Failure Is an Option We Should Consider

Those images of the out-of-control nuclear plants in Japan are hard-wired to our own situation in Dallas. Their tragedy is our challenge. The question is whether we see the wire in time.

City council member Angela Hunt has succeeded in forcing Mayor Dwaine Caraway to put the issue of natural gas drilling in urban areas on the city council agenda for a briefing on April 20. Residents near Hensley Field and Joe Pool Lake are worried about plans by XTO Energy to engage in deep rock-cracking operations for natural gas called "fracking" in the drilling trade.

I'm not saying that fracking can cause a disaster here anywhere near the scale of what is happening in Japan. But it can cause a disaster. And the lessons of Sendai are lessons we need to learn in Dallas.

The public dangers from fracking include possible poisoning of ground water, house explosions and caustic air pollution. Of course, there is also the real possibility that none of these problems will occur because adequate precautions will be taken to ensure they do not. Only an inconceivable failure of our precautionary measures would pose a real threat.

And there is the hard wire. In the wake of the ever-worsening disaster in Japan, some public policy thinkers are beginning to write about the importance and value of inconceivable failure as a planning tool. If you have time, look at this very interesting blog post title "Inconceivable ... why failure should be a part of the plan. And isn't."

It's a pretty simple concept. Look at Japan. Ask yourself: What could they have done to prevent an earthquake and tsunami? Easy answer, right? Nothing. There is no way at all that they or we can plan ahead of or defeat Mother Nature when she decides to give us a beating.

So the idea here is that you start with that concept. Assume failure. Then work backwards. Ask yourself what you're going to do about disaster if and when it happens.

Assume we had four dozen big rigs operating in close proximity to neighborhoods.

Assume a natural disaster like tornado or flood knocks them all a-winding. Assume there is a massive incursion of chemical toxins and radioactive isotopes -- the stuff used in fracking -- into either the ground water or the public water system in Dallas, along with a plume of air pollutants.

Then ask: What could we do? What mechanisms would be in place to protect us? If the answer is that we would not be able to protect ourselves from four dozen big rigs knocked a-winding, then maybe we need to reel it back in and do the same scenario for two dozen rigs. Or six rigs. Or none. There's a difference between optimism and stupidity.

The problem with mechanical precautions is that they are sold to us by the people who want to make money off the danger. We need objective committed experts who will look at these issues and how they affect our communities the same way we would look at a threat to our own loved ones -- very, very realistically, with a whole lot of what-ifs.

That's why the task force that Hunt wants to get up and running is so important. We need experts to help us with these questions. We need a way to ensure that the experts we get are not on the take. We don't want to be 'fraidy cats. But we don't want to poison the babies.

All easier said than done. The sooner we get on it, the better. Notice I didn't even mention the levees.