Fracking And The Milkshake Dilemma

Last week, the continuing legal battle between the energy industry and the environmental movement in the United States took a dramatic turn in favor of industry. A court in the state of Colorado ruled that cities and towns could not, under state law, ban fracking within their territorial boundaries.

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing), of course, is the controversial practice of injecting water and chemical additives into the earth in order to extract energy products. The activity has been blamed for earthquakes, pollution of water tables, and other environmental maladies.

Although last week’s court decision applied solely to the town of Fort Collins, other Colorado municipalities had banned fracking as well. Voters in Lafayette and Longmont, for instance, had approved moratoria on such development activities.

Ironically, though, the court system may have paid the environmental movement a favor by overturning local bans on fracking operations. After all, such bans often fail to address the environmental effects of fracking when applied in a geographically piecemeal manner.

This dilemma was vividly illustrated in the film There Will Be Blood. The actor Daniel Day-Lewis played an oil prospector named Daniel Plainview, an entrepreneur who purchased several plots of land that were scattered across a region. By placing rigs on those individual plots, he accessed a massive oil field beneath the earth.

Eventually, a rival entrepreneur offered to sell Plainview his plot. Plainview replied that he no longer needed more land because he had already drained the entire oil field (including the oil that existed under his rival’s property) from his existing rigs. Plainview colorfully explained:

Drainage! Drainage, Eli, you boy. Drained dry. I’m so sorry. Here, if you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and I have a straw. There it is, that’s a straw, you see? Watch it. Now, my straw reaches acroooooooss the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I… drink… your… milkshake! [sucking sound] I drink it up!

Plainview’s point was a simple one: geological formations and water tables extend across vast distances that lie underneath numerous cities and towns. Although a fracking ban in Fort Collins may hinder the extraction of some energy resources, the residents of the town would nevertheless suffer the effects of any regional environmental damage from fracking operations in neighboring towns.

In other words, if individuals are truly concerned about protecting the natural environment, they can far more effectively address their concerns through regional, statewide, or national legislation. So what can we expect from a municipality-by-municipality approach to banning energy operations? It simply will not suffice.