Friday, September 28, 2012

Citizen Input on October 9th - Let your voice be heard

Urban Gas Drilling in Denton: Citizen Input on Draft Ordinance. Let your voice be heard! Free and open to the public.

DAG is hosting a public event on Tuesday October 9th from 7:00-9:00 p.m. on the UNT campus in Business Leadership Building room #180. Spread the word - everyone is invited to share their ideas and concerns about Denton's draft ordinance for natural gas drilling.

On October 1st, the City of Denton will release a  proposed set of rules to regulate the natural gas industry. The Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group (DAG) is hosting this event on October 9th in order to understand your perspective on this draft ordinance. The event will feature a brief overview of the draft ordinance and then everyone in attendance will have up to three minutes to speak on the issue. DAG members will compile your comments in a statement to be submitted to the City's Gas Well Task Force. They will also use your comments to shape a more formal policy brief for City Council.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Europe and the Injustice of not Fracking?

I write this post from the Tuebingen, Germany. Earlier today, I climbed up to its Schloss (castle), which sits atop a hill overlooking the Neckar river, the woods, and the half-timbered buildings with steep roofs covered in rust red tiles. As I looked at the city below, I was struck by how much habitation I saw and how little transportation --- all homes, shops, and squares with outdoor dining and very little by way of roads and cars. By contrast, my plane flight over Dallas-Fort Worth showed mostly asphalt highways. Tuebingen is a world of habitation (homes, flower beds, and sidewalk cafes) vs. the DFW world of transportation (highways, parking lagoons, and strip malls).

Europe has generally taken a harder line against fracking than the US. A recent Bloomberg story reports some startling contrasts:
  • Whereas the US is chugging along whole hog with unconventional, shale gas deposits, many European countries have suspended (UK) or banned fracking outright (Bulgaria and France) or are considering such bans (Czech Republic).
  • Despite having more than four times the estimated reserves of the Marcellus formation, Europe is projected to grow more dependent on imported natural gas (LNG). Imports of natural gas are expected to grow by 74% with the US providing a good chunk of that.
How do we explain US shale gas mania and EU shale gas reluctance?

One hypothesis has to do with different conceptions of the public good. To put it crudely, Europe tends to put up sidewalk cafes where the US tends to put up highways (of course, this is a matter of degree). Europe tends to think about public goods in terms of idling together (chatting over a beer or coffee), whereas the US tends to think about public goods as services for accessing the next private space (going by car from business to home). So, perhaps in the US we think always in terms of private property -- if the public sphere is just the connective tissue between private activities rather than a different, and higher, kind of human community. Maybe the US is shale gas crazy because this resource is a private good quite compatible with our basic moral commitment to private kinds of happiness (video games and all the rest). Maybe Europe sees such deposits of minerals as a threat to genuinely public activities  -- as the Bloomberg article notes, there is not much room to frack in Europe without disturbing a farm or a little chat at a sidewalk cafe over a cup of cappuccino.

But, then again, we are all Western heirs of John Locke (and the centrality of private property), so it seems that this explanation for the difference may be wanting.

It might be more simpler to assert that the US prefers the risks of action and Europe prefers the risks of inaction. Maybe this has something to do with WWII as a sobering experience for Europe and America's enduring hope-filled frontier mentality. Europe knows the world is finite and fragile, the US knows it is ever-expanding and robust. Europe is precautionary (the heir of Clifford and European guardedness); the US is proactionary (the heir of James and American pragmatism).

But more interesting to me is the moral question: Can European countries justifiably refuse to develop their shale resources while continuing to consume shale gas from other countries? It is the classic Not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) dilemma. I think they can only do so by positing some conditions under which shale gas development is morally acceptable and arguing successfully that they do not meet those conditions but others do. Most probably, this would entail arguing that shale gas can be developed where fracking occurs far from important water resources and far from human centers of population.

But these conditions don't seem to be satisfied even in the US, where the 'frontier' was officially closed in 1893 and where we have since learned about how everything is inter-connected.

So, is Europe justified in claiming that it will take only the consumption-side benefits, but not the production-side harms? If we are not going to change our fossil-fuel-dependent lifestyles, can we say 'no' to fracking in our backyards? Well, if we have a strict market sense of justice, then maybe so...after all European countries are paying over three tims as much for gas as the US is right now. For the market, it is all just calculated self-interest: do we want cheap gas but some production risks, or do we want costly gas but with lower risks of harm?

Now, the tough question for Denton -- can we justifiably restrict fracking in our city while continuing to demand natural gas resources? If the price of the way we live (let's not forget how fat and happy most Americans are and that humans, until very recently, lived hard lives cut short by abscessed teeth) is the greater risk entailed in getting energy, then don't we have some moral obligation to shoulder our fair share of that price? What is 'our fair share'?

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.

Monday, September 17, 2012

How to Black Box a Drilling Ordinance

It looks like Denton has entered the homestretch in the marathon reform of its natural gas drilling and production ordinance. On September 11, City Council approved a second extension of the moratorium and unveiled a timeline leading to adoption of the final ordinance in December. It will begin with release of the draft ordinance at a meeting of the Gas Well Task Force on October 1. This comes after a long “scientific and legal review” conducted by City Staff and consultants. Indeed, since the last Task Force meeting on March 26, the process of drafting a new ordinance has been sequestered behind a veil of technical expertise.
Even City Councilmembers have not had a peek behind the curtain. Yet during the May 8 City Council meeting, our elected officials requested a process that would be more iterative and transparent. They wanted to see what the scientific and legal experts made of minority recommendations that were not unanimously passed by the Task Force. They wanted a Council work session on such alternative proposals. They also wanted to see a comparative report of other city ordinances to show what they are doing that we may not be doing and explain why. They wanted a comprehensive summary of the legal landscape, which details relevant lawsuits faced by other municipalities. And they made clear that these steps should happen prior to the release of a draft ordinance.
Yet none of this has happened as we approach the grand unveiling of the draft ordinance. This gives me a sinking feeling that over the past six months this expert review process has outrun the democratic process. Rather than provide some initial suggestions and alternative options for Council input and public deliberation, it looks like it is going to supply a finished product for an up or down vote.
My concern is that the product of this technical review process is going to be presented as a fait accompli – as the shape that our ordinance must take. It will be a juggernaut with so much momentum provided by the heft of scientific and legal expertise that democratic deliberation will be bowled over. Any ideas the public may have will not fit with the current framing and will derail the process. The train has left the station and is chugging down the tracks.
In the May 8 meeting, Mayor Burroughs said that for Staff to present a finalized legal document would be “a waste of a lot of resources” and that the ordinance must be in a “developmental stage” if public input was to be effective.
There is clearly a culture clash at work here between Council and Staff. The root of it is the fact that such an ordinance is Janus-faced. On one hand, it is a technical document that must be enforceable and justifiable according to complex legal standards. Doing this part well requires experienced and expert crafting. On the other hand, it is a political document that expresses community values.  Doing this part well requires democratic deliberation and leadership from elected officials.
What makes balancing this core conflict between experts and citizens so challenging is that there is no clear dividing line between the technical realm of expertise and the values realm of the public sphere.
Yet the ordinance review process presumes just such a strict dividing line. This is the heart of the problem. The assumption is that the experts are taking the values expressed at Task Force and Council meetings and packaging them into technical language. This packaging is seen as a neutral act that leaves the values untouched. If that is the case, then the public can now passively await the technical outcome of their deliberations.
But things are messier than that. First, the values are contested with remaining disagreements about how to prioritize basic goods and goals (thus the Council request to include minority recommendations). Second, even if there were consensus on this level it is not possible to remain value-neutral when writing technical language. The final wording will inevitably give the underlying values a certain valence and trajectory (just think about how a clause like “whenever feasible” could change things entirely). Third, the technical review process necessarily included only a very limited sub-set of scientific and legal experts. But there is a great deal of disagreement even among the experts when it comes to shale gas development and its regulation by municipalities.
This means that over the past six months, as citizen involvement has been forced into hibernation, values judgments were being made and built into the ordinance. But this has happened behind closed doors and has been masked as a supposedly neutral and technical operation. This is what I call black-boxing:a process where values judgments are made behind the cloak of neutral, expert calculations. Just as the magician does not let us peek behind the curtain where the crucial transformation occurs. Viola, a rabbit! Viola, an ordinance!
It may not be too late to restore democratic legitimacy and genuine public involvement. But doing so will require treating the draft ordinance for what it is – a document that reflects the hard work of our dedicated Staff and consultants, but one that retains a great deal of contingencies that could legitimately be altered. We must be wary of treating the ordinance as a black box that simply must be the way it is because the experts have made it so.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Will we get sued?

There's not much time now to reflect on the LWV event last night (rushing to class). But two points stand out. First, the crowd was almost entirely opposed to fracking in Dallas. It was reminiscent of the mood generally found in Denton. Second, I sat next to a lawyer who has worked lots with the oil and gas industry. He informed me that Denton can make an ordinance so strong that it would effectively ban drilling. That would be legal (i.e., he didn't think we could be successfully sued) as long as the City of Denton did not have any current leases with operators. Now that's interesting news from someone coming largely from an O&G perspective. I know it is just one conversation - but it makes me wonder about how much power our city actually has....

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Truth, Lies, and Fracking

Below are my remarks for the Dallas Fracking Forum being hosted tonight by several local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the Memnosyne Foundation, and the Sierra Club:
"I have been asked to comment on the ethics of shale gas development. First, a word about how I see my role in this contentious public debate. I am not an expert, nor do I aspire to that role, which is one of offering privileged insight into a narrowly defined aspect of an issue. Rather, I aspire to the role of public intellectual, which is that of seeing things in the round, pointing out general patterns and connections, and provoking thought about underlying framings and assumptions.
Shale gas development is an issue with obvious technical dimensions, which has caused much of the public debate to become dominated by scientific, engineering, and legal experts or by citizens appealing to experts in order to bolster their claims. But the issue is, at its root, about our values – about the way we live, about health, environment, jobs, and individual rights, and about the way we organize society and distribute the power to make decisions. I want to make a plea tonight that we not lose sight of these defining values questions and that we work together to find productive paths forward that balance the many legitimate values at stake.
A week ago, I published a piece titled “The Religiosity of the Fracking Debate.” I argued that there is a sad resignation to the incommensurability of the current discourse surrounding shale gas. Despite the vitriol, both camps are just going through the motions: One says X, the other says not-X and on it goes. No one really seems to believe what they say is going to get an opponent to stop and think. The point is not productive compromise, but all out victory.
In one corner, the industry accuses environmental NGOs of orchestrating a campaign of lies and fear mongering. The public would embrace the shale gas revolution if only they knew the facts – a point driven home in the title of the industry-sponsored film “TruthLand.” In the other corner, those opposed to fracking also have certainty on their side. Of course, for them it’s not emotional hysteria and media sensationalism that are clouding the truth. Rather it is the deliberate production of doubt and ignorance by a powerful and deep-pocketed industry.

I find this framing of the debate problematic. It presumes that it is all a matter of getting the facts right. One side is lying and once we see that, the appropriate policy will become self-evident. The argument from both sides is that the debate is fabricated – sustained only by fear, deception, or greed.

I don’t see things that way. I see a debate sustained by a mixture of scientific uncertainty about harms and benefits and genuine moral disagreements about how to prioritize values, empower various interests, and act in the face of uncertainty.

Take, for example, the recent report by the CDC that found incidences of invasive breast cancer had decreased across Texas except for six counties that happen to lie atop the Barnett Shale. Josh Fox picked this up in his short film “The Sky is Pink” and was later attacked for misusing the science. But as far as I can tell, this was not a debate about what the science says but about what the science means. No one denied the CDC finding and no one claimed it proved a link between drilling and breast cancer.

At issue was what to do about this possible connection between drilling and breast cancer – how should we act given this very limited finding…should we proceed apace until more evidence is gathered, should we slowdown in some way, or stop altogether? This is not about lying or telling truth or getting facts right. It is about how to interpret and respond to inconclusive evidence. And I see here a variety of legitimate responses depending on how we want to prioritize values and whether we want to be more precautionary or proactive.

The problem with the current debate is that it offers no room for productive and explicit discussions about these values decisions. Though it is important to tell the truth, the fracking debate is not as clear cut as determining the color of the sky.

So, even in cases where there is expert consensus on the figures, there is ample room for legitimate disagreements about what they mean for policy. And of course in many cases the experts disagree. Furthermore, expert assessments of harms and benefits will be replete with moral assumptions about how those terms are defined, and they leave open questions about how they should be balanced.

There is so much complexity, so much remaining uncertainty, so many questions about who and what evidence to consider authoritative, so many cognitive and institutional limitations, and so many ways to interpret and order the goods at stake. Five different groups of experts tasked with drafting a drilling and production ordinance could legitimately arrive at five different answers.

The pluralism we find in the fracking debate is not many false beliefs and one true depiction of reality. Rather, it reflects many sound interests and viable candidates for defining what the rules should be. A democratic decision process must represent all reasonable views across the spectrum. It must put them into dialogue such that their assumptions, implications, strengths, and weaknesses can be made visible for policymakers. Whatever view wins, it must be the result of open contestation about goods and goals, and not the result of being mistaken for simply ‘the facts.’

Both sides need to stop pretending that the policy questions here have easy answers once we get rid of junk science. A more productive tactic is to offer practical policy alternatives that link science and uncertainties with a clear statement of goals and values priorities. If the resulting regulations are to be sensible and democratically legitimate, they need to be forged from an open debate about values rather than disguised as the result of some technical calculation.

Of course, it is also not as simple as just discussing values. All sides will likely agree on the basic values of clean water and clean air. But do we need more or different kinds of well casing or vapor recovery units in order to secure these goods?  Scientific study provides necessary evidence here. If someone wants to increase well casing to 10 layers of steel or eliminate all protective layers or mandate more emission reductions, they will need some evidence to justify these actions as necessary for securing common-interest goods. Otherwise, rule-making becomes arbitrary, or it just recapitulates raw political power.

The implicit normative claim behind the appeal to scientific justification is that restrictions on activities should be commensurate with their actual benefits and harms rather than with the influence of interest groups. This is how science and democracy are so integral to one another. In a democracy, decisions should be made not on the basis of what the powerful wish for or want to hear, but on the basis of what is in fact most conducive to the common interest. Only non-democratic regimes, or so we hope, can get away with ignoring truths on the basis of their inconvenience.

But there is also a tension between science and democracy – it is the threat that expertise might colonize public forums of deliberation. Whether the chances of freshwater well contamination are “too high” or the use of green completion fracking methods are “too expensive” to be “feasible” are value-laden decisions. But one can imagine how levels of risk and feasibility can be captured by expert discourses and removed from public forums of reasonable and open debate.  In the case of groundwater and air protection, the question hinges on what level of safeguards must be in place in order to put threats to these goods at an acceptable level. Though science is important here, it is not reducible to science, because the question of what counts as ‘acceptable’ is an ethical and political one. So once again it will not do to simply speak in terms of truth and lies.

So my plea to everyone engaged in this debate is to frame your position explicitly in terms of your values, especially about how you believe we ought to act under conditions of uncertainty. It is a plea also to question experts, especially the ones giving answers that you are most likely to agree with. I think there is common ground to be had here and regulations to be made that form an acceptable compromise. But we won’t get there if we all remain convinced this is just about facts, that we have the facts, and the others are lying."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Legal Expertise Needs to be Publically Justified

The Denton Record Chronicle ran a front page story today about City Council's vote to extend the drilling moratorium through December 18th. The audience was overwhelmingly in favor of the extension and overwhelmingly in opposition of any amendments that would allow EagleRidge to proceed with their four wells. But Council voted for the extension with the amendments, claiming that their hands were tied by Texas state laws of vested rights. I think this means basically that those wells met the criteria classifying them as already in process prior to adoption of the ordinance.

This is a taste of what is to come. It seems to me that City Council wants to limit drilling as much as possible - in this they are responsive to the vocal majority of residents following the issue. But the question becomes "how much is possible"? How strong can the ordinance be without exposing the city to a losing lawsuit? This framing of the issue (which may be inevitable and even for the best...) certainly puts all the power into the hands of legal experts. To me, it was apparent that the most powerful people in City Hall last night were not the elected officials but the lawyers. They are the ones with the requisite expertise to determine how strong the ordinance can be.

Expertise is clearly important. But expertise has a way of shutting down public discourse - it can be a showstopper in the form of, "trust me, we just can't implement that idea." I think this means that the citizens need to consistently ask our legal staff to justify statements made about limits to an ordinance's strength. This is said not out of mistrust for our fine legal team. It is said, rather, in the spirit of democracy -- we ought to be able to understand why the rules must be the way they are. It may further be the case that articulating legal reasons for various ordinance provisions opens up creative alternatives that may not have been as visible from within the assumptions and framings of expert legal discourse. We need to be sure that we don't pass off assumptions and values positions (that could legitimately be otherwise) as neutral, unimpeachable expertise.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Ghost of Technologies Past

Here are my remarks for City Council tonight:

I am in favor of the moratorium extension, and I would like to see EagleRidge adopt green completions, vapor recovery units, and other preferred practices for the four wells that have been the subject of so much controversy. I would like to point out that this is just an instance of a much larger problem – I will name the problem (which you are all aware of) and underline its importance, but I have to leave it up to you all to figure out the legal means of solving it.
The problem is the ghost of technologies past. We live in a society that largely adopts a proactionary posture toward innovation: implement a new technology as soon as it is economically viable and then learn more about its social impacts as we run a real-world experiment. If this approach is to mitigate the unintended negative consequences that will inevitably accompany the intended positive ones, it must have a feedback mechanism. There must be some way to alter the technology in light of the knowledge we have gained in the course of the real-world experiment. I call this process renovation.
It happens all the time. For example, lead was a wonderful way to reduce engine knocking, but then we learned about its health impacts so we phased it out of gasoline. We could also consider the fish ladders that have been fitted on to some dams to mitigate their unintended impacts on salmon migration. It is clearly the case in shale gas development that we leaped first and looked later. Over the past ten years much has been learned about the broader impacts of fracking. And new technologies and practices have been developed and proposed.
But the problem is that renovations can be expensive. Even if they do save a developer money, it may not pay off for a while and there will be resistance to the upfront costs. This is what we see with the New Source Review permitting process for coal-fired power plants. This Clean Air Act amendment requires new pollution control measures anytime a facility is modified. But the language allows for “routine scheduled maintenance” that would not require renovating the system with upgraded pollution controls. As a result significant amount of emissions have been released that could have been prevented. This is the ghost of technologies past: we become chained to industrial practices that we know are bad and that we could easily fix had we been more careful in writing the rules.
And this is your challenge in drafting the new ordinance over the coming months. Much has been said about what kinds of substantive regulations ought to go into it. But the impact of those rules will be diminished if operators can find ways to claim they are vested under older regulations. This is especially troublesome given the likelihood that we will see old wells reworked by new operators. We need to make sure such operations must adhere to best practices at the time rather than antiquated standards made when we knew so much less.

Timeline Set for New Ordinance -- Oct. 1 Kick Off

It looks like Denton will have a new ordinance in place sometime in December, 2012. This is according to a timeline posted by City Councilmember Kevin Roden (scroll down a bit to find the Phase II Ordinance Revision section...looks like he scanned it into his blog).

I also just received confirmation from Vicki Oppenheim, member of the Gas Well Task Force, that indeed October 1st will be the first meeting for the Task Force. The draft of the new ordinance will be revealed at that meeting (6 p.m. at City Hall) and then posted to the City website for public comment. The Task Force will have another chance to comment on it on Oct. 22nd (6 p.m. at City Hall). Then, the ordinance will move on to Planning and Zoning and City Council for a variety of closed sessions, work sessions, and public hearings.

This is our opportunity to shape this important policy. I encourage everyone to show up at City Hall on Oct. 1st and stay actively invovled through to the final vote in December...and beyond. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

What's Wrong with Frackademia?

The Texas Observer ran another story about financial ties between the oil and gas industry and universities. This is a topic I have noted in several posts on this blog.

So, is there anything really wrong with industry-university ties when it comes to shale gas research and the training of regulators? One way to look at this is in terms of the responsible conduct of research. Maybe the problem is that researchers are violating scientific norms of disinterestedness, universalism, and skepticism. This could cover a spectrum of possible ethical concerns. On the low end, would be perceived conflicts of interest: perhaps academics should be more transparent about their funding sources, but they do not influence their studies or results, so there is no actual conflict of interest. On the far end, we could imagine full blown fabrication and falsification of data in order to yield "scientific conclusions" that "confirm" foregone industry positions about the safety of fracking.

It would require more research than I have seen in stories on this subject to suss out the real story. For example, is there anything suspect in terms of scientific misconduct in the UT report that would indicate prejudgments were replacing scientific skepticism and empirical evidence? But I find it hard to believe that there would not, at least, be all sorts of subtle pressures not to displease one's industrial benefactors.

Of course, those opposed to fracking may not really care if there are actual conflicts of interest. The appearance is enough to raise doubt and discredit the study. But this approach to science knows no end. One can always find ways to cast suspicions on authors, agencies, institutions, and their motives. This is a game that industry plays too. It ends up with everyone appealing to 'the science' and everyone discrediting the science they don't like as tainted and junk.

But we can also view this issue not in terms of conflicts of interest and scientific misconduct, but rather in terms of what I want to call "inherent bias." Many scientists are doing research aimed at improving oil and gas extraction - this research can be done perfectly honestly and responsibly (no misconduct) but it still has an inherent bias, that is, an interest in the well-being of the oil and gas industry. This  kind of bias may be even more troubling than outright misconduct. At least misconduct can be spotted and rooted out in specific instances. By contrast, inherent bias pervades an entire institution, establishing a general orientation, priorities, and research agenda. It would mean, for example that a university flush with industry cash does not investigate potential health, environmental, or justice problems associated with oil and gas. It would establish a pro-industry culture that would be largely unwritten and unconscious; a kind of given framework for approaching the world. It would produce honest research, but research that is systematically directed only toward certain aspects of the whole picture.

This is what is really troubling about univesity-industry ties: not the false answers to tough questions (although that is of course a big concern) but the tough questions that go unasked.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Moratorium variance requests pulled from public hearing

Note the update below on the City of Denton website here.
My understanding is that the variances will not be considered as such. Rather, City Council will discuss another extension of the moratorium. Part of that discussion will be about granting relief for these four EagleRidge, Inc. that the moratorium would not apply to them. I have heard that the public will still be able to speak to the issue by addressing the moratorium extension and the possible exemption for these four wells.
From the City website:
News Review
Public hearings for gas well variance requests cancelled
Posted Date: 9/7/2012 1:00 PM
At the request of the applicant, Eagleridge Operating LLC, the four variance requests from the City of Denton’s Gas Well Moratorium will not be considered at the City Council meeting Sept. 11, 2012.

However, please be advised that an amendment to the Gas Well Moratorium Ordinance, clarifying exemptions to the moratorium ordinance and extending the moratorium through Dec. 18, 2012, will be considered.

The effect of these amendments, if passed, would be to allow the processing of applications for drilling, which were filed prior to the moratorium, to move forward. This would include the four Eagleridge Wells. The moratorium would remain in effect for new projects.

Citizens interested in the Gas Well Drilling Moratorium are encouraged to appear and comment at the Sept. 11, 2012, City Council meeting to be held at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chamber of City Hall located at 215 E. McKinney St.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

City Council to Consider Status of Moratorium

The meeting is scheduled for Denton City Council to consider the variance request by EagleRidge, Inc. (for four wells). They will hold a public meeting on September 11, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. in the City Council Chamber at City Hall, 215 E. McKinney Street, Denton, Texas 76201. Please show up and stay involved.

I think it is clear that a majority (if not everyone) on City Council would rather not grant a variance to the moratorium. Indeed, they are the ones who passed the moratorium unanimously (and extended it - as they are likely to do again at this meeting). So, the question is not about the values and priorities of City Council. If the variance is granted (or, what amounts to much the same, the moratorium is extended with exemptions for these four wells) it will not be because City Council wants more drilling or wants to reward EagleRidge. Far from it. Rather, if the variance is granted it will be because City Council is in a legal bind and faces a lawsuit that may well create a bad precedent for similar situations in the future.

We need to see if there are creative ways to force EagleRidge to bide their time and follow the rules like everyone else. But if this is not possible, we need to be very careful not to demonize elected officials who find themselves between a rock (grant an obviously unpalatable variance) and a hard place (face a lawsuit that might long haunt municipalities).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Is FracFocus a Fig Leaf?

One of the main concerns about haydraulic fracturing (fracking) centers on the chemicals pumped underground to help break up the shale rock formations. What chemicals are used? Federal regulatory efforts to mandate disclosure and transparency have stalled and the EPA has limited powers to regulate the process thanks to exemptions in major federal laws for fracking.

Last year, the industry created FracFocus, a website where companies can voluntarily report wells they have fracked and chemicals they use. The site is paid for by America's Natural Gas Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute. It was created by Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council.

Last month, Bloomberg ran a story reporting on the results of their investigation into FracFocus. They found that participation is increasing rapidly, but at the time of their analysis, 45% of fracked wells were not reported on the site. Furthermore, even for frack jobs that are reported, companies often do not disclose chemicals when they believe it would threaten a trade secret.

This raises a question: Is FracFocus just a PR effort to placate enough people to prevent stricter, mandatory reporting requirements? Or, is it the best we can expect? Should those demanding greater transparency from the industry villify or applaud FracFocus?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New Study on Air Impacts of Gas Drilling

The Houston Advanced Research Center has a new study out about air quality implications of urban gas drilling. Here is the title and abstract:

The potential near-source ozone impacts of upstream oil and gas
industry emissions

Eduardo P. Olaguer
Houston Advanced Research Center, The Woodlands, Texas, USA
Please address correspondence to: Eduardo P. Olaguer, Houston Advanced Research Center, 4800 Research Forest Dr., The Woodlands, TX
77381, USA; e-mail:
Increased drilling in urban areas overlying shale formations and its potential impact on human health through decreased air quality make it important to estimate the contribution of oil and gas activities to photochemical smog. Flares and compressor engines used in natural gas operations, for example, are large sources not only of NO
x but also of formaldehyde, a hazardous air pollutant and powerful ozone precursor. We used a neighborhood scale (200 m horizontal resolution) three-dimensional (3D) air dispersion model with an appropriate chemical mechanism to simulate ozone formation in the vicinity of a hypothetical natural gas processing facility, based on accepted estimates of both regular and nonroutine emissions. The model predicts that, under average midday conditions in June, regular emissions mostly associated with compressor engines may increase ambient ozone in the Barnett Shale by more than 3 ppb beginning at about 2 km downwind of the facility, assuming there are no other major sources of ozone precursors. Flare volumes of 100,000 cubic meters per hour of natural gas over a period of 2 hr can also add over 3 ppb to peak 1-hr ozone somewhat further (>8 km) downwind, once dilution overcomes ozone titration and inhibition by large flare emissions of NOx. The additional peak ozone from the hypothetical flare can briefly exceed 10 ppb about 16 km downwind. The enhancements of
ambient ozone predicted by the model are significant, given that ozone control strategy widths are of the order of a few parts per billion. Degrading the horizontal resolution of the model to 1 km spuriously enhances the simulated ozone increases by reducing the effectiveness of ozone inhibition and titration due to artificial plume dilution.
Major metropolitan areas in or near shale formations will be hard pressed to demonstrate future attainment of the federal ozone standard, unless significant controls are placed on emissions from increased oil and gas exploration and production. The results presented here show the importance of improving the temporal and spatial resolution of both emission inventories and air quality models used in ozone attainment demonstrations for areas with significant oil and gas activities.

EagleRidge wants out of the moratorium

The Denton Record Chronicle ran a story today about a shale gas operator, EagleRidge Energy, that is seeking an exemption from the current Denton moratorium for four of their wells (Northwest part of Denton).

EagleRidge is citing two reasons for their request. First, the moratorium is causing them economic hardship and exposing them to the threat of top leasing (if their leases expire prior to drilling, mineral owners can lease to another company). Second, their applications were submitted prior to the moratorium, which means that their project was effectively in the pipeline. The first reason seems to be the weakest - the moratorium is designed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of Denton citizens. If this causes companies short-term financial hardships, so be it. The second reason, however, seems more important. It raises a larger question about when companies can claim that they (and their wells and operations) are vested under older regulations. This rationale can be used even after the new ordinance is passed to claim that newer, stricter rules (based on improved understanding and technological capacities for reducing harms) do not apply to any given well, because it was put in motion prior to adoption of those new rules. As old wells are re-worked by smaller companies (that may be more likely to act irresponsibly due to tighter operating margins), this question of when a project is vested under old rules will become increasingly important.