Archive | policy and science RSS for this section

Rock, teach oil, or maybe vice versa

GG attended a workshop here at CU on lessons from mining that could help guide oil and gas development (since the conveners encouraged outcomes to be shared on social media, figure this is OK). In kind of an odd way, the focus was more on what happens at the end of mining or oil development more than what happens at the start, so that will tend to be the focus here.

So a quick summary of points GG noticed.

  • Mining is highly focused, oil and gas far more distributed with a web of infrastructure.
  • Mines active today have to meet bonding requirements and increasingly have to have reclamation plans; oil and gas wells have far less specific requirements (e.g., bonding is not by well but by state or even nation).
  • Mines are a single use of the land; oil and gas production often shares the land with other rural uses.
  • Problem mines are problems for thousands of years–there is no true long term remediation. They can foul a lot of water for a long time. Wells are more insidious, typically failing silently until you know groundwater is compromised or a house blows up.
  • Mines these days are rarely totally shut down; they frequently are mothballed and then brought back online.  Oil and gas wells are frequently plugged and closed.
  • Mining’s main impact seems to be contaminating surface waters.  Oil and gas activity mainly affects subsurface waters.
  • Modern mining remains dominantly rural [save for mining towns!], but oil and gas has moved into suburbia. However, old mines are around a lot of western towns and there is renewed activity (and opposition) from time to time.

So what would the public want for post-development lands? In both cases, one can presume a safe environment available for any subsequent use. In many cases, they might want something resembling the pre-mining landscape. How realistic is this?

For mines, it depends on the mine. Big, modern open pit mines with sulfides are likely nearly hopeless. Strip mines for coal probably can be reclaimed provided they are not in areas where erosion is likely. Many small legacy mines can be shuttered to have an acceptably low level of impact. You can probably tell when a mine can be safely shut down.

For oil and gas wells, there is a surprisingly high level of uncertainty. Modern plugging procedures will usually work for the near term, but if gas continues to migrate up the well bore, any weaknesses that develop in the well plug or around the outside of the well bore will allow the gas to vent to the surface. Degradation of the well materials will connect shallow and deep aquifers, which can be troublesome if the deep aquifers have sufficient pressure to invade a shallower drinking water aquifer.  Or if the deep aquifer has negative pressure, you can lose drinking water to the deeper aquifer. That oil and gas wells are not of the same material as the surrounding rock means that it is likely over long periods of time that some kinds of failures of the well’s plug will occur (chemistry and stress will focus on that interface).  How often is this likely? How often will a failure produce surface problems? We really aren’t certain.

One suggested solution for problem mines is to make use of the waste material. This might help for acid mine drainage, but is less helpful for some other environmental hazards from mines. It is unlikely that a plugged oil or gas well that leaks has any economic utility.

So at the end, what does full closure of mines or wells look like?  Mines are unlikely to have their footprint totally erased, and some will be problems for centuries, but many others will be available for other uses. Oil and gas wells are tougher.  Most rules require a plugged well’s pad to be returned to something looking like the original landscape. When bonding is insufficient (as has been the case in Wyoming, for instance), failed companies’ wells might not be reclaimed. But even where surface reclamation is done (and oil and gas companies like to show pictures of old well sites to show they don’t look particularly bad), the well below is still subject to failure and leaking. While some mine sites might well be safe to build on (and many mountain resort towns are in fact built on old mine sites), building on an old well is playing a bit of Russian roulette. Shallow aquifers could fail as well. Perhaps monitoring for natural gas and pollutants in the water would permit full reoccupation of well sites, but it seems just as likely that rules will prevent building on or too near old well sites.

What do local communities need to know? They should probably understand that oil and gas wells are forever–plugged wells in most cases will cause no problems, but given that we haven’t watched a bunch of wells plugged with modern techniques for a really long time, that there is a non-zero risk of future leakage, and so monitoring appropriate for the subsequent use of the land should be required. Ripping out as much of the oil and gas infrastructure as possible is wise. For mines, it kind of depends. Any mine with underground workings can later collapse, so building on top of such mines should be considered with caution. If a mine is leaking colorful water into streams, odds are this will continue for centuries and some kind of action is desirable, but know there are not, at present, permanent fixes.

Is Science Science?

P.S. 5/8/17: From a New York Times article on this (five members of the scientific review board have now been let go): “A spokesman for the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, said he would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate, as part of the wide net it plans to cast.” While that might make sense for a policy-determining arm of the agency (a very debatable assertion), this is a scientific review board.  The assertion that industry scientists are necessary to provide balance indicates ignorance on the part of the new administrator about how science should work.

When campaigning for the Presidency, Donald Trump responded to the question from the Science Debate 2016 site about scientific integrity, he (or his campaign) responded:

Science is science and facts are facts.  My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.  The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration.

When asked about regulation, he (or his campaign) said “Science will inform our decisions on what regulations to keep, rescind or add.”

Recent actions from the administration suggests this might not be the way science is used in determining policy. Right now the action is in the Environmental Protection Agency, where first, the budgets for the science advisory panels were nearly eliminated. Then, just before the March for Climate, the EPA’s webpages on climate science were taken down with a notice that the pages were down to be updated to for the new administration’s policy. Most of these webpages are in fact science pages, so their removal seems to reflect a political bias more than a policy update. Then, in the past couple of days, the science advisory boards that review the internal science within the EPA have seen many members fired despite an earlier communication that they were to continue.

When considered along with the HONEST act, this seems to go well beyond a policy change and suggests a desire to silence any external scientific input at the same time as internal scientific experts are replaced with more industry-compliant views. Maybe yo like that, maybe you don’t.  Feel free to let your senator or representative know how you feel.

Policy Proxy Hazards

The beginning of a five-part series on GMOs in the Boulder Daily Camera does a nice job of making clear one of the problems with complex problems in the public sphere, namely that very specific terms get burdened with ills not necessarily associated with the core meaning of the term.  Thus, as pointed out in this article, GMOs are a stand-in for mega-agriculture despite the fact that here in Boulder County, use of GMOs is made by small-acreage farmers and the use of GMOs has a smaller environmental impact than “organic” farming. Call this misrepresentation of a term a policy proxy: something that is used publicly as a substitute for some broader set of concerns.

Another policy proxy is fracking, as we’ve discussed many times. Fracking opponents are not usually concerned specifically about fracking but instead are complaining about dense industrial-scale oil development in residential areas or environmental impacts from oil and gas development to the need to reduce our carbon output. Arguably things like anti-vaxxing, creation science, and global warming attract similar concerns really directed at an opaque medical establishment, religion, and party identification.

Scientific proxies are useful so long as they are understood to be proxies.  A simple one is the use of a barometer in the 19th century to measure elevation: you are measuring air pressure and using the decrease of that with elevation to estimate elevation. Proxies fail when other issues interfere with the relationship you hope to exploit: for instance, a barometer also records storm systems and failure to account for that will not give you proper elevations (something familiar to those of us who have used altimeters when hiking).

Policy proxies are arguably even more hazardous. Take the GMO case in the Daily Camera article.We’ve been conditioned over the past several decades to accept “organic” produce as “better” produce and that organic farming means less harmful chemicals are used. GMOs are viewed as anti-organic, thus opposing GMOs is a policy proxy for wanting fewer harmful chemicals to be used. The problem is that these associations are weak. Some synthetic herbicides are less damaging than some organic ones; GMOs can allow for even less use of herbicides than in organic agriculture. So it is possible that accepting the simple policy proxy when opposing GMOs that people are actually advocating for a greater use of herbicides with a greater environmental impact.

Or consider fracking. In opposing fracking, advocates might be assuming that they are reducing the environmental impact of oil and gas development. But if fracked gas deposits replace strip-mined coal (as has been happening the past few years), is fracking really the environmental disaster?

Let’s face it: policy proxies are for mental lightweights and the peripherally involved.  They encourage tossing babies out with bathwater. They are designed to inflame opinions and they make it easy to make clever placards and impassioned speeches. In some cases they will align with good public policy, but in many cases they will impede it. So GG urges folks to oppose what really concerns them and not to fall into the trap of opposing things that seem to represent the bad stuff they don’t want. It can be possible to find alternate solutions once you abandon the simple proxies. GMOs can be bad if their use increases carbon output or increases pesticide applications or requires more damaging pesticides or compromise seed ownership for neighboring forms, but they can be good if they work the other way.  Fracking can be good if well pad locations are regulated, wellheads and casings and feeder lines are checked, and oil companies are liable for environmental impacts and the fossil fuels produced replace dirtier fuels; it can be bad if it enables bad practices.

Asymmetric certainty [updates]

The initial column from the New York Times’s newest columnist, Bret Stephens, makes the case that advocates for doing something about climate change are expressing too much certainty about what will happen.  In making his case, Stephens makes two logical mistakes.

First, he says that anybody who expresses certainty about the future is a conceited fool. OK, so GG will risk this one: the sun will rise tomorrow.  Summer will come and the days will get longer. Want more specific? OK; there will be a solar eclipse August 21st at 11:42 am in Casper, Wyoming.

Well, you say, this is silly; after all, these things are really well understood.  Yes, all true–and why? Because of careful observation and development of theory–you know, science. So ridiculing certainty as a general principle is, um, foolish.

Second mistake? By suggesting that skepticism is warranted, he implies that the unstated uncertainty would reduce the risks, that it is one-sided. Unfortunately, until recently the climate science community has been rather conservative about what is going on in the Arctic (for instance, only the last IPCC report tried to deal with melting ice), and now you have a report suggesting that things in the Arctic are worse than have been assumed. Yes, what will happen is uncertain–but it can be worse than is being forecast just as it could be better. So if you are going to be skeptical, allow that the forecast might be too optimistic.

[Arguably there is a third mistake in misrepresenting his opening quote, which applies to all the predictions a person might make, versus the confidence a community might have in a single prediction.]

Now, GG does agree that climate change advocates all too often place too much faith in their models, and he would tend to agree that oftentimes things are presented as more certain than they are, but he has pointed out that the basic relationship of carbon dioxide to global temperature is robust from a geologic perspective. If your decision to spend money on combating climate change hinges on, say, the size of the snowpack in the Wind River Mountains in the last half of this century, yeah, the uncertainties are huge. But if all it depends on are ocean acidification, which goes directly with atmospheric CO2, or sea level rise, or more intense droughts and heat waves, well, the uncertainties get relatively small. And Stephens does seem to recognize that the predictions are really probabilities and that the risks are real. So Mr. Stephens, how about taking the next step and working with expectations and risk minimization rather than simply criticizing the strategy of some of the players? Its fun to second guess a coach or manager; its a lot harder to get in the game.

P.S. A story at CNN claims lots of people are cancelling subscriptions to the NY Times over this column.  A sillier response is hard to imagine; while the column has problems as noted above, it is at least material one can engage with, and the news side of the Times operation is really pretty good on climate change. You aren’t going to hone your arguments by only listening to those you agree with (and if you think this guy is a waste of space, you could just not read his contributions).

P.P.S. A Vox story goes into far greater detail of why many people are unhappy with this columnist, much of which predates this column, but also notes how these kinds of “we don’t know enough” arguments are really irrelevant.


Although there has been a lot of focus on actions in the executive branch, a rather curious piece of legislation is working its way through Congress.  HR 1430, called the HONEST act, might just be the legislative proof of how the ideal can be the enemy of the good.

At first blush, the act’s requirement that the EPA base its analyses and rules on publicly available science sounds fine. But it appears that the bill’s main purpose is to shut away most of the available science from the EPA by preventing, for instance, “non-reproducible” science such as the analysis of multi-year health surveys or analysis of one-off events. All data must be “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

In an ideal world, this might well exist. But we don’t live in that world; a considerable amount of peer-reviewed science is in journals with paywalls. And some studies rely on industry data that industry might not be willing to share in full, especially if they recognize the opportunity to kill information that might work against them. And then a host of older studies probably are not in a form that can be placed online “in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis” (a phrase that, for instance, precludes putting pdf versions of old papers online but probably requires the creation of usable spreadsheets). One wonders what might be an acceptable form of decades of climatological data. Maybe these problems could be overcome with an army of people to convert old papers and datasets, but the bill authorizes (wait for it)… ONE…MILLION…DOLLARS.

That’s probably not enough to buy out enough of Elsevier’s stranglehold on much of the scientific literature, let alone deal with formatting issues.

If there was any doubt about the intentions behind the bill, many will recall some earlier actions of its author, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, who helpfully reminded everyone about his belief that the entire scientific establishment is dishonest with the statement shortly before the bill left his committee that “much of climate science today appears to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions than on the scientific method”.

How Naïve are Scientists?

A FiveThirtyEight podcast recently included a segment with their senior science writer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, where she opined on what scientists were marching for, and in so doing she made the following comment (about 49 minutes in):

Something that I have been trying to get scientists to understand when I do, like, public speaking with them is that, you know, it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics, but evidence about, like scientific evidence, is never going to be the only thing people make these decisions on. You know, you have ideology, you have philosophy, you have, you know, what your personal conception of ethics and morality is, you have money, you have, like, all these different things that sort of come together to make political decision making, and just telling people facts isn’t going to shift people on all of those other things, because the facts, they might be perfectly willing to believe the facts, but if all those other things outweigh the facts in one direction, like, that’s, that’s not going to fix it. So I think it’s kind of an example of sort of how complicated this can be that, you know, we want there to be this really easy way to, like, well, if science says yes, well let’s do that, but that’s not like how reality works.

Kind of patronizing.

As she kind of indicated earlier in the podcast, the real motivation and goals of the March for Science have been, um, somewhat unclear (as we’ve discussed), so easy to agree that scientists are kind of naïve in hoping for a kumbaya moment that would return science to some position of unquestioned respect. Now agreed, any scientist who thinks they should be able to walk into Congress and say “do this, because that is what the science says” is hopelessly clueless.  GG has yet to meet this scientist. Certainly scientists are naïve in many ways, such as hoping to change opinions by presenting more facts (as we’ve discussed here and here and here), but no practicing scientist GG has met is so clueless as to think that decisions should simply be based on what a scientist says.

No, GG will argue that it is Ms. Koerth-Baker who is not paying close attention.  What has pissed off scientists is NOT that their preferred course of action on several topics is not being followed, it is that politicians and celebrities willfully misrepresent the science.

Let’s put this in a way that should make it really clear. You go to the dentist, who tells you you have a cavity. In walks your CPA, who announces that in fact your teeth just need more candy. And you listen to the CPA because, well, he has the checkbook (and you like candy). How do you think the dentist feels? He or she would be fine not filling the cavity if you so choose, but she or he won’t be happy that you made this decision because an unqualified quack has not only made an incorrect analysis, but misdirected you towards a more harmful solution.

Look, if the arguments in Congress over climate change were accepting that we know the globe is warming and that the cause is CO2 increasing because of fossil fuel burning, there would not be the kind of unhappiness from the scientific community, because at least the premise for making decisions would have been clear.  If because of money or because of philosophy Congress chose to do nothing, well, we’d probably argue that that was a stupid choice, but at least it could be an honest one that might represent some rational balancing of competing aspects to a solution.  Instead people in Congress are misrepresenting the science in order to duck the issue–they aren’t considering scientific evidence, they are pretending that the evidence is something else entirely. (There are other issues producing similar tendencies to discount science, like homeopathic remedies, nuclear power, genetically engineered foods, intelligent design, and vaccinations). In other words, when Ms. Koerth-Baker says “it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics,” scientists agree, and their problem is that scientific evidence is not being recognized as such in some places.

[Realized later that this point is well made in a pre-March for Science video with Neil deGrasse Tyson


April (er, post-March) thoughts

A few thoughts after all the science marches yesterday….

First, it is hard to imagine many other disciplines where non-members would travel any distance to march on their behalf.  Of the ~15,000 GG saw in Denver yesterday, most were not practicing scientists. (GG’s count: march route was 1.6 km long, and when the start reached the end, the end hadn’t yet started; with about 20 people per 3 m length of route, that would be no less than 7.3 x 1600 which is about 12,000 people–and these should be pretty conservative numbers).

Second, this was largely apolitical despite the views of some members of Congress.  Most of the signs were some flavor of pro-science commentary, some noting specific advances, some saying they were alive because of science, some taunting in a cute way (“Don’t have rubella? Thank science”). Some leaned into politics (contrasting science with alternative facts, for instance) and some were blatantly political (though the guy dressed as a caveman with the label “Trump science advisor” did elicit smiles as well as the comment that he would be a step up: President Trump has yet to appoint a science advisor). Several were really more straight Earth Day placards (“I’m with her” and an arrow pointing to a picture of Earth; “There is no planet B”). But there were an awful lot of home-made signs and even homemade shirts (one couple, a pregnant mother with the shirt “Doctor Mommy” and then a heart over her abdomen with the label “Future vaccinated baby” and the father’s shirt “Immigrant Doctor. Today would be banned.”). There are some good collections of sign photos online here and march photos here.

Third, it was a surprisingly spread-out event.  The largest crowds might well have been in Los Angeles and Chicago, not in DC or New York. In some ways this makes sense for a non-political event: if you aren’t demanding the federal government do something (or stop doing something), then there isn’t a lot of reason to head all the way to Washington, D.C.

Fourth, though, the number of people who marched was a small fraction of the more than 20 million science and engineering folks out there. Some who didn’t march offered reasons ranging from physical challenge to thinking it was ineffective to thinking it was too political to thinking it wasn’t political enough.

In the end, though, what is the meaning of a few hundred thousand folks getting up and walking a few blocks? Does it make it less likely that some of the extreme science cuts in Trump’s skinny budget won’t stand up? If everybody who marched wrote their representatives and senators to avoid cuts in science funding, it would probably have a real impact. If all they do is go home and watch TV, not much impact. We can watch the Week of Action page the March for Science people have to see what the organizers are hoping for (today’s entry on public engagement is certainly a good start, though they blew the link to AGU’s outreach site).