Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America (Ice Cube Press, 2016) features the voices of over 50 poets, writers, and journalists on the complex issue of fracking. Taylor Brorby, a contributor to Bearings Online and summer 2014 writing workshop participant at the Collegeville Institute, co-edited the anthology. Betsy Johnson-Miller interviewed Taylor to find out more about the book, which the Chicago Tribune described as “innovative and compelling.”
For those of us who don’t know much about fracking, what are some of the key factors that make this issue so complicated?
The issues surrounding fracking are more complicated than the fracking process itself. The process involves breaking through thousands of feet of earth (in North Dakota, oil exists at about 9,800 feet below Earth’s surface) and blasting through the borehole with up to 2.2 million gallons of freshwater mixed with 22-44,000 gallons of 75-150 different chemicals. Then small explosives are sent down the borehole to fracture the shale and open up pockets of oil and natural gas that can then be pulled back to Earth’s surface. Over several thousand feet pipe is slowly bent so that it can approach the oil from a horizontal angle, allowing greater access to a greater amount of oil. Think of drilling down through an Oreo to get out all the cream center.
The complications come from regulations—or lack of regulations—such as adequately disposing of wastewater, which is a byproduct of fracking; the increase in drug and sex trafficking in fracking towns; and the rapid development of cities. For example, in a decade, a town in North Dakota quadrupled from just over 1,500 people to over 10,000—that’s nearly doubling in size every two years. That means there needs to be more housing, more nurses, a larger grocery store, more restaurants, a bigger school, more teachers, more roadways. You get the picture.
Can fracking ever be done safely? In other words, do we just need more time to figure out ecologically safe ways to do this?
It depends on what you mean by “fracking.” If you mean the technical process, in the abstract, there shouldn’t be anything to it. But if you mean the human activity of fracking, you have to take into consideration that since we’re humans, we’re not perfect. So, no, fracking cannot be done safely based on the fact of human error. We rush and dump wastewater in farmers’ field; water slowly wears away pipes, which eventually break and result in massive oil spills; we build wastewater sites, like Oaks, LLC, which has the carrying capacity of several million tons of radioactive material, above aquifers that provide drinking water to residents of Glendive, Montana. The costs of just these examples can be too much to bear–and this is only a short list.
We would be better served spending our time figuring out better–by which I mean more localized–ways to harness wind and solar energy, and to radically develop ways of treading lightly on Earth. If we have any notion of being adequate stewards of creation, we better kick our creativity into high-gear.
In his contribution to the book, activist and award-winning author Rick Bass writes, “The earth is mysterious, the earth is alive—even as we war against it.” And later, he uses the word, “ecocide.” Is it really that bad?
This year this country declared its first climate refugees in the Louisiana Gulf. To move 60 people the federal government will spend nearly $48 million. Since this will become the new normal–people moving inland from the coasts–we, as a civilization, will have to measure our loss of culture–sacred sites, landmarks, precious bioregions and animals, plus the stability of shorelines, will erode. What is the cost beyond dollars? How do we create new narratives in the face of so much loss? And how can we demand more of those in power–or take back power–to change this? These are questions that haunt me.
But it doesn’t stop there. By mid-century it is predicted the seas will have risen 10 feet, which is enough to submerge Boston, New York, and Miami. Residents of Iowa cannot swim in lakes and streams due to nitrate run-off. There’s a 400-mile deadzone where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a radioactive waste site near Glendive, MT, that has a carrying capacity of two million tons—it sits on an aquifer that provides Glendive with its drinking water. Oklahoma had three times as many earthquakes as California last year due to reinjecting wastewater fracking into the ground. California has the worst drought it’s seen in a millennium. In all reality, it’s much worse than most people think. I view it as great job security: we have a lot of work to do.
How do our appetites as consumers feed this problem?
The issue is more the strictures of the supposed “free market.” We’re limited by the choices the powers that be allow us to have. It’s not easy to be good in this type of economy. It’s not easy to “opt-out” of doing harm to the planet. Some will point fingers and say you’re a hypocrite if you fly and use plastic bags and drive a car. Yes, there are some choices that are better than others, but this type of thinking means that we, the plebeians, bicker amongst ourselves, rather than focusing our attention on the elite that create these “choices.” I’m more interested in the next type of economy we’ll inherit—a smaller, more regional economic model that allows us to live well in our places.
With fracking, it might be easy to feel hopeless, powerless, overwhelmed. What can we do to feel as if we have some agency?
First, we must begin by facing our reality with sober thinking. Things aren’t good, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make them better—this means we need to continue having conversations. There’s no one-size-fits-all for what we face. Though we might say we should outlaw fracking, which I would be open to, we also need to increase public discourse that will lead us to anticipate future changes in the ecosphere. We’re only going to be resilient going forward if we really break open the conversations.
Some on-the-ground work that could be done is on the local level—what laws exist to permit fracking, the use of water in the fracking process, the use of eminent domain? What laws need to be in place to provide local communities with the agency to determine the use or non-use of these resources?
What was the genesis of this book?
This book began out of desperation. I spend my summers writing and traveling in western North Dakota, where I come from, observing changes brought about by the Bakken oil boom. My home is on fire. I wanted a book that served as a bucket of water. I met Steve Semken, the publisher of Ice Cube Press, at a book release party. As we bonded over our mutual love of Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow, I simply said, “I’m surprised no one has done an anthology of creative writing on fracking.” He said, “That’s a good idea”—and when a publisher says, “That’s a good idea,” you run home, draft a query letter, and send it as soon as hell. The next day we began working on this book.
Why did you and your co-editor decide to make this book one that contained essays, short stories and poetry?
We need more art in the world. As my friend Maurice Manning says, we need to overwhelm the world with art. In an increasingly polarized time, art gives us permission to feel, art allows us to dream new and bigger dreams, and art allows us to realize our full humanity. If we are not turning to the arts—to poetry, essays, and stories—to help us think through these issues, then what are we really saying as a species? We will not be able to find a story we can live into.
The reason we created a literary anthology was to help fill in the areas where journalism and the media and science fall short. Solving fracking is not a technological fix, it’s a moral one, and the media and science do not often get our moral juices flowing—literature does.