Monday, January 26, 2015

Orwellian ad Nauseum

J. Peder Zane’s extended ad hominem attack (“The Orwellian Leftist Foes of Fracking in NC” News & Observer, Jan. 13, 2015) on people that question the claims of fracking proponents lacks as much credibility as it does civility.  He maligns reports from the State of New York’s extensive study that are thoroughly supported by scientific literature and were in fact reviewed by independent public health consultants-as a secondary form of peer review.  In contrast, Zane’s critique lacks any specifics, except when it comes to name-calling.

Zane’s redbaiting is not much different from that previously presented by Charles Krauthammer.   Krauthammer  described “an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class -- social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies -- arrogated to themselves the right to rule.”  After the fall of communism and the decline of socialism, Krauthammer posits that the “knowledge class” is using environmentalism to impose a new religion of Gaia, with its priests demanding carbon chastity. “Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but -- even better -- in the name of Earth itself.”  So the Red Menace is now the Green Menace.  Greenbaiting is the new redbaiting.  Both Krauthammer and Zane see in the climate policy debate, the red menace seeking to have us sign away our freedoms.  Thus we get ad hominem attacks on anyone who wants to control carbon dioxide and methane pollution or who urges caution on fracking rules.  Orwell had a term for this tactic:  the daily Two Minute Hate.

New York’s decision was careful, methodical and scientifically sound.  When natural gas prices began to climb in 2008, companies began snatching up lease rights in upstate New York around the Marcellus shale.  This activity prompted New York to revise its oil and gas permits to reflect the new concerns raised by the new technology.  New York officials produced a report detailing the environmental impacts of fracking and associated oil and gas development, called by its acronym SGEIS.  New York’s SGEIS was the most comprehensive study of the scientific, engineering and policy considerations related to fracking undertaken in the United States.  The State of New York’s Department of Health reviewed the SGEIS and additional scientific studies cited, reviewed and discussed extensively in their report commenting on the SGEIS.  Experts in public health from other states were consulted by New York who reached the same conclusions: fracking has not been proven safe to public health.      

New York explicitly embraced the precautionary principle: that a new activity which carries some risk to public health should not be allowed until science can prove that it is safe.  Dr. Howard Zucker, New York’s Acting Health Director, said that until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health from fracking to all New Yorkers and whether the risks can be adequately managed, the Department of Health recommends that fracking should not proceed in New York.  This is not an anti-science approach, but rather a policy decision that public health should be protected while science develops.  It is a policy choice that puts public health above short-term profits which angers those seeking to make a fast buck.

Rather than embrace the precautionary principle, North Carolina’s General Assembly has chosen to conduct an experiment on human subjects, by legalizing fracking and by promoting North Carolina as a fracking destination.  Just a few years ago, some conservatives were urging caution on fracking in North Carolina.  October 10, 2011, DENR conducted a public hearing in Sanford, North Carolina, where two noted conservative lawmakers urged caution: “We need this information so we can develop either the best reason to frack with the best law in the nation, or not to frack at all.”  Just a few months later,  former Representative Mitch Gillespie was serving at NC DENR defending the policy preferences of Halliburton to prohibit the government from knowing which chemicals they planned to use in hydraulic fracturing.  Representative Gillespie’s position was scientific, while Secretary Gillespie’s position surrendered to the oil and gas lobby.

Not all conservatives are anti-science, nor are all conservatives pro-fracking. Some conservatives and many Republicans are concerned about climate change and fossil fuels. Consider the case of Bob Inglis, former Republican Representative from South Carolina.  Student organizers from Duke invited him to give the keynote at a 2012 symposium: “Conservative Visions of Our Environmental Future.”    Inglis told the folks at the Duke conference that there were conservative responses to the dangers posed by climate change.  Climate change denial is not common among younger conservatives.  A recent study of Republican voters finds a vigorous difference of views on climate change, showing that more than half supported regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.  Even those conservatives who favored lifting the ban on fracking may oppose the use of forced pooling on grounds of libertarian principle, as Dr. Roy Cordato did in 2013.   

The lawsuit Zane references does not declare fracking a nuisance, but challenges the composition of the Mining and Energy Commission as unconstitutional, a very similar claim to the one brought by Governor Pat McCrory against the Coal Ash Commission.  The website Zane references for his claim that that the earth is not warming is run by a staffer of the Heartland Institute who has published no scientific papers and who has no college degree at all.  Rational examination of the science, engineering and policy implications of fracking leads many to promote caution about fracking and some to oppose it altogether.  

 Zane should check his facts before labelling these critics as more anti-science than Young Earth Creationists: New York’s SGEIS is nothing like “Of Pandas and People.”   

Orwellian doublespeak is alive and well in the world of environmental science policy, but is being promoted by supporters of the oil and gas lobby, not fracking opponents.  A prime proponent of pro-drilling doublespeak is Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah’s Second District.  In support of his recently passed bill, ironically captioned the “EPA Science Advisory Reform Act of 2014,”  Rep. Stewart opined about EPA’s Science Advisory Board that: ” It’s critical that we have a balanced panel of experts operating in an open and transparent way.”  But, his bill actually requires that scientists who have published scientific studies be recused from advising on any scientific issues related to their own work, while simultaneously clearing the way for folks to comment on science when they have a financial conflict of interest.  In other words, Rep. Stewart’s proposed “balanced panel of experts” reform puts the scientific experts on the sidelines at EPA’s Science Advisory Board while clearing paid industry lobbyists of conflicts of interest.