The latest villain of the cult of catastrophe

TORONTO - At the age of 94, George P. Mitchell died last month. Who's that you say? Not to worry, I didn't know who he was either. Quoting energy guru Daniel Yergin, the Wall Street Journal's obituary describes him as the man who "more than anyone else, is responsible for the most important energy innovation of the 21st century." In popular legend, Mitchell was "the father of fracking."

Technically, the proper term for fracking is hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves using high-pressure blasts of water and sand - plus a smattering of chemicals - to extract hitherto inaccessible oil and natural gas from shale rock thousands of feet below the earth's surface. To borrow a phrase from National Review's Kevin Williamson, it offers the prospect of "cheap, relatively clean, ayatollah-free energy," not to mention "thousands of new jobs for blue-collar workers and Ph.D.s alike."

And brown jobs - meaning jobs in the oil and gas industry - are where the action is. Since 2007, the American oil and gas industry has experienced 40 per cent employment growth. Indeed, it's now considered feasible that the U.S. is on course to become a net energy exporter again.

As the Journal tells it, Mitchell was a petroleum engineering graduate who'd been in the energy exploration business since returning from military service after the Second World War. And as early as the 1970s, he became dedicated to the idea of getting gas out of rock. What's more, he was willing to spend bags of his own money to make it work.

Of course, not everyone is enthused about the fracking boom. New things make people uncomfortable, and there's an understandable concern about anything that could contaminate aquifers and thus water supplies. To that end, documentary film-maker Josh Fox created a stir with his depiction of tap water on fire in Colorado.

But when it comes to Fox and his movie, Williamson doesn't mince words - the term he uses is "fraudulent." Noting that the particular "Colorado community made famous by the film has had water catching on fire since at least the 1930s," he makes the point that natural geological processes mean that places with a lot of gas in the ground will sometimes have gas in the water.

The science journalist Matt Ridley is similarly critical of Fox. And he goes further. Writing about American aquifers in the Times, he puts it this way: "The total number that has been found to be polluted by either fracking fluid or methane gas as a result of fracking in the United States is zero."

It's also hard to escape the sense that some of the opposition to fracking is ideological. This isn't how things were supposed to unfold. The era of cheap fossil fuels was supposed to be running out, leading to a new energy paradigm that emphasised wind turbines, solar panels and conservation.

Then there's the catastrophe scenarios. Over the last several decades, we've had the Club of Rome's limits to growth, the population bomb and related global famine, the energy crisis and peak oil, and so forth.

They've all had two things in common. One is that legions of educated and intelligent people signed-up for the programme and duly wagged a reproaching finger at their less aware brethren. The other is that the foretold catastrophes didn't arrive.

The late economist Julian Simon was an early contrarian on this subject. In 1981's The Ultimate Resource, he explicitly took issue with the view that the future would be defined by resource scarcity and hardship. In fact, he argued that natural resources weren't finite in any meaningful way, and that what mattered was human creativity in unlocking them. Although he made no mention of fracking, it was surely the kind of innovation he had in mind.

And like George P. Mitchell, Simon was prepared to put his money on the line. In a public bet with celebrated doomster Paul Ehrlich, he wagered that a basket of five key metals would decline in price between 1980 and 1990, thus debunking the alarms about impending scarcity and depletion. Ehrlich even got to pick the contents of the basket, but Simon won the bet.

Still, catastrophism never seems to lose its allure. A cynic would be tempted to suggest that it's the modern educated person's substitute for religion.


Columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

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