Here in Colorado there is a tremendous amount of anger, frustration, and finger-pointing going on over the risks and rights associated with oil and gas development. In part because of sloppy language, in part because of deliberate misrepresentation, in part because of financial gain, in part because of different assessments of risk, the controversy has people talking past one another. It reached something of a silly level when protesters in Boulder recently protested a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because the symphony had accepted some money from an oil company. [GG isn’t sure what the message really amounted to: don’t let oil companies support the arts? Not like the symphony was investing in oil companies].
How did we end up in this mess?
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.
Well, it was the well. In Firestone, Colorado, a house exploded because a cut gas line that should have been abandoned but was still connected leaked gas into the soil five feet from the house. The odorless gas seeped into the basement of the house and was ignited. This determination is almost certain to ignite another, thankfully figurative, firestorm.
Leaving aside the inevitable lawsuits over that explosion, what does this mean and what should it mean for oil and gas development?
Let’s start with the easy part: what it should mean. Oil companies need to be responsible for the safety of their facilities (that includes being legally liable). New construction near existing oil and gas facilities needs to be aware of oil and gas infrastructure, including these flow lines. Government should enforce inspections of existing oil and gas infrastructure and assure the proper sealing and plugging of wells and flow lines being abandoned. Ideally, government should sponsor means of detecting unusual levels of hydrocarbons leaking at well sites and employ them as a means of recognizing trouble spots (CIRES and NOAA have been working on such tools).
Frankly, if GG lived near a well, he’d be trying to find out about the feeder lines and the history of the well. And quite possibly monitoring gas levels in the basement.
The good news is that the state has ordered oil and gas companies to pressure-test all lines within 1000′ of occupied buildings and to make sure abandoned lines are properly marked and capped. It is unlikely that industry will protest.
Unfortunately, that probably won’t be enough to prevent some future tragedy unless something else changes.
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.
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.
Honestly, why this needs to be said, again and again, gets the Grumpy Geophysicist aggravated. Bibliographic metrics are no substitute for reading science, whether reviewing proposals, reviewing papers, or granting tenure. So the latest paper to make this point also makes the nice point that papers that step away from incremental science tend not to have great short-term metrics. Basically, it takes the field awhile to recognize something new and worthwhile. Even more infuriating is that journal impact factors are being used to evaluate individual pieces of science! This is insane.
Maybe all evaluators should be given the same advice accompanying investments: “Past performance is no guarantee of future success.”
GG has previously been frustrated with the combination of imprecise speech of anti-fracking groups as well as the double speak of industry. The reason you might want to be precise might be well illustrated by a recent home explosion in Colorado.
The exploding house killed two men working on a hot water heater in the basement; usually when you hear these things, it turns out there is a gas leak or something like that in play. The startling news has been the move by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to shut down 3000 wells they are operating while the wells are checked out (that is more than 5% of the active wells in the state). The exploded house was 170 feet from a 1993 well reactivated this past January. Although a new well can not be drilled there, houses can be built that close to existing wells (these houses are only a couple years old).
Oil companies are loathe to shut down operations (see opposition to claims of induced earthquakes, for instance). Shutting down this number of wells even as investigators are saying that they still don’t know what happened strongly suggests something may have gone wrong. Given that the oil company feels that shutting down wells is likely to reduce a risk, they are presumably not thinking that any gas leaked up around a bad casing job in the well but instead are concerned there might be leaks in the underground lines connecting wells to pipelines or storage facilities.
And here’s the thing. This is not a modern, horizontally-drilled heavily fracked well. This is one of those older-style vertical wells. So when anti-fracking groups say they don’t want to stop oil and gas development but do want to stop fracking (as was the case in Longmont, Colorado a couple years back), this is the kind of well they think is OK. So once again a reminder: fracking is very rarely a cause of problems, but all the other stuff with oil and gas development is the real problem people are complaining about.
The irony might well be that if Anadarko’s infrastructure was the cause of the blast, there is likely to be enough of an outcry to allow far more stringent rules on any new oil and gas development–even though a blast caused by a leak of a subdivision gas supply line would probably not shut down the use of natural gas in houses. So “anti-fracking” groups might get their wish not because of fracking problems per se but because houses were built in the vicinity of active oil and gas operations.
(Equally ironic is the request from the Boulder County Board of Supervisors for companies to shut down all their vertical wells in the county–apparently unaware that it is the near-surface infrastructure that could be the problem, which can exist at both directional and vertical well pads).
It should be interesting to see what happens. Almost certainly it points to a need to check up on the older oil and gas infrastructure in the state. Whether it changes the politics of new oil and gas operations remains to be seen.