Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fact Checking A Baseless Attack on a Recent Fracking/Contamination Study


Recently folks have been all a twitter (bad pun intended) over a ProPublica story on a scientific paper by hydrogeology consultant Tom Myers, Potential Contaminant Pathways from Hydraulically Fractured Shale to Aquifers.  Annoyingly, many tweets take the possibilities discussed in the paper as definitive proof of something that is actually occurring or will occur, which is a misuse of the conclusions. I'm sure there is also real scientific critique that can be made of the research. But worse is an attack on Myers, the study and science in the Marcellus Drilling News. This particular diatribe is nothing but a collection of personal attacks, unfounded accusations, strawman arguments and logical fallacies written in the tone of a middle-school bully. Oh, and quote marks on the word research in the title to question it's legitimacy. The cowardly part is that there is no identified author of the rant, so we have to assume it to be the responsibility of the MDN’s editor and sponsors. So as I dismantle this little anti-science screed (italicized below) I’ll simply refer to him/her as Mr. Anonymous: 

A new research paper titled “Potential Contaminant Pathways from Hydraulically Fractured Shale to Aquifers,” bought and paid for by anti-drilling organizations Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation, Many organizations without scientists on staff pay a consultant. Hell, even the big boys in the petroleum and natural gas industry use outside consultants if they need to. So that by itself means little. But Mr. Anonymous also throws out an accusation of collusion and unethical behavior with the “bought and paid for” line.  If they have proof please illuminate us.

…christened “peer-reviewed”. It was reviewed by scientists, picked by an editor, who must disclose any conflict of interest. The same process is used by resource and petroleum geologists when they publish. No scientific paper is published without numerous revisions required by editors and reviewers. The paper was submitted in August 2011 but not accepted until February 2012, indicating revisions and changes were required for it to be acceptable for publication. If Mr. Anonymous doesn't like other experts in scientific field to review research in it, what does he suggest, reviews by financial analysts?

....and published in an obscure journal called Ground Water,... Obscure to Mr. Anonymous maybe. Most scientific journals are not household names. But the reality is that the publishing company is Wiley, a major publisher of journals in many fields and they have been publishing Ground Water since 1963.  You know, oncologists get their information from medical journals that the public never reads or knows of, but I certainly wouldn’t want them to automatically reject info from one if they were treating me for cancer.

....concludes that fracking fluids won’t stay put a mile below solid rock and will instead travel uphill, through that mile of solid rock, and contaminate water aquifers—within a few years. A strawman argument by Mr. Anonymous, the paper makes no such definitive statement. Instead it discusses the possibility of such a scenario occurring and suggests monitoring for it. 

What scientific method was used to conduct this all-important research that foretells the end of safe drinking water as we know it? Another strawman, the paper makes no such apocalyptic statement about drinking water. 

Computer models. Mr. Anonymous’ answer to his rhetorical question implies that computer models are automatically useless. You know what geoscientists use when trying to determine what areas of a play might be productive? Yep, computer models. Which are simply automated methods of using mathematical calculations, the language of science. Now I agree that models must be compared to field information wherever possible, but a lack of ground truth does not automatically invalidate them. And you must show why the models are not useful at all if you think that.

Yeah, the author of this “important new study” sat and played with computer models, got a few of his buddies to sign off on his “research,” I see, Mr. Anonymous does not like the conclusions, so the emotional knee-jerk reaction is to say it cannot be research and make ad hominem attacks on the researcher. Actually worse than simple ad hominem, as Mr. Anonymous also makes an offhand accusation that the reviewers were Myers’ buddies, implying they simply went along with what he wrote without checking his work.  That’s pretty slanderous. Go back to what I said about peer–review.

…got paid a boatload of money from anti-drilling organizations – Myers is a consultant, so he can be legitimately be paid for his work. Suggesting he was paid to produce a specific result is another matter.  The oil and gas industry often use outside consultants, and yes people also accuse them of giving the industry the results they wanted. But in either case, unless there’s evidence it’s an unsubstantiated accusation. Two wrongs don’t make a right. By the way, how does Mr. Anonymous know how much money was used for the study? 

And now, shazam, everyone is supposed to run for the hills and end all fracking everywhere. Nice try. Again, Myers says nothing of the sort, so once again we have another lame strawman. I might add that not a single mention is made by Myers about banning fracking either. Note that this rhetorical technique was perfected by the tobacco industry: invent a strawman version of a scientific study to discredit it. Here are the paper’s actual conclusions, in all their passive-voice caution typical of a scientific paper:
Fracking can release fluids and contaminants from the shale either by changing the shale and overburden hydrogeology or simply by the injected fluid forcing other fluids out of the shale. The complexities of contaminant transport from hydraulically fractured shale to nearsurface aquifers render estimates uncertain, but a range of interpretative simulations suggest that transport times could be decreased from geologic time scales to as few as tens of years. Preferential flow through natural fractures fracking-induced fractures could further decrease the travel times to as little as just a few years. There is no data to verify either the pre- or post-fracking properties of the shale. The evidence for potential vertical contaminant flow is strong, but there are also almost no monitoring systems that would detect contaminant transport as considered herein. Several improvements could be made.
• Prior to hydraulic fracturing operations, the subsurface should be mapped for the presence of faults and measurement of their properties.
• A reasonable setback distance from the fracking to the faults should be established. The setback distance should be based on a reasonable risk analysis of fracking increasing the pressures within the fault.
• The properties of the shale should be verified, postfracking, to assess how the hydrogeology will change.
• A system of deep and shallow monitoring wells and piezometers should be established in areas expecting significant development, before that development begins.
It is plainly obvious that Mr. Anonymous never bothered to read the Myers paper. Now unfortunately the entire paper is behind Wiley’s paywell,  but the abstract is not and at the end of it Myers states, 
The rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing requires that monitoring systems be employed to track the movement of contaminants and that gas wells have a reasonable offset from faults.
Nowhere does Myers state that fracking “foretells the end of safe drinking water as we know it.” and saying he did would be a lie.

The “father of the Marcellus Shale,” Penn State professor Dr. Terry Engelder, said the study’s author doesn’t understand shale geology and questioned using computer models instead of empirical research—i.e., going into the field and observing and testing. Field work is very important and neglected too often today, and Dr. Engelder has some valid criticisms of the applicability (I know, a big grown-up word) of Myers' study to actual shales. But guess what, a review of Dr. Engelder extensive published research on fractures, his specialty, shows he used calculations and models as well. Why wouldn’t he? And some of his work was supported by the oil and gas industry, but that does not invalidate it either.

But then, that would take like, work! Spending time researching a well-thought and mature argument against a scientific paper is work, this rant is not. Maybe it was just attacking the ProPublica reporting of it? Certainly doesn’t look like it.

Now if MDN produced a report that quoted hydrogeologists and structural geologists critiquing Myers' study that would be great. Or even a passionate but well-thought editorial rebuttal against it. But the rant made instead wouldn’t even pass muster a 8th grade science paper. My takeaway is that the source of the author's ire is the very idea that there could be an issue with fracking and any suggestion of it must be dismissed with ridicule and intimidation. And that raises my ire.

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