Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Is 'Fact' a four letter word in the fracking debate?

I have been arguing recently that the fracking debate has been unhelpfully framed as a matter of getting the facts right. One side or the other is lying, we are told, and once we understand who has THE TRUTH, we will see that the correct policy options are self-evident. I think this framing displaces explicit discussion about values (how to prioritize goods and how to act under conditions of uncertainty) with a proxy war about facts (supposedly neutral, perspective-free reports of bare reality).

I have been accused (see comments here) of counseling that we ignore science and go with our 'feelings.' But that is a straw man depiction of my point. Consider this case study: back in April, the hydrologist Tom Myers published a paper titled "Potential Contaminant Pathways from Hydraulically Fractured Shale to Aquifers," which was widely covered, including by Abrahm Lustgarten at Propublica. The study uses interpretive computer modeling to argue that the transport of toxins from fracking operations to groundwater reservoirs could occur much more quickly than has largely been presumed.

But, note, this is not about facts - it is about exposing an assumption for what it is. The assumption that layers of impermeable rock will keep hazardous chemicals out of groundwater supplies is just that, an assumption, and one that now seems to need more explicit justification. Absence of evidence here is not evidence of absence, because we do not have detailed data about the long-term fate of fracking chemicals due to a general paucity of monitoring.

This is why I think that Myers makes a reasonable extrapolation to policy prescription from his study when he writes, "The rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing requires that monitoring systems be employed to track the movement of contaminants and that gas wells have a reasonable offset from faults."

But I have to admit that that policy suggestion is not cleanly derived from facts. The study is not about facts, but about a model that plausibly suggests a taken-for-granted 'reality' (i.e., the rock layers are impermeable) may not be so trustworthy as an implicit justification for status quo activities. It seems that a reasonable step is to require more monitoring so that we can learn more about the fate of frack fluids that remain underground. That is because I value health and safety highly and think it is worth the extra cost and precaution (in light of this alternative story about the underground behavior of fracking fluids) to learn more about whether these goods might be threatened.

I know some will dismiss the study off hand, without considering its merits, because (as Lustgarten notes) it was funded by two organizations with anti-fracking sentiments. But this is the same attitude used by the other side to dismiss anything off hand that has any connection to the oil and gas industry. This is the problem with the 'facts-based' framing: we can always find ways to cast a hermeneutics of suspicion on any study. We can always find ways to hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

But the result of this is a shouting match where both sides insist they have the facts and the other has lies. It is more ambiguous than that, at least in this situation. There are two stories, neither simply 'a fact,' to be told about what fracking fluids are doing underground. The right policy response is not a matter of letting the facts speak, but of letting a democratic process deliberate on the relative strengths of these stories and the appropriate collective response.

Of course I must admit that computer modeling is full of assumptions and there is something troubling here about the funding source. But I think Myers' study is important, because computer modeling, for all its flaws, is better than the default hand-waving folksy geologic wisdom of 'look at all those layers of rock! how could anything possibly migrate through all that?!' The modeling suggests that story, as intuitive as it sounds, may not be true. I think that warrants more monitoring to get more evidence (so we don't have to rely on either folksy wisdom or models). That is based on my own sense of how to prioritize goods. But it is a plea, in this case, for more science.

So, yeah, I think 'fact' is usually a four-letter word in the fracking debate: a clever way to package your foregone conclusions based on your values priorities as simply the sane and rational policy. Using it usually adds about as much to productive discourse as sprinkling one's language with F*&# and S&#@. It might underscore something deeper driving the debate, but does nothing to get at those roots and actually obscures them and vulgarizes the whole discussion. But this does not mean the only alternative is 'feelings.' There is a large area in between where we weigh together evidence, assumptions, uncertainties, and values as we seek to find some common ground.

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