Comment: Energy 360: Let science speak, not agendas

Credit: © Credit: ©

by Scott Tinker

Ideally, science is objective and without bias. But realistically, some bias, in the form of predetermined inclination, is unavoidable. Unfortunately, science can be used naïvely, without understanding its limitations, or shrewdly, to manipulate an issue. Such use of science by nonscientists, often to gain political advantage, is worrisome. More troubling is when scientists themselves become activists. There are times when scientists feel morally or ethically obligated to speak out, and they are, of course, free to do so. But without proper context, disclosure of bias and potential conflicts of interest, the risk is great that politicians, the media and the public will have trouble distinguishing where scientific objectivity stops and activism begins. Thus, transparency is essential.

Take two energy-related issues that trigger emotion on all sides: climate change and hydraulic fracturing. On one end, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has suggested that “human-influenced climate change is a hoax and impossible,” and on the other end, Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested that “we should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact.” Passions run deep.

The Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) discusses natural climate change, carbon dioxide emissions and anthropogenic climate change, and the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and global temperature. The report is unequivocal in its assertion that human influence — especially on greenhouse gas emissions — has been the dominant cause of the recent observed warming. Yet the IPCC is also candid about the complexity of the science.

Basic science tells us that because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, higher atmospheric concentrations will accelerate global warming. Yet for the past decade or more, the actual temperature data indicate that warming has “paused.” This has caused some to suggest that the science is not settled, and a few to go further and label climate science fraudulent.

The “pause” in warming does not itself negate the science of greenhouse gas, but it does suggest that there is more to understand about modeling the complex, nonlinear and multivariate climate system and the effects of carbon dioxide on global temperature and climate change. To oversimplify is to underestimate the complexity. Yet complexity is inconvenient to those developing policy or advancing political agendas. Simple, unequivocal statements are preferred.

Switching to hydraulic fracturing, the empirical data are abundant; reportedly, there have been more than 1 million “frack stages” in the United States. National academies, nongovernmental organizations, industry, academia and government agencies have been examining the potential risks and effects of hydraulic fracturing and the results are clear: The process of hydraulic fracturing itself, done correctly, does not contaminate freshwater aquifers or cause earthquakes felt at the surface.

That said, there are many potential environmental issues associated with oil and gas activity, such as surface impacts related to the well-drilling process, including disruptive noise, lighting and traffic; the use of freshwater for fracking; and in some basins, the flaring of methane. In addition, on rare occasions, produced water from gas-bearing formations leaks through surface casings or from storage pits; methane leaks from valves and fittings; and seismic activity can occur when a water disposal well crosses certain geologic faults.

Oil and gas operators continue to improve their practices in all of these areas; it’s not only a matter of ethical operations, but also makes good business sense. But just as the complexity of modeling the climate system does not negate the science of greenhouse gases, the potential surface environmental risks related to all oil and gas activity do not negate the abundant empirical data documenting a long record of safety regarding hydraulic fracturing.

More broadly, both of these issues must be weighed against the benefits associated with the reduction in aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions that has resulted from replacing coal with shale gas in power production, as well as the enhanced energy security associated with the increased production of shale oil in the United States.

So where does this leave us? The activist positions related to both of these issues result in challenging politics. First, the science of climate change tends to be embraced by the left and challenged by the right, whereas the science of hydraulic fracturing tends to be embraced by the right and challenged by the left. In other words, no political party owns the “science high ground” exclusively when it comes to climate change and fracking. Second, energy scientists are often some of the loudest voices challenging climate science, and climate scientists are often some of the loudest voices challenging energy science.

Thus it falls on scientists to disclose our biases and potential conflicts, and to do our utmost to be objective, lest science be co-opted and eroded by those motivated by other factors. The public, and more importantly the durability of science, depend on it.

Scott Tinker

Credit: Gregory Daniel.

Tinker is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, the state geologist of Texas, and a professor and acting associate dean of research in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. The views expressed are his own. His potential conflicts of interest are disclosed on the Bureau of Economic Geology website at

Friday, August 15, 2014 - 02:00

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