking at all costs, or we can be smart about it.  And we can heed Mr. Mitchell’s advice and drill in a way that is prudent, environmentally sensitive and sustainable, or we can throw caution to the wind and simply drill baby drill.

Either way, we need to keep in mind that fracking can work, and it can be a good thing.  But we also need to understand that, much like that station in San Francisco learned, focusing one thing at the expense of all others can be just as dangerous as not focusing on any of them at all — and probably more so.



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