Has anyone been tracking nuances in the fracking debate? Of course, you'd have to be worse than me at ignoring the news to have missed the blow-up in the news media over fracking. Unfortunately, the coverage on fracking has been subject to the same sort of knee-jerk panic that environmental activists also to apply to global warming and nuclear power generation. Personally, I find the debate on the issues is driven by the perception of risk and not by the numbers. Is anyone surprised at this? When it comes to milking political situations or furthering dogma-based ideologies, fact is usually always the loser - and this is true of both sides of any hotly-contested issue. That's something that appears to hold whether you're living in the Roman Republic of antiquity or if you're living now in our modern democracy.

But enough with the pontificating on the poor treatment of evidence and fact-driven analysis. Today's post looks quickly at the controversy surrounding the research of Elaine Hill, a candidate for a Ph.D. at Cornell in Applied Economics. Here's good summary of what happened two months ago (1):

Hill’s work has focused on birth weight and other measures of the condition of babies born to women living close to gas wells in rural Pennsylvania and is summarized so far in a “working paper” titled “Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Infant Health: Evidence from Pennsylvania. The paper would have been an unremarkable draft of a graduate student’s research results had it not been disseminated last week with the help of a public relations firm retained by the nonprofit group New Yorkers Against Fracking and featured at a public forum run in Manhattan by Democrats in the State Senate.

I was rereading various articles on this gal and her paper when the parallel to cold fusion hit me in the nose. Remember cold fusion (2)? Two scientists interpreted a research result involving the electrolysis of heavy water on a palladium anode as a fusion event (hydrogen --> helium) at ambient temperature. Before the presentation of the results, the president of the University of Utah held a press conference about the experiment, worried that a rival research group at BYU would publish about a similar phenomenon first, thus confusing rival claims to cold fusion which would be an issue in the event of applying for patents. If cold fusion via the Utah set-up had turned out to be viable, the University of Utah could have reaped substantial monetary benefits as the majority patent owner of the process. In the end, when the Utah cold fusion experimental set-up was repeated by other labs, the result was not replicable.

The parallels with the Elaine Hill paper come down to this:

  1. The results of research were issued by non-scientists to the press before presentation and peer review.
  2. The motivation for release before presentation and peer-review was far removed from the traditional concerns of science: greed and ownership in the cold fusion case and political activism in the Elaine Hill case.
  3. The results were interpreted by non-scientists as true or false, not based on the slow grind of traditional scientific method presentation and peer review, but rather on what factions of the public wanted to believe was true, depending on their own pre-existing beliefs.

Cold fusion research isn't completely dead; however, because of the cold fusion fiasco of 1989, people in the field have rebranded the various interesting ambient-temperature energy events that are sometimes observed as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. There has been some investment of research moneys in low energy nuclear reaction research, and rightly so. Good science is open-minded and if something looks like it needs reevaluation, it will happen sooner of later.

Let's get back to poor Elaine Hill and her research on babies with diminished health indicators who live near fracked natural gas wells. Unfortunately, no one can read this paper because it's in peer-review. When it gets published, a lot of folks are going to read it, including many outside her field because of the current controversy. She's not a grad student to be envied because, like Fleischman and Pons of cold fusion infamy, her research is going to be dissected by smart people, some of whom will have political or monetary agendas to service.

Is Hill's research sound? It might be; however, the great burden of studies like Hill's is the identification and elimination of other factors that could also effect the results. Any study based on the uncontrolled real-world runs a high risk that correlation does not prove causation. It's the classic drawback of studying natural systems with an unknown number variables. If she set-up her control group correctly and carefully, her study will have real teeth.

On the flip side the record, her results might not matter, other than to show that elevated exposure to gaseous hydrocarbons isn't good for infants... Now that's a trivial result in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because everyone already knows that. Like Fleischman and Pons of cold fusion infamy, Hill is going to have to propose a plausible and testable theory for why her results are tied to fracking. Fleischman and Pons were never able to explain a plausible mechanism for cold fusion. They had a result but they never presented a workable theory. Hill is going to be in the same boat: she may have a correlation, but unless she can proposed a testable theory to justify the correlation, she'll be just another economist looking for work outside of academe. That test should be easy - though it will be expensive. All one needs to do is run the study a second time, but with physical environmental monitoring installed at every dwelling involved. I'd be measuring not only atmospheric concentrations of pollutants but also ground vibration, weather parameters and proximity to other mining and drilling activities. After all, the infants might be reacting to hydrocarbon exposure, or they could be reacting to the endless rumble of trucks to and from drill rigs disturbing their slumber and causing a lack of sleep.

I'm sure of one thing - and that is I'm glad I'm not Elaine Hill right now.

There's another thing that may trivialize Elaine Hill's research if it survives peer review and public dissection: natural gas from fracked wells doesn't have to leak. Southwestern Energy, a major player in fracking natural gas in Arkansas, has taken their well construction prowess to the point where they build leak-tight wells (3). The company decided to get greener and treat the environment better. They consider this a price of doing business and they can certain go to town with the bragging rights. This underscores something I've been saying for years: properly-engineered and built wells don't have problems. It's not hard to build good wells and piping infrastructure - as the lack of contaminated aquifers in Texas and Oklahoma and California underscores nicely. When well construction is well-managed and well-regulated, the leakage from wells, both above and below ground, is negligible. Given that comments I supplied when California revised its well-construction standards in the late 80s, commentary that is now incorporated in the since-updated regulations, I think I know a little bit about the subject of building wells. Fracking is not the problem. Well construction is the problem - and well construction will be faulty when drillers can get away with cutting corners and regulators with enforcement power are thin on the ground.

What's required is the societal will to pay the costs of building good infrastructure and to enforce standards. If wells for unconventional gas plays were all built to high standards - and yes, it is possible - then fracking is an un-problem.

Un-problem??? Good thing my old high school English teacher doesn't read my blog!


  1. http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/25/when-publicity-precedes-peer-review-in-the-fight-over-fracking/, accessed 27 Sept 13.
  2. Taubes, G. (1993), Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion Random House, NY, 503 pp.
  3. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/is-natural-gas-clean/?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130925, accessed 27 Sept 13.