Important Lessons on Life and Shale – from Tim Allen?
On Friday, ABC aired an episode of the sitcom “Last Man Standing” entitled “Mother Fracker,” a reference to the fact that the show’s on-screen mom (Vanessa Baxter) works as a geologist for an energy company. When Vanessa goes to her daughter Eve’s school to discuss her job, the class of early teens (and the teacher) all accuse her of harming the environment and apparently even causing cancer. Ultimately, however, the show provides some much-needed perspective on today’s ongoing debate over hydraulic fracturing.
After Vanessa and Eve return home from school, Eve and the other kids begin discussing the supposed harms from hydraulic fracturing. When Mike Baxter (played by Tim Allen) informs them that energy use requires tradeoffs, and then asks if they would “go off the grid” to be ideologically consistent, the kids agree that they should.
One of the daughters, Mandy, is excited to oppose hydraulic fracturing because Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo also opposes it. When Mike takes her laptop, Mandy replies: “That doesn’t use energy — it runs on a battery!” – a frustratingly symbolic comment. Of course, after Mike cuts electricity to the whole house, most of the kids relent immediately.
Eve, however, remains steadfast in her beliefs and decides to go live out in the yard in a tent (itself made of and from hydrocarbons, but let’s set that aside for a moment). As she walks out, Vanessa asks Mike, “Why don’t we just send her to her room?” Mike’s reply: “Oh, with all that evil electricity? No way.”
For much of the rest of the episode, Vanessa feels guilty that her daughter is living outside in the snow. She wishes it were summer instead, so that her daughter could “take a stand” without risking freezing to death. Wouldn’t that be nice: only having to live by your principles when the weather outside allows for it!
Mike, however, is unflagging, believing not only that the daughter cannot live without electricity, but that she needs to apologize to Vanessa for making her mother feel guilty.
Already we can see that the episode is a fascinating encapsulation of the debate not just over hydraulic fracturing, but natural gas development as a whole – indeed all forms of energy production. On one side are the adults, who recognize that living with basics like electricity, central heat, and hot food requires the production and delivery of affordable, reliable energy. Earlier in the episode, both of them dismiss solar as being “too expensive” and say that wind power “kills birds.”
But here’s the truth: All forms of energy development do involve risks. But the truly adult question is whether the benefits – in the case of natural gas: jobs, affordable energy, and a clean-burning fuel – outweigh the costs. If we listen to state regulators, independent experts, and peer-reviewed research, there’s no question that shale development is an overwhelmingly net positive.
That actually brings us to another scene later in the show. As Eve sits outside in front of a burning pile of wood, Mike leaves the house with a cup of water and douses the flame. “You’re producing way too many greenhouse gases out here,” he says. Indeed, according to the EIA, wood burning has a methane emission factor that is 25 to 50 times larger than natural gas, and nitrous oxide emissions for wood are more than 30 times larger than those from natural gas.
Do opponents of natural gas really believe we should revert back to a greenhouse-gas spewing fuel like … wood?
Finally, Vanessa – good mother that she is – cannot stand to see her daughter shivering in the cold any longer. She exits the house to go talk to Eve and try to reason with her. “When you’re an adult,” Vanessa says, “things aren’t so black and white. You have to pay bills, which means we have to make choices, and sometimes, we have to compromise.”
Ultimately, Eve is moved by her mother’s speech and comes back in, to which Mike’s first response is that she needs to talk to her mother (although not before recommending she take a shower). He does, however, make a valid point about Eve’s actions: “You’re not wrong about caring about stuff.”
Perhaps the most instructive line of the episode, however, comes from Vanessa in her plea to Eve to come in from the cold. Her statement is a fascinating metaphor for the real-life challenge of convincing ideological opponents of hydraulic fracturing (symbolized by Eve) that their cause simply is not compatible with reality:
“Eve, the world isn’t perfect, and everybody has to compromise. Unless you’re a trust fund millionaire or a fourteen year old living in a tent. Someday you’ll understand that. I just wish that day was now.”
Don’t we all.