A few days ago I was drinking a morning cup of coffee at my home when the roof began to creak. I assumed it was a stiff wind, until I looked outside. The trees were still.
Moments later, the leaves on my houseplants started to shake. This was highly unusual.
My mind raced. Either my house was slipping down the hill, or — only slightly more likely — a small earthquake had hit. A quick visit to the web confirmed the second conclusion: a small temblor, centered in Oklahoma, had rattled the dishes in Kansas City.
It didn’t take long for scientists and activists to look for a cause. For several years, energy companies have pumped fluid into the cracks of subterranean rocks in Oklahoma and other states, forcing out oil and natural gas. It’s called fracking.
Some experts think pumping used fracking fluid far beneath the earth’s surface caused the Oklahoma quake.
For most of us, fracking has been a miracle. Eight years ago, gasoline cost $4 a gallon; today, it’s around $2. Natural gas is cheaper, too, and cleaner than coal for generating electricity.
A minor earthquake seems like a small price to pay for all that cheap energy. On the other hand, I don’t live in Oklahoma, where the earthquake damaged buildings, and where fracking may contaminate the groundwater supply.
In Oklahoma, the trade-off between less expensive energy and public safety is more complicated.
The cost-benefit analysis of fracking in Oklahoma may seem like something we don’t need to worry about. In fact, though, it’s an example of an argument that may dominate our politics for the next generation, which is: what do Americans who live in one part of the country owe those who live somewhere else?
Americans who live along the coasts are already coping with rising seawater as a result of global climate change. Residents and politicians say it could take billions of dollars to build flood walls and pumping stations, and to raise roads and bridges above the water, to save homes and businesses. Relocating affected residents will cost even more.
Should Kansans and Missourians help pay the cost of protecting homes along the ocean? Maybe. Coal-fired electricity in the Midwest may have contributed to a warmer climate, suggesting we have some obligation to mitigate its effects. At the same time, rising seawater doesn’t threaten Lee’s Summit. Yet.
This us-them dilemma isn’t limited to environmental concerns. Donald Trump has promised punishing tariffs on companies who move their jobs overseas. The idea is to force washing-machine makers and other manufacturers to use higher-cost labor here at home.
If it works, thousands of jobs might return to Rust Belt cities in Ohio and Kentucky. But washing machines in Kansas City could cost $1,000, not $600 or $700. And if foreign nations retaliate, cheap clothes and electronics may disappear from store shelves across the country.
Will Missourians willingly pay more for bath towels in order to protect textile workers in North Carolina? We may soon find out.
Americans consider themselves fierce individualists, often forgetting how interconnected the country really is. City workers subsidize farmers and farm communities. Rural areas help pay for urban mass transit. Californians pitch in when tornadoes strike Kansas. Kansas helps out when California catches fire. And so on.
As the climate changes, as natural resources shift, as the economy evolves, Americans’ commitment to helping one another will be tested, perhaps as never before in our nation’s history.
That test will really be an earthquake, and will last longer than the one that struck just a few weeks ago.