Is Fracking a Feminist Issue?

still-gaslandThere has been a lot of debate over the past decade about whether or not it is safe to drill for oil and natural gas. One of the most controversial methods of oil and gas extraction is called “fraction drilling” (more popularly referred to as “fracking”).

Fraction drilling doesn’t just dig a straight hole into the ground so that a pipeline can be inserted to export gas to the surface. Fracking involves hydraulically fracturing the ground that surrounds shale deposits of natural gas so that gas can be released and captured from a variety of angles. There are environmental issues to be considered, as well as health care issues for the communities that are near drilling sites. That being said, President Obama gave fracking a thumbs up in 2013 when he gave a speech about climate change at Georgetown University, emphasizing the economic and security benefits of natural gas.

“For the first time in 18 years, America is poised to produce more of our own oil than we buy from other nations. And today, we produce more natural gas than anybody else. So we’re producing energy. And these advances have grown our economy, they’ve created new jobs, they can’t be shipped overseas — and, by the way, they’ve also helped drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly 20 years. Since 2006, no country on Earth has reduced its total carbon pollution by as much as the United States of America.” –President Obama (emphasis mine)

Fracking foes have used a laundry list of arguments to oppose shale extraction. One notable anti-fracker is Sandra Steingraber, who compares fracking to rape. (I will address the rape analogy in a future article. For now, let’s focus on dollars and cents.) Steingraber argues that fracking is a feminist issue because women are underrepresented in the energy industry. She also states that:

“The jobs for women are ‘hotel maid’ and ‘prostitute’ . . . So when fracking comes into a community, what we see is that women take a big hit, especially single women who have children who depend on rental housing.” (via The Washington Times, 4/6/2015)

That same statement has been mimicked by community members in other states in a very demeaning manner. This is an extremely disrespectful statement that comes from someone who clearly has the luxury of disposable income. 

I was a janitor when I was in high school. I was one of two women on our crew. I enjoyed using the strip waxing machine because I could show my male compadres that I was just as strong as they were. I have been a hotel maid, and I have worked back-of-the house at three different restaurants. All of these jobs involved working my ass off. Yes, these were underpaid positions. But all of these jobs enabled me to pay my college tuition and stay in school.

Blue collar jobs should not be derided. Neither should sex work. There are many different types of sex work, from phone sex operators, to burlesque dancers, to call girls, to street workers. In my opinion, sex work is no different than any other job. Ms. Steingraber needs to show more respect for people who don’t have salaried positions with healthcare benefits and retirement plans. We all bust our humps to keep a roof over our heads and put food in the refrigerator. If it weren’t for people working in energy fields, white collar folks wouldn’t have the electricity it takes to turn on their iPads or run the wifi servers that help them stay connected to the worldwide web. *Deep breath.*

Journalist Jillian Melchior recently addressed this claim in an op-ed for the New York Post:

While the risks posed by American energy exploration remain minimal, the benefits to women and their families are significant. One-third of all oil and gas workers are women, and industry estimates suggest they will fill 185,000 more jobs in the next 15 years. And far from being “hotel maids and prostitutes,” as Steingraber erroneously claims, IHS Global predicts nearly 70,000 women will obtain white-collar jobs in that same time frame.

I caught up with Melchior this week to ask her to go more in-depth on the economic benefits of fraction drilling.

Jillian told me that she grew up in Wyoming. Energy production is a large part of the state’s economy. Melchior explains that most anti-fracking literature is marketed towards women because “women are the primary caregivers in their families. They worry about how drilling might effect their children’s health, as well as their own reproductive health. Women are also the ones who typically manage the family’s budget. Affordable utility bills mean a lot for women.”

Jillian identifies as a feminist and defines feminism as “economic equality.” Yes, the oil and gas industry is still a male-dominated profession, “but women make up one-third of the oil and gas industry.” Jillian believes that the US education system should put more emphasis on trade-related courses. “You can make a good income in the energy sector with a high school diploma, or a certificate from a community college,” says Melchior. (This all assumes – in my not-so-humble opinion – that our legislators take their eyes off of standardized testing and recognize that learning a trade is just as important as reading about dead white men like Aristotle or Shakespeare.)

Melchior is happy to discuss the pros and cons of fracking, “as long as people make arguments that are grounded in science and reality.” I couldn’t agree more. I love talking to people about their opinions, especially when their point of view is different from mine – but only if people have well-reasoned arguments to support their claim.

I asked Jillian if she had any  advice for young women who are trying to figure out which career path to follow. Melchior encourages people to do their research so that they understand the issues, then “find something you’re passionate about and pursue it. Don’t be intimidated.”

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