Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Defusing the shale gas debate, Panel takes on tough task

In Monday’s post on Dot Earth, veteran science writer Andrew Revkin cites examples of disingenuousness from what he calls both the “bonanza” and “ban” camps of the fracking debate. Namely, the absence of transparency and legitimacy in work presented as objective scientific analysis. As examples, Revkin cites a report from the University of Texas at Austin, titled Separating Fact from Fiction in Shale Gas Development. A university news release accompanying the report points out that the paper is unfunded by the gas industry, but it fails to mention that its lead author, Charles Groat, is allied with the industry through income, investments, and professional affiliation. University officials are reviewing the report in light of the conflict.

On the other side of the issue, Revkin notes a working paper by Elaine Hill, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, which links birth defects to shale gas wells. The work, Natural Gas Operations and Infant Health, is presented as “robust science” by Hill and anti-fracking activists, even though it is yet to be published or peer reviewed.

(Add to this the recent controversy between the Associated Press and anti-fracking celebrity Josh Fox, whose expose on fracking, Gasland, was nominated for an Academy Award. The AP accused Fox of producing unsubstantiated reports of cancer rates near fracking zones in a follow-up film, “The Sky is Pink.”)

So how does the public fairly gauge the merits and risks of shale gas development when supposedly objective scientific assessments show signs of bias or fall short of scientific rigor? A panel of analysts will address that subject Thursday in Rensselaerville, New York. The event, Beyond the Hype, will feature diverse voices. In addition to Revkin, panelists include Stu Gruskin, former deputy commissioner for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and George Robinson, a watershed biologist at the University of Albany. Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, will moderate. (The event begins at 7 p.m. at the Carey Center for Global Good in Rensselaerville. Note correction: The event is not at the nearby Huyck Preserve, as stated in an earlier version of this post. For directions GPS or search 100 Pond Hill Road, Rensselaerville. RSVP by calling 518-797-5100 or by emailing rplatel@careyconferencecenter.org. Advance questions can be submitted to panelists through that email.)

These panelists are venturing into the middle of a policy donnybrook involving academics, journalists, lobbyists, activists, regulators, and heads of state and industry, the outcome of which will decide the extent of on-shore drilling’s role in the country’s energy future. The fight cuts across local, state, and federal lines. Drilling has not traditionally come under the purview of the federal government. In 2005, the Bush administration set out to keep it that way by exempting fracking (the industrial process that produces gas from bedrock central to the fledging on-shore gas and oil boom) from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But now the Obama EPA, drawing on case studies in Dimock, Pennsylvania and Pavillion, Wyoming, among others, is re-evaluating the impact high volume hydraulic fracturing has on ground water. At the same time, New York, sitting over the northern part of the Marcellus Shale, has become a showcase for anti-fracking efforts that have gone nationwide. Shale gas drilling permits in the Empire State remain on hold while state regulators gauge the environmental impact of shale gas development and retools its regulations accordingly. After assessing more than 70,000 comments on draft versions of the policy review (called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement) –generated largely through grass roots efforts of anti-fracking groups -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised the final version of that policy soon. Cuomo has also suggested that the state may ultimately defer to the preferences of local governments when it came to issuing shale gas permits.

Meanwhile celebrities ranging from Yoko Ono to Alec Baldwin have joined a group of scientists, engineers and health policy professionals, including Sandra Steingraber and Tony Ingraffea, who view shale gas development as reckless and unsafe under any regulatory format due to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and hazards related to faulty well casings and methane migration. Those urging a fracking ban are fighting desperately against shale gas proponents for the hearts and minds of the mainstream voting population. In addition to industry, fracking supporters include a faction of environmentalists who see shale gas as a critical and immediate transition away from coal and related health and environmental hazards ranging from ambient mercury exposure to mountain top removal to carbon emissions.

It won’t be the first time upstate New York has been front and center of an epoch national environmental policy debate. In the late 1970s, Love Canal in Niagara County became a popular cause in an era awakening to the consequences of unregulated hazardous waste disposal. So what comparison can be made between the popular movements driving the political train of Love Canal -- which lead to the Superfund law of 1980 and an era of environmental regulatory reforms -- and fracking? I put the question to several members of Thursday’s panel. Here are excerpts from their email responses:

Dealing with waste, including hazardous waste, is a tiny part of the economy compared to providing energy sources to generate electricity, provide basic feedstocks and heat to big industries and keep vehicles moving. So the clash of interests over shale gas and oil is far vaster, from the scale of landowners with different concerns (financial or environmental) to that of a country seeing what some tally as a $1 billion-a-day economic stimulus and path to an astonishingly quick decline in coal burning and carbon dioxide emissions, but also grappling with on-the-ground environmental questions.

The fracking controversy involves not only environmental safety issues, but also climate change and energy policy, as well as the rights of landowners, so in the big picture there are multiple facets to this challenge for policy makers. It seems to me that regardless of whether we are trying to prevent something like Love Canal from recurring, or anticipating and mitigating the impacts of an industrial process like high volume hydraulic fracturing, government should engage in decision-making that is based upon the facts and science, and not the 'hype'.

The gas industry has an enormous footprint that poses environmental, community, and public health risks. Vehicle traffic, resource demands (like water), workforce demands, etc., all add up, and they add up to a lot. So regulating gas development will mean regulating a multi-headed beast, and it's yet to be seen whether New York will be up to the task.

Rebecca Platel, the press contact for Thursday’s event, said it is intended to help bridge “a disconnect between the public discussion and what the state’s trying to do.” That is, to provide understanding of the regulatory infrastructure needed to oversee gas development, “not just whether it’s good or bad, or we should do it or not do it … Put Home Rule aside. Put flaming faucets aside—what are the impacts that we’re not paying attention to? How do they re-shape policy outcomes? And, given that there are so many different scales at which we can assess and debate the impacts and benefits of fracking—how to create policy that is fair, equitable and safe?”

The public comfort level with the idea of fracking in New York is far ranging– and a lot of this comfort level depends on how closely you are connected to the industry, and what stakes you have in the outcome. But on a fundamental level, we are all stakeholders. As a nation of consumers of cheap abundant energy, we tend to enjoy the comforts that the mineral extraction provides us, as long as we don’t have to look too closely from where it comes. The shale gas venture playing out in American back yards forces us to take a good close look.

1 comment:

  1. As a scientist, all of my research publications were peer-reviewed and all of my funding sources were disclosed in those publications. That's the way real science is done and I expect nothing less.

    Our governor says he wants to go by the science, and so says his DEC. However, the ongoing shale gas debate has little to do with real science. The state won't even approve a health impact and safety assessment recommended by scores of scientists and physicians.

    In New York state, the shale gas debate is a David vs. Goliath battle: people vs. gas industry. It's also, people vs. DEC and their industry consultants.

    It was a low blow by Mr. Revkin to pit Ms. Hill, a doctoral student, against a gas-industry-funded professor.

    If Mr. Revkin is so concerned about peer-reviewed science as it relates to the shale gas debate, he needs to have a look at the DEC's 86 page Bibliography in the revised draft SGEIS of September 7, 2011. Show me: where are the peer-reviewed publications? Where is the real science?