Claiming that hydro-fracking harms aquifers, environmental activist groups have managed to scare New York State legisiators and regulators into a moratorium on using the technology that enables the production of copious quantities of natural gas from shale deposits. On March 14, the Albany Times Union ran a story on fracking which quoted the state's top geologist Langhorne "Taury" Smith:
State government's top scientist on the underground features of New York has never weighed in on the contentious matter of drilling in the great Marcellus shale layers stretching beneath a big part of upstate. Until now.
"The worst spin on the worst incidents are treated as if it's going to be the norm here," said Taury Smith, the state geologist, a self-described liberal Democrat more concerned with global warming than extraction of natural gas from one of the largest sources available in the United States. "This could really help us fight climate change; this is a huge gift, this shale."
He said he has been examining the science of hydrofracturing the shale for three years and has found no cases in which the process has led to groundwater contamination,[emphasis added] although several portrayals by anti-fracking groups and featured in the press have raised concerns about underground pools being harmed because of drilling.
"Those are exaggerated problems; each incident wasn't the result of hydro-fracking. There were incidents of groundwater contamination near frack sites, but they were unrelated," Smith said. He said the industry should be strictly monitored by the Department of Environmental Conservation, and should be encouraged to move the nation away from coal-fired power and to the more environmentally friendly natural gas.
All too predictably, as the Times Union reported two weeks later, green activists have erupted in anger:
Voices from across New York reacted, including representatives of Environmental Advocates and related groups opposing the horizontal drilling. "That's an irresponsible statement; people are getting sick and dying," asserted David Braun, a New York City activist with United For Action. Braun said Smith is clearly in the pocket of the gas industry and has spread that view in multiple email letters. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist; I am aware that when somebody is getting money from an industry it does sway opinion."
Similarly, Stephanie Low, a Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter "National Hydrofracking Team" member, has spread the word of her suspicions of Smith. "He works for the gas industry, so it might be extremely difficult for him to notice that most of his statements are not supported by the facts," she asserts. "Perhaps he doesn't read the (New York) Times." She works as a manager of a classical musician.
The Education Department will not allow Smith to talk to reporters now. Besides muzzling him, the department, which oversees his New York State Museum geology unit, won't permit him to take calls. Instead, the department provided a reporter a copy of its internal protocol for handling media inquiries which says failure to check with the office of communications first would result in "appropriate administrative action."
The Times Union reports that Smith apparently is an unpaid consultant to Ammonite Resources, but has done no consulting on projects in New York or Pennsylvania. The Times Union also reported:
Smith, who has worked for the state for nearly 11 years, disclosed on the Ammonite website that he has done and does consulting for Saudi Aramco, Angola LNG, Shell, Texaco, Repsol, Devon, Encana and other clients. Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said SED is looking into those associations and "will take swift action as appropriate." None of the companies named have applied for the rights to drill in the Marcellus formation, according to state data.
In a March 31 op/ed entitled "A Bad Lesson in Censorhip", the Times Union argues:
The state Education Department’s silencing of unpopular views isn’t in the best interests of informed public policy or open debate....
One might reasonably assume that the state’s top staff geologist would have some relevant thoughts about drilling for natural gas. But good luck finding out what’s on Langhorne B. Smith Jr.’s mind, now that the state has muzzled him.
If only irony were an alternative energy source. Here’s the state Education Department — an agency responsible for fostering knowledge — barring Mr. Smith from talking to reporters after his comments on gas drilling caused a backlash among environmentalists — who normally are the first to cry out when politics takes precedence over science.
The op/ed points out that the environmentalists had quite a different attitude when New York State tried to silence a scientist with whom they agreed:
We’ve been down this unfortunate road before. The state’s former wildlife biologist, Ward Stone, endured official intimidation, including a threat of transfer, for his dogged pursuit of pollution. He was an important voice on issues like the state’s own now-defunct trash incinerator in downtown Albany, where his tests found evidence of pollution in residential neighborhoods. Environmentalists protested the state’s attempts to silence him.
Not here, though. They’re content to let a scientist they disagree with be gagged.
The Times Union op/ed concludes:
They should join us instead in calling on Education Commissioner David Steiner and the Board of Regents to relax their stifling policies and let public employees contribute to important public discussions without checking with official handlers. This debate should be all about finding the truth, not winning even at the cost of it.
Go here for my column, What the Frack!, on the issue.
My thanks to the pro-gas industry blog Energy In Depth for the links to this controversy.