Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fracked or Fiction?

Who would've thought that my second foray into commercial fiction would find me writing about fracking? Not only is it an ugly word, but it is an equally ugly industrial process.

And yet fracking likely holds the key to America's energy future by potentially liberating us from our reliance on foreign fuel sources. And that is precisely what my new novel, THE LAST CANARY, is all about.

The Marcellus Shale has been called the energy play of the century – five hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas trapped within sixty million invisible acres from upstate New York to West Virginia -- fifty trillion of which is likely recoverable.

But the only way to get it out of the ground is via a controversial recovery technique that involves horizontal drilling and pumping millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the earth called hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Initially, I vowed that I would avoid all of the tempting puns set up by this unusual word and its more vulgar heteronym. But somewhere along the line, while preparing this blog, my resolve obviously weakened. What the frack?

It’s not that I have developed an aversion to fracking while writing THE LAST CANARY. Indeed, quite the opposite might be true.

The more I’ve researched and written on the topic, the more I’ve become convinced that this unconventional recovery method is an essential part of any long term national energy strategy.

While I am by no means expert, I tend to want to believe that fracking can be used safely and responsibly to exploit the shale gas windfall that has arrived at such a pivotal moment in our nation's history.

Similarly, I wouldn't be entirely honest if I didn't say that the more I've learned, the more I have developed some serious concerns about the practice's potentially adverse environmental consequences.

To be clear, my purpose in writing THE LAST CANARY was to create a piece of entertaining and compelling fiction. But there is no question that the underlying narrative of my story is intended inspire a broader dialogue about this important issue.

From the many people I have spoken to, there appears to be a significant paucity of knowledge about what is going on in this area. Perhaps some of you who are viewing this blog are reading about fracking for the first time.

In that respect, maybe my modest bit of fiction will help to better inform and educate. And that's always a good thing. You can check it out right now by going to:

It is my belief that the decisions being made about this controversial subject need to be fully transparent and that a more fulsome debate be conducted in the public square. With so much at stake, we all need to have a vote in deciding the path forward.

At its essence, THE LAST CANARY is a story about the social, economic and environmental impact of the current natural gas boom on the citizens of a small, fictitious town in western Pennsylvania. Let's call it The Deer Hunter revisited.

But, more importantly, it is a parable that is relevant to everyone who has a stake in the energy game -- the twenty states across the country where horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing will likely be employed to exploit a trove of heretofore inaccessible oil and gas deposits.

(In case you were unaware, there have been nearly 5,000 natural gas wells permitted and drilled in the largely rural counties of western Pennsylvania atop the Marcellus Shale in the past five years. As many as 50,000 more are being contemplated over the next two decades.)

As you can imagine from such staggering numbers, the potential for conflict is significant as the forces of American progress collide with the potential for adverse environmental and human health consequences -- some of which have already been documented.

And that is what made the topic so ripe for exploration in fiction. The practice of fracking is an ideal metaphor for the forces currently at work in our country in that this recent godsend has become yet another political push-me-pull-me that threatens to fracture the very foundation of the nation.

As I wrote, I deliberately spared you a predictable green epiphany. Similarly, I also avoided concluding that all of our nation’s energy problems can be solved with the drill bit. The answer, as with most things, lies in the middle. What I do know is that a new dialogue and smart decisions are required -- now.

As the President and federal bodies introduce new energy policies; as state houses move to legislate and regulate while figuring out how to best profit from this unanticipated bonanza; and as local governments deal with the fallout of decisions from above, it is important to remember that fracking affects real people.

As we pursue this opportunity, we will have profound impacts on lives, livelihoods and relationships. Allow yourself to imagine for a moment that someone wanted to drill a gas well on your property. Inevitably, the most common reaction is not in my backyard.

That’s what’s going on right now in Pennsylvania and is coming soon to communities all across the country.

Invariably, the motivation for most fracking proponents is strictly monetary. There are fortunes to be made on the trading floors far away from where drill stems churn and the ugliest consequences of this particularly messy form of resource exploitation exist in plain view.

Conversely, there is an instinctive belief on the part of fracking's opponents that Mother Earth is fast approaching some sort of critical tipping point. And this could well be the final straw. For them, the possibility of compromise seems equally untenable.

Indeed, that is the underlying theme of THE LAST CANARY – that in our quest for riches and the necessity to wean ourselves from our dependence on foreign energy sources, we are irreparably fracturing the very things that bind us together as a nation.

Not unexpectedly, the arguments for and against fracking tend to follow the same ideological rift lines that now pervade virtually every aspect of American social and political discourse -- with corresponding hostility and divisiveness.

That is the challenge I would issue to you if you choose to read THE LAST CANARY. As you become more informed and aware, and as you encounter the word fracking near daily in the media, ask yourself a simple question.

Is the cost of development worth the price that it will exact? Somewhere in the writing and the events of this novel, I have formed my own conclusion. But I would be every bit as delighted to entertain and understand yours.

At the same time, while as a nation we continue to struggle to articulate a coherent energy policy, I would love you to give serious thought to some of the issues contained within my story. What are our options?

In my mind, the questions at the heart of THE LAST CANARY are just too important to get lost in the clamor of blind partisanship or intransigence. I can't wait for you to read it, so that you, too, can join in the debate.

THE LAST CANARY is author R. Bruce Walker's second novel. It was released on June 1, 2012. It follows the release of his debut novel JESTERS' DANCE last year. Both works are available in e-book or trade paperback format at and other leading on-line booksellers.

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