112: Bethany McLean, part 1: the Business and People of Fracking (transcript)

January 1, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Bethany McLean

Bethany made her name as the first journalist to predict Enron was overpriced which meant going deep into the people and the numbers and understanding them and then facing overwhelming criticism. Well, turns out she was right but it must have been very tough. Now she’s looking at fracking. She looks at the people and the numbers and she makes sense of them here. And she wrote a short colorful informative book on it which we talk about here. The short answer is that fracking does not make sense except for some economic anomalies. But getting into more detail helps you understand the direction of this country, oil and gas being such a big part of it. If you want to influence fracking, environment is not the most effective lever to work with. Her book also helps you understand the short-term perspective of oil and gas and the energy industry. The U.S. has no energy policy as other countries do. I finished the book pretty quickly and got a pretty good sense of the background. So listen for the intersection of leadership, economics, energy and finance.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Bethany McLean. Bethany, how are you?

Bethany: I am doing great. How are you?

Joshua: I’m doing very well. And I just read your book on fracking and I want to get into that. But before we do, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into writing the book that you wrote.

Bethany: Sure. I’m a longtime journalist. I have been a journalist for over two decades now. And I’m a generalist journalist meaning I write about a lot of different things. I’ve been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair for years and one of my last pieces was on J. Lo – A. Rod. So long distance from fracking. But I was always interested in what was taking place with fracking because of the environmental controversy about it, because it wasn’t the same time arguably reshaping the world in which we live, because of the fascinating characters and because from a financial perspective this industry has never worked, it’s never made money. And so there are always just really big important things going on and I wanted to see if I could figure them out.

Joshua: Yeah. Now part of me wants to go about J. Lo – A. Rod because I read that article and the pictures were amazing and it’s the connection…  I would’ve expected it to be not to have the depth and the relationship but we’ll leave that for later. And I want to ask there’s another big article that you wrote a long time ago that was like a big article. Can I ask about that or…?

Bethany: You can start there if you want.

Joshua: So you wrote an article before something big happened and then something big happened.

Bethany: Yes. That was more luck I would say than anything else. Back in 2001 I was a pretty young journalist and I wrote a piece in Fortune which I joked [unintelligible] in business history because it [unintelligible] Enron overpriced. That was about six months before Enron went bankrupt. So yes, Enron wasn’t that overpriced and it was a pretty skeptical article about Enron and the first major publication saying what this company does doesn’t makes sense. In the end, I didn’t say Enron was going to go bankrupt. [unintelligible] to have guessed that that was the way this unfolded because so few people have been critical of Enron the story so I took a larger than life significance in the whole Enron drama.

Joshua: And on your part I would think even all the more so as a young reporter taking on this big thing, I guess you probably won thing by taking it on. But that means that you must have… You said generalist but you must have gone into some fair amount of depth and accuracy and people must have been checking your facts and I would guess that that set you up for… The book that I read had tremendous depth and you must have talked to a lot of people and gotten them to open up with you. And is that a theme of your journalism? You’re not just superficially covering stuff.

Bethany: That’s a really interesting question. Yes, I’ve lucky because I spent my career doing [unintelligible] form of journalism for the most weather magazines and books and those sort of projects by nature are immersive. You have to really dig in and really understand things. And I think when I was younger my first piece about Enron was really financial, it was really heavily quantitative. And I was in math major in college and I spent a few years working in investment banking after college. So I think at that stage of my life I was really drawn to the numbers. That’s where my focus was and oddly enough working on Enron and writing a book about it subsequently made me much more interested in the human dynamics as well. So now I’d say I’m still very interested in the numbers but I’m really interested in the people too. I want to explore the complexities of human nature because in the end it’s not very interesting when bad people do bad things or good people do good things but when complicated people do things that are both good and bad or when people who consider themselves good do things that turn out very badly. Those I think are the most interesting stories.

Joshua: You put a lot of personalities as one big personality in the fracking book. And I have the feeling that you probably didn’t just choose anyone. He was a big figure, he sounds larger than life and just like plowing through no matter what comes through like buy or like you said selling. And did you pick him because he was the most colorful? Did you pick him because he represent… My picture is that he represented the ups and downs of the industry and it gave a personal tone to it. Do I read that right?

Bethany: Yes. You read that perfectly right. There was another sort of selfish reason which is said I was obsessed with this character Aubrey McClendon for years. Dating back to 2010 a guy I talked to a lot who is actually Australian, which is funny [unintelligible] closeups here at the U.S. and he used to say, “Aubrey McClendon is the most important man in America.” Obviously, he wasn’t playing some sort of [unintelligible]. But what he meant by that is that if what McClendon was trying to do worked and McClendon was great, and America had this cheap supply of natural gas for years into the future, that was going change our manufacture [unintelligible], it could change our geopolitics instead to really reshape things about the country. If McClendon was wrong, then the country would be on a different course. And then McClendon is one of those great characters that you come across in business that literally proves that old adage treat the stranger than fiction as one of the reasons that I love writing about business so much because of these characters you couldn’t just make up. If you were a fiction writer sitting down at your desk trying to invent a character, you wouldn’t be able to come up with an Aubrey McClendon.

And so I was fascinated with him. And then when I talked to people they basically… Aubrey McLendon is not the guy who was part of the technological pioneer of fracking but he’s the guy who figured out how to raise money, how to get investors around the world, literally around the world, to give their billions to find US fracking, and with all of that capital this fracking revolution for better and for worse wouldn’t have happened. And so he became I wanted to tell this story that I thought I had been told which was about how capital was actually important ingredient in fracking. And so he became the guy who became synonymous with capital raising.

Joshua: Yeah. Because it could have been a book about technology, it could have been a book about finance or it could have been a book about people and you tie these things together in a geopolitical way and also American… I don’t know. I had to look up the word wildcatting which was like fascinating. I thought it had to do with… Which I guess it did, the origins of the word. And so it’s just like back to the Texas of like James Dean era still alive today. And there are a lot of things of like of our production reaching levels since the 70s. You really tied a lot together in a relatively short book. So alright. That’s on the finance side. There’s something that kept…One thing. Why did they keep [unintelligible] money? I guess he kept [unintelligible] things which is like how is this guy not sweating all the time? Maybe he was.

OK. Something that gets me is that there’s very little in this culture that you were writing about of environment anything, caring about the environment, about where this is going, about this stuff is going to run out someday. Now I can understand the entrepreneurs thinking “I only want to get rich quick.” because there’s a lot of people who… Like there’s one in the backyard started doing stuff and next you know they are billionaires. This also reminds me of the oil and you talk about Plainview and there-will-be-blood that era. And then I thought well, all right, if they can flip things really quick, I can see why the care about the environment because they can just get rich quick but then shouldn’t the finance people be factoring this into the equation? Yeah, Apple talked about that up until then that was you putting your perspective. Is it really that little concern for where this is going on the environment?

Bethany: Well, I think there’s a broad concern in the country about where this is going environmentally and I think some people in the industry are concerned and thoughtful about it. I’m not sure that’s [unintelligible] in any industry but there certainly is some concern. But the fact that that part of the story is missing from this book has more to do with my book than it has to do with the widespread concern about fracking because this is a [unintelligible] book, it’s a [unintelligible] book. It had to be by nature short, it had to take one aspect of this and explain it. And so I chose to focus on financial element angle for a few reasons. One is because I haven’t been covered well. People don’t understand this. You think about fracking and you think these companies must be making boatloads of money and the fact that it’s actually quite financially fragile and probably wouldn’t have come about if it hadn’t been for the Federal Reserve’s interest rate policy in the wake of the financial crisis. Those are things people don’t really think about.

So I thought that was [unintelligible]. But secondly, maybe I’m cynical but I also think that if something is going to bring fracking to an end, it’s probably going to be because the money drives it. In a world where people need and are willing to pay for hydrocarbons, I’m not sure environmental concerns are ever going to stop that. But if you are interested in the environment, there are a couple of really good books I would recommend that explore that side of things more than mine does and one is…. It’s very nuanced, very much present [unintelligible], it’s called The Green and the Black by a guy called Gary Sernovitz. He is a venture capitalist in the industry and he really tried to look at the environmental aspects of this. And then the other book I am reading right now by a New Yorker writer called Amity and Prosperity which is a look at the effect of fracking on one family and the health complications they suffer as a result of living they near where a site of fracking is being done. So the fact that it’s not in my book it’s neither a comment on how important it is, nor I think a comment on how people think it is. And it was the sculp and structure of this book. Does that make sense?

Joshua: You focused on a bunch of decision makers. And yeah, I get the fracking’s really important and I think it’s not a lot of New York State. Because even though there’s a lot of potential that they could get and who knows what’s going on in Alaska which I guess wouldn’t be fracking but that will be… Anyway. But you are looking at the decision makers and I feel among the decision makers, it’s not really a concern.

Bethany: I think that’s probably true and although there is a difference between the big oil companies who are increasingly environmentally responsible and are at least thinking about climate change and thinking about what they could do to mitigate the effects of what they did. There’s a difference between that and the smaller companies [unintelligible] it is just a piece of the world as they were back in the day whose incentive is just produce as much stuff as quickly and hopefully as cheaply as they possibly can. And I think that is the larger tale of business in America that it too often today is done from a short-term perspective rather than a long term one that really takes into account communities, the cost and the environment, employees and their well-being. And so I think perhaps in oil and gas it’s even more poignant that there this very short-term focus and shareholders on making money but I think that’s a larger comment on the state of business in general.

Joshua: I think you just explained again why you took the focus that you did. And I guess you’re kind of looking at… This could be the Achilles heel or you’re probably revealing the Achilles heel.

Bethany: Thank you. That’s a perfect way of putting it. I haven’t thought about it.

Joshua: You could use some help. I didn’t make it up. It’s been around for thousands of years.

Bethany: You may hear me say it in subsequent speeches but that’s exactly it.

Joshua: And I mean other Achilles heels are that you know it’s like the carbon emissions. There are a couple of things that I looked at your book as the structure of the book and I felt like the opening and closing really nailed it but the end of your epilogue said there’s a quote from the New York Times saying, “Institutionally Congress seems incapable of examining the energy independence issue in its broadest aspects of writing an integrated energy policy that is internally consistent and consistent also with economic foreign policy and environmental plans.” And I was like yeah, that’s like a really big problem because it made me also think of the environmental issues when there’s a systematic issue that is complex with lots of different things our political system doesn’t seem to handle it very well. I mean it’s so easy to get elected saying you know, “I got an easy fix.” Whether it’s an easy fix or whether it will be effective or not. Are we doomed to never be able to handle…? This might be too big of a question for… Is this is too complex an issue for people to handle it? Because on an individual level it’s like, “Let’s get rich.” and we give individuals the freedom to do that.

Bethany: Right. And I think that’s… You can ask, “But what Congress is capable of handling today?” [unintelligible] So, yes, that is a very big question. But that energy policy specifically and America has never really had an energy policy to speak up. And I suppose you could argue that in some ways some of this is good because we also have a land where people own mineral rights. That’s it’s enabled fracking because individuals can go and sell their mineral rights to big companies and make money from it. And so the opposition to fracking hasn’t been… Well, it’s been straightened and people, ordinary people have been able to make money from it. And so that’s helped spur the boom and waste that it wouldn’t in other countries. But it also means that you have you know thousands of small producers out there doing what they can to produce oil and gas and sell it and you don’t have any way like Saudi Arabia can say, “OK, Aramco,” national oil company, “We are turning down your production by a million barrels a day.” There’s no mechanism in the US to control production in that way. We can’t go out to the thousands small producers and say, “Hey, guys, it would be better for the world and America if you guys produced a million barrels less.” It’s just not the way it works here. And I can argue good and bad things about that. But I think what scares me a little bit is just our tendency to increasingly think that because the world has a certain way right now that’s the way it’s going to be in the future. And so right now we’re kind of chest beating about all this oil and gas we’re producing and making the assumption that that’s going to continue into the future and ensure instead of looking at the real weaknesses in this industry and the real issues and say, “OK. What are the risks to what it might be in the future? How can we plan a little better?

Joshua: So you’ve mentioned it’s a boom with easy money. People are flipping, flipping land which you didn’t say here, but you say it in the book without looking to the future, that tells me bubble but I don’t think you use the word in the book. Do people use the word fracking bubble?

Bethany: Yes. So there are certainly people who would call it a fracking bubble. I think one of the fascinating things to me is that there are all these industries it’s not just fracking where there’s actually a battle going on on Wall Street where there are people who believe and people who are really skeptical. Elon Musk is a great example. There are believers and there are skeptics. And it’s often an argument that that is not in public view. And so that’s true for fracking, there are believers who think that this industry is on the cusp of making profits even though everyone would agree it has not to date. And there are others who argue this is a giant bubble that is going to burst when credit dries up and leave a lot of damaging things in its wake. And so there’s very much of this battle ground going on.

I think one of the humbling things to me in writing this book is that I set up to decide who is right and I actually couldn’t at the end of it all because where this goes it’s dependent on so many factors including not the least of which is the price per barrel of oil which is set by all sorts of advanced beyond anybody’s control and anybody’s ability to protect. So I don’t have a great answer as to what the future is going to bring. But I think there’s a real question about what would happen if the capital funding mess went away, if masters said, “Wait a minute. The returns aren’t there. We’re not willing to invest in this anymore. We’re not going to give you the trillions of dollars you need. We’re not going to invest in your companies.” Then what would happen? How much oil and gas would America be actually producing? I think the answer would be a lot less.

Joshua: And it sounds like enough companies have already lost billions. I remember you talked about the BHP, was it in Australia, like 7 billion dollars. Do I remember that right?

Bethany: Yes.

Joshua: How do you lose 7 billion dollars? I mean how do you stay in business? You touched on the personal aspect and I want to get to that in a second. But let’s look at the Saudi side. I should have mentioned the title of your book earlier. Saudi America, when I saw that written I was like, “Oh, that has a very uncomfortable feel to it.” And there were a couple interpretations I had for it. I wrote it down. The ending quote from MBS. Can you remind me what MbS stands for?

Bethany: Mohammed bin Salman who is a young prince who has taken power in Saudi Arabia and a lot of that has to do with the effective lower oil prices on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia resulting in stability there and their need in the face of lower oil prices to remake their economy. And so that was one of the clearest examples of how low oil prices are creating change, not necessarily good change around the world.

Joshua: But one thing he’s talking about is building a city that is going to be built on renewables. Is that serious? I mean they have the money to do it, I guess, especially if the price of oil stays high.

Bethany: They don’t necessarily. So it is serious. And since the book was finished Saudi Arabia has announced they can’t take their national oil company called Aramco which is the world’s largest producer of oil. They can’t take it public after all. And the reasons why it’s not really clear why but I think they weren’t willing to offer enough transparency. And I think that worries investors about how long the age of oil will last. So I think MbS is absolutely right about the need to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy, it is completely reliant on oil and if oil is going away in the future and then where does that leave Saudi Arabia. So he’s completely right about it but whether he can pull off this transformation is a really open question.

Joshua: So that makes it sound like he’s sincere about trying to make it happen. The question is if they can’t get the money from going public, then how will they do it. And one of the closing quotes of the book is him saying, “I have 20 years to reorient my country.” and I thought alright, 20-year timescale, American politics don’t work on that timescale. And I wondered if the title Saudi America… It kind of sounds like maybe we’re becoming a dinosaur while a dinosaur fossil fuel thing is evolving to make itself work in the future. I mean they’ve got a lot of sunlight. Solar seems like it could work. Are we risking switching positions of a couple of people getting rich quick? Live in [unintelligible] for a little while meanwhile others who can plan for the future do, could we become the Saudi Arabia that is dependent on something while someone who is dependent becomes liberated from it? Is that conceivable? Is that what you’re hinting at?

Bethany: That’s exactly the right interpretation. And I think that’s the question because I was really shocked in talking to smart investors because I expected them perhaps wrongly said but this was my own cynicism to be really interested in renewables because you know I [unintelligible] from an environmental perspective but all these smart investors could be like, “Yeah, but I can’t make any money. So what’s that about?” And instead really smart investors are a) actively putting a lot of money into renewables. I don’t know if you saw that Apple just built a wind farm in Iowa to support its data center there and it’s entirely powered by wind. A friend of mine was talking to the Apple guy and he was like, “Yeah, yeah, you’re Apple, you’re just doing this because you’re [unintelligible] and you want to be environmentally friendly.” And the Apple guy was like, “No, no, we’re doing it because the wind is way cheaper.”

 So the other part of the debate and nobody knows the answer but this is an ongoing question “When is the end of the age of oil and gas? When is the transition going to come?” And there is a debate, people say as soon as 10 years, people say as soon as a hundred years but everybody agrees it’s coming. Then once you can see when that day is the price of oil and gas goes into a decline and doesn’t recover because everybody can see the end of it is useful life. And so one thing that really concerns me was how far behind we are getting in renewables because I think we do risk precisely as you said you know priding ourselves on being leaders in the world as it used to be and being [unintelligible] in the world assets going to be. Not just Saudi Arabia but another friend was talking to me about the Samsung battery factory outside of Seoul, South Korea and how far along they are in battery technology and how far behind we are. And I just worry that another component of our short-term thinking will be to take some of the effort to develop renewables to not work as hard at that as we should because that’s where the world is going and we want to be leaders in that, not just leaders in yesterday’s oil and gas.

Joshua: Man, I’m like where’s the loyalty to the country? I am thinking of the loyalty missing from our leadership in DC because… OK, I’m not going to editorialize a bit of like what’s driving me to do a leadership in the environment podcast is that I think what a big thing that’s missing in this country for all that people say, “I don’t want to pollute” whether it’s carbon emissions or methane emissions or plastic… Oh, man the amount of plastic that’s coming out of all this shales it’s like… Every day I pick up at least one piece of trash from the streets and put it in a trash can and the amount of garbage we produce is insane. And people don’t even notice that they’re doing it or they feel helpless to do anything about it. And what I’m trying to do and what I think is missing is leading people to want to change, not to feel they have to, not to be forced into it or just because it’s yeah, great change if it’s economically in your interest to do so by all means. But that’s not really leadership. That’s not really people acting on their values, it’s just people trying to save money. I’m all for it. But if you cannot get so much single-use stuff and not fly every chance you get… If demand decreased for a lot of fuels, how would that effect…? I presume that that would lower prices also. And I think that would get people to switch over to renewables faster if people were not flying as much. I’m dreaming now. If I had a really big effect on the world and Americans were like, “Hey, I want to do what Josh did. I’m going to fly less. Not because I have to but because I’m going to enjoy my neighborhood and I’m going to pollute less, I’m going to use less fossil fuels.” And if that happens on a nationwide scale, so if hundreds of millions of people start maybe turn off their air conditioner a few times more than they would otherwise, maybe ride their bikes a little bit instead of cars and so forth, take public transportation and so forth, and with that significant effect what’s going on?

Bethany: It depends on what scale it happens but it’s a little bit complicated. There’s a quote in my book that I feel like sums this up and the quote is, “There is a price that kills supply and a price that kills demand.” And what that means is that if the [unintelligible] price falls too low because people do all this, then oil and gas producers will stop producing as much because the investment money it will go away and they won’t have the money to be able to produce oil and gas. So yes, it would have an effect in that way.

On the other hand, there’s also that killing demand that if the price goes really, really high for oil, people’s behavior changes. There is a price that kills demand. And so people start driving less, people start economizing in various ways in order to save. And the conventional view is that higher prices will accelerate and move toward renewables more than lower prices will because at lower prices people self-interested behaviorists are, “Hey, this doesn’t cost much money. Why not?” If every plastic bag you bought came with the charge of 5 dollars, you’ll probably say, “Oh, I am not going to use that plastic.” That’s what they mean by the price that kills demand. See if you believe that we want to accelerate transition to renewables, you probably want a higher price rather than a lower price structure, at least in short-term.

Joshua: Well, that would motivate people to stop using stuff.

Bethany: Yes, the lower prices will motivate companies to stop producing as much.

Joshua: OK. Because if people stop using stuff out of principle, yes, that may be challenging but you know in the 60s people voluntarily did things that got them put in jail, in principle that wasn’t like making their lives better in the short term but it led to legislation, things like that, and it led to people voting. And if demand decreased for other reasons, if people found that the they could improve their lives in ways that reduced their use of fossil fuels so that even if the prices dropped, they would still not use as much. So if we lower demand from other reasons than price, then that would lower the development of more fossil fuels, that would lower the boom that’s going on, that would lower the availability of capital.

Bethany: Yes. It would.

Joshua: Good to hear because that’s what I’m trying to do.

Bethany: Yes. And I applaud you in trying to do that.

Joshua: I hope I’m effective. So there’s a personal side it seems to me. You could have done lots of different topics. You seem to have gotten into this more than you had to. I mean of course as a journalist you want to do a good job but I’m reading that there’s something that makes this interesting to you. I mean is covering environmental thing just your beat or is it just something you happened to pick or is it something meaningful beyond that?

Bethany: I’ve had such a random mix of things that I’ve written about over the years that I am not sure there’s any consistency although someone was joking with me the other day that every one of my books could be entitled [unintelligible ground so [unintelligible] because I guess I am drawn to things where there’s some kind of national controversy about them, where there is something in the way something is being financed and the economics of something that isn’t making sense and isn’t what people thinking is working. I guess that’s probably the math major and the analysts in me that is drawn to try to figure out those things and try to arrive at a conclusion about them. So I suppose that’s probably part of it.

I guess I had another personal interest in this so I did grow up in a part of the country that the economy is based on natural resource extraction and the part of the country called [unintelligible in northern Minnesota where the really only source resource jobs was iron mining. And so I suppose that gives me a little bit more of an interest and perhaps a slightly different perspective on natural resource extraction. I’m more aware of it and what it is and the jobs it can provide and the impact on the community when it’s booming and when there is bust that might have not be if I hadn’t grown up where I did.


Joshua: There’s a couple things you said that I find really interesting. You said earlier that you were humbled by not coming to a conclusion and you just said that you want to find a conclusion. How did that work out for you? And I feel like you went through an emotional journey then too. You want something, you didn’t get it but that’s humbling which I think most people prefer to be humbled.

Bethany: Right. You do and you have to have an impetus to figure something out but in the end I think you also have to be intellectually honest and not force an answer and not say, “I don’t like forced answers. I can’t get there myself. I can’t write honestly if I’m trying to say. I believe something when I don’t actually believe it.” So the book would have had a much [unintelligible] packaging if I could have said, “This is going to come to an end in a really ugly way and here is how I wish to deal with the fact that this is going to end.” We’d have a different conclusion if I said you know, “This hasn’t worked economically so far but it’s going to and so this is how it’s going to shake up.” It’s only easier to write if you have a clean narrative. And so it’s upsetting from a structural, from a story structural place not to be able to get to an answer. But I think you also can’t force it if you can’t get there. And I couldn’t in this place. So yeah, it may [unintelligible] the book challenging and it leaves me with this sort of humbling I set out to figure something out and I don’t feel in the end that I could. And I don’t think, to be clear, I don’t think I couldn’t figure it out because the answer is there and I just can’t get there. I actually think it’s not clear but maybe it’s the former. You never know.

Joshua: The price of natural gas and all this is fluctuating and it’s like the world’s resources are trying to predict these things and no one can tell anything and no one can tell should we produce more or produce less.

Bethany: It’s actually the best thing and when looking at all of this said one thing you can say is that people’s attempts to predict the history of oil prices is that they mostly have been wrong. And so this was actually a really fun thing to take away from this. It was like, “Oh, nobody ever gets this right.”

Joshua: Listening to us talking I feel like we’re getting into some depth in this conversation but you know hopefully people who listen to this read the book. It’s really got richness and depth that will put what we’re talking about much more context to it. Yeah, I was kind of interested in it and then when I saw what it was going to be about what I was like… My take would be normally look at more the environmental consequences but then I didn’t put the book down. So hopefully that will sell a couple of books for you.

Bethany: That’s a lovely compliment. And another friend, he actually read it on the beach and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s the first time in my life anybody has ever called… Well, except for J. Lo and A. Rod, that’s the first time in my life anybody has ever called something I’ve written a beach read.” and I was very happy. I took it as a compliment.

Joshua: Well, I would be happy for you if a couple of books sold. It’s really for the listeners. I think they’ll enjoy the book. That’s why I think people should get it. So going back to what you said, northern Minnesota. Wow, that sounds like a really cool place to grow up. When you think about the environment is that what you think of? Because I want to shift our talk towards the environment because it’s the Leadership and the Environment podcast.

Bethany: I think I grew up in a place where the effects of mining on the environment was right there. In northern Minnesota, for instance, would naturally be a pretty flat place but there are all these hills made out of [unintelligible] from the iron mines, the extracts from the iron mines so it just got piled up creating all these hills which eventually trees and grass grew on. And so we used to go out to the cliffs which were created by excavating iron ore pits and the abandoned mines that jump off the cliffs into the huge you know deep water below that had accumulated over the years of doing this. So I grew up in a countryside that was literally shaped by mining but it also during this time I grew up along with the American steel industry that part of the country where I up just went into sort of a prolonged bust from which it has never really recovered. So jobs lost, people unable to work and the effect that’s had on the community is pretty huge.

So I suppose I have a nuanced view on the environment about the short term and long term you know I appreciate what this stuff does to provide jobs to people and provide income to people because it’s really important. But also there are risks to it because you know that’s sort of thing could go away as quickly as it comes and it can leave a community worse off than it was before the boom came. And it’s not an answer in and of itself. You know we tend to think like I said it’s this idea that because things are this way, they should be this way forever so places where they are building plastic plants or people are making money from leasing their land to drilling companies, that seems like it will go on forever but it doesn’t. The bust comes and then the jobs go away. So it’s a short-term answer, that it’s not a long-term answer I think. I think about that too.

Joshua: You know the way you put it puts a lot of context on what you wrote about because you can just see the idling equipment looking a lot like the landscape that you grow up in and it puts a more personal touch on that. One of the things I do on this podcast is I ask people, leaders and influencers, journalists and authors if they are interested in doing something to act on, what about the environment they care about. And I wonder if you’d be interested in doing something that listeners could hear how it goes. And before we go any further, it is at your option. And there’s a few things that I’ve learned that’s important that you don’t have to fix all the world’s problems all by yourself overnight because a lot of people think that’s like too big of a thing. But it has to be some measurable thing that you do. It can’t be telling other people what to do because there’s enough people doing that already but something, a measurable difference. And I also find that it really doesn’t matter how big it is because it’s more about the doing and the skills that come from doing it. Would you be interested in taking on a challenge or acting on your values and share how the experience went?

Bethany: Sure. I’ve already started doing something but I will do it more intentionally than I have done it because it’s a little bit haphazard. What I am trying to do is just be really, really conscious about the use of plastic. So I’ve already outlawed plastic drinking bottles in my house so nobody’s allowed to use them because they just accumulate and that’s terrible. And I’m just trying to be really conscious. I bought [unintelligible] the other day and that saleswoman was wrapping it up in a nice plastic [unintelligible] bag and I said, “No, no, no. Let’s not wrap it up. I don’t need a wrap job. I can just take it home without the plastic.” So I am just trying to be super, super conscious about plastic and when plastic bags come into my house to make sure they are reused in some fashion or another. And since I have dogs, that’s actually pretty easy to reuse the plastic bags. So I am trying to be more conscious in that way. I don’t know if that’s big enough thing.

Joshua: Yeah. What I want to question is a lot of people say plastic bottle’s recyclable and they think well, no big deal. So you don’t think that. I don’t think that but a lot of people do.

Bethany: I don’t know if they are or if they are not, that is you drink out of plastic water bottles water and you have everybody in your house do that, you have a full garbage of cans and plastic so whether or not they’re recyclable or not, you’re creating just a lot of garbage. I don’t care if they can be recycled or not. So why create that? Why not just have a cup and use that instead?

Joshua: Yes. I agree. And surprisingly many people don’t but hopefully that will change, or I hope. OK. So I think what it helps is to make it a smart goal so not just to be aware but I want to make it specific and measurable and time bound. Do you think you could specify something for a certain period of time?

Bethany: Let’s see. [unintelligible] period of time. That’s complicated. I am trying to think if I can really say I won’t use plastic. I think that’s a little bit tricky. I don’t think I can get to where I won’t use plastic. Making it specific is a little harder than having the intention of reducing it and I get. It is supposed to be harder.

Joshua: I appreciate your thinking out loud partly because I think it’s more useful to the listeners to hear this process because then they hear that, “Oh, it’s not so easy.” but hopefully they’ll also think a little bit, “But it’s not that hard either.” We’ll see. And the specificity isn’t supposed to make it harder but just more easy to tell because if you just say, “I want to lower it.” then I think it’s harder to achieve a goal that’s less specific.

Bethany: I could give a specific goal that I won’t use plastic unless it is absolutely the only option but then is that specific enough because it can be when is it the only option. So that’s complicated. I can’t eradicate the use of plastic because again I have dogs and other things. So it’s tricky. Maybe something other than plastic that I could do.

Joshua: I am also thinking about the plastic is that if you said that it’s not necessary that virtually not many people actually achieve full on what they said. Like someone might say they’re not going to have meat for a month and then they visit their mom and the mom makes a steak and they are like, “Well, all right, I’ll make an exception for mom.”

Bethany: I have a better goal which is a totally different to take that sometime in the next year and it may take me a while but one of the questions I’ve gotten asked is that as I’ve gone around and spoken to people was “How real are renewables? How do we tell? What are people doing? What are the most interesting things that are out there? How cost competitive are they? So I will take on at least a story where I really dig into something whether it’s the Apple wind farm, whether it’s something that [unintelligible] friend told me they were doing in Costa Rica, whatever it is but really look at something that is attempting to make the transition to renewables. So at least to try to provide a little bit of an answer on that.

Joshua:  I would love to read that article especially for someone who just said I like to look at the numbers and see what really goes on underneath because it’s so easy to make something look really green and kind of fool around with it when it’s like the wind farm… There’s this magazine, online magazine which I love called Low-tech Magazine and he analyzes this thing and like the embedded carbon in the wind mills is like a lot and someone to go in depth and all the stuff and so forth. And I think the industry would like it because they don’t know the numbers either and the more public it becomes…. Yeah, there’s a bit of pain of like ripping the band it off but then eventually the accountability sinks in and leaders I think like accountability, effective leaders. And based on what I read that you wrote and the Enron stuff I feel like you’d do a thorough job, an effective job.

Bethany: Okay. So that sounds like a good goal because then I can do something that’s measurable. I can deliver a product that is really looking at something and say how does this work and what is it doing and that will help hopefully get the best of all worlds to provide a guide to how quickly this transition is coming about.

Joshua: I can’t wait to read the article. So then I guess we’ll get in touch when the article comes out because I’d love to hear the story about how it went or actually when it comes out or maybe somewhere along the way if you feel like, “Now it’s a good time to talk to Josh and his listeners about how things went.”

Bethany: That will be great.

Joshua: OK. So to wrap up, is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I’d brought up?

Bethany: No. You have such an interesting approach to this that it was actually fascinating to see my work through your lens which is one of the fun things about putting something like this out there because people bring different lenses to it so it’s really interesting.

Joshua: Well, I’m glad that that worked out. I like my perspective too. So I look at other reviews and things. Is there anything that you want to say directly to the listeners that might be… I mean you might have just answered it but anything else to say?

Bethany: Well, I think and I guess this is maybe perhaps a little too much for a quote for my book but that doesn’t necessarily make my book… I think it’s really important to… In modern life it’s really easy to separate ourselves from that production of energy and only to use it and not to think about how it’s produced. And whether you are pro or con, whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, it’s an important issue to understand because it’s all of our future in a way that is deeper and more important. And say you know the latest app [unintelligible] coming out of Silicon Valley. I think it’s important for people to understand this and grapple with it and if there’s not a national energy policy and given Congress is debatable whether there will be or should be, but if it’s not, if people actually have use on this and are thoughtful about it and maybe we don’t need one, maybe the will of the people can take the place of that.

Joshua: It’s really important. I’m going to tag onto something from a readers’ perspective which is that it’s a readable book. It’s not that long despite having all of what it has in it. And despite all the depth it’s accessible. I mean there were a few times where I had to read a paragraph a couple of times but that’s because the depth was in there and yeah, it was accessible and readable. So well, Bethany, thank you very much.

Bethany: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure.


I can’t wait to read her article. Usually, I press people that their commitment should have some measurable environmental effect but I’m so interested in seeing this article and as far as I know it doesn’t exist that I really want to read it, I didn’t press her on that. Since the recording I visited Houston. This background helped as did her personal connection. She set me up with an energy research company there and it was very useful for me to talk to them. If you want to understand this critical part of the United States becoming an oil exporter again and what may happen next, you’ll appreciate this book. Fracking also came up in my conversation with Michael O’Heaney also on this podcast who pointed out how much new plastic oil companies are going to produce as a result of this fracking boom. This is the world that we live in. This is along with population how much greenhouse gas we effectively take from out of the ground and put in the atmosphere, one of the major influences on our environment. As a side note, I also recommend especially if you like pictures to look at her article on J. Lo and A. Rod. But that’s an aside. Really, I recommend her book.

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