A recent Post-Carbon Institute paper, “Public Health Concerns of Shale Gas Production,” (contained in: Natural Gas Report Supplements: Public Health Agriculture & Transportation) is plagued by irony: the authors’ (Brian Schwartz and Cindy Parker) commitment to protect public health nonetheless defaults into placing business interests ahead of the public interest.

Their conclusion reads in its entirety:

“The potential risks to the public’s health from shale gas drilling are serious. Even though the specifics of the risks are not yet known, there is sufficient evidence for concern. The precautionary principle, invoked when the potential risks to health and well-being are severe and/or widespread, dictates that the burden of proof that shale gas drilling is not harmful should fall to those wishing to undertake the potentially harmful action. Because so much drilling has already occurred and is projected to continue occurring, the precautionary principle should be invoked to slow down the drilling of new wells, allow the EPA and public health scientists to better evaluate the risks, and determine how best to regulate shale gas production to avoid another coal-type legacy affecting the health and well-being of millions of people for generations.” (emphasis added)

The authors passively state that drilling (and fracking) is a fait accompli and then invoke the Precautionary Principle to “slowdown” further drilling. One might ask how and why this failure to invoke the Precautionary Principle before drilling began came to pass. Also, one might ponder why the authors accept a do-nothing approach to ongoing drilling since the potential for harm remains and our awareness of it may be expanding (as in the possibility of earthquakes caused by fracking). This is especially pertinent in light of the fracking ban recently passed by the French National Assembly and bans proposed or passed by numerous American municipalities. In essence, the authors have eviscerated the Precautionary Principle by coaxing readers to accept the astounding position that the public health risks of ongoing shale gas mining are beyond the reach of public control.

They recommend instead a “slowdown” in new drilling until EPA and public health scientists further research the issue. This, of course, would take years to do and then be tied up in contentious debate. For example, recently a professor at the school of public health in Pittsburgh resigned over a “difference of opinion between the University and me of the proper [role of] advocacy in the world of public health.” He had released research claiming that Marcellus Shale drilling initiates a chain of events that leads to contaminated drinking water and his superiors at the university felt he had stepped from “science” into “advocacy” –if only these were so easily distinguished.

Here in Western Pennsylvania the shale gas issue is a perfervid controversy; and a brief outline of it illustrates the peripheral nature –or irrelevance- of calls for a “slowdown” in drilling and further research. Drilling in the Marcellus Shale Gas region has pitted many local communities against not just the gas industry but also the state branches of health and environmental protection. For example, at a Town Hall hosted by WQED-TV in November 2010 on Marcellus Shale drilling the Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection told an audience member that -paraphrasing- the choice was between freezing in the dark and tolerating the negative externalities of drilling (most of which the secretary in a bit of bureaucratic doublespeak denied were real). He went on to scold the entire audience for not appreciating this stark either-or predicament. (His candor and petulance were no doubt attributable to the fact that he was several weeks from leaving office for a consulting job with a law firm.) The tenor of the town hall audience was that the state was protecting the gas industry, not the public.

Many citizens of Western Pennsylvania want fracking banned and feel they have massive evidence to support their claim. Therefore, they do not trust the PA state government and its largely supportive stance on the safety –or lack of demonstrable proof of harm- of the Marcellus Shale Gas play. Their reaction to government regulatory agencies is similar to the widespread disbelief and disappointment of Gulf Coast citizens at the conduct and suspicious assurances of the EPA, NOAA, Coast Guard, Carol Browner, and so on during the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Finally, this comment from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on May 25, 2011 highlights governmental alienation from the public’s concerns and its failure to appreciate the public’s distrust of government regulatory agencies: “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”

In summary, in my view the authors omit at least two salient issues in their analysis:

  1. The public and the government have different conceptions of proof.

The public relies on experiential knowledge; the government relies on experimentally gained knowledge. This discrepancy is easily bridged –because evidence typically is complementary- when both sides are seeking “the truth,” but also provides an easy cover for those seeking to obfuscate the truth in rhetoric about scientifically valid knowledge. (Everyone knows science literally can prove nothing.) A good example is the lady in Western Pennsylvania who realized something was wrong when her dog refused to drink the well water that supplies her home. “He saved my life because he wouldn’t drink the water,” she said. This, of course is anecdotal evidence of little value to scientists who would tell the woman that she was drawing an unwarranted causal inference from “an N of 1” between the covariance of shale fracking and the appearance of toxics in her well water. She would no doubt remain confident in her best friend, which means she employed a naïve yet logical quasi-experimental design: the toxics appeared after the drilling began -thank God Fido smelled it- ergo, the drilling/fracking had to have caused the problem.

  1. The second salient point is a more widespread and politically corrosive phenomenon: Regulatory capture.

According to Wikipedia, “regulatory capture occurs when a state regulatory agency created to act in the public interest instead advances the commercial or special interests that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure.”

I know that many Gulf Coast and Western Pennsylvania residents have come away from encounters with state and federal regulatory bodies feeling those agencies were protecting the interests of business at the expense of the public’s health and safety.

Therefore, policy recommendations for a slowdown in drilling and waiting for the results of further research are thin gruel to many citizens living with the consequences of shale gas drilling.