The cost of attacking Syria, and tell me what to think about fracking

By Steven Brill
September 10, 2013

1. Scoping out the budget for attacking Syria:

This article in Defense News estimates that if President Obama attacks Syria the cost would likely be “hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons,” including $1.4 million for each Raytheon Tomahawk missile that is launched. All last week I saw estimates that were equally vague and varied from the tens of millions up to and over a billion dollars.

Of course, that’s hardly the press’s fault; no one can know the cost of the proposed attack without knowing the details of the war plan, and even then, the ultimate cost would depend on how the plan pans out — including how many weapons are used and how long it all takes.

Still, I would like to see two stories this week related to the Syria war debate and money.

First, someone should try to scope out the likely cost with greater precision — including fuel and logistics support for the war ships in the area, extra costs for putting various forces, such as those protecting embassies, on high alert, as well as the exact cost of the missiles to be used. Maybe budgets for different scenarios have been submitted to the relevant congressional committees. One would hope someone on Capitol Hill has bothered to ask.

Suppose the budget is $500 million. Then, a sidebar ought to list a half dozen or more other items the federal government could buy for $500 million. For example, according to this CBS News report it would take just $425 million to restore all the sequester-forced cuts to Head Start that have forced 57,000 low-income children out of the early childhood education program beginning this month.

Second, there’s got to be a good story about Raytheon’s Tomahawk missile business. How come it seems to be the weapon of choice for conflicts like this? What’s the gross profit margin on each one it sells to the U.S. and to what seem to be lots of other countries around the world? Does it charge the others more or less than it charges the U.S.? And what’s the competition like for weapons like this?

2. Please tell me what to think about fracking:

Last week, while in Colorado I saw a TV ad sponsored by an energy industry group in which a young couple explains how they have been able to hang on to their family farm and its traditional lifestyle because of the income they have received by leasing their land for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The young woman explained how she had made sure that fracking would cause no damage to her land or water while providing steady supplemental income.

With great visuals, it was quite an effective argument that fracking is safe and offers a ticket to a bright future for that family and others — a conclusion that would seem to be buttressed by the fact that Colorado’s liberal, environmentally-sensitive governor, John Hickenlooper, is a big fracking booster.

The same week I happened upon a Bloomberg Businessweek article headlined: “A Shrinking U.S. Trade Deficit — Brought To You By Fracking.” In the same issue another report largely attributed what the magazine predicted would be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s waning global influence to the competitive threat that fracking poses to his country’s all-important energy exports.

So fracking, which most of us hadn’t heard of half a decade ago, seems to be a gift from the gods — a new technology that is a game changer for the American economy, for the national security threats posed by our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and even for the family farm.

Except that all kinds of environmental groups insist that fracking will be a national disaster, that accidents in the process — and byproducts from the chemical runoff even if there are no accidents — will threaten the water supply in vast areas wherever the wells are being drilled.

The public interest journalism organization ProPublica even has a section on its award-winning website devoted to a long-running series of reports exploring the dangers of fracking. The latest, dated August 13, 2013, is titled, “New Study Finds High Levels of Arsenic in Groundwater Near Fracking Sites.” And in Colorado, Hickenlooper has faced stiff opposition to his support for fracking. Meantime, in New York the fight between fracking supporters and opponents has been so fierce that Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is up for re-election and might be eying a 2016 White House bid, has apparently become so fearful of offending one side or the other that he’s continued to delay a decision on whether to allow the high-tech drilling.

To be sure, there have been countless stories about fracking. Many emphasize its economic benefits and suggest that the dangers have been overstated. Others, like the ProPublica reports, emphasize its perils. Still more, in what could be called the mainstream press, have diligently quoted both sides. So I can’t complain that there has not been enough coverage.

Yet I feel as brain-locked as Cuomo when it comes to fracking.

Sometimes, especially when the issue is complicated and can be clouded by each side’s jargon-filled scientific arguments, a different kind of journalism is needed. What I’d like to see is a comprehensive story from a completely credible and thorough reporter with no ax to grind and no preconceptions who could, yes, tell me what I ought to think about this.

Is fracking the next asbestos or lead paint, or is it our ticket to a new golden age? Or is it perhaps both?

Opponents often talk about how drilling accidents could kill thousands. Is that true? If so, does that mean it should be stopped, or do the benefits outweigh the costs?

If I told you at the beginning of the last century about a new technology that could revolutionize American industry and the American way of life and you countered that it would also cause 30,000 to 40,000 accidental deaths per year, we would both have been arguing about the advent of the automobile. So what can be authoritatively said about the likelihood and scale of fracking accidents or other dangers, and how do these threats weigh against the benefits?

PHOTO: The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launches a Tomahawk cruise missile from the ship’s bow in the Mediterranean Sea in this U.S. Navy handout photo dated March 29, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Sunderman

 

2 comments

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“…what can be authoritatively said about the likelihood and scale of fracking accidents or other dangers, and how do these threats weigh against the benefits?” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that with new technologies come new risks that must be confronted and competently evaluated and managed.

As but one example, do humans fly? Not naturally. So when we travel in airplanes by the missions do some fall out of the sky and do people die? Definitely. But the “reality check” is that a hundred years after the first tentative trips aloft an individual is infinitely safer traveling just about anywhere in a scheduled airliner than driving to and from the airport at each end of the trip.

As America entered the 20th Century, oil wells were near the surface and access relatively easy. Today they go very seep into strata not accessible before and in some locations under the sea. Do accidents happen? Of course. But industry learns, and learns well over time.

The truth is that western civilization is utterly dependent on such energy. The fuels and other products that such energy makes possible through the refining process are the very cornerstone of comforts of modern life our grandparents could not have dreamed of. Opponants of the Keystone pipeline suggest it will forever pollute all surface and subsurface water from Canada to Texas. Please.

They obviously are ignorant of the fact that older, less safe technology was employed to move incredible amounts of oil and refined product all around the U.S. during WW II (and since) with unparalleled safety and efficiency. Such pipelines contributed materially to the ultimate Allied victory. Spills and explosions happen, but are relatively few and damage is both minor and temporary. Associated benefits to our economy and way of life are everywhere, constant and lasting.

Many of these old pipelines are still in safe, productive use today. I know because my grandfather (I’m 73) and father helped build and maintain those systems. It was hard, uncomfortable work, but someone had to do it.

So if fracking can lessen this country’s day-to-day dependence on countries that hate us and our way of life, I believe a little risk here and there to be quite acceptable. Most of the objectors offer the same old tired NIMBY (not in my back yard) arguments. Please. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

In Eastern Ohio, we have been seeing the beginnings of an income and tax bonanza from fracked fuels. However, according to a LiveScience report based on the July issue of the journal Geological Research, the Northstar injection well had to be shut down a year after it started — because “in the year that followed, seismometers in and around Youngstown recorded 109 earthquakes, the strongest registering a magnitude-3.9 earthquake on Dec. 31, 2011.”

To add insult to injury, those of us in the region affected by the threat to ground water are now informed that the big new Nexus Pipeline to carry Utica Shale gas from Ohio to Ontario, Canada, is to provide gas FOR EXPORT ONLY. Apparently fuel prices are down in the U.S., so the export market is now being sought. And they are running this huge pipeline through our populated areas. All this does not sound like a good economic trade-off for the United States?

Posted by CharleneKing | Report as abusive