The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Waiting for the Science to Settle

With shale gas and “fracking” shaping up to be the hot environmental issue of the year, the airwaves have been awash with a breathtaking number of scientific reports claiming either to link the practice to any number of environmental catastrophes or absolve it of responsibility for any of them. In the New York TimesDot Earth column, Andrew Revkin makes a good point about this deluge of scientific studies:

Setting aside the fights between environmentalists and industry, the picture emerging in the science is of an initial assertion in an area with inadequate data (largely because of the industry’s proprietary bent) that is — unsurprisingly — being challenged. I encourage you to look back at Gavin Schmidt’s “Fracking Methane” post from last year at Realclimate, which I feel nailed the nuances. I hope he will take a look at the new work, too.

Unfortunately, when research on tough questions sits under the microscope because of its relevancy to policy fights, the impact on the public can be a severe case of whiplash. Journalists and campaigners succumbing to “single-study syndrome” in search of a hot front-page headline or debating point threaten to alienate readers seeking some sense of reality.

This is, unfortunately, an accurate depiction of most reporting on scientific and environmental issues. True scientific research takes time — it takes years of experimentation, testing, and retesting before arriving at a firm scientific conclusion.

And reality is complicated. Good science by good scientists doesn’t automatically result in the kind of certainty and clarity that policy makers would like to have. Medical researches have been studying diseases like arthritis and Alzheimer’s for generations and there is still much that we don’t understand about devastating diseases that affect tens of millions of people. Nutritional science, the science about an activity as basic as eating, is notoriously difficult. We still don’t really know what people should or should not eat in many cases; we do not know why so many people are fat and we do not know how to treat obesity.

A news cycle desperate for headlines and immediacy is poorly suited to accurate scientific reporting, environmental science very much included. Fracking may have all the negative effects its detractors claim — it also may have none. Most likely, it is a useful technology with some unpleasant side effects that can be partially but not entirely addressed at a cost that is somewhat higher than we wished we had to pay.  That is how most things in the world turn out; fracking is probably not all that different from everything else.

Thinking about a technology like fracking is also difficult because not all the benefits and risks can be easily compared.  Physics and chemistry can help us analyze environmental risks; how do we assess the political benefits and risks? What if brown jobs in fracking and other unconventional methods lead to a new energy boom in the US, providing hundreds of thousands of well paying jobs in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York?  What if failure to frack increases US dependency on foreign oil and increases the danger of US involvement in more overseas wars? What if fracking leads to an era of relatively cheap hydrocarbon prices, increasing the rate of CO2 emission and postponing the shift to alternative energy generation? What on the other hand if cheap natural gas (a cleaner fuel than coal, for example) reduces the amount of CO2 emissions?

Perhaps one day human ingenuity will get us to the a place where all these questions have clear answers; we can just plug the variables into a computer and the answers will pop out. Or maybe not; maybe the universe is more complicated than the human mind and we will never master its principles well enough to predict the future with complete assurance.

But what is clear is that in the here and now, questions about topics like fracking (and global warming, for that matter) that combine uncertainties based in the nature of the natural sciences with uncertainties rooted in the even greater and wilder uncertainties of social and political ‘science’ cannot be treated as purely technocratic issues. We do not have and cannot get the kind of certainty that one ideally would like for decisions of this kind.

Common sense is going to have to play a role and, because questions like these are political issues, the common sense of mass public opinion is likely to be decisive. Many important questions, and fracking is one of them, are likely to be addressed by common sense, split the difference, down the middle kinds of compromises. Compromises of that kind often turn out to be misguided, but so do technocratically pure decisions based on science that turns out to be settled.

It’s part of the human condition and it isn’t going away soon: we make important decisions without knowing all the facts.  Sometimes, we make expensive mistakes.  That’s reality, and we have to deal with it using common sense.

Published on January 8, 2012 10:37 am
  • Andrew Allison

    “True scientific research takes time — it takes years of experimentation, testing, and retesting before arriving at a firm scientific conclusion.” Add reproducibility to the list.
    What we have here (as in the case of AGW) are simply hypothesis, which need to be proven before they become “settled”.
    Where, despite decades of the best efforts of so-called “climate scientists” is the proof of their hypothesis? In fact, of course, the evidence is increasingly pointing the other way. A decade ago, it was “settled” that AGW would cause increased hurricane activity. In fact, the decade was the quietest for over a century. Etc., etc.
    I have no axe to grind in the fracking debate other than that it’s time we started calling hypotheses a hypotheses, and not science.

  • Andrew Allison

    “Hypotheses” and “hypotheses hypotheses”

  • stephen b

    While his article, The Chump Effect (http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/chump-effect_610143.html), refers to “social science”, the same holds true for science “journalism” in general. Math is just so hard…

  • Roger Hecht

    Walter,
    Your appeal to “common sense” feels to me to be a dodge, because in the case of fracking, the drilling continues unabated while the science is still “being settled.” You raise a lot of legitimate what if’s. The problem is, the biggest what if–what if fracking is as environmentally disastrous as environmentalists argue–could explode in our faces if fracking continues without further study. If you want to make a real case for common sense, then you should argue for a moratorium on fracking until the science is settled. Enough fracking has been done in enough geological regions to conduct plenty of long-term studies. Of course, since the drilling process were started before any baselines could be scientifically established, proper studies will take even more time. As it already stands, the fouled water in Dimmock and Wyoming, the earthquakes in Arkansas and Ohio, and blowouts all over the country strongly support the environmentalists’ case.
    If fracking is as safe as industry claims there is no loss in a moratorium until further studies can be conducted because the gas is going nowhere and can be fracked at a later time. If fracking is as dangerous as environmentalists claim, then let’s stop it now to prevent potential disaster. If there is a safe process that can clean fracking flowback (pretty much impossible right now), avoid ground water contamimation via faulty drill casings, prevent blowouts, and not shift the costs of production onto the communities where fracking takes place, then let’s write those regulations and legally hold industry to those best practices it claims it follows. But to withhold judgment until the “science is settled” and common sense can prevail while fracking continues is, frankly suicidal for the communities in which it occurs.

  • Gary Hemminger

    Oh if only our leaders were so reasonable. this blog post should be mandatory reading for our political and scientific leadership.

  • Kris

    Roger@4, the scientific consensus (for what its worth) is that fracking has a greenhouse impact that is no more than half of coal’s. Since we are informed that we are very close to a tipping point in global warming, wouldn’t a delay in substituting fracking for coal be the height of irresponsibility? Surely you wouldn’t want to be responsible for the END OF LIFE AS WE KNOW IT?!

    [/sarc]

  • Russ

    To Prof. Mead and or regularly-flogged interns. This is slightly off-topic, but I can’t find direct contact information. Are you guys aware that there’s an active Hegelian synthesis going on between Lawrence Lessig and CATO Institute? If you want to see the future of the Blue Model, you guys need to pay attention to this. “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” can’t come to synthesis — their issues are orthogonal to each other* rather than opposites. But Progressivism and Libertarianism, as opposites, CAN do this, and political alliance between the “equiality” and “liberty” camps can be VERY powerful.

    *based on a former associate’s political work, which is brilliant and successfully predicts individuals’ political predilections with absolutely eerie accuracy. I won’t pass out contact data publicly but would be more than willing to do so privately if you’re interested.

  • Roger

    Kris,
    The Cornell study on methane and greenhouse gas footprint suggests that your claim about consensus is wrong:

    “On a 20-year time horizon, the Greenhouse Gas footprint for shale gas is up to 43% higher than conventional natural gas, 50% greater than oil and 20% higher than coal for the same amount of energy produced by each of those other sources.”

    A lot of methane gets lost in the hydrofracking process. You can read the study here: http://www.springerlink.com/content/e384226wr4160653

    More evidence for waiting rather than plunging ahead.

  • http://www.randomthoughtnetwork.com Cory

    The problem with relying on common sense is it’s a lot like science, it takes awhile to coalesce. With as quickly as our world is changing, common sense is having a hard time keeping up, so instead we get bubbles of hype.

    No sooner do we get one hype bubble of ‘common knowledge’ inflated, then it pops, and we rush off to another one.

  • Kris

    Roger@8:

    First, and as an aside, you should quote the study itself, not a press release of unknown provenance.

    More significantly, which Cornell study? You are actually referring to the Howarth paper, which was notable mainly for going against the consensus. This paper was followed by further work by scientists at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (who presented their work at Cornell), and by some of Howarth’s colleagues at Cornell, all of whom refuted Howarth and re-affirmed the consensus view.

    More evidence for moving ahead. (Well, perhaps not for Jenny McCarthy.)

    (Note: As should be obvious to anyone reading the original post, I was using the word “consensus” in the sense of “strong majority,” not “unanimity.”)

  • Jim.

    @Russ:

    Please forgive the rest of us if we believe that anything coming from the “Liberty and Equality” fraternity would be any less disastrous for America than it was for France.

  • maulerman

    Roger @ 4

    In your critique of Professor Mead you note:
    “As it already stands, the fouled water in Dimmock and Wyoming, the earthquakes in Arkansas and Ohio, and blowouts all over the country strongly support the environmentalists’ case.”

    It is important to be clear on the supposed threat of hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing of wells has been an industry practice for over 50 years. The game changer here was the combination of horizontal drilling with staged fracture stimulation of deep shale formations. This has made it economic to produce oil and gas from tight (i.e. dense) geologic formations.

    To state that hydraulic fracturing caused water pollution, the evidence would need to show that contamination of the fresh water resource was due to the fracture stimulation of the well. In other words, the hydraulic fracturing of the well in the deep formation allowed the oil and/or natural gas to migrate into the freshwater formations which are typically thousands of feet above the oil and gas formation.

    With all due respect to you and to Professor Mead there is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing process directly caused pollution of freshwater resources in any reported incident.

    Each of the incidents you cite as support to place a moratorium on fracture stimulation of wells is flawed as they go to the general dangers of oil and gas drilling, not the specific issue of hydraulic fracturing. The Wyoming study issued by the EPA is a draft report which was not peer reviewed. Further it appears that in Wyoming that the problem is likely the close proximity of the fresh water formation to the producing hydrocarbon formation in the area and wells which were not properly cased and cemented through the fresh water zone which allowed the migration of the gas from the wellbore into the freshwater.

    As to Dimock, once again it does not appear that hydraulic fracturing was the cause of any water pollution. Rather it was improper/failed cement and casing in the wellbores.

    As to earthquakes, once again the issue is not that earthquakes were caused by hydraulic fracturing, but by injection of oil and gas wastewater into improperly completed disposal wells.

    Finally, blowouts are related to well control, not fracture stimulation of the well.

    No one suggests that all oil and gas drilling should be stopped because of the dangers associated with drilling operations, including the danger of polluting fresh water resources. To suggest that the dangers inherent in oil and gas exploration justify a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing is a straw man argument that misstates the issues in order to support a specific agenda.

  • Corlyss

    “Common sense is going to have to play a role”

    Not as long as Democrats have anything control over policy. They’ve been staving off reality and pragmatism for 50 year now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003405410268 Evan

    Great clip Zaanti. It’s itmropant to realize that natural gas is no more safe and clean than all of the other fossil fuels. It’s definitely not a diamond in the rough.