The Anti-Science of Anti-Regulation

Last week, I mildly mocked the efforts of the mobile phone industry to “self-regulate” the idiot practice of texting-while-driving. This prompted way more comments than I usually get, reminding me that anti-regulation — an ideology long promulgated by the forces FDR once aptly labeled “Organized Money” — has been so well marketed that we all have mixed feelings about how the government balances corporate libertarianism with the public interest. (See: ‘Market Forces’ Can’t & Won’t Protect Public Interest.)

However, there's still some federal oversight that almost everyone tolerates — like the Food and Drug Administration's arduous drug approval regimen. After all, a bad drug, or an untested interaction between a new drug and old drugs, is pretty personal. It could kill you. We're reminded of the FDA's vigilance every time we turn on the TV and hear the phrase: “In case of an erection lasting more than four hours…”

Most people understand that a drug-approval process that's designed to minimize four-hour erections tends to be slow and costly, because it requires science . Everybody knows science is difficult, and it's almost never fast.

Which brings me to another example. The oil and gas industry is currently in a huge hurry to rush the science related to hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — an extractive process for natural gas in once-inaccessible shale fields. The reason for the hurry is, of course, money. Fracking firms like {complink 12037|Halliburton} and outfits like the American Petroleum Institute (API) insist that the feds needn't bother their pretty little heads over the possible health and environmental issues posed by fracking. This is a matter best regulated state-by-state, according to unique local characteristics, says the API.

We hear this refrain over and over again from Organized Money, for the obvious reason that it's easier for huge, rich corporations to muscle state lawmakers, regulators, and governors than it is to logroll the Department of Energy and the EPA. But setting aside matters of money and power, it's instructive to take a peek at the contemporary science of fracking, which has only been economically feasible since 1994.

Among the problems posed by a fracking operation (which drills below the water table, applying tremendous force to split open tightly compacted layers of rock) are dangers from water and air pollution, disposal and/or spillage of wastewater (upchucked at a rate of 3 million to 8 million gallons a week), seismic disruption (like the little earthquakes that broke out last year in Ohio), and even radioactivity.

That's a lot of science. But just one of these disciplines helps to illustrate the complexity of judging whether regulators might be wise, in the long run, to approach fracking the way the FDA should have approached thalidomide.

The “water” used to crack open shale beds isn't really water by the time it's pumped underground. Last year, a Congressional committee learned that it contains various mixtures of about 2,500 “hydraulic fracturing products” and that “more than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens… or listed as hazardous air pollutants.”

I looked up a list of the fracking fluids and didn't recognize most of them, including carboxymethyl hydroxyethyl cellulose. However, I did recognize a few. For example, among the cocktail mixers being used to burst open gas deposits beneath the public water supply are: ammonia, xylene, toluene, methanol, potassium chloride, naphthalene, boric acid, hydrogen peroxide, kerosene, aluminium chloride, acetone, copper sulfate, benzene, carbon dioxide, formaldehyde, ethyl alcohol, sucrose and lactose. Lactose? All of these chemicals have to be recovered and dumped somewhere. But where?

According to the Petroleum Institute, real smart state politicians have sussed out every possible problem. There's not a thing to worry about. Except…

Well, the most eagerly coveted gas deposit right now is the Marcellus Shale, which underlies eight states — of which only Ohio has drafted a set of fracking rules (which it's now hurriedly updating after all those earthquakes). New York, another Marcellus gas bonanza, has ordered a halt to all fracking, to allow time for… yes, science.

Meanwhile, each Marcellus state is feeling pressure — on a hydraulic scale — from the gas industry, and from local landowners eager to sell mineral rights. API chief Jack Gerard beautifully recited a classic Organized Money sutra: “There are already strong state regulatory systems in place. Adding potentially redundant federal regulation could stifle the kind of investment that has led to lower energy prices for consumers, more American jobs, and increased energy security.”

Damn the science. Full speed ahead.

2 comments on “The Anti-Science of Anti-Regulation

  1. R.J.Matthews
    October 3, 2012

    Think the real problem is the decline of the nation state in relation to big business. In lots of ways this is a good thing as generally the private sector can do a better job than the public sector in delivering goods and services.

    Trouble is things can get out of balance if there are not regulations putting a break on the worst excesses of business.

    The way it used to work is people would elect the government and pay the taxes along with companies and there was some kind of balance. The situation now is companies can base themselves anywhere and if a national government upsets them they can move their manufacturing elsewhere or just pay tax anywhere it seems.

    The supply chain is so much more international and flexible. The rise of the internet has just increased this with some companies having little physical presence anyway.

    Over in the UK it has lead to the tax authorities having to negotiate with the big companies we are now begging them to pay tax.

    And trying to compete with tax havens.

    Some companies are so huge they have more power and funds than some national governments anyway.

    Same with rich individuals they can base themselves anywhere as well, which is why the new French taxes will not work and will be a disaster for France.
    I always vote for right of centre parties and have no time for socialism but it is time there was a sensible debate somewhere over what is happening.

    Trouble is what governments really want to discuss how they are often powerless in the face of economic realities and what international companies want to discuss how regulations can be brought in to rein them in.

    Can just see Obama explaining how he is pushed around by big business and Romney explaining how big business often calls the shots and if you do not like it tough!

    P.s i am not Michael Moore honest!


  2. wagnert in atlanta
    October 4, 2012

    Okay, for some reason I can't post a comment, but I can post a reply.  So I will.

    I suggest that anyone wishing to inform himself about fracking read the Wikipedia article “Hydraulic Fracturing.”  It explains the process, the materials, the motives and the dangers in accessible language.

    First, fracking is not a new process.  Explosive fracturing goes back to the 1860s when nitroglycerin was used in Pennsylvania oil wells.  Acid etching to stimulate wells began in the 1930s.  Hydraulic fracturing was experimented with in 1947 and a patent was granted in 1949, at which time Halliburton was granted an exclusive license.  Since then, a million (more or less) oil and gas wells have been fracked.  (I might note that I remember reading about fracking operations when I had a summer internship with Shell Oil in 1965.)  Yet the controversy over fracking arose only when it threatened to make natural gas so cheap that the wind- and solar-electricity campaigns would be undermined. 

    The cry is that fracking should be stopped while all the ramifications are carefully considered by the Federal government.  A million wells have already been fracked since 1947.  What ramifications are going to show up now, with the million-and-first?  Presumably Texas has already seen most of the problems, since the Permian Shale underlies a big chunk of Texas.  What regulations have the Texas Railroad Commission imposed on fracking?  (No kidding, the Texas Railroad Commission oversees gas and oil drilling — but not railroads.  Go figure.)  They've been in existence since 1891 and have been regulating oil and gas production since 1919.  How do they deal with wastewater, groundwater contamination, drilling fluid additives, methane emissions, and so forth?  What is happening now that the Texas Railroad Commission hasn't seen — and dealt with — in its ninety-three years of existence?

    The cry is “The science isn't in”.  Really?  Or is this just a move to study fracking to death, so it doesn't derail the green agenda?  The EPA is past masters at this, employing science from mass spectroscopy to analysis of goat entrails to determine (for instance) that carbon dioxide, which we all emit, is a toxic gas, and taking a leisurely eight or ten years to do it.

    Most of the objections are easily dealt with.  Direct groundwater contamination isn't very likely, since fracking is typically carried out more than a mile down, far, far below any accessible groundwater.  Contamination by leaks at the level of groundwater is also unlikely, since oil and gas wells are cased — lined with steel pipe, four or five layers thick at ground level.  This is inserted as the well is drilled to keep the bore from collapsing.  The size becomes smaller as the well goes deeper, and some of the intermediate sizes are used to tap oil and gas from intermediate levels.  Leaks aren't ignored — they mean loss of product, and hence profit.

    Fracking fluid is 98% water and silica sand.  Immense amounts of water are used, true, but only while the well is being treated.  Most of the chemicals used, while nothing you would want to sprinkle on your cereal, are known quantities.  Hydrochloric and acetic acids are used to clean out the perforations in the casing pipe through which the fracking fluids and oil flow and break down the rock near the pipe.  They are largely consumed in this process and what's left can be neutralized.  Carboxymethyl hydroxyethyl cellulose (and a bunch of related compounds) are gelling agents, so the water is goopy enough to carry sand into the cracks to keep them open.  Other agents break down these gels so the gas can get through the cracks.  Radioactive tracers are sometimes added to monitor the extent of fracturing.  Short-lived isotopes are used so that after six half-lives, for instance, only 1/64 of the original radioactivity remains.

    Can a sloppy operator dump this stuff on the ground and contaminate groundwater?  Sure, which is why operators should be monitored and licensed.  A responsible operator will recycle fracking fluids, neutralize them himself, transport them to a municipal sewage plant for treatment, or inject them into dead wells — and if you object to injection well disposal, be aware that that's what greenies are advocating as a method of carbon dioxide disposal.

    Hydraulic fracking has been around for sixty-three years.  All the major questions were dealt with years ago.  The current controversy has been ginned up to keep alternate-power projects from being derailed.  Future regulation should deal with new problems as they arise, not be imposed to carry out a political agenda.

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