Sustainable Shale Development: The “Middle Ground” That’s Newspeak for Fraud

The Fraudulent “Logic” of the “Middle Ground”

 Among the most pernicious and calculative strategies for extorting consent currently in fashion with the natural gas industry and their public relations agents—particularly the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD)—is what I’ll call the “argument for the middle ground.” There are several varieties of this brand of rhetorical extortion, but the basic structure of such an “argument” goes like this:

 The truth can be counted on to lay somewhere in “the middle,” where “the middle” is invariably some “compromise” between opposing factions, and where “everyone” can feel good that their interests have been met more or less in that “middle.” This “truth” via consensus can then be promoted as “reasonable,” and “just” and anyone who seeks to counter it with opposing facts or a challenge to its reasoning can be cast as irrational, an extremist—even a terrorist if they persist in pointing out evidence contrary to “the middle ground” or to the “consensus” alleged in its defense. The “middle ground,” in other words, is newspeak for fraud.

The trouble with this form of reasoning is that it’s specious and extortive to its core. Truth is entirely independent of the interests of any party. Truth doesn’t care whether folks get their way. Truth is not the product of consensus. Truth is what is supported by an objective evaluation of the facts where the facts have been presented honestly—without exaggeration, cherry-picking, or other distortion—and where evaluation steers clear of fallacious, biased, or interested “reasoning.” Truth does not present itself to us for approval. When the facts do not support what we want to believe, we should change our minds—even if it’s hard. And that’s it.

This is not to say that getting to the truth is always easy, or that even on its honest pursuit we don’t sometimes draw the wrong conclusions. But it is to say that if what we are ultimately after are ways in which to improve the human condition, have some say in our future, and even care about the world beyond ourselves, we are far better off to pursue truth than consensus. Indeed, in gas industry newspeak “consensus” is just a way to paper over fraud, “middle ground” a strategy for coercing consent to being defrauded out of the future—all the while being led to think one’s just acting as a rational agent.


And this big fat fraud is dependent on the big fat lie that there exists such a thing as “sustainable shale development.” Never mind that natural gas is a fossil fuel such that “sustainable shale” is oxymoronic on its face. Never mind that, just like “environmental” and “green,” “sustainable” has been appropriated by an industry willing to resort to pretty much any strategy to discredit, neutralize, and terrorize anyone who stands in the way of drilling for dollars. Nope—unlike “environmental” and “green, each of which retain the odor of a rearguard action to mitigate damage already done, “sustainable shale” offers an opportunity to reclaim the myth of endless energy, endless growth, endless development, and even the myth that everyone will benefit.

 Sustainable Shale Development: The Big Fat Lie

 Far more than a mere bridge to the real sustainables—solar and wind, for example—natural gas is now promoted as the sustainable fossil fuel; it’s the “green” alternative, the “middle ground” where we can return guiltlessly to our staggering levels of consumption without being nagged by the potential consequences for all those “others” whose whining about things like “climate change” can be neatly dismissed as “alarmist” “tree-hugger bull shit.” “Clean burning natural gas,” is the old propaganda given a new lease on life as “sustainable shale.” Oh, it may have had a bumpy start while the industry was “getting it right” with its new-fangled horizontal hydro-fracking technology—but “getting it right” through (industry drafted and codified) “regulation” and (industry approved) “better laws” is just the “middle ground” we need to magically transform a fossil fuel into a sustainable—or at least to convince us that anyone who refuses to believe in magic is just an irrational Negative Nancy.


In  Of Aristotle and Anadarko: Why “Better Laws” Will Never be Enough | Raging Chicken Press, I argued that by effectively wielding the recession to extort the survival-first instincts of what I’ve called the Big Fake Greens (the Environmental Defense Fund, The Sierra Club, the Audubon Society) and their would-be colleagues in the “Little Fake Greens” (The Responsible Drilling Alliance, the gubernatorial campaign of John Hanger, PennFuture), the natural gas industry has masterfully executed a Vichy France style occupation of “the truth” including the wholesale debauchery of terms like “regulation,” “legislation,” “law,” and “best practices.” Just as the French determined that their survival far outweighed the survival of their Jewish citizens or their national and cultural integrity, so too have organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund determined that their survival far outweighs that of those impacted by slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing or the value of not being associated with, say, one of the world’s top ten human rights violators—Chevron (Big Oil Firms Accused of Human-Rights Abuses in Burma – TIME) and Shell (Global Exchange Top Ten Corporate Criminals List | Global Exchange). Want to know how the trampling of human rights and environmental devastation get green washed? Ask, say,  Andrew Place at CSSD (


What makes so putrid a bargain palatable is the appeal to the “middle ground,” the fraudulent logic upon which “shale” can be magically transformed into “sustainable” and truth exchanged not merely for “truthy-ness,” but for something more sordid: the Big Fat Lie that the future of shale development will leave anything in its wake other than a few very wealthy white people behind the walls—cyber and cement—of their off-shore bank accounts, and the remainder to face rising seas, catastrophic flooding, un-farmable desert, species extinction—starvation, disease, and war.

Where flag-waving appeals to knee-jerk patriotism have failed to adequately hi-jack our better judgment to the belief that corporations have our best interests at heart, shaming us into believing that we’re irrational buffoons if we don’t sign onto the “middle ground” stands a better chance of successful extortion.

It appeals, after all, not merely to the patriotism of some—but to the desire to be seen as rational by all. To appropriate the vocabulary of rational exchange is—if we allow it—a coup for the gas industry; it is to accede not only to the destruction of water, soil, and air quality, but to a “reason” whose only objective is to bamboozle us, shame us, and silence us while they extract the last square inch of natural gas and sell it to the highest bidder. By the time we return to our senses, it will be too late.


The industry, of course, would have us dismiss dire predictions about wars fought over access to water as paranoid hyperbole. They work hard to divide and conquer us by luring, for example, folks looking for acceptable candidates for the Pennsylvania governor’s office to endorse John Hanger on the argument that regulation to enforce “best practices” will create jobs while protecting the environment—the middle ground. But consider what this really means: the best of all possible practices for flaring gas wells must assume that less immediately detectible harm isn’t harm, that a slightly mitigated contribution to climate change isn’t a contribution to climate change.

 Satellite view of US at night showing North Dakota, home to shale gas, is aglow at night

What “best practices” means, in other words, is “acceptable casualties and collateral damage, just maybe not you, at least not right now.”

 Anyone who endorses a candidate with that as their effective campaign slogan is no better than the German family who stands idle witness to the cattle train rolling down the track with its human cargo to the NAZI concentration camps. Why? Because what we know on copious reiterations of hard evidence is that “best practices” is gas industry code for “whatever we can get away with.” That is the industry’s “middle ground.”


9.27.13: Widener University, School of Law– Marcellus Shale Development and Pennsylvania: What Lessons for Sustainable Energy?

To date I have seen no more pristine example of the argument for the “middle ground,” that is, no more wholesale propaganda for this fraud, than the September 27th 2013 Widener University School of law, Environmental Law Center  “conference” devoted to pitching Marcellus Shale development as “sustainable,” (Environmental Law Center).

With very little exception, both the content and the structure of the “conference” could only be described as a calculated attempt to legitimate the new ideology of sustainable fossil fuels. Indeed, I’ve put “conference” in scare quotes because where the format rules out any possibility of challenging interaction, where questions must be written down, delivered by proxy, and screened for submission, and where every moment of the day is scheduled to minimize conflicted conversations, there is no conference.

Widener Law – Marcellus Shale Development Livestream

The unmistakable presupposition of the “conference” itself was that there is a safe, acceptable, rational “middle ground” for shale development. The possibility that it ought not to be done at all was precluded in the “conference” title—and reinforced in spades by virtually all of the presentations. Just a few disturbing highlights:

  1. Scott Perry: Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), argued that natural gas production was “too important to be left to the feds,” that regulations in PA were “way ahead on the environment,” that “we [in PA] had filled in every gap left by the federal government,” and that fracking was good for the environment. It’s genuinely hard to know where to begin here—but perhaps just one recent news article—I’ll bet Colorado thinks they have the best laws too: Fracking and Flooding in Colorado: The More We Know the Worse It Gets – EcoWatch: Cutting Edge Environmental News Service. But if that seems to far from home, consider: this is the same Scott Perry–DEP agent–who offered nothing but cold comfort to the residents of Dimock who continue their lawsuit against Cabot OIl and Gas for methane contamination of their wells (Dimock | StateImpact Pennsylvania). Indeed, “good for the environment,” probably doesn’t sit all that well with Norma Florentino–whose water well exploded, or Scott Ely who describes his water as “close to Drano” (DEP lets Cabot resume Dimock fracking – News – The Times-Tribune).
  1. Andrew Place: Corporate Director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the natural gas extraction and midstream corporation EQT (EQT Manager Promotes Sustainable Fracking Development ), and EQT representative to the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD). Place argued for the full spate of “best practices” implying that industry really wants to preserve the environment. But it’s hard to take Place very seriously. After all, he couldn’t better epitomize the revolving door of government and gas industry if he tried: “Prior to taking his post at EQT in 2011, Place was at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, as deputy secretary in the Office of Energy & Technology Deployment” (The face behind the Center for Sustainable Shale Development – Shale Reporter : Industry). And of course there’s the recent case of the EQT gas worker killed in a frack pad blast in West Virginia. Clearly, “best practices” for place is code for “acceptable casualties,” (West Virginia EQT Explosion Kills Worker At Taylor County Natural Gas Well Pad).
  1. John Hanger: While Hanger talks a good game about how he’s a “renewable energy guy,” he’s not. In fact, what becomes abundantly clear in his stump speech—presented on the “Energy, Climate Change, and Ethics” panel—is that he’s not only bought the absurd claim that natural gas is somehow for Americans, but even were that true, he’s clearly willing to sell out folks who are not his voting constituents to climate change. Hanger likes to tell a story about poor inner city folks who die in a fire because they can’t afford to heat their house—as a justification for continued fracking—but he apparently gives nary a thought to the suffering of the developing world poor facing the consequences of global warming (John Hanger–Right off the Rack | Raging Chicken Press). Hanger epitomizes what Widener Law School’s Don Brown described as the American tendency to privilege American interests above any others regardless the cost—so long as it “ain’t us.” This too, of course, is just another version of the middle ground—a “truth” defined in the interest of supporting a “conference” that’s really just a promotional video for CSSD, who is itself provided “technical support” by Mr. Hanger’s employer, Eckert Seamans (Chevron, Shell, Enviros Set Fracking Standards · Environmental Management & Energy News · Environmental Leader), a fact that puts Hanger—who supports CSSD (John Hanger’s Facts of The Day: The Center For Sustainable Shale Development Changes Fundamentally Shale Production Because Gas Certified As Sustainably Produced Will Soon Be Demanded By Gas Consumers). Does this put Mr. Hanger in bed with one of the world’s most horrific human rights abusers, Chevron. Yes. Does a possible Hanger candidacy make very real Brown’s claim that climate change is a “civilization challenging” dilemma? Indeed it does. But in the “middle ground” where fracking is “good for the environment,” where “industry cares about our forests and communities,” and where groups entirely in the tank for the gas like CSSD can promote themselves as “responsible,” we all live in Vichy, France, we’re all acceptable casualties–unless, of course, you’re in The Good Ole’ Boy Extraction Club: The Pseudo-Patriotic and Pervasively Patriarchal Culture of Hydraulic Fracturing (Why Breast Cancer is the Canary in the Fracking Coal Mine) | Raging Chicken Press. “Conferences” like the Sustainable Shale Shindig at Widener function to propagandize the “middle ground” by acting as a seal of approval, a “father knows best” imprimatur to hydraulic fracturing. Indeed, its professors wrote the “Citizen’s Guide” to getting the most out of your lease while the gettin’ in good (, transforming “environmental” into a full-scale exculpating green wash for cradle to grave natural gas production.

There were exceptions on the “conference” roster—the panels on public health and community sustainability. But listening to almost the only women on the program talk meaningfully about real health disasters and disease resultant from shale extraction was a surreal experience. They, after all, are utter outliers to a “middle ground” that cannot accommodate evidence that puts the lie to the safety of fracking. The audience listened politely, and the “conference” promptly returned to its fraudulent premises.


There is much more to say about the Widener Environmental Law Center Frack Gas Propaganda Shindig—but the upshot is clear enough: if you can successfully wield the legitimating power of an academic venue—especially a law school—you can advance an agenda that, in this case, is the gas industry’s masquerading as environmentally responsible. Under the ever-thinning robes of academic regalia you can apparently advance what amounts to corporate fascism festooned not with the recognition of scholarly achievements, but with the Logos of Chevron, EQT, Consol, PennFuture, Shell—CSSD.  In academia we call these university/corporation “partnerships.” But this is good old fashioned prostitution. A university creates a “center” that acts as corporate liaison to a rightly suspicious public. The “center” then instantiates the “middle ground” through its academic credentials, its atmosphere of reasoned dialogue, its parade of mostly white male experts and scholars. It sponsors an ideology—in this case “sustainable shale”—propagandized as that which only the daft and ignorant would reject.

And voila! The unsustainable becomes endless. The polluting becomes good for the environment. Disease becomes health. Water becomes clean and plentiful. The warming planet becomes a paradise. The poor become rich. Grass becomes trees. The animals rejoice, the sky turns the pink and rosy color of a forever sunrise on humanity.


Except that this is a frack well brimming with bull shit. If this is the agenda of the Widener University Environmental Law Center, we can only conclude that, like many of its analogues in United States higher education, it exemplifies the extent to which university education has become corporatized—serving the needs of industry over education—and co-opted to the revolving door of government, industry, and now Frack-U. With one caveat: the Environmental Law Center appears—like CSSD—to have been created—not merely co-opted—for just this purpose.  But we shouldn’t find this surprising. It’s the new “middle ground” where truth is magically transformed to support insanity, and where monsters like Chevron and Shell get to decide what counts as sustainable: fossil fuels (Chevron, Shell, Enviros Set Fracking Standards · Environmental Management & Energy News · Environmental Leader).

The moral of my story is simple, and as clear as I have been throughout this catastrophe for my state, my region, my country and my world:

To resist compromise when the compromise requires acceding to a clear and pernicious evil–and especially when that evil is thinly cloaked behind pseudo-moralisms like “middle ground,” “regulation,” “reason,” is not an exercise in the demand for moral purity; nor is it recalcitrance or stubbornness or myopia, it is an clarion call to conscience. 

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