Fracking: An Environmental Science Battle Playing Out in Real Time

By Chris Mooney | February 26, 2011 2:41 pm

In the past half decade or more, I’ve covered a lot of science fights–related to vaccines, the environment, evolution, reproductive health, and many other topics. They all have a lot of parallels, things in common. One of thoses is that, at a certain point, due to political or cultural rather than scientific events, they tend to escalate.

At that point, like an intensification of artillery fire, the “scientific” claims really start flying fast and furious.

Right now, that’s happening with the issue of “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing. The precipitating event is clear: Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland, which is up for an Oscar tomorrow night.

As the film has risen in prominence, there have been a bevy of scientific counterclaims to it from industry, and scientific counter-counterclaims to those from Fox.

One central issue: Can all the complaints being made by homeowners living near drilling sites, that suddenly they have contaminated water (which sometimes even catches on fire), be explained away somehow? Can these occurrences be natural? Coincidental? Or does this anecdotal evidence already count as something stronger–even if it is pretty hard to document in many cases precisely what is in the water, or to prove that industry is responsible for it being there?

It seems to me that what’s missing, amid this furious science squabbling, is an attempt to step back and put it all in context so that one can judge where the burden of proof lies, how much we can reasonably believe at the current point in time, and how much th e remaining uncertainty cuts in critics’ favor, rather than industry’s. Huh. Maybe we have to wait for the EPA to release its comprehensive study on fracking and drinking water contamination–expected in 2014, if the agency still has a budget by then. Or, maybe we don’t.

What do readers think?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Comments (12)

  1. The water was good, somebody makes a change, now the water is bad. To me that is a smoking gun.

  2. I haven’t seen the documentary, so I’ll reserve my judgement. It’s possible that you have a documentary film-maker fabricating a scene to make a point (ala Michael Moore fabricating the acquisition of a gun immediately opening up an account at a bank), or embellishing the dangers of something without concrete evidence. And some of the critics of “Gasland” seem to make these types of charges. But from my reading, it sounds like some of the concerns raised in the movie are quite valid.

    Is the scene where flame erupts from turning on a faucet due to fracking or some other other man-made change, or is it something unrelated? I’m skeptical of the latter, but I think those are fair questions for skeptics to ask?

  3. Chris Mooney

    whoa big fracking expose in the New York Times, though the focus is on the waste water from the process, not on what is happening to people’s wells

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/us/27gas.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

  4. Chris Mooney

    @2 while i haven’t seen the movie yet, the clear implication is that fracking does this, and i know industry disputes this claim.

  5. Jay Fox

    I didn’t know anything about this frackin’ fracking thing. After reading the wiki link, I know enough to ask a few questions and make a few observations.

    First, that’s quite a list of ingredients at the end of the page. These guys admit they have to wear protective gear when using it.

    These guys (the “frackers”) admit they don’t understand the geology completely. Their stance seems to be that if it increases profitability, do it. They can hide behind their claimed ignorance if something goes wrong.

    It does seem to be clear that the intent is to shatter rock formations that just happen to keep our water sources seperate from the resources they are after. At least in some locations. The geology seems to be a bit hazy on that.

    @#1 Iain: Right backatcha. Good water. Frack! Bad water. Not so hazy.

    If the effluent they’re taking to treatment plants cannot be handled by said plants, then they need to pre-treat it someplace else first. There oughtta be a law with bankrupting penalties. If it can’t be safely treated, the process should be outlawed.

    Referring back to that list of ingredients, I’m really puzzled about the type of person who would think it safe to use this stuff in any environment. Exactly where do they think it goes? They suit up to use it and them pump it off to someplace they can’t see and have no clear, reliable idea of exactly what happens. I’m dumbfounded that anyone could even defend this.

  6. I do think that industry is responsible too, but from what I’ve read since 12 months now (we have a big fracking controversy here in Quebec since last summer), it will be very hard to prove. The main problem is: this “water on fire” could also be the result of natural causes (these residents could have been sitting on methane that they did not know of) or could be caused by something the residents did wrong. At least, this is what the industry will argue, and lawyers would have most difficulties to prove otherwise.

    Now, if you had, in the U.S., a national account of those “incidents” showing that they occur much more frequently where fracking is operating… Then you would be on more solid ground. I am guessing that a lot of environmentalists must be, since last year, trying to compile these datas.

  7. First, that’s quite a list of ingredients at the end of the page.

    As for the list of ingredients, this is not the list that is useful in any way. Many of those ingredients are under your kitchen sink or with your garden stuff. This is the concentration of those ingredients in the fracturation water that should be made known. And the companies, guess what, are not in a hurry to disclose it… :-)

  8. “One central issue: Can all the complaints being made by homeowners living near drilling sites, that suddenly they have contaminated water (which sometimes even catches on fire), be explained away somehow? Can these occurrences be natural? Coincidental?”

    Well, there are only two possible answers. If the contamination had not occurred prior to the fracking and is now happening, then you have correlation. The mechanism for causation is obvious, the whole purpose of fracking is to release trapped quantities of methane to the surface. The null hypothesis is that it is just a crazy coincidence that the gas started ‘naturally’ appearing in peoples faucets after — but not before — the fracking. Which explanation is more parsimonious and is less dependent on special pleading?

  9. “It seems to me that what’s missing, amid this furious science squabbling, is an attempt to step back and put it all in context so that one can judge where the burden of proof lies …”
    —-

    None of this is missing. In a permitting action, the burden of proof is on the permit applicant to demonstrate no harm from the proposed activity. In a civil action against an existing permit holder, the burden of proof would be on the complainant to show harm. The standard is a preponderance of evidence, which is far lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

  10. TB

    I was hoping you’d be covering this. ProPublica has a quite a bit too, that I’m just starting to look at

    http://www.propublica.org/series/buried-secrets-gas-drillings-environmental-threat

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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