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?


  1. Alex,

    I have been awaiting your journey on this subject, because I am interested both in the journey and the endpoint. Okay, and I too need to address the central concern that you state - how to avoid one's preconceived judgments, but to use only a good scientific process. (Okay, further disclosure...I think I have the same predispositions as do you on the subject.)

    That said, I think this particular blog, with your ending, leads down the well-worn and tragically unscientific path that I also sometimes see in journalism attempting to appear even-handed. You've seen it too: on some subject, where clearly the weight of evidence is on one side, yet the journalist in an appearance of 'balance' says, "On the other hand..." - then makes the lame alternative case - and THEN concludes that the cases are both out there (journalist's job 'done') - and leaves it so that the public audience is supposed to make their 'own' judgment. Yet the entire process of appearing to be even-handed (1) does an injustice to science, or more generally to reasoned argument, and (2) can easily confuse a scientifically undereducated public. As the father says in Fiddler on the Roof, sometimes "there isn't another hand." It is an obligation for the reasoned commentator to point out when the arguments just don't add up in any balanced way; when the weight of scientific evidence clearly falls on one side or another. Please give us the list of arguments; give us the arguments which are not evidentially supported (but give objectors the opportunity to contradict that observation by providing such missing evidence, if they can); if the evidence weighs in one clear direction, then tell us. In the case of fracking, I think you point out that there are roughly a handful of stated objections. There is one generally unchallenged 'fact' that replacing coal should lower GHGs. Give us a list of the scientifically reputable articles that either support or oppose each claim. Of course you can't give us all the evidence, but a few (in your judgment) leading references/studies will fulfill your job. Then you too stand by your conclusion, and evidence, presenting the reader with your synthesis of the available scientific data. (That is valuable scientific effort too.) That I think is how science operates.

    1. Great points...actually I've received a lot of feedback on the post along the lines you essence, show us your work...I didn't before out of concern over length, and frankly, the whole point was to show my journey...the more I dig into it, the more I realize that my objective is not to provide answers to folks, but to give them a sense on how they might approach the challenge deciding on complicated issues...fracking is vexingly difficult because of all the aspects of the question...all that said, I've decided to do an interim post that gives some more details on my sources as well as captures some of the great point made by folks about the complexity of the issue...thanks for commenting!

  2. Alex,

    The methane issue is a serious one, but there is very little measured data, so it's no wonder that you were confused by this. It's likely that the methane emissions are more than what the industry says and probably less than what the more extreme folks say, but we need more measurements!

    According to this peer reviewed article, if methane emissions are greater than 2% of the total natural gas then natural gas is as bad as coal from a climate perspective (because the short run (25 year) global warming potential of methane is very high): Wigley, Tom. 2011. "Coal to gas: the influence of methane leakage." Climatic Change. vol. 108, no. 3. pp. 601-608. []. 2% isn't much, so I'd be surprised if methane leakage WEREN'T higher than that, but we'll just need to await measurements. In the meantime, I suggest using natural gas for utility power plants (where leakage is lower) preferentially to expanding its use in residences.

    I'd say a similar conclusion is probably justified for your other two issues--we just don't have enough data to say one way or another, but it's worth investigating. We probably know more about the leakage issue than the other two.

    Good luck,

    1. Thanks Jon...I'll have a look at your cite, but my guess is I won't be able to follow what it says. I ran across the 2% limit in my reading as well. As always, more research is needed...I think I'll make that my epitaph!

  3. Has anyone seen the documentary "Gas Land"?

  4. Alex,

    Check this out (if you haven't already)--

    It is a fascinating and comprehensive look at the who what where when why and how of beliefs and ensuing emotional competence discussing i.e., theories of knowledge, perception, "authority" vs. expertise, credibility, journalistic license or scientific methodology, power and influences, self-justification, mental and human impairments, group think dynamics, and the powerful, uncomfortable necessity of living with ambiguity.... to name but a few ideas. It's not about fracking though.

    Regarding this blog beginning with the science of fracking, I too would appreciate a few of your 'believed to be' and trusted reliable references in order to put what you began to desire to discuss into context. Your noble quest to study fracking turned into a self-reflective discourse of your real and potential biases, (well done but perhaps another topic altogether too?) yet gave me little education upon which to better understand fracking. I would like to learn about what you brought forth and then make my own informed decisions, quite possibly biased, yet at the same time trusting in my own mind's ability to assimilate and unravel the information making an intelligent assessment. Easy? No. Complex? Indeed. Impossible? No.

    Research, learn, simplify, repeat. Fracking? What the frack?

    1. Done and done...I'll be putting up a list of my sources and you can test your biases alongside mine...stay tuned...GO BEARS!!!

  5. Alex...

    I am very interested in the observation that awareness of bias does not really help you overcome it... Why do you think that you were so attached to your pre existing points of view? Do you think that it has to do with your perceived identity... that we are (or at least are seen as) the collection of our believes? Buddhism and other eastern religions are pretty insightful about this tendency of the mind... So it is not really about fracking but about your relationship to the opinions about fracking that matters????

    1. Oh boy...have you hit on something here...I'd like to say I allowed my biases to take over because it was the simpler felt good, took little real work and frankly was faster than pushing myself to confront them...having said that, the sources I went to made my easy work easier in that in my judgement they were weak on real data to back up their claims.

      It's interesting that you mention Buddhism...I've been doing some reading on Zen recently and there are some astounding overlaps on the question of how we come to our beliefs...maybe more on this later...thanks for your comments