Framing the Dialogue

Fear Itself

Many articles that are meant to be “sensational” really just convey facts that play on many of our mostly irrational fears or the “gut” reaction described beautifully by author Daniel Gardner in his book The Science of Fear. These articles attempt to grab your “gut” long before providing more rational data (i.e. boring stuff) to your “head” that counters that fear they hope to exploit.

I’ll try to identify the “irrational” fear and please note that some of the fears may be somewhat rational until you look at other risk factors. You’ll have to decide whether the media just wants to attract consumers or have a real political agenda. I’ll opine – you decide.

Many regions of the country have been blessed by the occurrence of vast stores of natural gas which promise well-paying jobs and an abundance of cheap energy. Don’t these two things sound like wonderful ingredients to nudge a weak economy? Drilling technology has advanced to the point where some of the deepest areas can now be accessed through deep and then horizontal drilling. In order to effectively remove the gas from deep formations companies need to fracture the gas-bearing rock to allow collection of the gas. A common concern is that fracturing or fracking uses large quantities of water, treated with proprietary compounds, to crack the formations.

A recent article from ProPublica (“journalism in the public interest” or believe us because we don’t care about profit – a good name goes a long way in establishing your credibility…superficially) highlights a recent study about the effect gas drilling has on private drinking water wells where gas is being extracted.

The “Irrational” Fear: Energy companies are pumping unknown chemicals into our groundwater systems that will contaminate our drinking water.

The “gut” tug: “a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.” That is a pretty powerful first sentence in the article, but there was more. “The average concentration of the methane detected in the water wells near drilling sites fell squarely within a range that the U.S Department of Interior says is dangerous and requires urgent ‘hazard mitigation’ action, according to the study.”

Use of “gut” terms: “Scientific Study” – scientists aren’t biased; “severe”; “dangerous”; “hazardous”; and “alarmed” to name just a few.

Some data for the “head”: “thermogenic methane — which many scientists say comes from the same deep gas layers where drilling occurs — could be naturally occurring. He also said the researchers didn’t test enough wells to support their conclusions.” The “other side” was not presented until the much later in the article and after “gut” was engaged and was qualified using such terms as “A hydrogeologist closely affiliated with the drilling industry” to perhaps diminish the statements from other experts.

The hedge: “In a white paper the group issued along with the journal article, Jackson and the others acknowledged the uncertainty and called for more research.” (or show me the money and lots of it).

It would not have been simple for ProPublica to factually provide information on risk, but it should have been their duty to provide some background on how relative the risk of burning faucets was to say placing your drinking water well too close to your septic system, a more common cause of drinking water contamination. What about the lead pipes found in many older, rural homes who probably are much more likely to have private drinking water wells. Or how about providing some information on how to mitigate the problem if you have methane or even how to test to see if you have the problem.

When I used the term “irrational fear” I am not always assuming that the fears are not warranted, but that they should be balanced by relative risk. I remember a decade ago a tragic story was covered on a day-time talk show where a young couple lost their child when he became entangled in the draw strings of their window blinds. At the parents’ suggestion one of my colleague’s wife cut off the “loop” end of all of their blinds rendering them somewhat useless. Her “gut” told her that this was prudent and it may be, however, they also had a built in pool. There was a far far higher risk of their child drowning than becoming fatally caught in their blind drawstring.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”


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