Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Sponsors and creators insist that the Carnegie Science Center's new touring program on natural gas is all about the science. But students, educators and parents should carefully examine the messages in "Colossal Fossil Fuels," which explains natural-gas drilling and exploration with help from EQT Corporation -- a $1.3 billion company which makes its money selling natural gas.
The Science Center and EQT collaborated on this latest addition to the Center's Science on the Road program, which last year served more than 212,000 students in nine states.
"Colossal Fossil Fuels" is headed out in April, with "at least a dozen" shows already booked, according to Science Center co-director Ron Baillie. But no one who sees "Colossal Fossil Fuels" will leave with the slightest idea that natural-gas extraction is controversial enough to warrant a moratorium in New York, or to have inspired countless incidents of pollution and countless studies about environmental risks.
This morning's press preview at the Center was attended by some 70 fifth-graders from Brooks Elementary School, in Ohio. They watched Science Center educator Mike Hennessy portray "Dr. Cliff Granite," a safari-hatted adventurer who leads a trip deep into both the earth and prehistory in search of the origins of fossil fuels -- and then into the present, where we're busy extracting and burning them.
The fast-paced 45-minute program is cute stuff, complete with plush-toy dinosaurs, corny jokes, multiple screens of projected-video animations and (to keep grade-schoolers' attention) at least one fireball.
But while there was certainly some science to it all, the program's slant was telegraphed by its Jurassic Park-style logo, featuring an open-jawed T-rex skull, a lot of ferns … and the tall silhouette of a drilling rig such as might be used to extract shale gas in a township near you. Placed just as naturally as if it had grown there.
Although it pointed out that most fossil fuels were formed from ancient plants, the show did its best to associate fossil fuels with fun stuff like dinosaurs. It also suggested that exploring for gas makes for good times. At one point, Hennessy brought 10 kids up on stage and told them, "You're going to be deposits of natural gas linked together by fractures in the rock." He had them join pinkies, and then administered, to everyone's amusement, a mild shock of electricity, making the kids jump and giggle. "You want to break the shale apart and release the gas," he said ... later noting that the process is actually done with water under high pressure, or "hydrofracturing."
On hand was Steve Schlotterbeck, EQT's president of production and a member of the EQT Foundation board. After the program, Schlotterbeck took questions from a reporter about the controversy surrounding fracking, which has polluted air, land and water around the country.
"The real goal [of the program] is to focus on the science," Schlotterbeck maintained. Geology and paleontology, he added, "aren't really controversial at all."
Did Schlotterbeck consider the program pro-gas? "I don't think the goal here is to portray one industry as better than another," he said. "I don't think it's designed to be pro-natural gas or even pro-fossil fuels. It's just factual."
Thus, one supposes, the program's Barnum-esque title, and Schlotterbeck greeting the kids pre-show by telling them that natural gas "really can do some great things for our country in terms of energy independence and lowering the cost of energy."
And thus the four EQT engineers who appear in the show's video segments, in which natural gas is linked with: reliability; escape from imminent danger; and a Buck Rogers vision of the future. ("It's powered by natural gas, so it should run like clockwork," says one character in regard to a pendulum. Two engineers, mock-fleeing a giant prehistoric fish, say, "Step on the gas -- natural gas, that is!" And the show's final segment, "Our Future: Green Space Nine," depicts an animated futuristic city swarming with hovercraft.)
The show was written by Hennessy in collaboration with scientists from EQT and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. After the show, Hennessy was also asked if he thought the program was pro-gas.
"My intent as a program developer is, if it's pro-anything, it's pro-career," said Hennessy.
Asked about the controversy surrounding fracking, Marilyn Fitzsimmons, the Science on the Road education coordinator who created hands-on displays to accompany the program, said, "It's more about the science. We don't get into the political [aspect]" -- as if teaching kids about natural gas with help from a billion-dollar natural-gas company weren't a political act.
And who knows? Maybe the kids would've been interested in some other recent science. Like a report by the U.S. Geological Service, which recently warned that fracking in the Marcellus Shale in upstate New York put at risk New York City's currently unfiltered drinking water.
Or maybe they'd have been compelled by a forthcoming paper by the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who found that emissions of air pollutants from fracking are much higher than previously believed.
Or by studies which linked shale-gas drilling to high smog levels in places including the plains of Wyoming.
Or by recent Energy Information Administration figures suggesting reserves of shale gas are much lower than previously thought -- and therefore perhaps inadequate to power hovercraft of the future.
Or perhaps by a thought or two about the contribution that burning any fossil fuel makes to the greenhouse gasses behind climate change, which many agree is the biggest problem facing humanity.
In its defense, the Science Center has dealt with climate change before, including in its 2009 Science on the Road program "Captain Green's Time Machine" (also scripted by Hennessy).
But while "Colossal Fossil Fuels" did briefly mention some environmental issues, it was mostly as a preface to tell how the gas industry is doing stuff better than before. One example is the use of "pad drilling": The ability to drill multiple horizontal wells from a single pad means fewer well pads, and thus less intrusion on the land.
But thanks to the need for both heavily used access roads and extensive pipelines, all gas drilling intrudes on the land. Moreover, at least five minutes of "Colossal Fossil Fuels"was devoted to the use of compressed air, instead of water, to frack shale. While the technology is not actually deployed yet (as Schlotterbeck acknowledged after the show), no doubt it's something the kids will remember best, thanks to a lengthy gambol in which Hennessy used compressed air to blow plastic cups off kids' heads.
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