Industry expects public to mistake rhetoric for science

Hydraulic fracturing is problem free. The science says so. Those who ignore this science are hysterical fear mongers.

So say the mouth pieces of the gas industry. In New York, where shale gas is on hold pending the state’s scientific review, Brad Gill frequently expresses this industry line in public talks and interviews. Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, is on record testifying in front of New York state lawmakers that fracking uses only a “small amount of dilute, benign additives” similar to vegetable oil and ingredients found in personal care products. The public perception of drilling is being colored, according to Gill, by “those who have worked instill fear in the public … by spreading reckless misinformation in an attempt to block the expansion of natural gas exploration.” Last week, Gill told Jon Campbell, Gannett’s Albany reporter: "The discussions more often than not revolve around emotions and politics rather than science and facts. We have to rely on science, facts and track record here in New York."

The shale gas industry’s “track record” in New York is blemish free, of course, because it is non-existent. Permitting for the technique needed to effectively produce shale gas -- high volume hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling -- has been on hold for four years as state officials attempt to assess the environmental impact of the process. Gill is likely referring to the “track record” of the previous era of gas exploration in New York, which was altogether different from shale gas development, and also far from perfect. The record shows that because of the absence of reporting and disclosure requirements, landowners have been left to settle water pollution complaints on their own. Even so, there are places where water contamination has been documented related to conventional drilling. Additionally, counter to the industry’s claim in New York that fracking chemicals are “benign,” the DEC has listed more than hundreds of chemical additives in fracturing fluid that are toxic and carcinogenic.

Yet I have heard Gill’s frustration with the lack of “science based” information echoed by some drilling proponents who also want to “take the politics out” of the decision making process. It’s a rhetorical line that many industry supporters continue to embrace, despite its glaring logical shortcomings. If the industry wants to rely solely on facts and science, it can’t conveniently exclude science that refutes its claims that fracking is risk free. Just last month, for example, the online journal Groundwater published research indicating that fracking fluid can migrate from pay zones up through cracks into the aquifer in a matter of years. The author Tom Myers, a researcher from Reno, Nevada, has worked for conservation groups and governments on groundwater issues.

When the industry insists on “science based” information, it’s really insisting that information comes only from industry-employed scientists. When Gill and others urge the public to “take the politics out” of the debate, they are really asking to take the opposition’s politics out of the debate.

Regardless, scientists do not make policy in this country. Elected officials and their appointees do. Purely empirical assessments cannot account for moral and ethical factors or provide cultural reference points for our values. How does science gauge the overall character of a community, the wellbeing of it’s members, their tolerance for risk, their economic needs, and the utility and value citizens place on minerals extracted from the grown, and the aesthetics above?

Politicians make these kinds of calculations. And politicians (ideally) answer to the public that elects them. The public gets information for these choices through a free and open media, which in this day and age includes an unprecedented cornucopia of mainstream and alternative outlets. Not surprisingly, many of these outlets cite sources – some scientific and some not -- that challenge the industry’s bold and far-reaching claim that hydraulic fracturing is risk free.

Even if we were governed by a technocracy – a system ruled by scientists -- the process would likely be no less messy or contentious. There are respected scientists on both sides of the shale gas issue. (Tony Ingraffia, an engineering professor at Cornell University, and Terry Engelder, a geologist at Penn State, are former colleagues who have taken opposite sides of the debate. They are featured in my book, Under the Surface, and represent a few of many examples.)

Let these and other scientists – those with stakes tied to corporate ventures and those at arm’s length -- lead the discussion. But leave the decision making to politicians and the people who elect them. The public can accept a certain level of risk – it always has – in the name of the greater public good and free enterprise; as long as there is full disclosure.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.