Connect the Dots

Dec. 8, 2010
The Sad Fact Is Technical Education, Know-How, Experience and Responsibility Go Out the Window When Fast Money Shows Up
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

I go to lots of conference presentations at the tradeshows we cover. It's usually another excellent source of input about what's going on in the process and other industries. However, because so much information seems to get stuck in my long-term memory, I involuntarily begin to notice connections between one presentation and another.

For example, Christopher Ross, senior consultant at Charles River Associates, reported at ABB Power and Automation World 2010 in May that his organization believes there are about 4,400 trillion cubic feet of recoverable, cleaner-burning natural gas from shale in North America—enough for a 200-year supply.  Sounded like good news.

However, shale gas often requires hydraulic injection of water and chemicals to fracture rock and release the gas. Unfortunately, there's growing evidence that fracking sometimes contaminates nearby groundwater. In a presentation at Rockwell Automation Fair 2010 last month, water and wastewater consultant Tom Decker reported that recent research confirms that fracking can contaminate groundwater and ruin rural wells for the families and farms that depend on them.

Now I know drillers can't be certain when or if this will happen. However, I'm certain a  better job could be done of studying, imaging and profiling the local geology, and then using more targeted and subtle methods of releasing and collecting the gas below without destroying the water above. Energy is important, but it's a frivolous luxury compared to water.

In short, we don't have to use the blunderbuss approach when seeking and extracting oil and gas. More subtle methods would cost more, but I'm betting it would a very good investment, unless we're only going for the "short-end money" like BP and others.

Heck, instead of chasing ever-dirtier fossil sources, we could truly pursue solar, and even make genuine efforts to consume and waste less energy. Yes, I know—anything but that.

Similarly, I've often been amazed by the apparent lack of knowledge, sophistication and even basic caution in many technical fields I've covered. I'm definitely not saying I know more. However, I was pretty surprised when I researched process analytical control in the pharmaceutical industry, and many folks in it acknowledged they were behind the other process industries because they were paralyzed by drug profits for so long. Prescribed overuse of those same drugs pays handsomely too.

Likewise, I've seen poorly structured plans and contracts on many municipal projects that seemed almost guaranteed to fail and spark lawsuits. Why? Because cutting corners pays. In one case I covered, a big house builder was putting in potato-chip-thin foundations because it meant more cash now, and it was still cost-effective even after he got caught.

The sad fact is that technical education, know-how, experience and responsibility go out the window when money shows up. It all comes down to fear, laziness and "I get mine and bleep everyone else as long as I can move to the suburbs, pull up the ladder and watch my big screen." I remember sitting stunned at a village board meeting in Cary, Ill., as residents from one subdivision that had been a cornfield nine months earlier objected to houses being built on the cornfield next to them. Don't ask me how they vote. You already know.

Sadly, much of our pursuit the American Dream of property—I mean—happiness seems founded on dispossessing others, whether it's indigenous people whose land we took over, or others whom we kidnapped and forced to work for us for free. Remember? I think this is one  reason we're so obsessed with alien invasion stories, illegal immigrants and terrorists. We're subconsciously trying to process our collective guilt and fearful that someone else we grab the gains we fear are ill-gotten and so undeserved.

Not a very Christmas-like attitude. More like seagulls grabbing scraps from each other. It's time for knowledge to stand up to cash.