Science, Democracy and Fracking: People Have Questions and They Deserve Answers

August 7, 2013 | 1:19 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

In late July, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in collaboration with UCLA, held a workshop and public forum on “Science, Democracy and Community Decisions on Fracking”. We organized the forum in response to the exponential growth of hydraulic fracturing for unconventional oil and natural gas that is transforming our energy economy.

Risky business

But this development is also transforming many of the communities where new fracking operations have sprung up, outpacing the comprehensive and reliable information on its impacts on our water, air, infrastructure and public health. The expansion of unconventional oil and gas development has been accompanied by a growing list of accidents and spills, though clear information is hard to come by and is often kept from public view by a variety of mechanisms from trade secrets to confidentiality agreements. And, there have been reports of harmful air and water pollution, climate, and health effects from fracking.

We’ve also heard from communities about the socio-economic impacts that are often associated with the kind of short-term economic growth that hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas can bring: lots of temporary workers moving to their towns, increased traffic, strains on housing and emergency services, for instance.

Some communities have gone forward with fracking despite not having a fuller picture of the risks it can present. Others have banned it outright. Still others have declared moratoria pending further study. In any case, the public debates on fracking have been largely fractious and polarized, with the science of what we do know often misrepresented or ignored.

Surveys of experts have noted a range of risks that come along with unconventional and weakly regulated oil and gas development. Those risks cannot be dismissed as industry, the public, communities, states and the federal government decide how our energy infrastructure will develop.

The Center for Science and Democracy saw a need to help shed light on an issue where much of the public still feels in the dark.

Diverse views

fracking-forum-audienceDuring our forum, we explored the science, regulatory environment and community engagement needs that arise from the vast potential for unconventional oil and gas development from shale resources in our country. A full recording of the public program is available on our website in case you missed the event, and a summary of the forum will be available in the coming weeks along with resources for communities confronting decisions on if, where, how and when to allow fracking in their locales. In the meantime we share with you our first impressions as the organizers of the event.

We brought together scientists, policy and legal specialists, community organizers and environmental and social justice advocates, industry advisers and local and state officials for our working groups. Our goal was to have a broad range of perspectives, rather than push for consensus on issues where a lot of uncertainty remains. This led to an open, wide-ranging, civil discussion among participants, on a polarizing and contentious issue. Many of our working group participants had never met before, and it was their first opportunity to be among such diverse expertise and experiences.

One community organizer said, “People in our community are asking real questions about health and safety for their families and neighborhoods. They want to know what’s going on. And it seems to me that they deserve answers, but don’t know who to turn to.” We agree. It is not only reasonable but the responsible thing to do in our democratic society to ask questions about issues that affect you and your neighbors. Parents concerned about their children, workers concerned about their safety, and all who are concerned about the environment in which we live. That isn’t an activist perspective: it is democracy at work, the right to question openly. And to us this captures the essence of the problems and controversy around the development of unconventional oil and gas resources: there are lots of questions and preciously few answers. And while the expert discussions at the forum made it clear that there are lots of knowledge gaps we need to fill with robust and conclusive data, lack of information does not imply safety around unconventional oil and gas development. In fact, all energy choices come with their own set of risks. It is up to an informed public to decide which risks are worth taking and which one not..

Rightful questions

Our working groups raised some probing questions: What is the fate of toxic chemicals in waste products including water and air emissions from unconventional oil and gas development? Why don’t we have comprehensive monitoring before during and after development and production for all drill sites? Who should pay for it? How do we ensure that research is being done on the impacts of development activities across a range of issues? How can we ensure that public health analysis and monitoring is in place?

The participants also considered the implications of unconventional oil and gas development on climate, and on our progress on low and carbon-neutral sources of energy. While there is much that is still unknown, we do know that methane leakage is a major issue causing water and air pollution with attendant public health and safety impacts. We also know methane is a powerful heat-trapping gas that is a major factor in accelerating global warming. So by no means does the expansion of natural gas production serve as a panacea for our energy problems.

How can we use the existing regulatory and policy tools we have available to greater effect, to manage the risks to public health and safety from development? We know how to do this in other industrial sectors, why not this one? How do we strike a balance between the needs of companies to protect intellectual property and trade secrets and the need for transparency for everyone from first responders to fence line communities? What is the strongest and most efficient combination of federal, state and local government roles to manage the risks of development and production? How can we convince our lawmakers to close loopholes in major federal environmental laws to prevent oil and gas industry from enjoying unprecedented regulatory exemptions? How do these unconventional resources fit into an ongoing energy policy?

The need for a comprehensive effort for managing the risks of unconventional oil and gas production is very clear as those risks are manifest at local to regional to national levels, as well as the climate impacts that are a global risk. All of our public agencies need to take on this challenge, from local land use, to state and federal environmental management and protection officials. We urgently need a real national energy policy to transition to energy efficiency, and renewable and low-carbon sources as quickly as possible, while recognizing that natural gas and tight oil are not a long-term solution.

Where can communities and policy makers at all levels obtain truly independent science advice? How can people find out answers to their questions? And fundamentally, how can we engender trust by people and communities in industry and government, particularly given the distrust built up to date?

Next steps

Sunshine is sometimes said to be the best disinfectant. It is also the best way to start building trust between industry, government and the public. Of course being open, transparent and inclusive is hard. But it is the only way that communities will be able to express their concerns and have their questions answered.

Going into the forum, we weren’t expecting to immediately solve these complex issues, but we are heartened by the path we’ve forged, and the many critical questions the meeting triggered. There are no easy answers to these questions, and no single view of what should happen in the course of development. But the participants all agreed on the need for more and better information, a transparent process, regular monitoring and enforcement of safety provisions. And all agreed on the need to build trust and respect, and above all, to ensure that the public health and safety trump trade secrets and non-disclosure.

There will be much more detailed information coming out of the forum and our ongoing work, including an analytical report on the barriers to information on hydraulic fracturing, and an information and resource toolkit for communities faced with touch decisions on fracking. Unconventional oil and gas development is proceeding at a blistering pace all around the country, and many questions remained unanswered. We call on the academic and governmental scientific communities, and our legislators and elected officials, to listen closely to the needs and questions of their communities, and help us find answers, before, not after, decisions are made.

NOTE: This post was coauthored by Andrew Rosenberg and Pallavi Phartiyal, Senior Analyst and Program Manager, Center for Science and Democracy.