The operating assumption that generally prevails in Washington, DC, is that the facts should fit the political narrative, not the other way around.
Every once in awhile, someone comes along and tries to spoil the fun. Such was the case February 1 when Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a physician, toxicologist, member of the National Academies of Science's Institute of Medicine, and former Reagan administration appointee at the Environmental Protection Agency, testified to the House Science Committee's energy subcommittee about public health issues associated with hydraulic fracturing.
This was the hearing from which Josh Fox, producer of the anti-fracturing documentary Gasland was ejected and cuffed by Capitol Police. That unfortunate incident grabbed the headlines, but Goldstein's important testimony shouldn't be overshadowed by the fracas over Fox.
The subcommittee hearing was called to rake EPA over the coals about natural gas. (Sorry for the mixed energy references.) The point in contention was EPA's controversial study in which agency experts said they found evidence of hydraulic fracturing chemicals in an aquifer in proximity to the Pavilion gas field, a tight sands formation in Wyoming.
Certainly, there are legitimate issues with the study. The results are preliminary, the study has not yet been peer reviewed, and questions about methodology have been raised by Wyoming's state Oil and Gas Commission. The results, even if on the mark, are not necessarily applicable to other gas fields, given geological differences. And "fracking," the shorthand term for hydraulic fracturing disliked by industry, has become a shorthand expression for a range of complex health and environmental issues associated with gas production, including many that are unrelated to fracturing and the chemicals used for the procedure.
All those grey nuances aside, politics intruded as usual. See, the headline hunters cried, EPA is at it again, acting on its obsession to kill all jobs. Politicians, always on the prowl for oversimplifications and distortions that prey on emotions, have exacerbated the difficulty of finding a balance that would enable the U.S. to tap its abundant gas resources without unnecessarily risking public health. Hence, the February 1 subcommittee hearing at which pillorying EPA was the order of the day.
Goldstein had no interest in pillorying EPA. Nor is he interested in stifling the gas boom; indeed, he said it is in the country's best interest to maximize gas production while minimizing any attendant health and environmental risks.
Goldstein tried to drill three points into the politicians' neurological formations: 1) The public is concerned about the potential impacts of developing shale gas resources, 2) There is genuine cause for concern, and 3) Lack of support for research to better understand the potential health impacts of unconventional gas production is "shortsighted and counterproductive."
He also left the pols with three takeaway points: 1) The evolving process of unconventional gas production will lead to unwelcome surprises, 2) Given good oversight, the industry will figure out ways of recycling fracturing chemicals and keeping hydrocarbons out of drinking water supplies, and 3) Unconventional gas development will, at some point, be statistically associated with health problems.
Better to study the potential health issues now, characterize them accurately, and figure out ways of minimizing risks, he said, rather than ignore them and take a chance that a public health incident, five or 10 years down the road, gives the gas industry a black eye that puts a serious dent in the industry's growth prospects and hobbles the promise gas holds of replacing dirty coal plants.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.