Dr. Robert Jackson of Duke University presented at Wilkes University last night and it was a demonstration of the good, bad and ugly on the fracking debate, but mostly good.
Duke University’s Dr. Robert Jackson, who is ubiquitously quoted in media articles regarding the subject of fracking as a skeptic with a ready “on the other hand” quote to denigrate natural gas development, appeared at Wilkes University last night to speak. He was much better than I expected from having read all those quotes. I came away, in fact, thinking our opponents who were there must have left deeply disappointed, which is the highest compliment I can pay the guy. Jackson was far more professional, and less doctrinaire, than I ever would have expected. It wasn’t all good, though, and there was was one tiny bit of academic ugliness that revealed the man’s inherent bias, slight thought it was.
Robert Jackson, The Good
Robert Jackson’s negative quotes regarding natural gas development are found in mainstream article after article, usually preceded by a “but” to indicate something bad is coming. My guess, after hearing him in person, is this is as much, perhaps even more, a function of biased reporters picking up what they wanted to hear than Jackson pushing it. His demeanor was low-key, his presentation was balanced and he made no attempt to offer sound-bites for press consumption. Hundreds of students were required to be there and he gave them a pretty decent education on the subject.
The thing I liked most about Robert Jackson from his speech was the fact it showed the man lives in the real world. He emphasized, time and again, energy issues can’t be solely about science, for example, acknowledging perspectives are bound to be different depending on one’s own interests and needs. He combined this throughout with an upbeat approach about using what we learn to improve things, rather than simply oppose them. I found his comments about using research on methane leaks as a means to pinpoint, repair, and change policy regarding replacement, of old cast iron natural cast pipes to be very refreshing, for example.
Tony Ingraffea, whose name Robert Jackson pointedly didn’t utter when it came to the issue of methane emissions and leaks (although he did quote others whose names are less infamous) would have used the data presented to say “See, this is why we must stop using natural gas” but Jackson said “This how we can we correct the problem, save money, clean the environment and ensure public safety.” Jackson hit exactly the correct notes on this and many other issues. Antis there must have cringed.
There were several other cringe-worthy moments for them as Robert Jackson offered the following points:
- Water use, although it can be a local problem on occasion that requires adaption to conditions, is not a major problem, as other uses and forms of energy production, by and large, require more.
- There are no cases, from his research, where someone’s drinking water was contaminated with radioactivity or chemicals from fracking.
- Recycling of flowback and produced water is perhaps the best thing that’s happened in the last 10 years with the industry.
- Pennsylvania has greatly improved its regulations and has one of the best wastewater registries around.
- FracFocus and other disclosure initiatives have been major improvements.
- Green completions, required by 2015, but already being done by many companies are reducing emissions.
- Conversions of old power plants to natural gas is reducing SO2 emissions by 90%, and also lowering mercury, NOx and particulates emissions in big ways.
- Recent methane emissions estimates indicate natural gas is still a lot better for the environment and dealing with climate change than coal (no mention of Ingraffea or Howarth).
- Natural gas is a great “peaking fuel” to employ when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
- It is possible to extract natural gas from a mile below the surface without disrupting other natural resources; wells can be cemented properly; and casing can work as intended (more subtle rejection of Ingraffea).
- Use of acid mine drainage to hydraulically fracture gas wells is a good idea.
Robert Jackson, The Bad
It wasn’t all good though. As he does in interviews and his scientific writings, Jackson managed to work in several “on the other hand” comments, such as these:
- Stating he wasn’t a seismic expert and wouldn’t comment on earthquakes, he proceeded to do just that, although he did acknowledge any that might be connected had to do with underground injection, not fracking.
- He actually used this picture in his presentation, which is a map of older vertical gas well pads done when units were but 10 to 40 acres in size (exactly how it’s not done today) even commenting about “covering the real estate” although, to be fair, he made it clear later that horizontal drilling was reducing the footprint, if any of the students caught that part:
- He talked about the 750 chemicals used in fracking, never noting only a handful are used in a given case, but he did acknowledge many were harmless and emphasized there should be less attention paid to hydraulic fracturing than surface impacts.
- He quoted from his own Duke studies regarding methane issues, but never mentioned some of the flaws in those studies (see here and here) or the recent work upending his basic conclusion that thermogenic methane must indicate contamination produced by gas drilling. He never told us the Duke work is all funded by the relentlessly and rabidly anti-gas Park Foundation either.
- He talked about the dangers of open pits, which are seldom used in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
- He reported on the Garfield County air study, noting it found higher levels of air contaminants nearer gas wells, but didn’t mention the big flaw in that study, which was that the higher contaminants were found close to an Interstate highway that probably produced them.
- Jackson said there were no major health studies on the effects of fracking and natural gas development, without disclosing he is on the advisory board for such a proposed study by Geisinger and, therefore, has an interest in promoting it. Nor, did he mention the extensive health analyses conducted in Texas and elsewhere, the air cleanup in New York City or this report.
- He suggested 10% of gas wells might have issues over time, without citing any evidence to support his position and in direct contradiction to the extensive work of the Ground Water Protection Council indicating it is a tiny fraction of this.
- He might have, but didn’t mention companies in Northeastern Pennsylvania who are recyling 100% of their produced water, instead of worrying about what would happen if drilling slowed.
Robert Jackson, The Ugly
There was nothing ugly in Robert Jackson as a speaker. He most definitely elevated the discussion in most respects. The Q&A session, though, produced a glimpse of some of the ugliness that prevails in academia today on the subject of climate change. Our position here at NaturalGasNOW.org is simply this; to the extent climate change is an issue, natural gas is part of the solution. Jackson took the ugly route of far too many academics today, essentially saying “99% of us agree on climate change, so just shut up, please, and do what we say.” He was clearly uncomfortable saying natural gas was a good bridge fuel because its low prices are likely to make it more than a bridge and discourage renewables development needed now to avoid climate change catastrophe.
It was a poor note on which to end an otherwise good evening. I don’t want to be told “we all agree, so just believe us.” it’s intellectually dishonest and ugly. If it’s so damned obvious, then just share your best points without adopting a condescending posture. Given the number of respected climatologists who do not agree, we are surely entitled to hear your evidence, if you’re going to assert such a conclusion. Don’t patronize us. Don’t try to ply us with “we all know..” statements you wouldn’t accept from a student. Let us decide for ourselves.
So, that’s the good, the bad and the ugly as it relates to Robert Jackson. There is, clearly, a small part of him that is “true believer” but I found him much more balanced and realistic than I expected; even bringing a breath of fresh air to the debate in many respects. I know its presumptuous, but I give him a B and maybe a B+.