Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Beginning of the End

Had my first final today. Risk analysis, and much easier than I'd prepared for - a relief, I suppose. A really interesting subject, all in all, but in the end I think further study in it would not quite be my cup of tea. So long, Professor S, and thanks for all the fish.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the class for me was some serious study of how people view and process risk - and how the media work it.

It's in this context that I figured I'd share something I found in the Ithaca Journal. As you may or may not know, Tompkins county is currently one of many embroiled in the colossal controversy over hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, extraction of natural gas. It sits on top of one of the largest reserves of gas in the United States, the Marcellus shale, but state and local governments are engaged in a tug-o'-war between advocates of fracking and opponents. In context, opponents of the process are concerned about the impact that it has on unspoiled landscape - wastewater, drilling pads, and possible groundwater contamination - and advocates want it to bring jobs to the chronically depressed rural central upstate region. Also in context, both sides are partially wrong: groundwater contamination is relatively rare, and most of the wealth from exploitation accrues to the landowners with the mineral rights; the gas companies are bringing in their workers from Texas, Louisiana, and other places where fracking was developed.

Anyway, what I wanted to focus on was a recent piece in the Ithaca Journal that pooh-poohed the idea of supercritical propane fracking. It's a new technology that's designed to fracture underground porous rock without the use of water - basically, use the propane in a supercritical state, retrieve it as a gas with the (mainly methane) you harvest, and since propane at low pressure (i.e. 1-5 atm) can be easily liquefied through some basic refrigeration, you recycle your working fluid. As a technology, I think it's brilliant. In addition to all the benefits that accrue from not using large quantities of wastewater, you also have more strong incentives to stop methane leaks from gas operations, lest you lose your propane, so all-in-all it's a win-win-win. At least, from a technical perspective.

What the Ithaca Journal article did was essentially show a very basic lack of trust. It easily dismissed any claim from the gas companies that supercritical propane fracking would benefit their communities and instead engaged in some half-baked speculation that propane fracking is more dangerous because "we store propane outside in tanks." While from a technical perspective this makes me want to hit my head on a wall, I think that is a good case study on how people view risk and what the gas companies ought to do.

Before I fully begin, I have to admit that I think that the Marcellus shale is too valuable of a resource not to exploit. Unlike most green tech, green energy advocates I take a long view on changing energy infrastructure. It's pretty clear to me that we'll be using gas and coal for well over the next 100 years, and moving into fully renewable energy only after the long and slow process of changing post-industrial infrastructure. In that vein, I think Americans shouldn't just want to exploit shale gas, but that they should recognize that we must exploit it and use the energy from it (~50-200 quads in the Marcellus shale alone) to power our transition into renewables.

Now that my position is in the open, I'll tell you what I think is happening and where the gas companies screwed up. When I think about the start of this process, I think Gasland. Gasland is one of the kind of movies I absolutely hate, because from start to finish it pretty clearly has an propagandistic agenda. It reminded me of documentaries produced by Michael Moore. Regardless, it does a good job of showing growing problems with the gas boom, ones that could be expected: corner-cutting, lax safety, sloppy operations and low professionalism. In terms of the psychology of risk, I'm pretty certain that Gasland served as a so-called signal event, which caused a whole lot of people to evaluate the risk.

As soon as media outlets realized reporting on the fracking controversy realized that they could make money off of reporting on this, they began covering the controversy and every accident in amounts completely out of proportion to the severity and likelihood of the hazard. And of course, since humans assess risk based on an availability heuristic and much of that availability comes from (suprise!) radio, tv, and media, people have pretty much seriously started to overestimate the risk.

Gas companies have made it worse. Instead of treating claims of abuse seriously and instituting visible standards on environmental contamination, gas executives have steadfastly denied their involvement, or offered only basic levels of compensation. Moreover, every single appearance I've seen of an engineer in front of a (mostly hostile) audience has left me with an air of their haughtiness. Men with hard hats or men with suits show diagrams of how the Marcellus shale is far below groundwater reserves and how gas contamination of their water is not possible, but they say it as to a child of five. I can understand where they're coming from, honestly, because I know how hard it is to explain engineering to non-scientists or non-engineers. That still doesn't excuse their later behavior under heavier criticism, which is to circle the wagons, repeat the party line, and heap shit on their opponents for being undereducated.

Small wonder these Tompkins county people, who eye the money but love their land, have lost their trust in gas companies. It's so bad now that people are instinctively mistrusting technologies being brought in to benefit the community.

So what should the gas companies do? Eat humble pie. Acknowledge that even though bad things shouldn't happen, they do - and approach communities hat in hand with compensation and effusive offers to clean up. Increase standards of professionalism, stopping gas leaks and paying compensation for claims against drilling operations. And above all, approach communities as equals rather than the local tribesmen to be placated. Nothing infuriates people more. It'll take a few years, but trust from the people whose land you lease is a commodity worth that time.

Fracking bans are now in the works in France, New York is debating doing something at the state level even past its moratorium, and incorporated towns all over upstate New York are banning the practice already. For gas companies, it's turn around and realize that trust needs to be rebuilt, or lose your shirt. Ball's in their court.

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