Playing Out Our Absurd National Debates at the Local Level: The Case of Fracking

I originally sought election to the school board of the community where I live for many reasons.  I grew up there, I spent my entire public school career in the district, and I care a great deal about its future.  I also have four young children in the school and want to make sure they get the best education possible.  Three years in, I like to think I've been able to do some real good in these respects.

But the experience has also afforded me the opportunity to help play out many of our national debates on a local level.  The board routinely decides on issues related to public education, and since education touches so many other matters, we also act on a host of broader topics: debt, taxes and spending, church and state, health care, etc.

I live in Western Pennsylvania, which is a boom area for Marcellus shale and a hotbed for the "fracking" debate.  And now, because of the geological quirks that have situated many Pennsylvania school districts upon vast reserves of natural gas, school boards have become "dramatis personæ" in the national debate over energy.  Our board recently voted to approve a gas drilling lease that will give us a bonus amounting to about 1.3 percent of our total budget and 18 percent royalties on gross revenues for many years...this while barring all surface activity on our property.  To a large majority of board members, this seemed like a reasonable course, all things considered.

Yet the debate brought out all of the predictable trappings of the divide between liberals and not-liberals that we have come to expect.  The good news is that the fracking issue, as we've dealt with it in our local school district, helps explain why it is so hard for conservatives and liberals to find common ground.

First, liberals are reflexively against natural gas because it is a "non-renewable" energy source that has to be extracted from the earth.  That there are vast reserves of cheap domestic energy underneath us is beyond dispute.  But the left wants us to pretend it isn't there.  It doesn't matter how much money the residents stand to make, how many good jobs the natural gas industry has brought to the state, or how much of a boon it is to the state's economy.  In the words of one of the residents who came to numerous meetings to argue against fracking, "we wish they hadn't discovered the gas, but now that they have, we'd just prefer that they leave it down there."  The other protesters roared and applauded in agreement.

Second, this example helps demolish one of the left's favorite narratives: that it embraces science while the right rejects it.  Just one small example will illustrate.  I recently got an e-mail from a chemistry and environmental science professor (with a specialty in "climate change") from a local college, listing many reasons why "the scientist in her" made her skeptical of the natural gas industry's claims regarding the safety and reliability of fracking.  She expressed deep concern about "the relative paucity of data, and an inconsistency and lack of transparency in the sources of data regarding the effects of fracking."  I replied, asking her if the same reasons and the "scientist in her" made her the slightest bit skeptical regarding the core claims of anthropogenic global warming.  She never answered.  In other words, the left's skepticism of science is highly unevenly applied, as a function of its overall favorability toward the activity in question.  There is a word that describes standards for thee but not for me: hypocrisy.

Finally, conservatives take the arguments of liberals seriously, but liberals do not return the favor.  Our school board held many public meetings leading up to the vote on the gas lease.  We researched, discussed, debated, and agonized.  We heard from the industry, the superintendent, other school districts, and each other.  And we patiently a withering barrage of exclusively alarmist information from dozens of anti-fracking activists.

In my public statements to this group, I consistently conceded that there are legitimate concerns associated with the fracking process, particularly as regards the disruption caused by the initial activity, and problems related to dealing with waste water.  After the initial 8-1 vote to move forward with a lease, the response from one of the more vocal residents was very illustrative: "the board had voted," this person wrote in the local newspaper, to "jump off the bridge along with everyone else, ignoring their moral and ethical obligations."  In other words, either you're either against fracking, or you're some combination of stupid, corrupt, immoral, and short-sighted.  Not a lot of room for common ground, is there?

What is more, I think the anti-fracking group was utterly shocked that the district decided overwhelmingly to sign the lease, precisely because they can't fathom any reasonable basis for doing so.  But just a bit of Google searching would have told them that millions of people, thousands of scientists, and hundreds of school districts find fracking to be a stable and safe way to create jobs, increase the tax base, and fuel our nation.  Only the truly dogmatic among us would fail to find at least some solace in these undeniable benefits.

Dr. R.B.A. Di Muccio is a guest commentator for The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.  A former assistant professor and chair of the international relations program in the political science department at the University of Florida, he is now vice president of research and advisory services for a global business advisory firm.  He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Southern California.