About Wanderings

Each week I will post my current syndicated newspaper column that focuses upon social issues, the media, pop culture and whatever might be interesting that week. During the week, I'll also post comments (a few words to a few paragraphs) about issues in the news. These are informal postings. Check out http://www.facebook.com/walterbrasch And, please go to http://www.greeleyandstone.com/ to learn about my latest book.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Fracking Boom is a Fracking Bubble

by Walter Brasch

    Gas prices have plunged to the low $2 range—except in Pennsylvania.
    In Pennsylvania, the prices at the pump are in the mid-$2 range.
    That’s because Gov. Tom Corbett and the legislature imposed a 28-cent per gallon surcharge tax. Until 2019, Pennsylvanians will be paying an additional $2.3 billion a year in taxes and fees—$11.5 billion total—to improve the state’s infrastructure. In addition to the increased tax on gas at the pumps, Pennsylvania motorists will also be spending more for license registrations, renewals, and title certificates.
    For far too many years, the state’s politicians of both major parties, preaching fiscal austerity—and hoping to be re-elected by taxpayers upset with government spending—neglected the roads, bridges, and other critical problems.
    What the state government doesn’t readily acknowledge is that much of the damage to roads and bridges has come from increased truck traffic from the fracking industry.  
    The state roads, especially the section of I-80 that bisects the northern and southern halves of the state, were already in disrepair, as any long-haul trucker can attest. The addition of 40-ton fracking trucks on two-lane roads, highways and the Interstates, has added to the problem.
    “The damage caused by this additional truck traffic rapidly deteriorates from minor surface damage to completely undermining the roadway base [and] caused deterioration of several of our weaker bridge structures,” Scott Christie, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, told a legislative committee in 2010. Since then, the damage has increased in proportion to the number of wells drilled into the state.  There are about 7,100 active gas wells in the state, with the cost of road repair estimated at about $13,000 to $25,000 per well.  The fracking truck traffic to each well is the equivalent of about 3.5 million cars on the road, says Christie.
    Although corporations drilling into Pennsylvania have agreed to fund repairs of roads they travel that have less than two inches depth of asphalt on them, the fees don’t cover the full cost of repair.  Had the state imposed an extraction tax on each well, instead of a much-lower impact tax, there would have been enough money to fund road and bridge repair without additional taxes for motorists. Every state with shale oil but Pennsylvania has an extraction tax.
    Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, who supports fracking, says he wants the state to begin to impose those extraction taxes. The politicians, who benefitted from campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, claim the industry—and all its jobs—will leave the state if the taxes are too high.
    There are several realities the oil/gas industry knows, but the politicians, chambers of commerce, and those who believe everything politicians and corporations tell them don’t know or won’t publicly admit knowing.
    First—as long as it’s economical to mine the gas, the industry won’t leave the state, even if they have to pay a 5 percent extraction tax, which is at the low end of taxes charged by other states.
    Second—the expected $1 billion in extraction tax per year, even if the legislature approves, should not be expected. The industry has already found most of the “sweet spots,” and production will likely fall off in 2015, leading to less income to the state and to leaseholders.
    Third—like a five-year-old in a candy shop, the industry salivated at the newly-found technology and gas availability and overdrilled the past four years, leading to a glut and falling prices. End of the year prices are about $3.17 per million cubic feet, down almost 30 percent from November.
    Fourth—falling prices have led to drilling not being as profitable as it could be.
    Fifth—the OPEC countries have not lowered their own production of oil, and the reason for the lower  gas prices at the pumps is not because of the shale gas boom, but because of the plunging price of oil per barrel, which has declined by about 40 percent since Summer. Once oil prices fell beneath about $70–73 per barrel, American shale frackers found themselves unable to compete economically. 
    Sixth—To compensate for lower prices in the United States, the megacorporate drilling corporations have begun to find alternative ways to make money. One way is to build a massive maze of pipelines, and send natural gas to refineries in Philadelphia and the Gulf Coast, changing the gas into the extremely volatile liquefied natural gas (LNG), putting it onto ships, and exporting it to countries that are willing to pay more than three times what Americans are paying for natural gas. However, there is an unexpected twist. The OPEC low-cost oil has led to a severe drop in Russia’s economy and value of the ruble. Gazprom, the Russian-owned world’s largest gas supplier, is now forced to drop its own prices to be competitive, and has been developing plans to provide gas to Europe and Asia, especially China where American gas is headed, at a price that makes it uneconomical to do long-term contracts.
    Seventh—the banks and investment lenders are getting testy. Because of overdrilling, combined with inflated estimates of how much gas really is in the Marcellus Shale, corporations have found themselves in trouble. Many corporations have begun cutting their drilling operations; others have already left the state, burdened by debt to the lending institutions; some corporations have sold parts of their operations or declared bankruptcy.
    Eighth—The jobs promised by the politicians, the various chambers of commerce, and the industry never met the expectations. Gov. Tom Corbett claimed 240,000 additional jobs. The reality is the increase in jobs is about one-tenth of that; more important, most of the full-time jobs on the rigs and well pads are taken by workers  from Texas and Oklahoma who have extensive experience in drilling; most of the other jobs are temporary, and layoffs have already begun.
    Ninth—The fracking boom for Pennsylvania is more like the housing bubble.  At first, the availability of mortgages looked like a boom. However, a combination of greedy investors and lending institutions with almost no governmental oversight, combined by a client base of ordinary people who were lured into buying houses with inflated prices they couldn’t afford, led to the Great Recession.  Those who didn’t learn from the housing bubble guaranteed the fracking boom would become a fracking bubble.
    Tenth—The continued push for fossil fuel development, and more than $4 billion in governmental subsidies, slows the development of renewable energy, while escalating the problems associated with climate change and brings the world closer to a time when global warming is irreversible.
    Finally, but most important—The fracking industry doesn’t acknowledge that this newer process to extract gas, which has been viable less than a decade, is destroying the environment, leading to increased climate change, and putting public health at risk, something that dozens of independent scientific studies are starting to reveal. It was a 154-page analysis of public health implications, conducted by the New York Department of Health, and based upon scientific and medical studies, that led New York this month to ban all drilling—and infuriate many politicians and some landowners who were expecting to make extraordinary wealth by leasing mineral rights beneath their land to the gas companies. Of course, they didn’t look to their neighbor to the south to learn the wealth promised was never as much as the royalties delivered and that many landowners now say they should never have given up their mineral rights and the destruction of the land and farms that came with it.
    Until prices stabilize, Americans are paying lower prices for gas at the pump; Pennsylvanians are also paying lower prices, but not as low as the rest of the country.
    And the politicians and industry front groups continue to foolishly claim there are no environmental or health effects from horizontal fracking, only blue sky and rainbows of riches.
    [Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist and the author of 20 books, is a national specialist on the effects of fracking. His critically-acclaimed book, Fracking Pennsylvania, is now in its second edition.]



Friday, December 26, 2014

Reel Violence

by Walter Brasch

      It was yet another stop on the book promotion trail, this time in Philadelphia on a “big-time” talk show with a “big-name” star. The host was friendly, and discussed my background and the book, a history of animated cartoons, although like most hosts she hadn’t had a chance to read any of it.
      “Let’s get started by finding out what your favorite cartoon show is,” she asked.
      “I’m partial to the Roadrunner and Coyote series,” I said, then briefly explained how the cartoons, with brilliant writing by Mike Maltese and directing by Chuck Jones, were classic throwbacks to some of the best silent physical comedies of the 1910s and 1920s. I expected an equally soft follow-up question. It came loaded with an explosive not even the Acme Co., the Coyote’s supplier, could produce.
      “There really is too much violence in cartoons, isn’t there?” she rhetorically stated, and then spent three minutes explaining her views.
      “Actually,” I said when she finally had to breathe, “the physical violence in cartoons is completely different from what you see in live-action or even in cartoons with human subjects.” I got a couple of more sentences in when she came back, expounding the belief that cartoon violence directly leads to violence in real life, and that the studios and networks needed to be more responsible. Perhaps the Industry should establish a commission to review films, she suggested.
      Keeping my composure, I politely explained that the basis of all literature is conflict, and that most three-year-olds know the difference between cartoon violence and “real” violence, and if they didn’t, then parents should learn how to change the channels. Later, I was able to sneak in my opinion that it was absurd when network television, scared by lobbyists, had temporarily pulled Bugs Bunny cartoons from the air because they didn’t think Elmer Fudd should be blasting rabbits and ducks. She came right back at me by pretentiously quoting a research study to support her views, took a triumphant breath, and awaited what she thought would be my feeble response. Fifteen minutes into what I thought was a mugging—I had wanted to talk about bunnies and tweety birds—I fired back. “I’m well aware of that study,” I said, then began to cite other studies that revealed either a slightly negative correlation or no correlation at all between cartoon violence and human action.
      “Let’s go to the phones,” she said. For the most part, the audience asked interesting questions, with the host usually spending more time in presenting her views than I did in answering audience questions. Then, abruptly, she mellowed. “You certainly have a wealth of knowledge,” she cooed. “I was wondering, do you have a favorite cartoon show?” Apparently, since I didn’t answer correctly the first time, I got another chance.
      “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” I replied, explaining that Jay Ward’s creation probably had the sharpest satire of all television shows. I was going to elaborate when she again explained that the plotting done by Boris and Natasha to the Moose and Squirrel couldn’t be very healthy for impressionable minds.
      “I believe that some studies show that cartoons may affect persons already prone to violence,” I said, “but have no effect on persons who are not themselves violent.” Commercials saved me from her response.
      Back on air, she again introduced me and cited the book I was huckstering. “Let’s go to the phones,” she said again, and again the audience was more interested in the origin of cartoons, and some insight into the making of them. Five minutes before the hour, it was time to close it up, but not before one more question.
      “By the way, one other thing before you leave,” she asked, “what’s your favorite cartoon show?”
      This time I was determined to get it right. “I love SpongeBob and the Animaniacs and—oh, yeah—I love the Simpsons.” When she said nothing, I briefly said that I love the puns, the double entendres, and the brilliant satire of the classic cartoons. I awaited her response that cartoons were responsible for the moral breakdown of the American family, and that the world was at risk because of the conflict between Homer and Bart. All she said was, “That’s nice,” thanked me for showing up, again mentioned the book, and went to another set of commercials.
      I left the studio convinced that like most guests, I was yet another batch of chum for talk-show sharks—and wondering if I would ever get my favorite cartoon show right.
      [Dr. Brasch is the author of 20 books, one of which is Cartoon Monickers, a history of animated cartoons.]


Friday, December 12, 2014

Practicing Subsidized Un-Medicine

by Walter Brasch

     Clutching newspaper clippings in one hand and a medical bag loaded with seeds in the other, my ersatz friend Dr. Franklin Peterson Comstock III, knocking down pregnant ladies, students, the elderly, and two burly construction workers who were waiting for a bus, rushed past me, leaving me in a close and personal encounter with the concrete.
     “Medical emergency!” Comstock cried out. “Gang way!”
     “You’ve returned to medicine?” I shouted after him.
     “I’m going into un-medicine!” he shouted back. “I’m getting the big bucks not to operate!” This was a story too good to let by, so I gave up any hope of the 7:11 “D”-line bus arriving by 7:30, and chased after him.
     “Slow down!” I panted. “You’ll kill yourself!”
     “No time to slow down,” he said, leaving a trail of broken bodies. “There’s money to be had!”
     “If you kill yourself before you get to the hospital, you’ll never see a cent from the insurance company.” That stopped him, giving me time to catch up and catch my breath.
     “I’m not operating,” said Comstock.
     “If you’re not operating, what’s the medical bag?”
     “That’s so I can get money from the Department of Agriculture,” he replied. I’m planting lots of stuff on lots of non-productive acres, and I’m waiting for the market to drop.”
     “You want the market to drop?” I asked suspiciously.
     “That way I can take advantage of crop insurance. Here! Read!”
     A newspaper clipping revealed that Congress approved $90 billion over the next decade to assist farmers whose crops didn’t yield previous production quotas. It was a sleight-of-hand change from a program that gave farmers subsidies not to grow certain crops. However, in this case, the crop insurance program primarily benefitted large corporate agribusiness industry. About 10,000 corporations are receiving more than $100,000 each, with some receiving over $1 million, according to the Environmental Working Group. Local farmers, however, are receiving less than $5,000 a year, and mostly when their crops are wiped out by floods. Also in the budget is more than $1 billion to insurance companies for “administrative” expenses.
     “When the public finds out which corporations are getting all this tax-funded bonuses, they’ll be outraged!” I said.
     “That’s the juicy part,” said Comstock. “Congress slipped in a non-disclosure clause in the bill, and who gets the bucks is secret.”
     “So, you’re entire income will be from not being a successful farmer?” I said, outraged.
     “Absolutely not! I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket. I’m also going to get money for not operating.”
     “You mean, like the farmers got for not planting crops?”
     “Exactly. And you can thank a congressman for this brilliant stroke of fortune.” With that, he handed me another newspaper article. In this article, Rep. Mike Kennedy, a Republican from Utah, in opposition to Obamacare, said, “Access to health care can be damaging and dangerous.” Elaborating, he claimed that as many as 1.5 million people die in hospitals, “and it’s access to hospitals that’s killing these people.”
     “That’s even dumber than subsidizing corporate farmers,” I said.
     “Not dumb. Just helping the medical profession earn a reasonably high six-figure wage. Even if we get them through surgery, they’ll die in the hospitals anyhow! Isn’t that wonderful!” Wonderful wasn’t exactly the word I had in mind.
     “Doctors are supposed to make people healthier,” I brazenly said.
     “I guess we can do that while we’re making money,” said Comstock, thoughtfully stringing out his scheme. “In the old days, we surgeons knew there was more money to be made in surgery than in pushing pills, so we rushed everyone into X-Ray, MRI, and CT scans—got a nice chunk of kick-back change for that—then into  surgery, and finally into the recovery ward where they sometimes actually recovered.” He paused a moment, grinning. “But, that congressman thinks access to hospitals is dangerous, so that means fewer patients. Fewer patients means we need to have subsidies. Just like the farmers.”
     “You’re going to demand Congress, which has already wasted millions of dollars and tried more than 50 times to wipe out Obamacare, pay doctors for not having enough patients?”
     “Doctors deserve no less than the MBAs running corporate farms,” he patriotically declared.
     “Most doctors aren’t as greedy as you,” I explained.
     “Most doctors aren’t as rich as me either,” he retorted. “Besides, it makes no difference. I’m sure the AMA would be thrilled I’m not doing surgery.” I had to agree with him, but I had another question.
     “What happened to your franchised Doc’s Gas self-service stations? I thought you became a multi-millionaire because of that.”
     “Lost a ton of money. It’s all Obama’s fault.”
     I knew Comstock blamed the President for everything wrong in the country—and a few things that were just made up by Fox News commentators who had too much air time and not enough time to do any fact checking. “How is it President Obama’s fault?” I asked.
     “Gas prices plummeted this year,” said Comstock. “Cost me a lot of money. But that Black socialist Muslim Kenyan dictator refuses to give me a subsidy for having too much gas in my system.”
     Yes,” I said sarcastically, “that does seem to be a problem. But, at least you’ll be getting tax-dollars for running an unproductive farm and may get money for not operating.”
     “Not enough,” said Comstock. “It’s always not enough.”
     And, with that, I thought I had enough, and ran after the 7:11 D-line bus, which, on time, showed up at 7:32.
     [Walter Brasch, an award-winning social issues columnist and satirist, is the author of 20 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the health, economic, and environmental effects of fracking throughout the country.]

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Deck the Malls

by Walter Brasch
     It’s now been about a week after Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.
     During the four-day spree, about 133.7 million shoppers spent about $50.9 billion, according to AP and TIME magazine. 
     The psychological necessity to push, shove, and trample strangers while fighting for the right to purchase overpriced merchandize made in China has just begun. Thanksgiving—a day when Americans give thanks the Native Americans didn’t have immigration quotas—begins a 30-day frenzy to buy whatever corporate America is selling. It’s an American tradition to give presents to relatives, friends, business associates, and mistresses, all of whom will also give you presents, which will be opened, sometimes enjoyed, and often returned within a week for something better. Each shopper will spend about $781, according to Statista Research, while boasting about the great bargains they are getting, and how the government spends too much and takes too much of our hard-earned income for unnecessary expenses, like road repair, health care, environmental protection, and food stamps for the impoverished.  
     To assuage our spirit of greed—and the need to feel loved because we bought someone something—we will drop change into Salvation Army kettles, while disgustingly stepping around the homeless.
     We say how much we support the troops, while we go to Christmas parties, get drunk, and then forget those who come home damaged.
     It makes no difference what our faith or culture is, we enjoy the lights and inflatable snowmen, but sometimes wonder if extravagant displays are nothing more than neighborhood contests to show our pride of affluence.
     At department stores, grocery stores, and every kind of business known to mankind—and a few that no one wants to claim to know about—minimum wage clerks will wish customers a happy holiday. As expected, the lunatic fringe (known as Tea Party Republicans and Fox News commentators) will declare there is a war on Christmas, and demand everything with at least a dozen carbon atoms in its system wish only, “Merry Christmas.” To prove how good Christians they think they are, they will also expect the greeting to be shouted if the customer didn’t hear it the first time—“I said ‘Merry Christmas’!” Wishing someone “Happy Chanukah,” of course, is seen not only as un-American, but treason. It’s war, say Hannity, Limbaugh, and the whackadoodle horde who don’t realize how funny they truly are.
     It’s possible these religious zealots, with a political ideology of hate that dominates their soul, don’t realize that Jesus might have preferred to be greeted with “Happy Holidays” or “Happy Chanukah.” Even if he was trying to get through the wall of souls to find a pair of on-sale sandals or a doll from Frozen, he would probably smile, and wish his fellow shoppers joy, love, kindness, and respect.

    [Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist, professor emeritus of mass communications, and the author of 20 books. His most recent book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]