Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Penn State Goes Boom?

It was perhaps in 2006 or 2007 that I first heard the word "fracking".

I was sitting in the chair at Fetterolf's Barber Shop, getting a trim.  Next to me was a Penn State geology professor, talking with animation about the Marcellus shale; how new technology was going to upend the energy industry, and (what's more) how it was going to upend the economy of rural Pennsylvania.    Know what? He was right.

We think of fossil fuel extraction has happening "somewhere else" - in the desert, offshore, deep underground.   But fracking has put the oil and gas industry literally in Pennsylvanian's backyards.  No wonder it has been controversial.  Is fracking sustainable, given the short lifetime of each fracked well?  What does it do to water supplies? What about the claim that natural gas is a "bridge fuel" to renewables?  Is shifting a coal addict to methane like shifting a heroin addict to methadone - and if that is an appropriate analogy, what does it tell us?

Now in 2015 a controversy has erupted over Penn State's assigning Russell Gold's book about fracking, The Boom, as required reading for first-year students.  An online petition claims:
Penn State University is requiring all incoming freshmen to read the pro-fracking book, The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World , by Russell Gold for its Penn State Reads program. Some students will win cash prizes for the essays they submit on what they've learned. Gold will then spend a couple of days on campus in October, meeting with students and lecturing.

At a time when other universities are divesting of fossil fuels, Penn State is glorifying an extractive technology that is contributing to climate change and harming Pennsylvanians and our environment in the process.

Will you join me in telling Penn State to scrap The Boom from its reading program and break its ties to the fossil fuel industry for good by signing and sharing my petition?
I share the authors' suspicion that Penn State may be altogether too cozy with the fossil fuel industry.  But I think they are heading down the wrong road with this petition.  Here is a (slightly edited) version of the response I wrote when asked to sign:

Many universities assign a required book for all first year students to read.  These assignments not infrequently lead to controversy.  See, for instance, a rather different story at Duke this year (which has also got some traction in the press).

I have not read “The Boom”, though this controversy has made me put it on my reading list.  (A short review here ends with a quote from the book: “I don’t fear fracking. I fear carbon.”)  I doubt that it is a propaganda piece, but I could be wrong.  Even if so, I do not think that we put our cause in the best light by demanding that no argument in the other direction should be assigned for reading.  And it is entirely proper that students should be encouraged to write essays engaging critically with what they read, and indeed that they should win prizes for writing them exceptionally well.  

Signing this petition plays into the story that universities are mere indoctrination factories, a meme  which fundamentally devalues our students.    I will not be signing.

Image from Amazon.com

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