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The Religiosity of the Fracking Debate

SOURCE: AP Photo/Mike Groll A protester raises her fist in opposition to hydraulic fracturing. President Barack Obama did not use the "f- word" during this year's State of the Union speech. That's because the word has become a political lightning rod.

The debate over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the shale gas revolution it has spawned has a religious aura to it. Both sides have an unshakeable conviction that fracking is either good or evil. There is a kind of sad resignation to the incommensurability of it all. Despite the vitriol, both camps are just going through the motions: I’ll say X and you’ll say not-X and on it goes. No one really seems to believe what they say is going to get an opponent to stop and think. The point is not productive compromise, but all out victory.

It is reminiscent of a time when religious factions tore through Europe, each certain that it knew the will of God and the proper order of things. What was truth for one faction was heresy for another. We have this same problem of “double vision” that Thomas Hobbes diagnosed in the seventeenth century. As one student confessed to me, the more she reads about shale gas the more confused she becomes. Is it good or bad news for the climate? Is water at risk or not? Is it cleaning or fouling our air? Is it an economic boom or bust? The answer in all cases seems to be “yes.” Or make that “no.” Those of us not committed to either faith are drowning in a flood of contradictory information. Of course, the devout have an easier go of it, because they can see things clearly in terms of truth and blasphemy.

But obviously this is not a religious debate. Indeed, both sides make it clear they are simply reporting the facts. It is a scientific debate, because these are scientific questions about public health, economics, and the environment. But on both sides there is a kind of religiosity about science. They share a faith in science as a means to universal consent and policy action.

Hobbes shared this itch for certainty, but he doubted anything other than a deductive geometry could provide it. The empirical sciences rely on the fallible senses and their inductive methods are prone to errors and require interpretations that could take a variety of forms while nonetheless remaining consistent with observations. As a consequence, results are often inconclusive and one scientist may contradict the findings of another.

Hobbes has proved prophetic for our 21st century debate about fracking. On one side, the industry accuses environmental NGOs of orchestrating a campaign of lies and fear mongering. The public would embrace the shale gas revolution if only they knew the facts.

This is the motif of the film Truthland released by Energy in Depth, a campaign of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Shelly, a mother and teacher from Pennsylvania, watches the antifracking film Gasland and then sets out on a scientific vision quest to get the real story about fracking. After a long journey and conversations with 12 experts, Shelly “came back with a lot of facts, a lot of answers, and the peace of mind you get from having both those things close by.” The religious undertones here are hard to miss: Shelly has spoken to the Desert Fathers, found a higher truth, and now has a rock-like faith that she wishes to share with the world.

On the other hand, those opposed to fracking also have certainty on their side. Of course, for them it’s not emotional hysteria and media sensationalism that are clouding the truth. Rather it is the deliberate production of doubt and ignorance by a powerful and deep-pocketed industry. Fracktivists—the hip term for antifracking activists—see the same industry-sponsored skepticism and denial about climate change and cigarettes at work in shale gas studies.

This agnotology has led to another entry in the dictionary—sorry, fracktionary—of fracking terms: Frackademia. The concern is that the natural gas industry is sponsoring academic scientists (who then become, you guessed it, frackademics) in order to lend the prestige and credibility of university research to their claims about the safety of shale gas development. There are other religious themes here—of temptations to stray from the path of rectitude and of false prophets leading the sheep wayward.

Far from dispelling political disputes and answering policy questions, science has become just another weapon in the arsenal of warring factions. Hobbes’s solution was the Leviathan, a sovereign with absolute political authority. A chain is fastened from the lips of the sovereign to the ears of the people, which would eliminate the problem of seeing double.

Imagine a Leviathan charged with establishing facts about the impacts of shale gas development. We can call it the Leviathan Science Agency, or LSA, and all parties consent to its authority as the single legitimate source of knowledge. Would the LSA cut through the fractious fracking fracas?

Imagine the LSA arrived at the same conclusion as the Center for Disease Control that six counties atop the Barnett Shale have the highest incidence of invasive breast cancer. That is the fact with universal consent. But what does it mean for shale gas policy? To claim, as some activists have, that this proves shale gas drilling causes cancer is to make the questionable cause fallacy. That area is home to lots of other environmental risks that could explain the finding.

But let’s imagine that the LSA establishes gas drilling is responsible for a 0.6% increase in invasive breast cancer incidences. This is the kind of certainty Hobbes knew we could never expect from empirical studies. But even if we did know that, does it mean we should stop drilling? Other forms of energy development that would replace drilling have their own risks.

In case after case, the LSA could produce facts, yet much in terms of policy-relevant direction would be left unanswered. We could all agree on the water, climate, economic, and air impacts of shale gas development, but still disagree about what we ought to do in light of that knowledge. That’s because the debate hinges on more than facts. It is about different moral and political views on rights, justice, and risks. Even with all the facts we would still need to ask: Is that too much of a risk for our water supply? Are we justified in restricting access to private property on the basis of that risk? Is this level of air pollution acceptable? Is it justifiable as a means toward improved air quality elsewhere? Is this benefit worth that cost?

It is important to have independent research of high integrity on the impacts of shale gas development. But we will never get the kind of certainty the LSA would provide, especially on policy-relevant timelines, and even if we could we would still have basic values disagreements.

The current debate too often deflects explicit consideration of these disagreements into a proxy war about whose science is most credible. The resulting debate floats off into a higher plane of abstractions, losing touch with the worldly reality of policymakers facing very specific choices (e.g., should we allow fracking in residential zones?) that require balancing demands for protection of health, promotion of jobs, and respect for property.

Both sides would do better to offer specific and practical policy alternatives that clearly link science and uncertainties to these goals. There are some leads we can follow here. For example, the fracking entrepreneur George P. Mitchell and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced plans to promote regulations at the “sensible center.” And the EPA has compiled a list of recommended technologies and practices that simultaneously improve environmental performance and profits. Let’s begin here, with no-regret practical fixes, and work our way out. There is common ground to be reached, but we have to step down from the dais first.

Adam Briggle is a faculty fellow at the University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity and co-author with Carl Mitcham of the forthcoming book Ethics and Science: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press).

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