A few months ago I was looking down from my window seat from 35,000 feet over western Oklahoma at a pock-marked landscape that stretched to the north as far as I could see. Little rectangles, some with water holding ponds, and a network of roads mark the locations of vast gas fields that continued for what seemed to be a full half-hour of flight. A similar sight is found when flying over northwestern Texas. Much of what we see is the legacy of a century of gas and oil development, but the legacy is still growing, or at least it was until gas and oil prices crashed recently in mid 2015. The newest well creations reveal themselves with freshly moved earth and ponds to hold the fracking drilling mud and liquids.
I know there are some who see in this landscape a mighty act of will and applications of engineering know-how that engender pride and progress. From these wells flow wealth for the land and leaseholders, low natural gas prices, and a modicum of energy self-sufficiency for the United States.
The sense of accomplishment stemming from these man-made creations is not unfamiliar to me. I grew up in Long Beach California, when Signal Hill, the tide lands and the offshore waters were home to oil wells, iron horses and offshore oil islands that were among the most productive in the land. Some of the king-pins of our town and their children were the economic elite, living in big homes and driving fancy cars. I did envy the one kid I knew who, at our high school homecoming game, who drove family’s Rolls Royce Silver Cloud around the track. But this envy was short-lived when seeing all around me the ugliness wrought by the oil industry and the foul air that I had to breathe resulting from its operations.
Looking down on that Oklahoma scene and reflecting on the recent debacle resulting from a leaking natural gas well at the Porter Ranch in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley brought home to me the existential impact of our ceaseless efforts to puncture the earth to capture the black liquid and the gas that powers our modern world.
Will I see, in the remainder of my lifetime, the beginnings of a roll back of the visual imagery of fossil-fuel development? It’s begun in Southern California where Signal Hill, once covered with oil derricks is blanketed by single family homes and condominiums, as are the previous-oil derrick lands of Huntington Beach. These reclamations are the product of the resource running out and not the deliberate result of a change in the tropism of energy development, away from the drill and puncture world of fossil fuel exploitation.
Twenty or thirty years hence, might our children and grandchildren see, when they fly over or drive across western Texas and Oklahoma, dominant images of a post-oil age landscape, one of wind farms and occasional solar farms-not exactly beautiful sights in themselves, but certainly far less damaging to the land and our health than what lies below? Might they see the beginnings of a reclaiming of the damage to the land, well holes plugged, hardware removed, and dirt roads plowed under allowing for at least a return of the hard-scrabble sage and grasses or what plants and shrubs will prevail in a climate changed world thirty years hence?