Good shale gas news is no news for special interests who oppose it and their media enablers, says Nick Grealy.
Fracking opponents would have us believe modern hydraulic fracturing technology is unstudied, or has only done so by “frackademics.” The term refers to scientists at universities often tainted solely because they they are located in Texas or because they are geologists. Saying geologists are tainted is like saying doctors are prejudiced in a medical diagnosis and it’s best to get a second opinion from a dentist. Or, in the shale “debate” context, the opinion of a rock star, fashion designer or movie star is as valid – or greater – than those of scientists.
Good Shale Gas News Tends to Sink Without A Trace
No less than four recent academic studies have two things in common: Key parts of their conclusions are positive, and in the “conventional” media and thus to the eyes of the public, they sunk without a trace. This ensured Google News flow, which travels downstream to hundreds of local frack-free sites, remains overwhelmingly negative.
It’s also worth pointing out how many frack-free locations people are setting up anti frack groups in. This is akin to the “nuclear free” zones of the 1980s rarely anywhere near the problem, but which energized the base and convinced others, sympathetic or not, that the movement was far larger than it actually was.
When Frack Free this and that (fill in the blank) are set up in locations where olive oil production is equally prospective as petroleum (think Vermont), they have three advantages. Magnifying opposition is one, because internet search robots are unable to distinguish between Harvard or MIT and a cleverly named local group. Sites exist in the cloud, but poison the debate in the real world.
The second advantage is that if there is no local shale developer, local activists won’t be challenged at all and that leads to the third. Most local papers, are likely to give greater credence to anyone simply because they’re local. This means any idiot can get in the local press and often does. It’s a key issue for the industry world-wide, and needs supra-national initiatives to inform the debate.
The Industry tends to be slow to respond in this regard, however, because people in one area seldom see the value of responding nationally or globally, despite being damaged by something someone cooks up on the other side of the world. Think New York where media tends to begin and end, but which most gas companies have written off and, therefore, sadly ignore to their own great disadvantage as New York generated talking points damage the industry everywhere. Framing the debate is as important as the debate itself. Activists getting in first ensures the industry ends up framed, often hauled in to a necktie party based on hearsay evidence from a continent away.
Shale Gas News Gatekeepers Doing A Poor Job
Another issue is how often fracking studies that show the slightest doubt are often released to the media first and gain the first mover advantage of being reported without any informed response from other scientists – a version of peer review on which Steve Everley of Energy in Depth recently reported.
In the UK, key gatekeepers of the shale debate are often the dozens of campaigners used by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or other members of the Green 10:
We work with the EU law-making institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers – to ensure that the environment is placed at the heart of policymaking. This includes working with our member organisations around Europe to facilitate their input into the EU decision-making process.
“Facilitated” input is often the only input.When the input is positive against natural gas, the news flows from departments like Greenpeace’s Energy Desk or the almost uncountable number of policy advocates in the UK Friends of the Earth alone. The audience is the overworked “churnalists” of a bloated and dying UK mediaverse, often barely paid even starvation wages as “interns.”
Back in the twentieth century when people had to work for no pay, they were called slaves. The issue is widespread in media, PR, culture and anything vaguely “creative” and Greens are far from being the only sinners in this regard. Today, interns are so desperate that they are willing to be paid for “exposure” alone.That “exposure” then gets them a real paying job somewhere and that’s often within the Green 10.
Anything vaguely positive about shale simply isn’t a story. Environment reporters are unlikely to endear themselves to future employers if they investigated shale and found something positive. The Green story, despite faux protestations about massive shale PR campaigns (does that look like here!) based more on a persecuted Messiah meme than reality, is to promote renewables as the solution and gas as the enemy and that’s that. Facts, context or mere nuance, simply don’t get a look-in.
The “More Study Needed” Crutch
All studies, both good and bad, tend to rely upon that famous caveat “more study is needed,” a phrase used every other week or so by people who essentially make up a responsible sounding name and then write the executive summary first. Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy – is one example. It is a Park Foundation funded scientific facade with no purpose other than to halt shale gas. Another is the UK Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, who published a widely reported independent study which was revealed (by me and James Verdon, but not by the media) to be almost the sole work of Gwen Harrison, a Green Party candidate who had been arrested at a fracking protest.
Nonetheless, the studies to which I’m referring key in on matters of public concern; matters such as the organic compounds found in produced waters from shale gas wells, with a view toward assessing the pollution potential on produced shale water. Water in hydraulic fracturing is pushed deep underground, and much flows back almost immediately. The concern has been that produced water contains high concentrations of minerals naturally present underground but at far higher concentrations as on the surface. The scary words are legion – benzene and radioactivity being only two. Sounds exciting, right? But not to the lead author, and thus not to the media:
Study author Andrew Barron said the results showed that produced water “was not quite as bad as we thought.”
For example, a related cancer-causing chemical called benzene, which is often seen in oil-and-gas products and waste, was not detected. Moreover, another set of cancer-causing chemicals found in similar wastewater associated with coal-bed methane mining was not observed.
“What the authors have shown here is interesting and intriguing,” said Lee Ferguson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. Ferguson, who was not involved with the research, called it a starting point for further study.
But, this is how Inside Climate reported on the study. Here is the beginning of the section:
According to the study authors, the most surprising find was the presence of group of organic compounds called halocarbons, some of which are potentially toxic. These chemicals are not native to the geology of the area being drilled; nor are they found in the man-made fluids purposefully injected down a well during fracking.
The result? For that, you have to read to the end, a place many editors, and fractivists rarely reach:
Barron, the study author, said the observed levels of these inorganic compounds are minimal and “not a cause for panic.”
“Not a cause for panic” is another way of saying won’t ever make it to the papers.
No Shale Gas News Is Welcome If It Doesn’t Fit the Template
Meanwhile a very complete report from the California Council on Science and Technology, described as a “nonpartisan scientific research organization established by the state Legislature to advise state officials” should be relevant if the point of the debate would be to actually inform.
California, of course, has a reputation among environmentalists as being greener than green. If California state scientists aren’t worried, for God’s sake, don’t point it out to anyone in Europe.
The federal government will resume oil and gas leasing in California following a report released Thursday that found little scientific evidence that fracking and similar extraction techniques are dangerous.
The Bureau of Land Management said the report — and additional environmental reviews — will allow it to begin leasing on public land next year. The announcement is welcome news for energy companies that have been shut out of the oil-rich San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast.
The report itself says among other things
There are no publicly reported instances of potable water contamination from subsurface releases in California
The report continues to address two issues constantly raised in the UK, which make any Lancashire fears seem especially groundless:
Current hydraulic fracturing operations in California require a small fraction of statewide water use.
Well stimulation technologies, as currently practiced in California, do not result in a significant increase in seismic hazard. The pressure increases from hydraulic fracturing are too small and too short in duration to be able to produce a felt, let alone damaging, earthquake.
In short, if California isn’t worried about drought or earthquakes, why should anyone raise the issue in the UK or elsewhere? But again, if no one ever gets that pointed out to them, how would anyone know? In the digital forest, not linking means silence as sure as a falling tree in a real one.
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