On Fracking and Free Lunches

At Grist, Amal Ahmed quotes a new report from Physicians for Social Responsibility to the effect that polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, are widely used in oil and natural gas fracking. PFAs are a forever chemical — meaning they persist indefinitely in soil and water, and wind up entering the food chain — linked to “birth defects, cancer, and other serious diseases.” Specifically, they are responsible for widespread incidents of groundwater contamination.

PFAs are used on an especially large scale in Texas, Ahmed reports: “Over the last decade in Texas, oil and gas companies have pumped at least 43,000 pounds of the toxic chemical into more than a thousand fracked oil and gas wells across the state….”

It’s only through the good graces of the industry that we even have this particular information about one component of toxic fracking cocktails. FracFocus, “a national registry that tracks the chemicals used in fracking,” is a project of the Ground Water Protection Council — “a nonprofit made up of state regulatory agencies.” Data on fracking chemicals comes entirely from industry self-reporting; it is far from complete or comprehensive, because the recipe for fracking cocktails is proprietary. “6.1 billion pounds of chemicals injected into Texas wells were listed as trade secrets…” In fact some states have gone so far as to pass laws “restricting physicians from obtaining or disclosing chemical information even for treatment purposes.”

This is just another example of how fracking, and the fossil fuel industry more generally, couldn’t survive if held to proper standards of liability for the damage it causes to surrounding communities.

Besides poisoning, fracking is — along with the fossil fuel industry’s disposal well for waste water produced by drilling — one of the major causes of induced earthquakes. Although fracking causes only about 2% of induced earthquakes in Oklahoma, that still adds up to a lot of quakes since the state is home to the largest number of induced earthquakes in the country. (And don’t forget, the others are also caused by a different kind of oil industry activities.)

And then there’s land subsidence from fossil fuel extraction, and its contribution to flooding and hurricane damage in coastal areas. Not only has land subsidence exacerbated the loss of wetlands from sea level rise, but it also made damage from Katrina and other monster hurricanes significantly worse.

Of course we can’t forget the laws capping fossil fuel companies’ liability for damage from oil spills. The 1990 U.S. Oil Pollution Act limited economic damages for oil spills to $75 million dollars, which the Obama administration raised to $134 million by regulatory action in 2014. By way of comparison, BP’s Deepwater Horizon leak caused an estimated $8 billion in damage. Adding insult to injury, economic damages are tax deductible.

Now, with all this in mind, stop for a moment and imagine the effects on the fossil fuel industry if it had to bear full civil liability for the health effects of fracking chemicals, damage from earthquakes, the contribution of the land subsidence it caused to land loss and flooding, and all the damage from oil spills (including offshore platforms, tankers, and pipelines). Imagine the effects on its profitability, on the price of fossil fuels, and on the total amounts produced.

My guess is that coal, gas and oil power plants would be replaced by solar and wind just as soon as humanly possible, truck freight would switch to trains as fast as the track infrastructure could be upgraded, most jet airports would become wastelands, and the rate of new suburban housing additions would fall to zero. Calls for carbon neutrality by 2040, let alone 2050, would be seen as the rankest pessimism.

These facts about the fossil fuel industry’s protection from liability are just one illustration of a much broader principle: the extent to which capitalism depends on negative externalities — i.e., socializing the costs and risks of capital on the general public. And these protections for the fossil fuel industry also exemplify the extent to which capitalist profit depends on the artificial cheapness and abundance of resource inputs. 

Right-libertarians are fond of the slogan “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” (TANSTAAFL), referencing the practice once common in bars of providing a “free lunch” jar for patrons. The lunch wasn’t really free, see; those sandwiches in the jar were paid for by increasing the price of drinks for everyone. Well, what we have here is a free lunch jar for capitalists, and it contains a lot better fare than crappy sandwiches and boiled eggs; guess who’s paying for it?

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