By Steven Brill
1. Scoping out the budget for attacking Syria:
This article in Defense News estimates that if President Obama attacks Syria the cost would likely be "hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons," including $1.4 million for each Raytheon Tomahawk missile that is launched. All last week I saw estimates that were equally vague and varied from the tens of millions up to and over a billion dollars.
Of course, that's hardly the press's fault; no one can know the cost of the proposed attack without knowing the details of the war plan, and even then, the ultimate cost would depend on how the plan pans out — including how many weapons are used and how long it all takes.
Still, I would like to see two stories this week related to the Syria war debate and money.
First, someone should try to scope out the likely cost with greater precision — including fuel and logistics support for the war ships in the area, extra costs for putting various forces, such as those protecting embassies, on high alert, as well as the exact cost of the missiles to be used. Maybe budgets for different scenarios have been submitted to the relevant congressional committees. One would hope someone on Capitol Hill has bothered to ask.
Suppose the budget is $500 million. Then, a sidebar ought to list a half dozen or more other items the federal government could buy for $500 million. For example, according to this CBS News report it would take just $425 million to restore all the sequester-forced cuts to Head Start that have forced 57,000 low-income children out of the early childhood education program beginning this month.
Second, there's got to be a good story about Raytheon's Tomahawk missile business. How come it seems to be the weapon of choice for conflicts like this? What's the gross profit margin on each one it sells to the U.S. and to what seem to be lots of other countries around the world? Does it charge the others more or less than it charges the U.S.? And what's the competition like for weapons like this?
2. Please tell me what to think about fracking:
Last week, while in Colorado I saw a TV ad sponsored by an energy industry group in which a young couple explains how they have been able to hang on to their family farm and its traditional lifestyle because of the income they have received by leasing their land for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The young woman explained how she had made sure that fracking would cause no damage to her land or water while providing steady supplemental income.
With great visuals, it was quite an effective argument that fracking is safe and offers a ticket to a bright future for that family and others — a conclusion that would seem to be buttressed by the fact that Colorado's liberal, environmentally-sensitive governor, John Hickenlooper, is a big fracking booster.
The same week I happened upon a Bloomberg Businessweek article headlined: "A Shrinking U.S. Trade Deficit — Brought To You By Fracking." In the same issue another report largely attributed what the magazine predicted would be Russian President Vladimir Putin's waning global influence to the competitive threat that fracking poses to his country's all-important energy exports.
So fracking, which most of us hadn't heard of half a decade ago, seems to be a gift from the gods — a new technology that is a game changer for the American economy, for the national security threats posed by our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and even for the family farm.
Except that all kinds of environmental groups insist that fracking will be a national disaster, that accidents in the process — and byproducts from the chemical runoff even if there are no accidents — will threaten the water supply in vast areas wherever the wells are being drilled.
The public interest journalism organization ProPublica even has a section on its award-winning website devoted to a long-running series of reports exploring the dangers of fracking. The latest, dated August 13, 2013, is titled, "New Study Finds High Levels of Arsenic in Groundwater Near Fracking Sites." And in Colorado, Hickenlooper has faced stiff opposition to his support for fracking. Meantime, in New York the fight between fracking supporters and opponents has been so fierce that Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is up for re-election and might be eying a 2016 White House bid, has apparently become so fearful of offending one side or the other that he's continued to delay a decision on whether to allow the high-tech drilling.
To be sure, there have been countless stories about fracking. Many emphasize its economic benefits and suggest that the dangers have been overstated. Others, like the ProPublica reports, emphasize its perils. Still more, in what could be called the mainstream press, have diligently quoted both sides. So I can't complain that there has not been enough coverage.
Yet I feel as brain-locked as Cuomo when it comes to fracking.
Sometimes, especially when the issue is complicated and can be clouded by each side's jargon-filled scientific arguments, a different kind of journalism is needed. What I'd like to see is a comprehensive story from a completely credible and thorough reporter with no ax to grind and no preconceptions who could, yes, tell me what I ought to think about this.
Is fracking the next asbestos or lead paint, or is it our ticket to a new golden age? Or is it perhaps both?
Opponents often talk about how drilling accidents could kill thousands. Is that true? If so, does that mean it should be stopped, or do the benefits outweigh the costs?
If I told you at the beginning of the last century about a new technology that could revolutionize American industry and the American way of life and you countered that it would also cause 30,000 to 40,000 accidental deaths per year, we would both have been arguing about the advent of the automobile. So what can be authoritatively said about the likelihood and scale of fracking accidents or other dangers, and how do these threats weigh against the benefits?
(Steven Brill is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own)