Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gas and Geopolitics

In the beginning, which was about the year 2007, a rural community in the northeast corner of Wayne County, PA discovered it was in the “sweet spot” of the “Marcellus Shale Gas Play.” That is, there was lots of natural gas some 7,000 feet underground, and many drilling companies were offering to lease the land to put down wells.
Land agents, fluttering sheaves of papers, urged land owners to sign up fast lest the valuable gas be pumped out from under them from their neighbors’ lands.

Most people didn’t sign. Instead, the woman who headed the county farm bureau’s information department began offering speakers – the top authorities in their fields of geology, environmental protection, drilling technologies and contract law regarding drilling leases. She charged five dollars per person for attending these talks and the gymnasium in which they were held was jammed with local land owners.

But there were hold-outs. While much of the county is large farms, the eastern-most sector, the township of Damascus, is subdivided into small lots for the vacation homes of New Yorkers and New Jerseyites. City dwellers with jobs that kept them away from the region for all but a few weekends and summer vacations.

These city folk who, having small lands, paid minimal taxes, were fearful their splendid views of rolling farm lands (which pay crushingly high taxes) would be spoiled. They did not attend the meetings, did not inform themselves, but organized a resistance group to drilling: The Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.

Among them was Josh Fox, an aspiring playwright who made a documentary film of numerous spots in the United States where oil or gas drilling had caused problems. His aim was not to inform, but to oppose, and to use the popularity of environmental issues to raise his own career.

 In a world-wide culture of free floating fear that is perpetually looking for a cause, his film, Gas Land, became a call to action, a popular cause with broader appeal even than gay rights and women’s equality. And the handy word “fracking”, which signifies a process used safely in the gas drilling industry for over 40 years, became an obscenity.

Now opposition to gas drilling has become an international movement. People fear their drinking water will be polluted, or used up by some unimaginably vast consumption and tainting of water resources. 

In fact a gas drilling operation uses tractor trailers to haul water to the site, and uses 5 million gallons at most. And that’s recycled rather than discarded. While that sounds like a lot when you think of the space a gallon of milk takes up in the fridge, that much water would lower Wayne County’s Belmont Lake (at 172 acres, one of over 50 lakes in the region) by 1.1 inches.*

But decent, thoughtful citizens, not only in Wayne County but all over the world, have come to fear and strenuously oppose gas drilling.

Who benefits from this movement? Well of course Josh Fox has done very well. So have oil companies in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, because cars could be retro-fitted to use the much cheaper liquefied natural gas instead of oil.

Few buildings are heated with natural gas – the heating oil and propane used could all be replaced, so a change to natural or liquefied natural gas would be bad for the oil companies too. And the gas drilling companies, for the most part, are not the same companies as the big oil companies.

Electricity generating plants could use gas and cease using coal and nuclear reactors. The New Yorkers who fear the well at their summer cottage might be polluted would better turn their attention to the Indian Point nuclear power plant just up wind and up river of New York City: a plant far more out-of-date and with less security than Fukushima.

But a larger issue has developed recently.

Russia threatens to withhold or raise the price of it gas exports to the numerous countries in Europe that are dependent upon Russia’s Gazprom. While Putin agrees that people in the West should fear “fracking” – it will make black stuff come out of their water faucets – he’s able to manipulate dependence upon Russia’s export to blackmail Europe into restraint regarding the Ukraine – or whatever other issue he chooses. (Apparently he doesn’t fear any black stuff coming out of Russians’ faucets.)

Obama has countered with an offer to supply Europe with exported American liquefied natural gas. Such a move could reduce Russia’s export earnings by 30%. We’re seeing The Showdown at the Okay Gas-well.
What is the truth about fear regarding water?

Water pollution from gas drilling, in so far as it poses any problem, would only affect rural home owners’ wells immediately local to the drilling site – either through a leak from the well into the aquifer or from a surface spill.

Both issues are addressed by reasonably safe drilling practices: casing the drilling bore with concrete to a level below the aquifer (in Wayne County PA the aquifer is no deeper than 1,500 feet maximum, the gas target area is 7,000 feet down), and by careful maintenance on the surface to avoid spillages. Pennsylvania and many other states have stringent laws regarding pollution by well drilling operations, including, in PA, closing down all a company’s operations in the state if there is one incident until the problem is repaired.

Property owners’ leases can determine much of drilling practices, especially when property owners gather in associations to defend their rights and contracts and the undefiled quality of their land – as has happened with the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance (with a drilling lease that is used as a model by the World Bank and Harvard Business School.)

It’s strikingly ironic that the anti-drilling movement began simultaneously with the landowners’ own pro-drilling and environmental preservation movement in an obscure corner of Pennsylvania. But the panic story promoted by the anti-drilling group has entranced the media, and the landowners’ program of safe drilling has been almost unheard beyond the drilling industry itself.

Most private foundations have long ceased to be eccentric disbursals of wealth by individuals, and have become the work largely of hired professionals guided by other professionals who set forth a list of causes considered important, which of course they are: world peace, kids at risk, the environment… 

So the anti-drilling movement found ready support in the world of private foundations. Writers and professors could get a grant for “proving” the harmfulness of gas drilling. Already existing environment preserving organizations had a new topic for their fund raising. Actors, who are urged by their agents to have a public image supporting a worthy cause, saw an easy opportunity for visibility as defenders of the earth.

But the fact remains that natural gas, neither in its production nor its use, is as polluting as most of our other sources of energy. A switch from oil to natural gas would reduce our carbon emissions and the ever increasing greenhouse effect and global warming.

Would gas drilling discourage the use of solar and wind energy?

China can deploy forests of wind mills – but in the U.S. there is opposition to windmills for the sake of  birds, and often even the best sites have no wind.

The U.S. has deserts where solar panels could be useful almost every day – but there are those who oppose solar panels for the sake of desert wild life. And the highest use of electricity is not in the deserts, but in regions that don’t have enough reliable sunshine for their energy needs to be met by solar panels.

It will be interesting to see what the emergence of geopolitics into the gas drilling issue will do.

* In the cradle of the anti-drilling movement: Here are some notes pertaining to the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, gas drilling and its water use. While concern over water use would be appropriate in the American southwest, here the irrationality of the gas drilling opposition movement is particularly evident.

Delaware River (which forms the eastern boundary of Wayne Co. PA) Specs from the National Park Service
Average Water Level
Depth: 2 1/2 - 4 feet
Flow: 790 - 2,530 cubic feet/second
River current: 2 m.p.h.

Pick an average spot in the river, and the flow would be:

790 + 2,530 = 3,320/2 = 1,660 cubic feet per second

60 x 60 = 3,600 and 3,600 x 1,660 cf/sec = 5,976,000 cf/hour

5,976,000 x 7.48 gallons = 44,700,480 gallons per hour

It's safe to say that at an average spot on an average day along the Delaware River, nearly 45-million gallons of water flow by in an hour.

________________________________________________________________ If someone drew 1-million gallons of water from a 100-acre pond, it would lower the water level of that pond by less than 3/8ths of an inch. If someone drew 6-million gallons from the pond, the drop would be about 2-1/4 inches.
If one-half inch of rain falls on 100 acres, that's more than 1.3-million gallons (1,348,397 gallons, actually).

According to the National Weather Service, the average yearly precipitation (rain, snow, etc.) at the Binghamton, NY Airport(nearest report to Wayne County, PA)is 40.76 inches, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that a 100-acre parcel gets 40 inches of precipitation annually, that's nearly 108-million gallons (107,871,773 gallons)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hero or Process? The Making of Historical Turning Points

It’s been the fashion among historians of the late 20th and 21st centuries to see the momentous events of history as the product of social evolution. 

Modern historians like to deny that there are such things as heroes – despite such obvious anomalies as Alexander the Great. I doubt anyone can reasonably claim that the conquest of a region from Egypt to India was the natural evolution of the social history of Macedonia.
Yet there is validity in the view that most turning points in history gather in a long process, an evolution formed by the actions of many individuals or a shift among a people as a whole. But the denial of heroism, of the importance of individual leaders, suggests an over-reaction to the Victorian obsession with the grandeur of heroic acts.

The truth, in most instances, is a combination of both a receptive state of mind among a people and a bold (or rash) person who turns a growing disposition into action.

Major events, from social reforms to revolutions, can happen only when reality final catches up with the mood of the time. Usually when an idea growing in the hearts of a people makes the wracking process of change possible -- and some individual is frustrated or angry enough to very visibly transfer thought into action.

The list of heroes who ignited a movement that changed their country’s history is immense. But let’s look at three examples.

In 1980 Poland’s revolt against Russian dominance became active only at Lech Walesa’s rousing of his fellow workers in the shipyards of Gdanzsk. 

In the spring of 1775 George Washington attended the convening of colonial Virginia’s House of Burgesses dressed in his uniform from the French and Indian War and announced he would raise an army at his own expense to protest England’s oppressions of her colonies. That rash offer made the raising of the Americans’ Continental Army a possibility, and that army, under Washington’s leadership, eventually won the colonies’ freedom. 

In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Her arrest provided the Reverend Martin Luther King with occasion to call a boycott of buses – and the American Civil Rights movement was started.

While the spirit of revolt was not of Rosa Park’s or Martin Luther King’s creating, nor of Lech Walesa’s, nor George Washington’s, those movements that achieved change probably would not have acquired focus without their actions.

In recent years we’ve seen movements without apparent leaders. The advent of social media such as Twitter may be the means for mass coordinated action without requiring a leader. So we may be seeing the end of the age of the hero. 

Indeed, with the leaders of nations taking on exceedingly generous interpretations of their offices, we may be approaching a time when the highly visible leader is identified with oppression – with willful actions counter to the desires of the people.

There have always been anti-heroes: the man of power who wields his capabilities according to his own desires and notions. And perhaps the fashion in the scholarly world to deny heroes as the cause of great changes, while not really accurate, is wholesome. 

Mankind has been experimenting with the problem of government ever since our evolution from herd animals. The experiment goes on. 

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series 

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Monday, March 17, 2014

Part II: The Provisions of Oxford: Parliament and Modern Democracy

On June 11, 1258 the university town of Oxford was filled with armed men. The barons, convening with the high clergy of England to arbitrate their grievances with King Henry III, had brought their knights with them. King Henry was permitting the lord to raise their knight for war against the Welsh. The date for commencement of the war was so close to that of the Oxford meeting that Henry unwittingly had raised the army of England not only to be ready for war in Wales -- but to be available to enforce the outcome of the rebellious meeting.

King Henry excused himself from attending. Oxford already had a reputation for being a risky place for kings. To preserve the chastity of the Oxford abbess Friswitha, God had broken the neck of the Mercian King Athelbald. So superstitious monarchs never set foot in Oxford. Henry stayed away from Oxford perhaps from mystical dread, more likely from good sense. Behind the safe and not too distant walls of Windsor castle he awaited news of the meeting.

Of course there were representatives of the king: half the members of the Oxford committee of arbitration were of Henry’s choosing: his own half-brothers of Lusignan, William and Guy, notorious bullies and flouters of the law but dearly loved by Henry; the Queen’s uncles Peter of Savoy whom Henry had elevated to Earl of Richmond and was noted for graft, and young Boniface whom Henry had forced upon the monks of Canterbury as their Archbishop despite his ignorance of Latin and the liturgy; Henry of Alemaine the King’s nephew, the most decent member of the royal family; the Bishop of London and the Abbot of Westminster, both deeply beholding to Henry for the building of Westminster Abbey church – that magnificent structure where kings and queens are crowned but which drained off the money Henry should have used for England’s greater needs; the earls of Warwick and Surrey who were notably biddable; and three royal clerks in Henry’s employ. 

On the lords’ side were the members of the League that had been formed to resist Henry’s abominated taxes: the leader of the League Richard de Clare Earl of Gloucester; Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk and Marshal of England; Hugh Bigod, his brother; Simon de Montfort Earl of Leicester, the King’s brother-in-law and military strategist; John Fitzgeoffrey, England’s Justiciar in Ireland: and several new but hearty partisans: Humphrey de Bohun Earl of Hereford, four knights and the Bishop of Worcester.

That a committee comprised of these two sets of people could have come to any consensus is astonishing. The King’s relatives and the lords of the League hated each other and had been enemies for decades. Yet this committee of arbitration, the general meeting of all the lords and clergy and the many committees they spawned created a constitution that established elective government by the common people. 

This was five hundred years before the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions would place such an idea in a setting of acceptable philosophy.

How did it happen? By chance, it would seem.

The committee of arbitration got off to a predictably difficult start. At first the King’s side predominated with the choosing of one of Henry’s clerks to continue in his position of Chancellor, keeper of the royal seals that make commands official.

It was the general meeting that apparently opened the way to change. The assembled lords and clergy were asked what was most troublesome in Henry’s government. Instead of citing outrageous taxes – the issue that caused the meeting – the chief complaint concerned the royal sheriffs. 

Sheriffs had the duty of summoning courts to hear cases of law. The local lord or abbot was required to preside – and if he failed he was fined, with the money going to the sheriff. Most lords and abbots held numerous fiefs scattered over several shires. The sheriffs had found a handy source of profit in summoning courts so frequently that it was impossible for the lord or abbot to attend. The result was not only wealth to the sheriffs, but the failure of the courts to meet, and cases going unresolved.

The Oxford meeting recommended to King Henry that the sheriffs be replaced, and drew up a list of suggested candidates.

With the law courts failing to meet, judgments weren’t given and fines, which went to the King, weren’t collected. Here was a fund-raising means that everybody liked. Henry’s half-brothers and Peter of Savoy rushed this happy petition to Windsor and remained there for a day or so as Henry reviewed the list, sent orders for the recall of all the royal sheriffs and their replacement by the candidates on the list.

This welcome result from Oxford’s general meeting was quickly followed by another. At times of emergency such as war or famine, the royal bailiffs were empowered to seize goods remaining unsold in market stalls at the end of the day. But the bailiffs were making a regular practice of seizing all left over goods. Their families set up sales booths of their own to sell the goods at discount – stifling legitimate sales and keeping the 100% profits to themselves.

Henry gleefully replaced his royal bailiffs with those proposed by the meeting’s list.

Soon all the royal sheriffs in England were replaced with men who owed their new positions to the Oxford meeting and its partisans. And the new royal bailiffs too now were beholding to Oxford.

But much more was to result from the King’s members of the committee of arbitration going off with their good news to Windsor. In their absence the lords’ faction predominated. New committees were elected in which the King’s friends notably were not included: a Committee for the King’s Aid to deal with the taxes; a committee for England’s defense, and a Council to be with the King always to advise and oversee his actions.

And a development in the general meeting was truly revolutionary. It arose, innocently enough, out of the issue of the honesty of sheriffs. How could it be guaranteed that the new sheriffs wouldn’t be tempted to corruptions just like the old ones?

There already existed a system for choosing four knights from each shire to escort taxes to London. It was decided to these men chosen by election by the common free men of the shire; to empower them to do an audit of the sheriffs and report their findings to the King and Court at a set place and date three times a year; and also to report whatever problems had arisen in the shire.

This seemed not a revolutionary step but a practical one, providing a serviceable link between the monarch and the people for the prompt communication of problems. But it dovetailed with the sixty-first clause of Magna Carta which said that the King must redress any wrongs reported by four knights to a committee of the lords who had won the great charter. If the king failed, the lords were within their rights in raising all of England in arms against him.

The clause, signed by King John at Runnymede, had brought him unending civil war. But forty three years had elapsed since Runnymede. The lords specified had died off and clause 61 had been removed from further issues of the Charter.

But the League, with a copy of the original Magna Carta of 1215 in hand, had reminded King Henry and the lords of this clause. Now, with an excellent mechanism in place for reporting wrongs, the question was how to force the King to give redress?

In the absence of Henry’s supporters, a committee of lords and clergy was designed specifically to meet with the knights arriving from the shires at their appointed times. Thus the modern Parliament was fashioned with its two Houses: Lords, and representatives elected by the Commons.

With Magna Carta’s clause 61 to back it up, the King was required to hear the complaints of his people and to redress those complaints as Parliament and his Counsel (chosen by the lords) advised.

Kings had summoned meetings to consult with their vassals from time immemorial. In England such meetings had occasionally even been called “parliaments.” But the Parliament fashioned at Oxford and described in the document titled The Provisions of Oxford was utterly different. It met at a regularly appointed time and place; it included a body of representatives chosen by the common people – and, most importantly, this Parliament was not merely an advisor. It had power to compel the King to do as it required.

The Parliament created by the Provisions of Oxford was the first true modern democracy.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series, including Montfort the Revolutionary 1253 to 1260  

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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Montfort, Parliament and Democracy: Part I: The League against the King

In the year 1258 King Henry III of England confessed to his lords and high clergy that he had pledged the Sovereignty of England as insurance for a debt – and he couldn’t pay. Pope Alexander IV had offered Henry the Crown of Sicily for his son Edmund if Henry would merely pay the expenses of a mercenary army to displace the heirs of Sicily, the sons of the Emperor Frederic II. 

The lords of England had expected they were being summoned to war against the Welsh who were marauding in the western shires in an attempt to take back what they considered their own. By custom and the dictates of the Magna Carta the king could require either military service or an extra tax. But not both at the same time. The lords, assembled in Henry’s royal hall at Westminster, flatly refused to pay.

The consequences could be dire. Pope Alexander could excommunicate Henry – but a previous Pope had excommunicated the Emperor Frederic who merely put on his crown and asked his courtiers if he looked at all changed. More effectively, the Pope could offer the Crown of England to anyone who would finance the necessary war to take it – just as he was doing with the Crown of Sicily, and England was a prize far more worthwhile.

Still the lords and clergy refused to come up with the money. Henry postponed the next convening and used the intervening time to threaten the lord individually in ways he knew each to be most vulnerable.
Happening to meet after their extortion sessions with Henry, six lords pledged themselves to an alliance, a League to resist the king. Comparing the abuses inflicted upon them, they swore to defend each other -- within the bounds of their oath of loyalty to the Crown.

These six men were the young rather hot headed Richard de Clare the Earl of Gloucester, Roger Bigod the Marshall of England, John Fitzgeoffrey the Justiciar of Ireland for the Crown, Peter of Savoy the Earl of Richmond and the queen’s uncle, Simon de Montfort the Earl of Leicester and the king’s brother-in-law and principal military strategist (who was frequently in the king’s ill graces) and Peter de Montfort a knight and Montfort’s cousin.

Peter of Savoy may well be looked upon as the spy in the group for King Henry almost at once knew of the pledge. The danger of their position was immediately apparent to the members of the League. There was just enough time before the general reconvening with the king for them to go to their home shires and return with their knights in arms for self-protection.  It was a move that was of course illegal and easily interpreted as treason.

But when the lords of the League returned to London, hedged round with their knights in full arms, they found that the common people of London were very much on their side. King Henry and his servitors had abused his subjects, common and noble alike, and commoners and lords alike looked upon the League as their defenders. 

Being aware of the power of public opinion, the League earls deliberately paraded with their knights through the streets of London, accepting cheers as heroes. From King Henry’s point of view this was the leading edge of civil war.

Nevertheless, his meeting with the lords and clergy was convened on the appointed day. The assembly gathered, but the lords of the League were nowhere to be seen. Had they been arrested? The business of the meeting commenced in grim quiet.

Then the clattering of hooves and jangle of armor was heard outside and everyone looked to the hall’s door. The lords of the League entered. To be certain they had everyone’s attention they dropped their helmets with a resounding crash upon the floor before they walked forward.

The royal bailiffs were surely outnumbered and out-armed. King Henry on his throne upon the dais asked, “What is this? Am I your prisoner?” But the men of the League knelt at his feet. 

“No my lord,” said the Marshall Roger Bigod, “This is our pledge – swear to follow your English subjects’ counsels. It is the best remedy for your troubles you can have!”
“How will you see to it I follow your counsels?” Henry responded.

Seeing a clerk holding a Bible nearby, Richard de Clare took the Bible and held it to his king. “Swear, with your hand on Holy Gospel, that you and your heir Edward will uphold the provisions of the Magna Carta! And that you will cause a Council to be chosen, all of good English subjects elected by the barony! And that you will do nothing without their advice!”

And Roger Bigod added, “Swear you’ll cease finding ways to crush your people with your monstrous taxes!”

With his hand on the Bible, Henry further was made to agree to the appointing of a committee of arbitration, half chosen by him and half by the lords of England, to arbitrate grievances. A meeting was to convene for arbitration and the election of the council within forty days. The chosen day was June 11. 

This astonishing coercion of King Henry III was confirmed by the lords confronting him with the original Magna Carta of 1215 -- which included a clause that had been deleted from later reissues. The primary Magna Carta stated that all England can be raised in arms against the king, to hold his castles and lands from him until grievances are satisfied.  This clause 61, sworn to by Henry’s father King John, had committed England to civil war until John died.

The reading of the clause turned Henry’s meeting into chaos. The king agreed to the convening of the lords and clergy at Oxford on June 11, and all were dismissed with this victory for the League.

Henry was sworn to permit the lords and clergy to meet in his absence -- with effective permission to raise their forces for battle against the Welsh, if they produced the tax he needed to pay the Pope. In fact he had agreed to allow a fully armed and revolutionary convention at Oxford to meet on June 11, 1258. 

(This and future blog entries, tracing the establishment of England’s Parliament as an elected body with power over the king, describe history as recorded in the documents of the period and are not matter of fiction. Part II will be on The Provisions of Oxford.)

Katherine Ashe is the author of Montfort The Angel with the Sword, which explores in novel form how these events may have come about in view of what records tell us of the personalities of the men and women involved.

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