Abrahm Lustgarten, a reporter for Pro Publica who has written extensively about gas drilling, had reportedly interesting things to say about the quality of the public discussion about fracking at a panel on April 2nd at Allegheny College. Mary Spicer of the Meadville Tribune writes that Lustgarten noted that "...concern about the enviromental impacts of Marcellus drilling has escalated into hyperbole and almost-hysteria--and he's not sure why." Spicer then quotes Lustgarten as saying: "Any middle ground has been lost...It's dissolved into a false choice between frack and not frack, while attempts to educate the public has turned into panic."
Lustgarten describes well the condition of the public discussion. Yet, I am surprised that he is not sure why the middle ground has been lost, and so here are 6 possible reasons:
1. Gasland reached millions of viewers with a powerful, emotional message that gas production is an enormous threat, even evil. A purpose of the movie was to destroy middle ground and rally support for banning hydraulic fracturing. Whether one likes the movie or not, it had impact.
2. Sensational, false reporting appearing routinely in the NYT left many believing shale gas is a Ponzi scheme, gas is as dirty as coal, and that Pennsylvania's drinking waters were possibly poisoned with radionuclides. I don't blame readers of such journalism for reacting with panic or abandoning any middle ground.
3. Repetition of false narratives months or years after they have been debunked like Pennsylvania's drinking waters are contaminated with radionuclides or that gas drilling caused the massive fish kills at Dunkard Creek. See the recent Rolling Stone Magazine piece that repeated the radionuclide scare and the McKibben review in the New York Book review that falsely said gas drilling caused the Dunkard Creek fish kill. No surprise again that readers reading such material abandon any middle ground.
4. Typically a dramatic, scary and often false charge gets more coverage than any subsequent debunking. For example, see the paucity of the coverage about all the testing that proved Pennsylvania's drinking waters have no radionuclide contamination. See the huge coverage given the Howarth study but virtually no coverage given the Carnegie Mellon University study, the NETL, the Worldwatch Institute, and the other Cornell study refuting it. The NYT is the most egregious example of a journalism that promotes one-side of key issues, within the larger public discussion of gas drilling.
5. The fight over gas drilling has taken on its own momentum, with pro-drilling and anti-drilling groups daily facing off, and viewing any concession about information or facts to be weakness. The pattern becomes a harsh attack is met by a harsh response, and middle ground is lost.
6. There is no equivalent discussion and focus on our other energy choices--coal, oil, nuclear, renewables that include wind and solar, as well as corn ethanol and big hydro. Just look at Pro Publica's reporting on energy, as one example. The disproportionate focus on gas distorts. Gas is compared implicitly to a mythical perfect alternative that none of us use. All energy choices have impacts on the environment and have other pros and cons.
Wars have not been fought over Iowa corn but have over oil in the Middle East; yet water pollution from producing corn to make ethanol dwarfs the damage done to water quality by gas drilling. Using more gas has meant that coal electricity generation has declined from 52% of total electricity supply in 2000 to 39% in the last 3 months. The EPA states that pollution from mainly old coal-fired power plants causes each year 34,000 premature deaths. Using more gas that emits no soot for example has already saved thousands of lives and prevented hundreds of thousands of illnesses.
None of those comparative facts gain any prominence in the public mind. Yet, despite the obstacles to finding middle ground, most people want sensible ways forward that must include strong regulation and efforts to reduce the social and other costs of our energy choices. And progress is being made.