Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Science, well sort of… fracking open my brain!

Boy this has been a trip.  I set out to answer the question, is fracking, and the resulting increase in the availability and use of natural gas, on balance a ‘good thing’ as it relates to climate change. In other words, will fracking result in a meaningful reduction in GHG’s, and will the associated risks/costs be worth that reduction?   For phase one of this “experiment”, my methodology was to drift through my normal day to day interactions with various media (almost all on line now, BTW) and see where the stories and reports took me.  I probably spent about 10 hours over the last few weeks reading and listening to various sources assuming that this would lead me to an operating thesis or general conclusion.  I then planned (and still intend) to take my thesis and test it with some true experts on both sides of the proposition to see where that leads me.  But even as I started my troll through my media, I ran into a major and perhaps insurmountable roadblock to the truth…me.

As I have meandered around and under the issue of how we decide what to believe, a central touch stone to my thinking has been if we can somehow make folks aware of how they come to their beliefs, if they can be brought to a conscious level, then this may have a positive impact on their decision making.  And unselfconsciously, I have probably held myself up as an example of what can be achieved by this seemingly laudable approach.  Just be self-aware and all will be well.

So going in to my fracking experiment, I was indeed well aware of my biases.  I cataloged them, steeled myself against their intrusion, even asking for your help.  But what I was not prepared for was that despite my supposed awareness, I gleefully and unabashedly raced from source to source seeking to confirm my biases while shunning conflicting data.  I repeatedly reveled in proving myself right and avoided looking at contrary information…I frankly found it nearly impossible to approach the information objectively…oh my, even smarty-pants me.

Here’s how it played out…

First, I found little if any debate about the fact that natural gas emits about half the GHG’s of coal.  So going in any risks would need to outweigh that benefit…so far so good.

One of the major knocks on fracking is the environmental harm it is purported to cause.  This includes contaminated groundwater water, releases of methane and potential earthquakes due to the fracking.

As I started to look into these issues, my bias against zealots who stake out positions based on ideology or fear rather than science soon overwhelmed my noble quest.

My casual surfing of the various media took me to sources such as  “The Shale Reporter”, which  tells us of a man claiming to be sickened by the radioactive content of the fracking fluid flow-back who only gets relief from homeopathic remedies (…don’t get me started). On the radio, the Executive Director of an Anti Fracking NGO was unable to cite a single example of actual groundwater contamination.  I followed other threads of various claims about water contamination, and threats of exposure to lead, arsenic and innumerable carcinogens and they kept coming back to a single source, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and Dr. Theo Colborn.  And while no doubt well intentioned, and despite protests to the contrary, the evidence offered there is not based on rigorous science. My search reinforced over and again my bias that the fears about the potential health effects of groundwater contamination may be ideological rather than scientific…and frankly confirming this bias is easier and more gratifying than challenging it.  So when I see that the EPA will issue a major report next year on fracking impact on groundwater, I already assume it will generally confirm my position, while of course calling for more research. Remember, more research is ALWAYS needed.

Similarly, my dilatory cruising of the web unearthed serious doubt about the scientific basis for claims that methane release is a big problem.  Early studies making the claim have been refuted, and at worst there seems to be pretty easy technological fix.  But again, in my gut I know I’m seeking out the threads that confirm this conclusion rather than challenge it.

Next, losing heart, I only looked into one claim about earthquakes, which gave me comfort by telling me that if they are caused by fracking, which is uncertain, they are minute and therefore inconsequential.

Finally, my head exploded when I ran across the quote below from one of California’s State Legislators in reference to a law that would potentially place a moratorium on fracking…

"What I'm trying to do is say to the oil companies, 'Look, if there's never been a problem with fracking, if it's safe, you need to prove that to the public,' " said Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County).
See here on the impossibility of proving something will not harm you, and yet we keep making that demand.

Look, I have no doubt that fracking poses legitimate risks.  Also, I’m sure it is not nice to have a well in your back yard…but so far I have not bought into the idea that the downsides outweigh the potential benefit of reduced GHG’s.  The question is, have I come to this conclusion because I’m unable to resist confirming my existing biases, or is it objectively true…we’ll ask the experts next time.  So, what do you believe?