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Fracking Funnies

The lighter side of UB’s Shale Resources and Society Institute

On April 5, Artvoice associate editor Buck Quigley broke the story of UB’s secret Shale Resources and Society Institute. The Institute aimed to grease the skids and help hydrofracking slide right into the Empire State, while making UB a little money on the side. But things haven’t gone smoothly, and the institute itself has begun to look like a slo-mo train wreck. Mr. Quigley has written extensively about affair, attracting attention from reporters at AP, the New York Times, Inside Higher Education, and others.

Frankly, it’s getting a little tedious and depressing: corruption here, carcinogens there, disinformation everywhere. It’s decent journalism, I guess, with facts and thought and stuff, and somebody out there must be interested in it. But where are the jokes? Quigley has a nice touch with humorous country-and-western song lyrics, but he stubbornly refuses to see the lighter side of fracking. So here’s what he missed.

The B.S. Institute.

In a department newsletter of Fall 2011, UB Professor Marcus I. Bursik, acting chair of Geology, referred to the covert planning of the Institute: “we have continued to make progress on a Shale Gas Institute (changed from Black Shale Institute for acronymic reasons, q.v.).” “Shale Resources and Society Institute” is okay, but what was wrong with “The UB BS Institute”? There may be a joke here that I don’t get it. Oh well, “SRSI” it is. One of my students reminded me that Homer’s Circe turned men into pigs. I don’t get that either.

The Emperor Speaks

Professor Bursik continues, “I am very hopeful that we will soon have all the pieces in place to get the Institute ‘fully armed and operational’ to quote the Emperor.” A friend tells me he’s quoting Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, as he underlines the Death Star’s game-changing potential for creating thousands of good-paying jobs. And who can forget the sequel, The Empire Fracks Back, when the Emperor injected millions of gallons of fracking fluid into Anderaan, Princess Leia’s home world, contaminating the water supply and creating artificial earthquakes?

“Fukushima Was a Great Success!”

Dr. John P. Martin runs a fracking PR firm in Saratoga Springs, which he named after himself. He never had a full-time academic position before he landed a pretty good one, as director of UB’s SRSI Institute. On May 19, 2011, he gave a lecture at UB on solar and wind power (bad) vs. fracked gas (great!). But he also digressed a little into nuclear power: “Fukushima was a great success—they showed they could make a plant survive a big earthquake!…It wasn’t that the nuclear plant itself was the problem. It was just, you know, ‘Oh yeah—tsunami!’”

Dr. Martin and I agree that, in March 2011, the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan “survived,” by which we mean that they melted down and exploded. And the successes kept on coming: Only the day after Martin’s talk, the first Japanese “glow boys” (that’s what they called them at Three Mile Island, anyway) crept back into the reactor, and not one of them died right away. (I think they were all temps, though.) Anyway, I think we can all rest assured that the institute is in good hands and that, no matter what happens, hydrofracking in New York will be a great success.

Peer Review: “Yes! I Repeat: No!”

On its website, the institute says “It is SRSI policy to encourage its researchers to publish their research findings in peer-reviewed, professional, or scholarly journals.” Less than six weeks later, the institute issued its first publication, “Environmental Impacts During Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts and Remedies,” by Professors Timothy Considine, Robert Watson, and John Martin, and Mr. Nicholas Considine. A UB press release said it had been “peer reviewed,” which apparently means “some of my friends peered at it.” Everything was going along fine until some green wingnuts began playing word police and made UB retract the phrase “peer reviewed,” as if words actually have a “meaning” that we can “know.” Typical! Thankfully, the press release was already out there doing its work, helping build confidence, create jobs, and bring prosperity to the whole region.

Higher Math

The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a meddlesome think tank with no sense of humor at all, pointed out that Considine et al. neglected to take into account important work in the field by Considine et al. In other words, their conclusions contradict their own data, as in these passages from their Executive Summary and Conclusion: “In conclusion, this study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events [which increased by 36%, say Considine et al.] are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice…Both the number of environmental violations [which increased from 99 to 331] and subsequent environmental events that caused some physical impact on the environment [which increased from 90 to 260] steadily declined over the past four years, in conjunction with action by state regulators. Notably, the percentage of wells resulting in a major environmental event [which increased by 36%] declined significantly” (iii, 30).

True, many scientists say 260 is more than 90, but then some say it’s less. Could go either way—too soon to tell. (Oh, this just in: Josh Fox, director of the anti-fracking classic, Gasland, admits that some experts say The Sky Is Pink.) Anyway, journalism should just report the news, not take sides. And don’t worry—the math skills of the actual frackers doing the drilling, the pumping, and the well capping in New York probably won’t be much worse than those of their professor friends—they might even be better!

Where’s Waldo? Where’s Tim? Where’re Bob and Nick and John?

Ever since PAI pointed out these errors, the report’s four co-authors have been hard to track down. None of them lives in Buffalo, and they won’t return emails and telephone queries from the press. Unconfirmed sightings place them in Jakarta, Dar es Salaam, and just north of Lompoc.

But on May 30, lead researcher Professor Timothy Considine addressed PAI’s criticisms in a well-respected scholarly forum, The Laura Ingraham Show. Sometimes called “the slightly-less-stupid man’s Ann Coulter,” Ingraham is known for her humorous parody, The Obama Diaries, which shows the First Lady jonesing for some barbecued ribs—at lunch, at dinner, and late at night, too! Anyway, all us university professors think the world of her. In the interview, Professor Considine responded forthrightly to PAI’s persnickety charges: “I don’t agree,” “I take exception,” and “The data speaks for itself.” Case closed!

“When I wrote ‘Curl up and die!’ I meant, ‘Wanna be buds?’”

Professor Considine and UB Arts and Sciences Dean E. Bruce Pitman admit that the first edition of the report had, in the words of the corrected second edition, some “typographical errors, which do not affect the conclusions of the report.” For instance, “number of environmental violations” in the second paragraph above should have been “rate of environmental violations.” So “typo” means “Everything I said that I wish I hadn’t but it didn’t make any difference in the first place so let’s move on, okay?” Now that I know that, let me just say that this is a really stinky and disgusting, I mean creative and persuasive, use of the English language.

Incidentally, most of the other “typos” in the first edition are still there in the second. Understandable: It’s not easy to change the graphs and rewrite the paragraphs and apologize and all. As recently reported in The Onion, “The National Science Foundation’s annual symposium concluded…with the 1,500 scientists in attendance reaching the consensus that science is hard.”

“About your dorm room…”

The Institute wants New Yorkers to be able to study and benefit from the fracking experience of Pennsylvania, which has been rich and various. For instance, while Governor Tom “Dr. Frackenstein” Corbett slashed aid to the Penn State system (sound familiar?), he also allowed fracking on six campuses, letting them keep a cut of the profits. Now we’re talking about the Marcellus Shale here, and that doesn’t extend as far north as UB. But the Utica Shale—that’s a different story. Dig down 8,000 feet, and there it is: up to one thousand feet thick of rich, oily goodness! Poor, cash-strapped UB has a treasure, literally right beneath its feet!

The UB word of the day may be excellence, but the word of tomorrow will be synergy! Fracking rigs will be tastefully combined with student housing. The Shale Resources and Society Institute will become a real shale resource, while campus blowouts will be real blowouts. And don’t sweat the side-effects! Students are already drinking bottled water. And UB already has a Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering and Research, and a public-private partnership with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. We’re good to go. Will the greens whine? Of course they’ll whine—that’s what they do. But even they can be persuaded. I used to live in southern California near the San Onofre Generating Station, two great big beautiful nuclear titties perched on the Pacific. Around the time of The China Syndrome, the OC liberals got their panties all in a twist over “meltdowns” and “radioactive core breaches,” so Pacific Gas and Electric offered discounted power to everybody in the blast radius. Problem solved!

Conclusion: Be Nice!

SUNY Fredonia used to have a shale institute, too, before it mysteriously disappeared. In the midst of all this controversy at UB, a New York Times reporter asked a Fredonia spokesman about all the oil company logos decorating its webpage university webpage. He responded, “When a corporation gives you a gift, you want to say thank you.” Bravo—finally, some good manners! Would it kill us just to be nice, for once? The gas corporations and their fracking institute at UB have given us so many gifts: free year-round outdoor heating, nice dry weather (mud: ick!), a creative new approach to language and math instead of boring “accurate” scholarship, and countless merry japes and hijinks. So let me be the first to say, thank you, University at Buffalo Shale Resources and Society Institute, for the priceless gift of laughter, not to mention the prospect of carcinogens in our water. Really, you shouldn’t have.

Jim Holstun teaches English at UB.

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