LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Fracking common sense

On September 4, The Jambar Editorial Board provided their official position on fracking and the purpose of higher education — “Get the frack over it” [the new minor at YSU in gas technologies] “exists to provide education in a field that is demanding jobs in a rising industry in the area. And after all, isn’t that what a university should owe its students?” We provide a response that raises awareness of what fracking is as well as the role of higher education at YSU and nationwide.
The context of fracking
Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is the highly pressured injection of liquids into natural rock and earth sediments called shale in order to dislodge reservoirs of gas. The first commercial fracking of a gas well was done in 1949. The industry developed over decades and wells were drilled vertically until 1991 when the first horizontal well was done in the Bend Arch-Fort Worth Basin of northern Texas and southwestern Oklahoma.
But in 2005, a key change occurred: the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created an exception to the U.S. protection of our drinking water. According to the amendment, oil and gas companies could inject fluids into the ground for the purposes of hydraulic fracturing without having to abide by the standards and limitations placed on protecting drinking water. This alteration of the Safe Water Drinking Act — which had been in place since its creation for 31 years — went virtually unnoticed by the public.
There is no dispute; the discovery of gas in the United States has economic benefits. The same can be said for the manufacturing of cigarettes, alcohol, drones, high range missiles and nuclear warheads. But there are implications to what we do — and for whom. Take for instance the use of chemical weapons in civil wars: although it is a disturbing thought, mass-producing sarin for use in the civil war in Syria would yield jobs, too. What is lost in the flurry of excitement about jobs are the ramifications of fracking, the ethics of its business, and the impact the business has and will have on the YSU community.
Dr. Anthony Ingraffea (Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, Weiss Presidential Teaching Fellow at Cornell University) and colleagues concluded a study in 2011 and found the “greenhouse gas footprint of fracking as being greater than that of any other fossil fuel including coal”. Although gas is marketed as “natural” and “clean,” those arguments are only relevant to its use as fuel, and not to how it is procured or how the wastes generated in drilling are disposed. The disposal of fracking wastewater in injection wells below bedrock is anything but “natural” and “clean.” The U.S. Congress found in a 2011 probe that, “oil and gas companies injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states from 2005 to 2009.”
Even when we try to put fracking wastewater “out of sight” and “out of mind,” it doesn’t neatly stay where we put it. Geologists found that current gas wells have a 5-8 percent chance of failure in the first five years — with increased chances of failure the longer they are used. Failure is catastrophic: the poisoning of drinking water, destruction of eco-systems, and the release of methane into the atmosphere that dramatically increases global warming. These toxic chemicals escape into groundwater and underground aquifers, as well as seep to the surface and kill our grass, shrubs, and trees. Recent research now confirms that Ohio injection wells for fracking are responsible for the earthquakes in Youngstown in 2011 and 2012. Are jobs worth the risk of exposing YSU friends, classmates, teachers — and neighbors and family members — to cancer-causing chemicals and earthquakes? Part of the responsible performance of any job is knowing how to weigh short versus long-term interests, and self-interests in employment versus professional interests as a steward for community health and safety.
YSU and Education
Across the country, there has been a push to increase funding for STEM majors, which are seen as more lucrative to job-placement. The assumption is that these majors provide a value that the others do not, which has been well critiqued. Sociologist Elizabeth Berman writes in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” “Sure, everyone knows the petroleum engineers are raking it in. But even after Ph.D.’s, many STEM folks are stuck in postdoc hell, and midcareer, the median salary of a biology major is more than $13,000 a year less than her counterpart in political science. More importantly, an unfortunate mentality in this movement is the mistaken belief that higher education is about “getting jobs.”
Very early in the history of higher education, there was a distinction between vocational schools — which later became technical schools — and a liberal arts education. Technical schools teach specific skills required by an job or an industry, whereas liberal arts educate people in a well-rounded manner in order to enrich their knowledge, experience, and most importantly, opportunities. Last month, Postiglione writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education,” “A key test of China’s international higher-education aspirations is its incorporation — or adaptation — of Western liberal-arts traditions, an educational goal seen in other Asian countries.”
Today in the era of rapid globalization, many things are changing. Among them is more global competition for jobs. In addition, technologies are increasing at an incredible pace. Students who train in technical areas may find that their careers are obsolete in five years. Historically, higher education in the U.S. blended the arts and sciences. This fusion yielded ingenuity and innovation and led the U.S. workforce to become a “tour de force.” Steve Job’s enrollment in classes like calligraphy inspired his ideas for fonts, which gave Apple a creative edge and intuitive appeal to consumers. As we begin to lose sight of the value of general education in the increasingly myopic emphasis on job training, we will lose our edge.
But there is a deeper question of values, both personal and institutional. Does YSU “owe its students” training to work in a burgeoning industry such as fracking? Perhaps lost in this question is the nature of education itself. Is it YSU’s mission to become a factory for the corporate world, or to educate students to become critical thinkers and leaders who can rejuvenate industries and transform them?
YSU has an excellent chance to stand at the front of innovation. The university and its students have a chance to create an epicenter focused on how to address the problem and mitigate the environmental, health, and economic effects of fracking. Such a program could combine the resources and expertise of disciplines as diverse as political science, economics, geology, geography, and health and human services. YSU owes its students the opportunity to become leaders, which is a whole lot more than mere training to work in the fracking industry. It’s common sense: YSU owes students an education.