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Fracking Truth: O National Academy of Sciences, Where Art Thou?

November 21, 2012

In June of this year, the National Academy of Sciences released a report examining the likelihood of earthquakes being induced by underground energy technologies in which there is a net deposit or withdrawal of fluids—on other words, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), CO2 sequestration, and geothermal energy extraction.  The study concluded that all of these technologies “have at least the potential to induce earthquakes that could be felt by people” and recommended these impacts be mitigated by using techniques which “maintain a balance between the amounts of fluid being injected and withdrawn.” In other words, the National Academy of Sciences did not call for an end to fracking because of the likelihood that it would lead to an increase in earthquakes; they instead suggested a solution based on sound science.

Potentially much more significant than “earthquakes that could be felt by people” (but may cause little or no actual injury or damage) is the scenario where critical groundwater resources are contaminated by fracking and other underground energy technologies.  The gas industry says fracking is absolutely safe.  Environmental groups and concerned citizens say it is not.  The true answer will only be found through sound, unbiased science.  But where is this science?

A few studies have looked at the likelihood that fracking can cause groundwater contamination, such as a recent study by Duke University and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona that examined shallow aquifers in Pennsylvania (PNAS, 09 July 2012).  The results have been inconclusive, and thus easily framed by either side of the debate thanks to their confirmation bias.

It’s time for the Department of Energy to call on National Academy of Sciences to examine all of the scientific evidence and deliver an impartial, peer-reviewed consensus report on the subject.  This is what they do.  The true believers on either side may choose to ignore those parts of the report that conflict with their mental models, but those of us who base our decision making on rational science can move forward in a way that balances both economic and environmental concerns.

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