Friday, June 7, 2013

Science, well sort of…. A fracking midterm report

Ok, best intentions notwithstanding, I’m way behind on my self-imposed schedule of completing the promised three part series on fracking.  Part one (here) generated an unprecedented number of responses from you all …clearly readership is now firmly in the low double digits…I’m humbled.  And I do promise to complete the series, but until then, I thought it might be useful to quickly share with you some of the comments I received as they point to the vexing complexity of this project, and therefore may serve as part of my excuse for being late on my homework. Consider this part 1.5 of the now 3.5 part series…ugh.

First, a number of you asked me to "show my work"…what were the sources of information that led to my conclusions after round one, so that you could check me and arrive at your own conclusions.  Well, that will be hard, as my research process resembles the wiring of my brain…random and disjointed. But frankly, that’s exactly how I wanted to approach the project, mimicking how I go about my day to day media consumption, rather than using a rigorous approach.  I would start with an article I ran across in the NYT, SF Chronicle or Twitter, and then follow threads where they took me, be it via embedded links or just the magic of Google, driven by my curiosity (…biases?). So I found myself on sites such as 'Shale Shock', the Shale Reporter, Propublica, various UC Berkeley Centers for the study of blah blah blah, and so on.  My point was not to get to an objective truth, but to examine how I got to mine.  But bottom line, I was too lazy to document my research so I’m unable satisfy those of you who want to double check me…sorry.

Another point raised by several folks was that I was not framing the question correctly. Or perhaps to be more precise, I was framing the question too narrowly.  Here’s what I said initially …
"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?"

You pointed out that I may have missed some important aspects of the issue by framing it in this way.  First, there is the question of what does natural gas replace.  If it is coal or other high carbon sources, you concede it will likely result in an overall reduction of GHG’s…but if the consequence of cheap and plentiful natural gas is to slow the development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, or zero carbon sources such as nuclear, well then not so much.  I was also chastised for focusing too narrowly on the feared direct impacts of fracking, such as potential groundwater contamination, methane release and increased drilling, and not on the more nuanced points.  And you’re right, darn you.  For example, it was also pointed out that the impact of fracking on the reduction of GHG’s will largely be the result of governmental policy and regulation rather than just the free market.  Again, this is directly related to what natural gas replaces as the result of tax incentives, energy policy, how tight regulations are, etc.  Again, you are no doubt right.

Next many of you on the sciency side of the issue made some great points that can be summed up as “we just don’t have enough data yet”.  This is of course correct, but we have to be careful as it may also be a bit of a red herring.  I will concede that there will always be a need for more and better data on this, as on any complex issue.  But we also have to acknowledge that the demand for ‘certainty’, or at least more research, is often used as a device to divert, delay or obfuscate.  So while I concede this is very much an emerging issue about which we do indeed need more data (the methane release issue came up in particular) we also need to be honest with ourselves. At the end of the day, we reach our conclusions based not only on data, but on the host of other factors I have been droning on incessantly about in this blog….emotions, biases, fear, community, etc.

Finally, I have been gratified by the number of offers you made to provide me with the experts I’m seeking, to make their best case on the issue…it’s going to be tough to figure out who to choose.

So there, with your indulgence, is my midterm report…I promise to get the rest of my work turned in on time, unless of course my dog acts up again…so, what do you believe?