Monday, July 9, 2012

Fracking Cylons

Power outages thanks to severe weather here in the Greater DC area have me thinking about energy markets. Before I tried my hand at economics, I was a Navy Nuclear Propulsion Technician. I did 4 years on the USS Ohio as a Reactor Operator. Transforming U-235 dug out of the dry Arizona ground into light, heat and motion in the deep depths of the Pacific is a marvel few have the opportunity to ponder at close range.

It occurs to me that an even grander marvel stands athwart the past hundred-or-so years of civilization. Foul ichor pumped from tarry slumber beneath barren sands or the deep heart of the oceans drive the pistons of industry. Energy is The Force: it surrounds us, penetrates us, it binds the economy together. Quite unlike almost any other commodity, the removal of well-functioning energy markets would annihilate production. Folks grasp this quite easily and therefore favor diversification, often invoking the metaphors of substance abuse (if you've never heard the term "addicted to oil", please tell me your secret, as I'm immensely jealous). People understand that OPEC has the whole world over a barrel ($84.57 for WTI Crude at the time of print), making for a very uneuvoluntary birthday for Alice.

But what of hydro-fracking? Noise and inflammable tap water seem to be the proximate complaints, though there may be reason to suspect that there's more to it than that. Extractive energy sources like coal, natural gas, oil and uranium have overtones of parasitism: Mother Earth suffers the human lamprey as she's sucked dry for the sake of air conditioning and sodium-arc lighting. Don't wind and solar seem more like a gift from nature? We don't even have to work for them? Just sit back passively and let the warm, life-giving rays of the sun nourish us as the brisk, friendly breeze charges a battery-powered transvelocipede (patent not yet pending). So-called sustainable energy sure feels like it should be more euvoluntary than big power conglomerates and their plans to set your drinking water ablaze.

Is it though? There's a sense that ownership of the means of production is more local. This, I am to assume, means more friendly, less prone to exploitation and non-anonymous. BATNA disparity improves too, though more by reducing the market cap of the production side than by increasing the sovereignty of the consumer.

I'm not entirely convinced that the drive for (the term "Green" bugs me because I can remember it from Alan Moore's turn on Swamp Thing in the late 80s. As far as I can tell, it's a term ripped off from a crazy genius comic book wizard who is venomously anti-mass market sloganeering, which is exactly what the modern environmental movement has morphed into) environmentally friendlier energy is wrapped up in a euvoluntary argument. I think it might be a sliver of it, but most of that enchilada is served on the arroz of Puritanical asceticism. Conspicuous consumption is unseemly, be it quail livers or kilowatts. This sentiment is present as the first tone of the recycling OM: reduce.

If that's true though, and if Earth Day is the modern High Holy Day, can any energy generation and transmission ever be euvoluntary? If sustainable energy is closer to religion than to rational economic consumption, is it possible to elicit moral sentiments on the topic without including aesthetics? Is it sacrilegious to mention the role of prices in determining the allocation of resources in such a context? Moreover, what does this imply for marginal energy consumers? Political elites able to put very heavy fingers on the scale have a loud voice (and an awkwardly mixed metaphor) when it comes to telling the poor what price they pay to fill their automobile or heat their homes. In an effort to appease Gaia, the powerful can easily demand obeisance from the meek. If public school indoctrination has any bite, it will be with their full acquiescence.

Perhaps it's hand-wringing over nothing, but I worry that in this circumstance, praying and preying are handmaidens of the same mistress.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?