IMPERIAL, Pennsylvania -- In the last 22 years, protecting and caring for the planet has gone from a "we're all in this together" part of our culture to a political wedge issue. And it isn't just your average pedestrian wedge issue that surges and wanes with each election cycle. No, this one is volatile, vengeful and all-consuming.
We were once a country that worked together in cleaning up pollution and using technological and scientific developments to produce energy cleaner and safer. But a lurch leftward has turned environmentalism into a one-sided virtual religion from which no deviation is permitted. Anyone who disagrees is instantly labeled a bigot or otherwise irredeemable person.
How irredeemable? Well, on Sunday, former Vice President Al Gore connected the dots between deniers of an apocalyptic climate crisis and the police officers in Uvalde, Texas, who let 21 schoolchildren and teachers be gunned down in their classrooms.
"The climate deniers are really, in some ways, similar to all of those almost 400 law enforcement officers in Uvalde, Texas, who were waiting outside an unlocked door while the children were being massacred," Gore said on NBC News.
His over-the-top fear tactics and demonization have been effective for two decades now. The children he first filled with fear in 2002 are now parents casting fear into their own children. This past weekend, the "climate families of New York City" marched in front of White House chief of staff Ron Klain's home with their small children, demanding that he tell President Joe Biden we are in a "climate crisis."
The children, dressed as firemen, carried signs with the planet on fire, which read: "We are out of time," "Stop licensing fossil fuels" and "Expand the Supreme Court."
One day later, a group of young Democratic House staffers were arrested after protesting in the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate majority leader of their own party.
For those of you who rely on politicians and the media, for much of the past 20 years, you have been trained to believe that climate change is the end of the world. Nearly every aspect of our culture that touches your life has echoed that dire warning: corporations, institutions, government, academia, Hollywood and social media have all had a hand in it. From the coffee you drink to the school supplies you buy for your children, you can't escape the message that fossil fuels are killing us, turning our planet into a blazing inferno.
The problem with this avalanche of opinion is the failure to educate ourselves and our children on the other side of the story in a meaningful way.
When I was a child, our teachers took us on a tour of a nuclear plant. They also took us on a tour of where they made Heinz ketchup and Wonder Bread, and a coal mine. They didn't try to indoctrinate us, they just showed us the world.
When is the last time you saw anyone in the media dispassionately show the public what is going on in the energy industry? Or showed you what happens at a well pad?
Derek Yanchak is the other side of the story. The 34-year-old Washington County native is the Completions Engineering and Operations Manager for Range Resources at its Dalbo well site here in southwest Pennsylvania.
Yanchak is like the thousands of other professionals working in the natural gas industry -- young, well-educated (Penn State 2010) and deeply connected to the land he works on. It matters to him what goes in and out of the ground, because he fishes, swims, hikes and hunts in the same region where his company drills.
The Dalbo well pad is just outside the city of Pittsburgh, where Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties converge. To get here, you need to traverse the old Lincoln Highway, split off near the town of Clinton at the "Y" in the road, and then travel a mile or so until you nearly pass an innocuous dirt road.
Outside of the occasional truck going back and forth, no noise is coming from the entrance to the pad. That is a sharp contrast with the old Jones and Laughlin steel mill that once hugged the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, whose operational hum echoed throughout the city. Until you get through the guard gate, the only sounds you hear here are pastoral.
The first thing you see at the pad is a solar panel. Yanchak explains that it is used from time to time as a power source at the pad. The second thing you see is a lot of men and women in hard hats checking wells, recycling water, and using a lot of computers to measure and gauge the entire operation.
Yanchak explains that they are operating four wells right now. "It is a pretty typical operation because this is a reentry," he said. He points to the green tanks that have just pulled up to the pad. "That means we had drill wells before, and there is wells producing here prior to us coming back." He notes that they are "re-utilizing existing locations and existing infrastructure. It drives down costs and allows us to not have to build new pipelines, instead just kind of refill those existing pipelines to get to those processing facilities."
Everyone here works a 12-hour shift, whether he is an engineer, geologist, chemist, skilled laborer, power generator, valve operator or IT specialist. "In a 12-hour shift, we'll have anywhere from 25 to 30 people out here at a time," explains Yanchak.
For years, the fleet equipment that Range Resources used was diesel -- which is more dangerous and expensive. The entire fleet went electric in 2019; the turbine on the pad is using natural gas to create electricity around the fleet.
Yanchak says traditional fracking uses diesel-fueled engines to produce electricity to power pressure pumps for hydraulic fracturing operations. "Electric fracking uses natural gas from the well pad to power turbines to create electricity."
Not only are the fleets half the size of diesel fleets, but they are also a whole lot quieter.
Range Resources, which drilled Pennsylvania's first Marcellus Shale well back in 2004, is a Texas-based oil and natural gas exploration and production company with regional headquarters here in Washington County.
Hydraulic fracturing accesses the gas in a process that involves drilling a mile deep and launching a mixture (99% water and sand, 1% chemicals) into a horizontal well to crack the rock below and release gas hydrocarbons to the surface. Because the process requires an abundance of water, the company is part of a sharing program with other regional natural gas operators and recycles everything those companies use. Yanchak said that this share and recycle system has resulted in an over 150% recycle rate of the water.
The sand comes from places like Mingo Junction, Ohio, and other river town areas in the near Midwest. Because the sand they use is extremely fine, delivered in bins that are removed by truck when empty, dust clouds are not a problem.
Western Pennsylvania native Jeffrey Ventura took over as CEO of Range in January 2012. The company has come a long way from when it drilled its first well 18 years ago. There have been a few lawsuits along the way, but for the most part, it has become a company that has changed the prosperity in this part of the state.
Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Pittsburgh Democrat who has been supportive of the industry, said there is no doubt in his mind that the natural gas industry has become a game-changer for this region.
"It just put a lot of people to work for years, and years, and years," he said. "Our building trades, ironworkers, carpenters, laborers, chemists, engineers, and on and on and on, it has literally transformed this region over the last 15 years, in addition to keeping utility costs down for people who probably could least afford it."
"That 70% reduction in energy costs in the gas bills for the average homeowner from 2008 to 2020 also made us more competitive with manufacturing and other operations in the Pittsburgh area," Fitzgerald said.
Ventura said the image of the industry stands in sharp contrast to its less-known reality, with its painstaking safety and environmental measures.
"We are focused on operating environmentally sensitively and safely," said Ventura. "Being a good steward of the environment and a good citizen in the communities we're in... The American energy industry has a great story to tell; it is a job creator, it stabilizes communities, and it is a secure source of energy for the country."
It is also a geopolitical plus: It helps with trade balance and national security, it keeps jobs in this region and this country, and it attracts other industries to locate near where it flourishes.
The energy industry cannot hope to get balanced coverage from the national media, which will glorify the Al Gores of this world while dismissing the Yanchaks. And then, the same journalists who write those stories will wonder why working people's votes have changed so much in recent years.