Let’s Not Get Fracked!

If you listen regularly to public radio’s “This American Life” (TAL), you probably weren’t surprised by their recent, in-depth examination of fracking in Pennsylvania, where natural gas companies are now ripping through the Marcellus Shale. The radio program has made a real niche in dissecting the way power works across our country, and fracking – a hazardous process of natural gas extraction – has given the TAL team a lot to sink its teeth into.

The usual players appear in TAL’s account: gas company reps with money to throw around, small-town officials, landowners strapped for cash, state lawmakers, and so on. And, not surprisingly, the big guys muscle their way to their natural-resources prize, no matter the health and environmental damage. But the TAL fracking episode sheds new light on the way that corporate money warps our politics and our public policy.

In its first section, the TAL team zeroes in on the role academic researchers have played in the fight. On one hand, we have the Penn State geoscientist whose calculations showed what a gold mine the state was sitting on. In addition to winning institutional praise, this researcher finds himself sitting on conference calls and commissions, quite consciously carrying water for the industry. Contrast that with the University of Pittsburgh public health researcher who raises the alarm about the environmental and health effects of fracking. No accolades for him – just pressure to quiet down and back off the “advocacy.”

The difference comes down to money. If the industry is pouring dollars into universities for research, it’s going to want that investment to pay off, not backfire. Penn State, it appears, aims to please. As an added benefit, the university gets to go to the legislature – a major funder – and point out how many dollars it discovered for the state, buried right in the ground.

And so we see another pathway through which industry works its power: buying research stamped with university credentials, then deploying it as neutral, unassailable knowledge on the public airwaves and in the capitol building.

In other words, it’s not just campaign cash or lobbying dollars – or the revolving door between industry and government – that warp our politics. It’s also the way big money purchases supposedly neutral institutions to shape our very perception of important public policy issues. Lawmakers can’t be immune from that influence. And it likely helps them convince themselves, when they vote in industry’s favor, that they’re doing the right thing, rather than corporate bidding. Why wouldn’t they, if esteemed academics are telling them so?

The second section of TAL’s fracking episode focused on one gas company throwing its weight around in a small town in western Pennsylvania, a place where landowners could really use the company’s leasing money. Town officials, however, concerned over the negative effects of fracking, move to change their zoning ordinance so they can exercise more control over the process. A major battle erupts. The major issue: whether town officials have consulted adequately with the company over the proposed ordinance. There’s a back and forth, with the town manager insisting that she reached out again and again to the company, and the company countering that the town refused to collaborate in good faith.

The company rep comes across as less than credible, yet that’s hardly the point. Or, it shouldn’t be the point. Because the episode’s focus on “proper consultation” indicates that not only does the company believe it deserves a vaunted place at the policymaking table, but that maybe we, as listeners, believe they do, too.

This dynamic isn’t limited to fracking, or small towns. At all levels corporate players expect that lawmakers will check in with them first and let them sign off on changes to our law. Or, as in the ongoing 50-state investigation into foreclosure fraud, the Wall Street banks seem to believe that accounting for millions of homes lost and millions more underwater is just a matter of sitting down with regulators and working out a deal. It’s easy to think you’re above the law when you feel entitled to write it.

Our democracy really deserves better.

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