Ask Josh Fox Anything: Obama’s Support For Natural Gas

The environmental activist and the filmmaker describes what most shocked him while making Gasland Part II:

Readers are starting to dissent over the series:

I haven’t seen Gasland, and until you posted the Q/A with Josh Fox, I didn’t have an opinion about him one way or another.  As a resident of NE Ohio, sitting on top of the Utica Shale, I have been following the issues surrounding the exploitation of shale gas, and I’m genuinely undecided on whether the benefits of “fracking” outweigh the risks.  Listening to Josh Fox’s responses did nothing to advance my understanding of this complex issue.  It’s obvious that Fox isn’t at all interested in presenting a fair (but biased) assessment.  No, he’s an activist/filmaker in the mode of Michael Moore, and I suspect Gasland, like Roger and Me or Sicko, is more propaganda than journalism.

Anyone who is paying attention to this issue, and who doesn’t have an ideological ax to grind, knows that the evidence is far from clear concerning the nature and extent of water contamination and methane emissions related to natural gas extraction.  But you wouldn’t know it if Fox was your only source.  He cites one study by a team from Cornell University for the proposition that fracking will result in greenhouse gas emissions greater than or equal to coal.  Ten minutes on the Internet will show you that this doesn’t represent the consensus view on this issue.  Far from it: the study to which he refers is highly-disputed and seems to be something of an outlier, and those who have criticized it are not simply gas industry shills (as Fox likes to label his critics), but independent researchers. Same goes for water contamination, where the evidence is nowhere near as clear as Fox makes it out to be. As a non-scientist I can’t independently judge who’s right on the data; but as a lawyer I know a half-baked argument when I see one, and the intellectually dishonest way that Fox presents this issue while ignoring or mischaracterizing contrary evidence gives me pause.

Then there’s his use of a false analogy that equates risk management for passenger air travel to that for natural gas drilling and groundwater contamination.

Fox asks why we would tolerate a 30-50% failure rate for gas well casings when we expect aircraft to be designed and built to operate without catastrophic failures 99.99999% of the time.  First, how are these even comparable?  A small defect on a critical component of an aircraft can lead to catastrophic failure.  What is the risk associated with a cracked well casings, and what is the likelihood that it will lead to a catastrophic failures resulting in human deaths?  How do “fracked” well casings differ from conventional well casings with respect to groundwater risks?  How often do well casing failures lead to groundwater contamination, and how severe is the contamination?  (If there are a million gas wells operating worldwide, and 30-50% of them fail, that’s a lot of poisoned groundwater.  You’d think there would have been an uproar about this long ago.)  If you’re determined to compare the gas industry to the transportation sector, why pick air travel?  As a society we tolerate 40,000 automobile traffic-related deaths each year, plus billions of dollars in property damages.  We do this because we’ve determined that the benefits of the automobile vastly outweigh the risks.

Clearly, Fox the activist isn’t much interested in an honest discussion of benefits vs. risks.  He simply wants to advance his agenda by appealing to people’s emotions and fears.  That’s fine, but I can’t understand why the Dish lets this go without posting some contrary views.

Another contrary view:

I claim no particular expertise on the issue of whether, on balance, increased extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing is a good thing for the environment and our economy, in relation to our current methods of energy generation or other feasible alternatives.  I am, however, familiar enough with the debate to know that Josh Fox is at last half-full of shit. For example, he cites “the Cornell study” as if it were undisputed proof that fracking will result in greater greenhouse gas emissions than coal over the short-to-medium term, and that such emissions will be about equal over the long term.  Among the experts who were not impressed with the study’s metholodology were several other members of the Cornell faculty (pdf), who concluded:

The data clearly shows that substituting natural gas for coal will have a substantial greenhouse benefit under almost any set of reasonable assumptions. Methane emissions must be five times larger than they currently appear to be before gas substitution for coal becomes detrimental from a global warming perspective on any time scale. The advantage of natural gas applies whether it comes from a shale gas well or a conventional gas well. Scientifically the prescription for reducing green house emissions is clear: substitute gas for coal while minimizing methane emissions using proven and available technology, and then move toward low carbon energy sources as quickly as technically and economically feasible.

For Fox to cherry-pick one highly disputed study, and not even acknowledge that it doesn’t represent a consensus view among experts, is intelluctually dishonest.  So, by the way, is the slimy way he attempts to conflate the natural gas industry with the tobacco business by noting that their respective trade groups used the same PR firm, Edelman.  So the fuck what?  Edelman has represented thousand of companies.  Does Fox want to equate Starbucks, Heinz, Butterball Turkeys and Samsung with Big Tobacco?

Josh Fox’s Gasland Part II will air on HBO this summer. His other Ask Anything answers are here. Full AA archive here.