The Morality of NIMBYby Jeff Wagner
Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera, January 2, 2015 and subject to much debate in the following weeks.
The Boulder County commissioners sent a clear message by extending the fracking moratorium: We don't want fracking in Boulder County. As an environmentalist, I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth because we are not banning natural gas use, just the extraction that would bring our environmental impact and pollution to our doorstep.
As an affluent area, Boulder County has the luxury of being able to say no to fracking but yes to natural gas consumption, essentially paying energy companies to continue fracking in someone else's home. Fracking is a lifestyle choice: something we choose to encourage through our consumption. I believe that extending the moratorium comes with the moral responsibility to stop encouraging fracking.
Depending who you ask, fracking produces between 30 percent and 80 percent of the natural gas we consume in this country. That's a large enough portion to assume that when you consume natural gas, part of it came from fracking.
Natural gas is a huge portion of the energy we use. Thirty percent of the American electricity supply is produced from natural gas. Natural gas is heating our homes and businesses. It's at the root of industrial processes that make the things we use every day. Even other fuels like the coal that Boulder's power plant burns or the gasoline in your car use natural gas at some point in their extraction, refining, and transportation. According to the federal government's Energy Information Administration, Americans consume nearly as much energy from natural gas as we consume electricity from all sources combined.
Natural gas use is so pervasive in this country that nearly everything we buy, eat, drive, and throw away was produced or transported using natural gas or electricity from natural gas. It's a building block for the long, stringy molecules that make up plastic and synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester. Natural gas is the primary ingredient in synthetic fertilizers (the other ingredient is air). When you eat food grown with synthetic fertilizers, you're actually consuming natural gas from fracking that went through a superheated industrial process to become fertilizer that plants could integrate as part of themselves. As the saying goes, you are what you eat. If you follow the chain, we live in a world where fracking isn't just something that's happening. We are fracking. Saying no to natural gas turns out to be a lot more difficult than it seems because when you look around, it's literally in almost everything, including us.
The moratorium extension is a bold statement of Boulder County's environmental values. We have two choices now. Do we embrace hypocrisy and continue using natural gas that came from fracking somewhere else? As author Bryant McGill writes, "violent consumption demands violent production." Or, do we back up our values with action and take some hard steps to divest our lifestyles from natural gas?
Thirty-five years ago, Jimmy Carter told Americans that when it comes to energy, "there are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice." Most steps we can take towards a post-fracking and post-natural gas world have been discussed for decades. Organic agriculture eliminates the need for natural gas in the form of synthetic fertilizers. Purchasing locally and using human-powered transportation lowers fossil fuel use in transportation and fuel extraction. Living simple lifestyles in general reduces our reliance on natural gas. Natural gas is connected to everything we consume, so the path away from fracking is the path away from consumption.
Throughout the debates about fracking, I have seen the people of Boulder County express such passion for our environment. We've spent so much time and energy fighting fracking, but to what end? What we need now is the passion and commitment to change our actions to align with our values. Conservationist David Brower often said, "If you are against something, you are always for something. If you are against a dam, you are for a river." Boulder County has sent a very clear message: We are against fracking. Now it's time we ask ourselves, if we are against fracking, what are we for?
Jeff Wagner is an environmental educator living in Boulder.
In the weeks after publication of this essay, the Daily Camera published a long string of letters to the editor published in response.