“Did you hear the news about the oil well?” my friend said. I had not.
“In Mississippi, somewhere between Woodville and Centerville, the word is they made a huge strike a couple of weeks ago. I’m talking big.”
You hear this kind of talk a lot around my parish these days. There’s a lot of speculation about the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, an oil deposit that goes smack dab through the middle of Louisiana’s Florida parishes, as well as other parts of central Louisiana, and southern Mississippi. More info here. One official estimate puts the oil reserves in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale at 7 billion barrels. That’ll buy a fellow a lot of Abita. There’s an enormous amount of activity in and around West Feliciana Parish, and massive speculation among the people of the parish about the wealth that awaits us if and when they start pumping oil. I spoke to a geologist the other day who told me there’s no question that the oil is down there; the only question is whether or not it’s economically feasible to extract it.
Fracking, of course, would make it possible. The problem is that the oil is embedded not in hard shale, which responds well to fracturing techniques, but in softer material that’s more expensive to extract from. A generation ago, at least one well in West Feliciana that I know of came in, but the oil was too expensive to get out of the ground with existing technology. Much has changed in 40 years. West Feliciana, and surrounding parishes (and counties in Mississippi) could be on the verge of significant wealth.
We need that, and we need it bad. Ours is a poor parish. We have a strong local public school system, but it was built chiefly on the tax base provided by a nuclear power plant in the lower part of the parish. That tax base has now evaporated, but the parish did not develop any alternative sources of industrial tax revenue over the last 30 years. Property taxes have skyrocketed here. People say this is not sustainable. We have to get tax money to support the schools from somewhere.
Oil production, obviously, would be a jackpot for the parish. Though the big money would accrue to landowners, of which there are a relative few, the money generated by the oil industry would create hundreds, even thousands, of jobs, and barrels of tax revenue to support the schools and everything else here. Environmentalists and others who would look at this situation and see it as a simple clash between greed and moral principle are being unrealistic and unfair. Many kids who grow up in this parish now can’t stay and raise their own families, because there aren’t enough jobs for them. Plus, as I said, there’s a fair amount of poverty here. Yes, a few big landowners stand to get staggeringly rich from an oil boom, but the vast majority of folks around here could look forward to having a stable standard of living more like what the rest of America takes for granted. Anybody who dismisses the power of that to change people’s lives for the better is, at best, suffering from a failure of empathetic imagination.
On the other hand, nobody knows for sure what this will do to the environment, especially the water supply. Me, I’m thinking about Louisiana’s long and disgraceful history of turning a blind eye to our ecology for the sake of industrial jobs and revenue. It’s not a matter of the few deceiving the many; working-class people and small businesses depend on the petrochemical industry for the livelihoods, and nobody wants to face the costs, real and potential, to public health and environmental quality from this business. Louisiana’s universities are facing devastating funding cuts, as are all state-funded services. There are real and important public goods that depend on this money, but, human nature being what it is, people don’t want to look too closely at the goose’s smelly backside, whence comes the golden egg.
It’s not just Louisiana, of course. Read the transcript from last summer’s episode of This American Life, which examined the natural gas boom in western Pennsylvania, and how concerns about the environment and public health got steamrolled by the excitement over the money being extracted from the Marcellus Shale.
Still, having grown up in this state, I am extremely skeptical of claims that fracking here poses no real threat to the water supply. I concede up front that this is my bias, based only on experience with the state’s record. Will fracking cause hydrocarbons and other poisons to invade underground aquifers? What about disposal of the “dirty water” from fracking? Last year, The New York Times Magazine did a long story about western Pennsylvania fracking, focusing on people who were initially appreciative of the economic boost, but who got really sick from the chemicals the process introduced into the environment. Yet our local guy said he’s not worried about the water supply, at least:
John Hashagen, the parish manager and water superintendent in West Feliciana Parish, said he had no real concerns about the impact of fracking on groundwater.
The Tuscaloosa Shale deposit sits between 11,000 and 13,000 feet underground and is protected by two impervious limestone layers, Hashagen said.
This may well be true. I hope it’s true. But personally, I find it hard to trust anybody, especially in this state, who says everything’s going to be fine. Hell, I find it hard to trust myself. Money blinds people. None of us are immune. I want good things to happen for my parish. I don’t want the water and the environment spoiled. What would we gain if we all became rich as Croesus, but we couldn’t live here because it made us all sick?
These are questions that can, in principle, be answered — and the answers might reliably tell us that the oil can be fracked out of the ground with minimal, or at least acceptable, risk. I’m a fatalist about this stuff, though; in my view, nobody is prepared to accept any answer except the one they want to hear, which is what everyone these days wants to believe about all things: “We can live like kings, and it’s not going to cost us anything.” And the corollary: “Anybody who tells us otherwise has to be demonized.”
It’s a story as old as the Prophets. Can anybody think of a time and a place when a people refused riches for the sake of preserving something irrecoverable?