Fracking Hysteria (Op-Ed)

on October 07, 2013 at 12:00 PM
Protests Continue At The West Sussex Fracking Site

A woman performs a massage for a protester in a tent outside the entrance gate of a drill site operated by Cuadrilla Resources Ltd.

Opposition to hydraulic fracturing of shales has become ‘hip’, embraced by students, long-time activists and the usual Hollywood suspects.  Unfortunately, this generates a lot more noise than signal, as claims ranging from false to outrageous get the most attention.

Politicians regularly respond to hysteria, but frequently with gestures and profound announcements of concern, and only sometimes with badly-designed regulations. Outright bans on fracking have been implemented in a number of places, like Vermont, but others, like Britain, simply insisted on careful study before proceeding.

The problem is the psychological tendency to assume correlation equals causality. Relatives of victims of brain tumors blamed cell phones, parents of autistic children are certain that vaccines are the cause, and now various people with health problems are quick to blame hydraulic fracturing.

This is not to say that the concerns aren’t warranted. Initial suspicions sometimes prove valid.  The famous case would be tobacco and lung cancer.

And scientists often wrongly scoff at new theories. When Warren and Marshall suggested that bacteria are responsible for stomach ulcers, the scientific establishment initially scorned the idea.

This is often cited as a cautionary tale, but it should be in more ways than one. What too many hysterics overlook is that ultimately, the evidence supported the theory. Skepticism led to more scrutiny, which found more evidence and increased the certainty that the theory was valid.

That is not the case with many environmental scares, and this is where hysteria takes over from rationality.  The fact that numerous studies from important neutral groups, such as the British Royal Academy of Sciences or the EPA, have not found significant problems from fracking has not deterred any of its opponents.

Certain indicators show when the debate has moved from rational concerns to hysteria.

These include:

Context:  Facts are given out of context, especially the suggestion that there would be no negative effects without the controversial activity. Those who live in natural gas producing areas know that methane often contaminates water, but opponents of fracking treat this as a novel phenomenon.

“In scores of towns all over America, residents have noted that what should be clean drinking water is actually a flammable cocktail of untold toxicity.”[i]

Vagueness:  Instead of quantitative discussions of the amount of pollutants and their health effects, areas are frequently described in general terms (see Apocalyptic below).  Contrast this with reports of other environmental dangers, which describe years of life lost, or additional cancers.

“It’s poisoning our air and water and on its way to jeopardizing the health of millions more Americans.” [ii]

Subjective Health Effects:  Headaches and nausea are very real, but also can have psychological roots.

“…horses and pets mysteriously began to lose their hair.”[iii]

Stories, not Facts:  Joe Rogen, in his show, questions everything, asks people for facts, and describes eyewitness accounts of UFO, alien abductions, Sasquatch, etc., as “stories”.  This is a basic difference between scientists and lay people.

“The fracking industry claims there’s no scientific proof (only ‘anecdotal evidence’) that their technology has ever caused ‘unreasonable’ harm, and until such proof exists, they have a legal right to frack away. To ordinary people, flaming faucets and dead animals make it obvious that fracking can contaminate water.”[iv]

Fervor:  In faux science cases, the tendency is to cling to the original theory and attack new evidence.  When the EPA closed some of its investigations on contamination, instead of accepting it, the agency was denounced. When a Texas A&M study with the EDF found low methane emissions from some wells tested, many criticized it for its oil industry association.

“The long-awaited Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)-sponsored hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) fugitive methane emissions study is finally out. Unfortunately, it’s another case of “frackademia” or industry-funded ‘science’ dressed up to look like objective academic analysis.”[v]

It is noteworthy that other opponents, like Joe Romm,[vi] correctly note both the value and limitations of the study.

Conspiracy:  Scientific results are denounced, and it is implied that researchers were influenced to falsify results or abandon research, usually by industry (oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers). The US EPA is censured for not agreeing with opponents of fracking, as is the UK Royal Academy of Sciences and Academy of Engineering.

“Environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling…”[vii]

Fellow Travelers:  Some anti-fracking arguments tar opponents with a relationship that readers would find repulsive. The story below equates criticism of fracking opposition to the tobacco industry, climate denialism, and the Koch Brothers.

  • Gas Industry Deploys Dirty Tricks to Undermine ‘Gasland 2’; Part I: “FrackNation” Deploys Tobacco Playbook in Response to “Gasland 2”[viii]

Attacking the Person (and their funding), not the Issue:  Many articles completely avoid the question of pollution or health effects, but demonize those in the debate. The oil industry (or the Koch brothers) act as favorite whipping boys.

Protests Continue At The West Sussex Fracking Site

DeSmogBlog revealed earlier this year that Energy in Depth is an industry front group created by many of the largest oil and gas companies, contrary to its preferred “mom and pop” image. [ix]

Changing the subject:  When residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania complain about the depiction of their community as devastated, fracking opponents point to the fine paid by Cabot, as if that negated the fact that the town’s environment was not seriously affected.

Mutation:  Transforming one term into a similar, but not identical, concept.  Actor Mark Ruffalo takes the EPA to task for saying the water in Dimock, PA, is “safe” when, he notes, it has been declared contaminated.  Nearly all water on the planet is “contaminated,” including most expensive bottled water, but much of it is safe.

Apocalyptic:  Terms like disasters[x] or catastrophe[xi] are usually evidence of the dominance of subjective feelings rather than sober analysis of actual health impacts.

“…President Obama’s support for fracking threatens to exacerbate climate change to the point of no return, while poisoning our water, air and families in the process.”[xii]

Transference:  The practice of fracking is blamed for things that it didn’t actually do.

“At this week’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, attendees will be treated to not one but two new studies linking a recent increase in significant earthquakes to the reinjection of wastewater fluids from unconventional oil and gas drilling.”[xiii]

The injection of fluids was responsible, not the fracking, as this clearly states.  It could have been waste water from an organic farm, but the author of the above quote blames fracking.

Hide in the Sources:  Assume that no one will check your facts.  Mark Ruffalo takes a story about water contamination from drilling, and turns it into “drilling and fracking”.

“According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, records revealed through a Scranton Times-Tribune investigation in May, at least 161 confirmed cases of water contamination in Pennsylvania from gas drilling and fracking operations between 2008 and the fall of 2012.”

The source he cites actually says that fracking might cause problems but clearly states:

“The state has never implicated the underground gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a contamination incident,…”[xiv]

One piece makes a puzzle:  While any given study can be informative, it is rarely conclusive. When a recent study argued that methane emissions from gas wells were much lower than earlier estimates, environmentalists criticized it as limited (which the researchers openly acknowledged, as good scientists do).  They then turned to another study covering a field in Utah, showing high levels of methane, and implied that it was definitive.

You may recall that a major study this August in Geophysical Research Letters from 19 researchers led by NOAA suggested natural gas may be more of gangplank than a bridge.[xv]

Fracking opponents somehow neglected to mention what the NOAA study clearly stated:

“The measurements show that on one February day in the Uintah Basin, the natural gas field leaked 6 to 12 percent of the methane produced, on average, on February days.”[xvi]  [emphasis added]

Data for one day is hardly representative of the entire industry’s operations, and arguably less so than the Texas A&M study, although neither comes close to a definitive answer. Taking one study’s results, good or bad, to make policy is foolish in the extreme.

As with any activity, the potential for pollution exists and the industry must recognize this. Monitoring above-ground spills and bad casing jobs seems to be the primary challenge (albeit a minor one) for frackers, along with appropriate waste disposal. Methane leakage is also important, but it seems likely that most of this occurs in the distribution system, parts of which are quite old; the government has been tardy in addressing this issue, but new instruments should reduce the climate impact significantly by identifying the worst of the leaks for repair.

That said, there are many people who dislike modern society and especially industry, and would like to live in the Garden of Eden, apparently believing it was bug- and disease-free. Others are inclined to demonize and blame the petroleum industry, the way Medieval Europeans often blamed the Jews or witches for their troubles. Neither of these groups is amenable to reason or compromise.

However, there is a large group of citizens who are more concerned than informed and who can be educated by real facts and the weight of scientific opinion, which is beginning to have an effect already. It is highly likely that the fracking industry will face continued opposition, but most will be from isolated citizens (including a simple NIMBY position), and governments will gradually provide rational regulation. More or less.

Mr. Lynch has over twenty years of experience analyzing international energy, particularly oil and gas markets. He has numerous publications in four languages and speaks regularly at international conferences. He is the primary author of Global Petroleum SEER and Global Petroleum Outlook, which provide short- and long-term oil market analyses.

Mr. Lynch’s previous work has included computer modeling of the world oil market and estimation of the economics of supply for both world oil and natural gas, including LNG supply, and market behavior under normal and disrupted conditions. He has also given testimony and advice to committees of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Energy Agency.