It is indisputable that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, but...

...nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of Plate Tectonics.

18 February, 2014

It's Controversial

At what point does something become an actual, bona fide controversy. In the strictest sense of the word a controversy is essentially the opposite of a conversation. They are two words built on the same two roots: con and versa.  When you discuss a topic WITH someone you converse with them; literally, to have a discussion about a topic in which both opinions turn (versa) the same way (con). If you are in an argument, your respective positions are turned (versa) against (contra) each other.

The word controversy is defined in modern English as a disagreement which is usually heated and conducted in a public forum. But at what point does a disagreement, whether public or not, leave the realm of a difference of opinion and become universally accepted as an official controversy?  By official, I mean a difference of opinion in which literally everyone accepts that both view points, which have 'turned against' each other, are equally valid, deserve equal hearing and consideration and must be resolved via some official evaluation or action.

For example, there is a heated argument which is conducted in the public eye pertaining to the existence of Big Foot. I don't think, however, that any rational person thinks that this is a controversy worthy of the epithet and which needs to be resolved by some sort of official investigation, evaluation, resolution and/or declaration from an official government entity. We can make similar arguments about the issues of UFOs, a flat Earth,  ancient astronauts. We can say with assurity that, although people believe in such things, there is no real, public controversy about them. So the word 'controversy' has come to mean a bit more than Webster says.

Let's go one step further. Many people do not believe in a deity. Many do. Many believe in other deities, or in multiple deities. All these people disagree. They argue. They call each other names like unbeliever, infidel, gullible, and many worse things. And they do so in public.  But there is no controversy. It is a matter of one's personal world view. No-one expects that the matter will be resolved. No-one couches comments about their world view in terms of "this is controversial but my belief is..." And most importantly, no-one expects that some government entity, or a university study is ever going to answer the matter satisfactorily. Religion is part of the fabric of a multitudinous and varied society and such things are simply NOT controversial. Would you really expect a Christian to preface her remarks by saying, "I know that the concept of Jesus is controversial, but what the Bible says he preached is that we should...."

In that context it would be an implicit admission that the speaker holds her own beliefs to be not wholly correct. Similarly, with regard to any issue under debate, the insertion of a "controversy disclaimer" before one actually utters a claim is a tacit acknowledgement that whatever follows can be taken or left because it does not qualify as confirmed knowledge - it is subject to revision; temporary; suspect - or even worse in the truly post-modern way, just your point of view. And that is OK when the debatable points ARE interpretations such as the 'meaning' of a poem, or the purpose of foreshadowing in a play. It is acceptable when there are equally valid explanations for some phenomenon in the natural world for which the existing data to do not point to either explanation as being correct. It is NOT an acceptable tact when the topic is factual, there are hard data and well-developed theory to unify and explain the data.

So, despite the dictionary definition, simply holding different opinions about something is really not a public or societal controversy. Even if there are many people sitting on opposite sides of an issue. Well then, at what point do we collectively determine that something is controversial and that all sides must be considered?

On the other end of the spectrum are issues which are fact-based and should be real controversies but are not. An example of such a public non-controversy, a "non-troversy", is climate change.  Until recently, this was exactly like religion.  If someone did not agree with the main stream consensus of official climate science as espoused by the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change, they were simply labeled a "denier" in the same way an atheist might be labeled an unbeliever. After all, it has been touted since Al Gore made "An Inconvenient Truth" that the debate is over. The Science is Settled; i.e., no controversy. All this despite a huge disagreement which has taken place in the public eye for years - although you probably never heard much about the other side of this dispute because there was scant coverage in the media.

The debate is over?  Who said so? Only one side of the debate said it was over. More importantly, a debate actually never took place. In that instance, just as in religion, the climate establishment simply shut down any concept of debate and thereby pre-empted any controversy from ever being recognized. Until now.  Now the "engineers have been hoist on their own petard" and the climate establishment is being bitten pretty hard on the ass by their own tiger.

As for "The Science is Settled"?  Let me give an example. I was in a public debate once and my opponent, a university professor who championed the position of catastrophic human induced global warming trotted out the "science is settled" canard. At that point I challenged him to relinquish his university position and to return the research funds he had received to study climate change. If the science is settled, I reasoned to the audience, we don't need to continue paying climate scientists such as him any longer. If the science were settled, their (his) jobs have been complete.  They can be retired and we can hand the remaining money over  to policy makers to decide how to address the absolute truth revealed by himself and his colleagues.

His response was that climate scientists are now looking for ways to cope with climate change. I pointed out that that is engineering, but he dissented and stuck to his position that there is no room for debate - there is no controversy, and anyone who says there is, is unqualified to say so in the first place.

So, it seems controversies are ONLY controversies if someone SAYS they are controversies.   Until someone in a nebulous position of authority actually calls something a controversy, it is just a disagreement, or it is simply not an issue worth arguing about or the people making an argument are not qualified and are talking through their hats.

There is a second aspect of the concept of controversy in modern parlance.  By labeling  something as controversial it gains a whole new air of importance which was not inherent previously. The meaning of the word controversy has evolved to include a connotation that the issues at hand are not only different, but also worthy of extra consideration or arbitration. Controversial arguments are special arguments now which no one actually expects to settle. Of course the two opposing factions in any "controversy" do not expect to settle - each expects to prevail and convince the other side, and thereby everyone, that they were correct all along.  But there is no expectation on the part of the average sideliner to a controversy that it will ever be a resolved issue - something controversial is simply controversial and the auditor to the debate is allowed to take or leave whatever whichever of the combatants says; i.e., any outside listener is free to suspect the veracity of any or all of the positions espoused. It also means that constant vigilance must be exercised whenever and wherever the controversial thing appears or is applied.

So, what is the current hot button controversy in terms of the Earth?

Hydraulic Fracturing.  The buzz word associated with hydraulic fracturing is "controversial." 
Absolutely NO QUESTION.  There is impassioned, international debate about the potential environmental, health and societal impacts which could accrue from hydraulic fracturing.  This is a real controversy for the simple reason that the U.S. EPA, an authoritative, government entity,  says it is controversial.

In fact, and I am going out on a limb here:  the U.S. EPA created the hydraulic fracturing controversy where no controversy existed.

Hydraulic fracturing is an old, tried and true technology. Oil and gas wells have been hydraulically fractured since 1949.   Somewhere around one million wells have been hydraulically fractured in America alone and there has been not one single instance where the well stimulation has resulted in an impact to drinking water.  There have been a few spill incidents over that time, but that is no different than any operations of any industry - I am not being cavalier about it or saying it is OK, but that has NOTHING to do with hydraulic fracturing.  There have even been some mistakes made with well installations, but, again, those were not related to the hydraulic fracturing process. (Please refer to the post Frick and Frac(k) in this blog for an explanation of the hydraulic fracturing process).

But the point is, it has been going on in many states for decades and there was no controversy about it - did you even know there was such a thing as hydraulic fracturing before about four to five years ago? The only thing new is the combination of horizontal drilling (also nothing new) with existing hydraulic fracturing technologies.

After a million wells and no direct impacts, everyone suddenly decided that the frac'ing process has the potential to impact drinking water or other water resources and it is therefore controversial.
Here we have reached the modern synthesis of the word controversial. When something such as hydraulic fracturing is described as a controversial practice it does not mean that people disagree with each other about aspects of it, or the safety of it.  It means that the actual practice of hydraulic fracturing is rife with uncertainties which no-one comprehends - it is a process which is beyond the abilities of the natural gas companies to predict or control what will happen and beyond the control of the regulatory agencies to ensure protection of human health and the environment.  In this newer, more sexy meaning, hydraulic fracturing is controversial because people seem to think that it is a dice roll as to what might happen.

Without going into the technical details, because this post is about the controversy and not the actual technique, I can state that the concerns about the direct impact of hydraulic fracturing on water supplies are wholly without merit. I will be happy to post the technical basis for that conclusion in another post if anyone is interested (my graduate research was in hydraulic fracturing). But allow me to reiterate to provide the best support - proof in the pudding - that my asseveration is correct: there have been over one million oil and gas wells which have been hydraulically stimulated without a single instance of an impact to drinking water aquifers or surface water as a direct result of the hydraulic fracturing process.

As you might have heard, the US EPA is not party to the hydraulic fracturing bonanza. But for a number of years it has been trying to insert itself into the arena and regulate it. Let's look at this and it will show how EPA created the controversy.  

The EPA does not regulate the oil & gas industry, partly as a result of the Agency's own design. It does not regulate the operations of the industry at all. The only authority it would have is over wastes, air emissions and the potential impact to drinking water resources via the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Agency rightly delegated the regulatory authority it had to the various states where operations occur. That is the actual function of the EPA. To establish uniform standards and research, set appropriate protection goals and allow the states to administer their own programs under that knowledge-based umbrella. The purpose of EPA is patently NOT to directly regulate industries; it has no direct regulatory authority over the operations of the industry  The waste and drinking water issues are the ones of interest for our current consideration.

Apart from normal solid wastes, the industry, as many others, produces liquid wastes as well - mostly naturally occurring groundwater which comes out of the ground with the oil and gas.  Because it is extremely hot down in the oil and gas zone, the hot groundwater reacts with the rocks and dissolves salts from them. So, the water which comes out is called an oil field brine. It is extremely salty, typically dark brown to black, contains dissolved metals - and is the natural condition of deep groundwater whether oil & gas wells were drilled or not.   When it is brought to the surface in an oil or gas well, it is a by-product of operations - a waste. As for most industries which produce liquid wastes, the oil industry has been allowed to dispose that brine in deep underground injection wells - putting it back where it came from, essentially.

EPA defined five classes of injection wells for various wastes. Oil field brine wells are Class 2. And it is a relatively innocuous waste compared to the stuff other industries are allowed to inject within the other four classes of injection wells. Well, along with most other functions developed by EPA, the authority to regulate deep underground injection was delegated to the states decades ago, so EPA does not regulate it at all. Throughout the 60 year history of hydraulic fracturing, EPA has maintained its hands-off stance regarding injection of oil field brines (EPA has actually only been around for forty of those years). The two issues, notice, are not related. Brines are produced from ANY oil or gas well so the injection of oil field brines into a Class 2 Injection Well is not something associated only with hydraulically stimulated wells.

Regardless of the absence of an exclusive relationship between deep well injection and hydraulic fracturing, an environmental watch-dog group in Alabama in the mid 1990s filed suit against EPA, insisting that the Agency should regulate hydraulic stimulation of a coal bed methane field under the premise that it constituted a Class 2 injection well. EPA argued that the regulation of injection wells is for the disposal of wastes and stimulation fluid is not a waste. EPA also concluded that its duplicative regulation would be an unnecessary and excessive financial burden on the US economy. The battle raged for a few years until in 2004 the 4th US Circuit court in Alabama ruled that the regulations were not specific to wastes and that the Agency must regulate hydraulic fracturing, despite the fact that the state already regulated it. The ruling only applied to coal bed methane and to the 4th circuit, but the precedent was set.

But, and here is the uncharacteristic part, EPA did not want to be involved in the hydraulic fracturing industry. Note the year and which administration was in Washington D.C.  To circumvent the 2004 court ruling, Congress, in 2005, amended the law to exempt hydraulic stimulation fluids from the deep underground injection regulations and EPA was satisfied that it could continue to operate as it had for decades.

Fast forward to 2008. The Marcellus Shale revolution had begun and was running up to mid-season form. Late in the year, the Obama campaign succeeded in the November elections.  Obama was sworn into office in late January 2009 and he rapidly appointed Lisa Jackson as Administrator of the EPA. By summer of that same year, less than six months later, EPA announced that it suspected a link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination of drinking water and it moved into Pavillion Wyoming and Dimock Pennsylvania to prove its case. Just three years after EPA had struggled mightily to stay out of this issue and leave it to the states where the authority rightly was vested - just three years after the Agency's arguments in court were that there was no adverse impact of injecting oil field brines and the hydraulic stimulation fluids were even more innocuous than the naturally produced brines.

Now, the important issue is that both of those two states had been delegated the authority to administer the environmental protection of their own water resources (those resources are not federal resources - they are state resources). Moreover, the industry which EPA alleged caused contamination was regulated by the states - not the federal government. EPA actually had no right to move in to either area to conduct an investigation.

The agency rapidly conducted investigations which its own sister agency, The United States Geological Survey, characterized as sloppy and a travesty of poor methodology and  flawed, premature conclusions. By September of 2009 EPA published the following statements:

  • methane is released during drilling and fracing and other gas well work;
  • methane is at significantly higher concentrations in aquifers after gas drilling and is perhaps a result of fracing;
  • the methane migrating in aquifers is both from shallower younger formations and the older Marcellus Shale;
  • methane and other gases released during drilling apparently cause significant damage to water quality;
  • in some case the aquifers recover in under a year but in other cases the damage is long term 

  • Every single conclusion was without ANY foundation whatsoever and collectively they were, quite frankly, false. Also, if you have worked with EPA (I have for decades) this is not aberrant behavior. This is exactly how the Agency operates the Superfund program; identify an issue and make it a problem in which the Agency must be involved to protect everyone and to show the state how to 'do it right.'    As a result of those initial EPA missives and the positive conclusion about hydraulic fracturing's impacts on drinking water, a public furor and outcry arose which reverberated around the world - and continues to this day. But more to EPA's purpose, hard on the heels of the EPA announcements, the new Congress (2010) directed EPA to conduct an investigation into the possible impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies. That is what the new EPA had been angling for. An official invitation to shove their oar into the fossil fuel industry. Once the agency had a Congressional directive to interpose into the states' rights and to determine whether federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing was necessary, EPA announced that there were no real data to support the conclusions it had so positively posited previously and quietly dropped all further consideration of both Pavilion and Dimock. In other words, there WAS NO ISSUE, just as the USGS concluded.   In short, as soon as the Obama administration began its reign it muscled into two of the states where hydraulic fracturing was occurring, fabricated unsupported conclusions before proper data were even available, conducted a shoddy investigation and publicized bad data to support its pre-conceived position,  whipped local residents into a frenzy of concern, hatred and distrust of the natural gas industry, CREATED a controversy by making positive conclusions of a causative effect between fracing and contaminated groundwater, spread that controversy nationwide and got itself inserted by Congress into the States' rights, and then backed away from its original 'controversial' stance. But it was now in and able to interfere in the fossil fuel industry.

    In the time since, EPA has expanded the scope of its charge and is trying to regulate every facet of the hydraulic fracturing industry, with only 20% of its work now focused on its charge to determine if there is direct impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The remaining 80% of it current work statement is focused on taking control over the regulatory authority of the oil and gas industry. 

    I have already been more political in this post than is my wont, so I will not carry this farther except to say that currently, and for the foreseeable future, fossil fuels are the only reliable source of energy we have, and the current administration is as anti-fossil fuel as they come. Let me provide one quote from the 2014 state of the union address: Our energy supplies include "natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, if conducted safely and in an environmentally friendly manner"  (emphasis added).  What is that statement, other than feeding the fake controversy? What could be safer in this industrial society than an industry which has installed 1,000,000 hydraulically fractured wells without a discernible impact on water supplies?  Obama makes it sound as if the practice is inherently unsafe, but HIS administration, the federal government, will make certain that the bad petroleum companies are only allowed to do this in a manner his EPA concludes is safe. There it is - "inherently unsafe." In other words, a controversial PRACTICE.

    Hydraulic fracturing is NOT controversial. It is an extremely well proven technology which is inherently safe. Is there a chance for a spill. As in EVERY industry, yes there is.  Such spills however, are generally related to operations above the ground and are not related to the deep hydraulic fracturing.  The Obama administration has made hydro-fracturing a controversial issue where no controversy should exist. But then this administration has made the entire energy industry a controversial subject in a manner it was not previously. What is NOT controversial about energy is that modern civilization is IMPOSSIBLE without it. Good health, longevity, proper nutrition for everyone is not possible without energy. The REAL controversy (in the Obama EPA sense)  is that there are a large number of people who are using specious arguments to prevent the distribution of cheap, abundant, clean energy and its benefits to the world so all people can join the first world and live decent lives.

    But that appears to be one of those non-troversies, because people wage their war on energy independence and prosperity under the guise of saving the Earth. They are "holier than thou" and, curiously, within the context of branding hydraulic fracturing as controversial, they brook no actual controversy, in the Websterian meaning of the word. They are self-contradictory because, while using the term 'controversial' in discourses about hydraulic fracturing as a means to imply the practice is inherently unsafe, they allow no controversy, sensu stricto,  in the manner of the climate change example, above. "There is no controversy. It is a dangerous practice - period. And anyone who says otherwise is either a paid shill of 'Big Oil' or is simply unqualified to be discussing it with us."
    That attitude is the reason I have versa'd contra to the mainstream environmentalist movement in recent years.
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